Japan’s “Last Living Ninja” Infiltrates the Cotsen Children’s Library in “The Art of Ninjutsu: Tiger Scroll”

by Tara McGowan

From frontispiece of Manga no Ninjutsu Manyū: Shōnen Shōjo Manga Tokuhon (A madcap cartoon tour of ninjutsu: a cartoon reader for boys and girls). / Kodomo otogi kai. Tōkyō: Shunkōdō, 1933. (Cohn200806)

Fig. 1: Detail of children battling from frontispiece of Manga no Ninjutsu Manyū: Shōnen Shōjo Manga Tokuhon (A madcap cartoon tour of ninjutsu: a cartoon reader for boys and girls). / Kodomo otogi kai. Tōkyō: Shunkōdō, 1933. (Cohn200806)

May 5th is Children’s Day (子供の日), a national holiday in Japan and a time when parents pray that their offspring will grow in strength and vitality, often symbolized even today by references to the samurai warriors of feudal times. The holiday is also referred to as Shōbu no sekku (Iris Festival) because shōbu (菖蒲—iris) bloom at this time of year and were thought to have medicinal properties. The word with different kanji is a homophone for shōbu (尚武—fighting spirit). On Children’s Day, girls and boys in Japan fold samurai helmets and roll up swords out of newspapers to play at battling (Fig. 1). Considering Japan’s militaristic past and tensions around violence in the media these days, this aspect of Children’s Day might seem alarming to some, but samurai warriors were not just associated with violence. Samurai continue to be admired for the strength of their spiritual/mental and physical discipline, and this is particularly true of the ninja, or “shadow warrior.”


Fig. 2: Sarutobi Sasuke. In Goketsu kagami (Paragon of heroism) / Enomoto, Matsunosuke. Osaka: Enomoto Shoten, 1917. (Cotsen 55052)

Few characters have caught popular attention around the globe as wildly as the ninja. Naturally, this fascination has the longest history in Japan, where ninjas have been stock characters in popular literature and cartoons since at least the early 1900s when Sekka Sanjin published “Sanada’s Three Heroes: Ninja Master Sarutobi Sasuke” (Sanada san-yūshi ninjutsu meijin Sarutobi Sasuke) (1914). Sarutobi means “jumping monkey,” and in 2016–the year of the monkey–it is important to note that the connection between monkeys and ninjas is not coincidental. According to legend, Sarutobi Sasuke—much like Tarzan—was brought up by monkeys, which accounts for his supernatural powers and unrivaled dexterity. In this 1917 picture book for children, titled “Paragon of Heroism” (Gōketsu kagami), we see him deep in meditation in the midst of a ninjutsu (ninja arts) power struggle (Fig. 2).

Fig. 3: Sarutobi Sasuke as Mickey Mouse. In Sanzoku seibatsu ikusa manga (Subjugation of bandits: manga comic) / Sugaya Yohe. Tokyo: Hiyoshido Honten, 1936. (Cotsen 55401)

Fig. 3: Sarutobi Sasuke as Mickey Mouse. In Sanzoku seibatsu ikusa manga (Subjugation of bandits: manga comic) / Sugaya Yohe. Tokyo: Hiyoshido Honten, 1936. (Cotsen 55401)

In this Japanese cartoon from 1936, entitled “Cartoon Battle to Subjugate the Bandits” (Sanzoku seibatsu ikusa manga), we see Sarutobi Sasuke again, this time using his magical ninjutsu to transform himself into a familiar “American mouse” (Fig. 3) The leader of the bandits—also a powerful ninja—combats Sasuke’s Mickey by turning into a giant cartoon cat, and the competition escalates until the bandit leader turns himself into an eagle, only to be shot by accident by one of his own retainers.

