The Elite Tradition of Ninjutsu and the Bujinkan

Ninjutsu has a rich history that extends into the feudal era of ancient Japan. This martial art is made infamous by the legendary Ninja, and their exploits during a very turbulent part of Japan’s history. The art itself comprised a mixture of different skills, and techniques that created the ultimate well rounded warrior.

Ninjutsu history is vast, encompassing almost a thousand years of Japanese history. From the mountainous regions of ancient Japan, to the modern dojo today, Ninjutsu history is a tale of warriorship, turmoil, espionage, intrigue, and folklore.

Here we give a brief overview of Ninjutsu history and certain milestones in it’s development, as well as how it connects to the practice of Ninjutsu today.

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sun tzu art of war

The Concepts of Ninjutsu

The oldest documents relating to the concepts of Ninjutsu (i.e. espionage, sabotage, etc.) can be traced to Sun Tzu’s military manual Art of War (孫子兵法) where he details the importance of intelligence gathering and misdirection in warfare. These concepts were imported to Japan and provided the seeds from which specialized Shinobi sprouted from, and thus are the beginning point of Ninjutsu history.


Documented Use of Ninjutsu

According to the Shōninki (正忍記), Minamoto no Kuro Yoshitsune used Ninjutsu in the Gempai War (1180 to 1185). Natori Masatake wrote the Shōninki (正忍記) in 1691.

Ninjutsu reached it’s peak in ancient Japan during the Sengoku Period (戦国時代) from 1467 to 1603. This was also known as the Warring States Period. During this time, different kingdoms were constantly at war, making the skill set of the Shinobi extremely valuable. This is the period where Shinobi were most active in Japan.

Iga Region Japan
Koka Region Japan

Professional Shinobi of Iga and Koka

The Iga and Koka clans produced professional Shinobi. The remote mountainous regions allowed them to operate relatively independently of the feuding daimyo. They were like a nation within a nation. In an effort to protect their interests and shape the political landscape they contracted out their services to surrounding provinces.

Iga operated more independently, while Koka were contracted out more often as mercenary. There were occasions where Koka Shinobi faced other Koka on the battlefield.

The Tensho Iga War (天正伊賀の乱) marked the end of the independent Iga clans.

First Tensho War (1579)

The son of ruler Oda Nobunaga – Oda Nabukatsu – was given domain of Ise Province to the east of Iga. Oda Nabukatsu wanted to expand power and impressive his father. He attempted to invade and take control of Iga with the help of neighboring forces.

The first step was to build a castle at Maruyama in Iga. This was to serve as the staging point for the military campaign. However, Iga clans found out about the plans and attacked the castle on November 24th, 1578 and forced a retreat. Embarrassed by this defeat, Oda Nabukatsu launched an offensive into Iga that proved costly. He took heavy losses and lost the life of one of his main generals.

Second Tensho War (1581)

When Oda Nabukatsu consulted his father about his recent defeat, Oda Nobunaga was furious (even threatening to disown his son). However, Oda Nabunaga soon launched a full scale invasion of 40,000 soldiers on September 31st, 1581. This time, he attacked the mountainous Iga region from all sides from partnering provinces. This proved too much for the Iga clans to resist.

Many of the clans escaped to the domain of Tokugawa Ieyasu, where they pledged allegiance and served as his bodyguards. Others escaped to neighboring areas where they would serve as mercenary for different military campaigns.

Tokugawa Ieyasu

A New Peace – Edo Period

The beginning of the Edo Period (江戸時代) in 1603 marked a new peace in Japanese history. It established the Tokugawa Shogunate and Tokugawa as the first Shogun – unifying Japan.

Peace limited the usefulness of the Shinobi skill set. Iga Shinobi served as emperial guard while many from Koka served as the policing force surrounding the castle.

However, as the peace lasted, the skill set of the Shinobi became less and less needed. The Meiji Restoration (明治維新) in 1861 abolished the Tokugawa Shogunate and the feudal system. Instead it gave power to an Emperor. The exploits of the Shinobi slipped into Ninjutsu history, with few individuals keeping their traditions and methods alive.

Jiraiya Kuniyoshi Ninja

Re-Emergence of Ninjutsu

As history continued forward, the exploits of the Shinobi became the works of fiction. Often tales of their exploits and abilities were embellished. The image of the masked warrior, dressed in black, became the popular portrait of the Ninja in post World War II society.

