Saturday, December 7, 2013

The True Path of the Ninja

I've finally received some ninja training! 

Well, my friends, last night I finished reading True Path of the Ninja, by ninja enthusiast Antony Cummins and Yoshie Minami, published by Tuttle Books. This book claims to be "the definitive translation of the Shoninki," which is a sort of ninja "training manual," as described on the cover. I originally saw this small book in the martial arts section of a bookstore I frequent and took a look at it because, while the title had "ninja" in it, I didn't see any black-clad figures on the cover. I had heard somewhere that ninjas didn't dress up in those black costumes all that much back in the Sengoku and early Edo periods, when they were actually being used (late 1500s, early 1600s). It somehow seemed a little more authentic to me and was also published by Tuttle, a publisher of primarily scholarly martial-arts-related material. I had read a number of Tuttle's publications in the past and they'd always seemed like the real deal, so a few months later I found it again in a used bookstore and snatched it up. 

Let me say right off the bat that I am very skeptical about the validity of any sort of publication relating to ninjas, mostly because ninjas are so often sensationalized and the line between fact and fiction has been considerably blurred over the years. This is not helped by the fact that there have been a number of publications of supposedly authentic ninja material in the past that were later found out to be straight-up fabrications. So when I picked this up, I immediately started looking for reasons to doubt its authenticity; no offence meant to Cummins and Minami -- it was simply a knee-jerk reaction. 

This ukiyo-e painting by artist Utagawa Toyonobu depicts a ninja attacking one of Toyotomi Hideyoshi's retainers. It was, however, painted more than 200 years after Hideyoshi's death, at a time in which ninjas were no longer used.
So, what did I think? Well, according to the foreword, the book is translated from a document said to be written by a real-life ninja, Natori Sanjuro, in 1681, which was translated into modern Japanese by Dr. Nakashima Atsumi and later into English by Cummins and Minami. It is not stated where the document was found but only that it exists, and that's pretty much the only reason I'd have to doubt the authenticity of this book, as everything else seems to be quite plausible.

The book is divided into a number of short chapters and reads like a philosophical guide to manipulation and espionage (think Book of Five Rings for ninjas). Popular ninja elements one might expect, such as camouflage, hiding, and eavesdropping techniques, are discussed, but what I found most interesting were the sections that dealt with social manipulation. These mostly outlined methods of extracting info from people by using disguises, the art of conversation, and in other cases, gift giving and/or feigning illness, etc. These sections paint a very different image of the ninja than we are used to in pop culture: dealing with people directly rather than rushing around in the night. 

A guide to kuji-in. I'm sure someone has made an English version of this.
The other part of considerable interest to me was the section on kuji-in -- those hand signs that ninjas are often seen making in movies and anime and the like. According to this book they actually did this, though it wasn't for gaining magical fire-breathing powers or what-have-you. Apparently the kuji-in were derived from Buddhist mantras and were done before missions in order to provide supernatural or divine protection; they were also used for meditation, apparently. There's a considerable amount of information on this in the book, but a lot of it is fairly esoteric. Still, before reading this I had no idea why ninjas were always portrayed as using the signs, and this shed some light (there is an extensive wiki page on kuji-in here for those who are interested).

A ninja and his gear (click to enlarge).
The commentary in the book compares it to Sun Tzu's Art of War or Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings, and it certainly reads like those -- a bunch of apparently transferable-to-modern-day methods of manipulation and information gathering that were supposedly used by actual ninja at one point. The book is presented as a martial arts text and the commentary seems to suggest that martial artists are its intended audience. The latter seems fairly biased at certain points; it's obvious that Cummins and Minami are really excited about ninjas and hold them in high regard. Some of the terminology is kind of odd as well, especially the use of the term "shinobi soldiers," which they use to describe advanced ninjas. I'm aware that the term might be the result of translation, but in all honesty it sounds like the title of an old NeoGeo game. The book also contains a summary of the oral tradition of the Katori Shinto-Ryu (the oldest recorded fencing school in Japan) on how to deal with ninjas. This was also pretty neat.

Ultimately I found this to be worth my time, as it was an interesting read and I'm always happy to uncover accurate information about something as sensationalized as the ninja. There are apparently other translations of the Shoninki around, but this one appears to be the authoritative, no-nonsense version. Much of the information is a little ambiguous because theoretically it was aimed at ninjas, who would have the points of reference. Still, I'd recommend it for any ninja enthusiast and anyone interested in Edo-period Japan specifically, as it offers quite a bit of insight into social structure and the everyday life of Edo people. It's an easy read, something you're meant to go back to. I can see myself rereading it in the future, so into my library it goes!      

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