Exaggerated shape-shifting abilities are also the hallmark of this cartoon from 1933 called “A Madcap Cartoon Tour of Ninjutsu” (Manga no ninjutsu manyū) where a young ninja-in-training is taken on a series of adventures with a tanuki (raccoon dog), flying through the air on a hand-made ninja airplane (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Ninjutsu airplane. In Manga no Ninjutsu Manyū: Shōnen Shōjo Manga Tokuhon (A madcap cartoon tour of ninjutsu: a cartoon reader for boys and girls) / Kodomo otogi kai. Tōkyō: Shunkōdō, 1933. (Cohn200806)

Fig. 4: Ninjutsu airplane. In Manga no Ninjutsu Manyū: Shōnen Shōjo Manga Tokuhon (A madcap cartoon tour of ninjutsu: a cartoon reader for boys and girls) / Kodomo otogi kai. Tōkyō: Shunkōdō, 1933. (Cohn200806)

Fig. 5: Meeting the Monkey King.

Fig. 5: Meeting the Monkey King.

Eventually, they run into the Monkey King, who challenges them with various powerful ninjutsu techniques, like creating balls of fire out of thin air and clipping off the summits of distant mountains (Fig. 5).

Fig. 6: Ninjutsu tora no maki / Fujita Seiko. [Tōkyō]: [Hōbunsha], 1955.

Fig. 6: Ninjutsu tora no maki / Fujita Seiko. [Tōkyō]: [Hōbunsha], 1955.

With so much fantastical literature for children, depicting ninjas cavorting with characters from folktale and legend, it is easy to forget that there were actual, living and breathing ninjas in Japan’s not-so-distant past, but a recent acquisition in the Cotsen Children’s Library reminds us that ninjutsu was a serious and even scientific endeavor. The “Art of Ninjutsu: Tiger Scroll” (Ninjutsu tora no maki), written by Fujita Seiko, 14th Head Master of the Koga School of Ninja training, was published in emaki (picture-scroll) format as a supplement to the popular youth magazine “Baseball Boys” (Yakyū Shōnen) (Volume 9, April 1955) (Fig. 6). Fujita claimed to be the last living ninja in Japan, and the scroll format creates the sensation for young readers of opening a message from a “real” ninja from Japan’s feudal past.

At the outset, Fujita issues a warning to always be mindful of the fact that ninjutsu was designed for military detective work, or espionage, not for fighting or robbing people. Fujita is considered by some to be the last “real” ninja in the sense that the Japanese military government hired him as a martial arts instructor and strategist during World War II. Having published many books on the history of martial arts, Fujita is also recognized as a scholar, and, at his death, he bequeathed his extensive library to the city of Odawara. Fujita believed that ninjas were born, not made, so he never found anyone worthy of training as his successor. Nevertheless, he often wrote for popular audiences, and in “Tiger Scroll,” he displays his notoriously contradictory character by, on the one hand, attempting to dispel the exaggerated myths and legends of ninja lore, while on the other, capitalizing on the popular mystique.

Fig. 7: Sarutobi Sasuke’s escape in a moat.

It is easy to imagine the readers of Baseball Boys on Children’s Day in 1955 relishing all the practical tips Fujita offers for developing “real” ninjutsu techniques in their own backyards. He introduces the arts of the ninja by explaining that they are based on the five elements: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. The first chapter of the scroll focuses on the water arts: “How to use water to disappear, how to walk on water, and how to stay concealed under the water.” Fujita shows how Sarutobi Sasuke, whom he treats as a historical figure, escaped from Tokugawa Ieyasu’s guards by creating a diversion with water in a pot nearby and then hiding submerged in the moat (Fig. 7).

Fig. 8: Floating geta.

He also reveals that there is no magic involved in walking on water if you have specially designed floating geta sandals (Fig. 8).