In the 1950’s, Masaaki Hatsumi met Takamatsu Toshitsugu. He began training in a collection of lineages that trace their history to the feudal clans of Iga. In 1972, Takamatsu named Hatsumi as Soke to these 9 traditions and the last documented lineages of Iga-Ryu Ninjutsu.

Fujita Seiko Last Koka Ninja

The Last Koka Ninja

During World War II, the Army Academy of Nakano (陸軍中野学校) was in charge of training intelligence officers. One of their instructors, Seiko Fujita, claimed to be the 14th Soke of Koga-Ryu and last heir to Koga Ninjutsu.

Fujita was a well-recognized martial artist. He collected scrolls, and authored books on Budo. However, he publicly said he would not select an heir to his lineage of Koka Ryu. He exclaimed that the art “would die with him.” It’s not clear why he decided this. In 1961, Seiko Fujita died of sclerosis of the liver.

Takamatsu Toshitsugu

The “Mongolian Tiger” – Takamatsu Toshitsugu

10 March 1889 – 2 April 1972

The true value of budo is to train the mind to see clearly and maintain spiritual strength.

Takamatsu (Chosui) Toshitsugu was a well-known Martial Artist. He traveled to parts of China teaching Martial Art and engaged in numerous life and death duels. This earned him the name of Moko no Tora (Mongolian Tiger). He also said that the two most dangerous fighters were Shorinji Kenpo and Shaolin Kung-Fu practitioners.

Takamatsu O’ Sensei had nine martial art traditions that he bestowed unto his successor, Masaaki Hatsumi. These nine traditions are believed to be connected to the Iga Ninja Clans.

Masaaki Hatsumi
Takamatsu Hatsumi Kuji

Soke Masaaki Hatsumi

It doesn’t matter how strong you might be – there is absolutely no way to survive on strength alone…

Masaaki Hatsumi studied many different Martial Arts before finding Takamatsu O’Sensei, including Karate, Aikido, Judo and western boxing. After achieving 4th degree Black Belt, a US Army base asked him to teach Judo . He found that the larger Americans had a distinct advantage in training.

Meeting Takamatsu

While studying kobudo (traditional weapons techniques) he heard about Takamatsu O’Sensei, and sought out to become his student. The young Hatsumi, 26 years old at the time, met Takamatsu who at the time was well into his 60’s. The two engaged in a match that Hatsumi would later describe:

The pain of his technique was different from any pain I had ever suffered before. I had only felt a cold, momentary pain, while with Sensei I was exposed to a hot, burning pain. It was as if something would explode, if my blood would be sucked up and I would die right away. He didn’t just apply one GYAKU but four or five. I immediately knew this is what I was looking for. I asked to be his student.

Hatsumi would dedicate the next 15+ years to training under Takamatsu O’Sensei’s supervision. And when Takamatsu passed away in 1972, Masaaki Hatsumi became heir to the 9 traditions. He founded the Bujinkan to continue the nine traditions and grow the art to the world.

Masaaki Hatsumi Katana

Developing a Reputation

Soke Masaaki Hatsumi would become a well-known Martial Artist and practitioner of Ninjutsu. He was the Martial Arts advisor for many films. A few notable examples are the Japanese film “Shinobi-no-Mono” and the James Bond film “You only Live Twice”. He is also an accomplished writer and artist.

Western Martial Artists began traveling to Japan to inquire about Ninjutsu. Hatsumi decided to train the larger westerns to determine if the art is effective on larger opponents. And unlike Judo, Ninjutsu proved to be effective regardless of opponent size.

Black Belt Magazine Cover Feb 1983

Ninja Boom of the 1980’s

By the 1980’s, Soke Hatsumi had become well known for his teaching of Ninjutsu.  He soon began to see an influx of students from around the world. Most notable among these was Stephen K Hayes, who was first to bring Ninjutsu to the United States. This helped sparked the “Ninja Boom” of the 1980’s, coupled with the influx of Japanese culture. Soon, Ninja were in virtually all forms of popular culture such as films, comics, and cartoons. The image of the Ninja in many ways became a caricature of itself. Depiction of Shinobi have ranged as everything from an unstoppable assassin to a silly comedic device. As the Shinobi became more sensationalized, the less it connected to actual Ninjutsu history.

From Ninpo to Budo – Ninjutsu Today

Soke Hatsumi began to refer to the art as Budo rather than Ninpo. He instead focused less on the archaic skill sets and more on the combat methods. While fundamentally the same, the focus has shifted. Soke Hatsumi still teaches today in Noda, Japan at the Bujinkan Hombu Dojo. Here we find Ninjutsu history connected to modern times.

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