In the second chapter, he explains that, in addition to the “public arts” (表の術) of the five elements, there are the five “hidden arts” (裏の術) of humans, birds, mammals, insects, and fish. Fujita recommends having several live snakes, mice, and toads on hand for the right occasion. For instance, a castle guard might be getting sleepy by 2:00 am. When the ninja notices the guard yawning or rubbing his eyes, he knows it is the perfect time to let a mouse loose between the sliding doors. While the guard is preoccupied with chasing after the mouse, the ninja can get in to steal important documents or even the head of an unsuspecting daimyo (samurai lord). Drawing on popular culture, Fujita points out that Nikki Danjo—hero of theater and film—failed when he attempted the mouse arts so he had to resort to the fire arts, using firecrackers and gunpowder to distract his pursuers. Later in the scroll, he also includes under “fire arts” using the sun’s rays to blind ones pursuer, or, when that is not possible, having mirrors at hand to reflect the sun into their eyes.

Having just warned his audience that ninjutsu should not be used as an excuse for stealing, Fujita proceeds to explain how the legendary thief Nezumi Kozo Jirokichi—Mouse-boy Jirokichi (so named because of his ability to mimic mouse squeaks)—was challenged by a government official to steal his sword from his house without getting caught. As it turned out, the government official was moonlighting by making hair combs, and Jirokichi was able to mimic the rhythmical sound of the comb-carving, which also works to make people sleepy, to sneak in and steel the sword right out from under the official’s nose. When useful sounds do not present themselves, however, Fujita also mentions that it is possible to induce a deep sleep with a sprinkle of roasted wolf spider or silkworm powder.

Fig. 9: Projecting a giant toad.

My personal favorite art of the ninja is the manner in which you can use the shadow cast by a small toad placed strategically next to a lamp to create the impression of a giant toad (Fig. 9). There is also the trick of letting a snake go in the maids’ quarters so that the samurai on guard will have to investigate the source of their screams, and the ninja can get by their defenses. By the 1950s, it was unlikely that there were too many maids’ quarters available, but no doubt Fujita’s readers readily translated this trick to their sisters’ bedrooms! He concludes the section with the comment that there are also arts of insects, which involve impersonating centipedes, butterflies, and spiders, but for these arts he offers no explanation.

In the next chapter, he discusses how to use the sounds of grasses and trees to suggest to one’s pursuer that one is going in the opposite direction from what one actually intends, and then there are ways to hide in a hole in the ground and then release snakes and birds to reassure one’s pursuers that no one is actually there. The plant arts and soil arts also involve various forms of camouflage, which, as Fujita points out is no different from what the soldiers use in the military today when they want to blend into their surroundings.

Fig. 10: Priest Fudenbō.

Fig. 10: Priest Fudenbō.

In the second half of the scroll, Fujita shifts into various aspects of physical training that give the impression of flying. These include scaling the top of a five-storied pagoda by climbing quickly as a squirrel up a nearby pine tree and jumping to the roof of the pagoda from one of its branches or running up the wall and to the ceiling so fast that your pursuer can’t even see your legs move and then falling gracefully to your feet. The priest Fudenbō of Shiga Prefecture was famous for this ability, but Fujita claims that with practice, anyone can achieve this technique (Fig. 10). Ninjas are said to be able to jump up to 5 or 6 meters, and this feat is also achieved by a regular training regime. The method Fujita prescribes is to start with 2-meter high hemp or flax plants and by tying them together creating a high level to jump up on. If one practices every day, one won’t notice that the flax plants keep growing a little higher every day and before you know it, you will be jumping the full 6 meters!

Fig. 11: Ninja crab walk.

Fig. 11: Ninja crab walk.

In addition to flying like a squirrel, there are techniques for doubling the distance one walks in a day by walking like a crab. Fujita claims that this sideways walking technique, once perfected, allows the legs to stretch twice the distance of walking forwards, and it has the added benefit of allowing one to walk in and out of narrow passageways (Fig. 11).

Ninjas are also said to have hands like knives. This is achieved by intense training, initially forcing their hands up to their wrists and their feet up to their ankles in sand, then progressing to mud, and finally to soil. According to Fujita, this training also builds the muscles on hands and feet necessary for climbing nimbly across the ceiling like a gecko. Climbing across ceilings like a gecko can’t be easy when carrying the various costumes and paraphernalia Fujita recommends ninjas have at hand for all eventualities. For instance, ninjas typically wear special two-toned clothing to appear, when necessary, like more than one person, and some ninjas carry several women’s masks with them to pass as different women.

Fig. 12: Walking across a wet sliding door.

Fig. 12: Walking across a wet sliding door.

Fujita insists that not everyone is born to be a ninja. To achieve ninja credentials, students of the craft need to train themselves to hold their breath for up to ten minutes under water, walk across wet paper over sliding doors without leaving a mark, and practice shallow breathing by sticking cotton to the ends of their noses and keeping it still (Fig. 12). It involves both intense physical and spiritual training, which leads Fujita to his concluding remarks about the use of mudras and incantations (Fig. 13).

Fig. 13: Mudras used in ninjutsu.

Fig. 13: Mudras used in ninjutsu.

Everyone knows that when Sarutobi Sasuke disappears or transforms, he does a mudra with his hands and says some magic words (see Fig. 2), but Fujita explains that this is not actually magic. The mudra and incantation are used to focus the mind. In fact, Fujita argues that ninja training is not about magic at all. It just takes rigorous training and knowledge of science that is beyond the ken of regular people. Come to think of it, that is not unlike how magicians in the West describe their magic when sharing their secrets. The only difference is that magicians are usually talking about sleight-of-hand, whereas Fujita is describing sleight of the whole body!

Fig. 14: Origami newspaper kabuto helmets and other Children's Day decorations. Contributed by the author.

Fig. 14: Origami newspaper kabuto helmets and other Children’s Day decorations. Contributed by the author.

Of course, as tantalizing as all these techniques may sound, many of them take extensive training and are downright dangerous. Although Fujita does not provide any such caveats, I would suggest that a responsible adult should be present when attempting any of the foregoing suggestions. For those of us who weren’t born to be ninjas and can’t hold our breaths for ten minutes, jump 6 meters, or climb across the ceiling like a gecko, there is always the old standby of folding paper samurai helmets and rolling up newspapers into swords to play at fighting (Fig. 14). I invite you to develop your fighting spirit by transforming into samurai warriors this Children’s Day with these handy instructions for making origami kabuto (helmets). Happy battling!

Cotsen Research Projects: Fear Neither Hardship nor Death: Stories of Disabled Chinese Children in the Early 1970s

Note: The Friends of the Princeton University Library offer short-term Library Research Grants, awarded via a competitive application process, to promote scholarly use of the research collections. The text and images below were kindly provided by Melissa A. Brzycki, recipient of a 2015 Library Research Grant. She conducted research work with Chinese-language materials at the Cotsen Children’s Library for her dissertation project titled “Inventing the Socialist Child, 1945-1976” in August 2015. This essay reports her investigation of children with disabilities as portrayed in publications for young Chinese readers from the early 1970s, when publishing resumed after a hiatus during the first half of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Brzycki is currently a doctoral candidate of Modern Chinese History at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Fear Neither Hardship nor Death: Stories of Disabled Chinese Children in the Early 1970s

by Melissa A. Brzycki

From 1970 to 1972, children’s magazines and storybooks in the People’s Republic of China featured stories about children with disabilities. These documents were products of a time when Chinese citizens experienced a re-establishment of order following the upheaval of the early years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The first two years of the Cultural Revolution included many student and worker uprisings, and revolutionary fervor in many cases devolved into factional infighting. These struggles brought China closer to a civil war than it had been in the nearly 20 years since the Communists and Nationalists had fought China’s civil war (1947-1949). In the early 1970s, many of the revolutionary policies of the Cultural Revolution were folded into state practices as state control and order was re-established.

Using the Cotsen Children’s Library’s extensive holdings of Little Red Guard (红小兵) magazines and children’s storybooks, I found six stories published from 1970-1972, both nonfiction and fiction, about children with disabilities. In these stories, children found ways to overcome limitations imposed by their disabilities, either through personal struggle or with the help of other children. The stories showcase many of the ideas that structured Maoist thought at the time, including the notion that through the application of Maoism, everything and everyone can advance beyond previously conceived limitations. Furthermore, the revolution depends on every individual, including every child, devoting him or herself to the masses and the revolutionary cause.

The Little Red Guards were a counterpart group to the older Red Guards. Red Guards referred to young people, mostly high school and university students, who took up Mao’s call to renew the revolution and criticize those within the Chinese Communist Party who were straying from the revolutionary path. Red Guards began organizing themselves in 1966, and soon after the state extrapolated from these extra-state (and sometimes anti-state) organizations to create a state-sanctioned junior organization called the “Little” Red Guards. The organization replaced the Youth Pioneers, or “Red Scarves,” which had been the junior organization for the Communist Youth League in the 1950s and 1960s, modeled after the Soviet organizations for children and youth. Little Red Guards were primary school students, generally between the ages of 6 and 14. They were chosen for their good character and revolutionary attitude and deeds. The Little Red Guard magazines that circulated during the Cultural Revolution told stories of Little Red Guards overcoming obstacles and doing good, revolutionary deeds.

Four of the six narratives center on Little Red Guards, and the other two are about “little heroes” (小英雄), children who committed exemplary revolutionary deeds, often risking or resulting in loss of life or limb. All of the stories describe children with physical disabilities. Mental disabilities are rarely mentioned, and only one child, a young girl in “The Three Little Companions,” is described as having mental disabilities in addition to physical ones.

Two essays, “A Disabled Body with a Resolute Will, A Young Person with a Red Heart” and “Making Bricks for the Revolution with a Disabled Body and Resolute Will,” were published only five months apart. “Making Bricks for the Revolution with a Disabled Body and Resolute Will” comes from a Little Red Guard Pictorial published in Tianjin in August 1970. “A Disabled Body with a Resolute Will” was published in January 1970 in the Jiangsu provincial Little Red Guard. Both of these stories are first-person, nonfiction narratives written by children with disabilities who learn to overcome obstacles created by their disabilities through hard work and Maoist thought.

Fifth-grade Little Red Guard Wang Dongfeng wrote a first-person account of her political development in “A Disabled Body with a Resolute Will.” Wang was born with only one arm, so she wrote that for a long time she envied other people who had two arms, and she did not think she could do the things that they could do. Eventually her parents and teachers helped her study Maoism and the examples of Communist heroes, including a Liberation Army soldier who continued all his revolutionary work despite losing one arm in battle. Wang realized her own potential to contribute to the revolution, and she began participating in the same work that others did, as well as volunteering for difficult tasks like cleaning the toilets at school. The illustration for Wang’s story shows her carrying rice plants on her back, with one arm stabilizing the bundle.

A Disabled Body with a Resolute Will, A Young Person with a Red Heart

Little Red Guard, “A Disabled Body with a Resolute Will, A Young Person with a Red Heart” [身残志要坚,人小心要红]. Nanjing, Jan. 1970. (Cotsen 46581)

In “Making Bricks for the Revolution with a Disabled Body and Resolute Will,” Li Ruilin also narrates his own story. Li was a Little Red Guard from Dingjiaqiao Primary School. He was paralyzed since birth, so his classmates used a little cart to help him get to school everyday. When Mao called everyone to “prepare for struggle, prepare for famine, for the people,” Li and his classmates decided to contribute by making bricks. As his classmates struggled to carry enough clay back and forth, Li realized that his cart would make the process much easier and more efficient. He hesitated to offer his cart, however, since it was the only way he could get to school everyday. After he thought through the problem with Mao’s teaching on combining learning with practice and not fearing hardship, he offered his cart for his classmates to use. Li himself molded the bricks, despite getting covered in mud and cut by stray shards of glass. In the end, he was satisfied with his decision and the discovery that he “[could] use [his] own energy to fight a struggle and make bricks” (Little Red Guard Pictorial, Tianjin: Jan. 1971.)

In two other stories, “Under the Sunlight,” from a Tianjin Little Red Guard Pictorial and “The Three Little Companions,” from a Shandong Little Red Guard, groups of Little Red Guards helped classmates with disabilities get to school. In both stories, all the primary characters are girls. In the former story, a girl named Xiaohong realized that one of her neighbors, Chen Xiaoyan, could not use her legs, so she had not been going to school. Xiaohong and her fellow Little Red Guards discussed the problem and came up with a solution: using a cart to bring Chen to school. They brought her to school everyday, as well as occasional visits to the local hospital, where – through the use of acupuncture treatments – Chen recovered use of her legs and became not only a Little Red Guard, but also a skilled performer with the Little Red Guard Literature and Art Propaganda Group.

In the latter story, three girls, all Little Red Guards, became close friends as two of them helped the third, Ji Haiyan, to school everyday. Ji had a spinal cord problem that affected her legs, so she could not walk on her own. She also had mental disabilities resulting from her condition, so her friends not only helped her get to school, but also tutored her. They are depicted as close friends, all proudly wearing red scarves.

The Three Little Companions

Little Red Guard, “The Three Little Companions” [三个小伙伴]. Shandong, Dec. 1971. (Cotsen 63947)

Children’s storybooks were also full of stories of real-life child heroes, including those who acquired a disability as a result of their good deeds. Dai Birong (戴碧蓉) is one of the more famous examples of a child hero who was disabled as a result of her heroic actions. The storybook Little Hero Dai Birong, published in Shanghai in 1971, tells her story. The book also contains other stories of child heroes, but Dai receives the most attention for her sacrifice. In 1968, when she was 12 years old, she spotted three small children playing on the train tracks as a train approached. Heeding Mao’s call to fear neither hardship nor death, she managed to save all three children but lost an arm and a leg in the process.

Two sisters from Inner Mongolia were also praised for heeding Mao’s call to fear neither hardship nor death. A 1971 version of their story, The Heroic Grasslands Sisters, explains that in 1964 11-year-old Longmei and 9 year-old Yurong risked their lives saving the commune’s sheep during a surprise winter storm. At one point, Yurong lost a boot while trying to catch an errant sheep, and was so focused on the herd that she did not notice her own boot was gone. Her foot quickly froze, and she had to crawl. The illustration of this scene is a still shot from the 1965 movie. In it, Yurong looks ahead with determination as she crawls in the snow.

Yurong raised her head, stubbornly pushing her body forward in a crawl. "I must protect the herd. I have to catch up [with them], I must catch up." She recalled the teachings of Chairman Mao, phrase by phrase: "Make a firm resolution, and don't fear sacrifice. Conquer every difficulty, as you go strive for victory." She encouraged herself to move forward.

The Heroic Grasslands Sisters [草原英雄小姐妹]. Shanghai, 1970. (Cotsen 32669)

Caption: Yurong raised her head, stubbornly pushing her body forward in a crawl. “I must protect the herd. I have to catch up [with them], I must catch up.” She recalled the teachings of Chairman Mao, phrase by phrase: “Make a firm resolution, and don’t fear sacrifice. Conquer every difficulty, as you go strive for victory.” She encouraged herself to move forward.

When her older sister Longmei found her, she wrapped up Yurong’s foot, and carried her the rest of the way. Eventually both were saved after a day and a night in the blizzard. Both sisters had sustained extreme frostbite, which necessitated amputations. Longmei lost a toe, and Yurong lost both her feet.1 Though both sisters were permanently disabled, the ending of the storybook emphasizes that they emerged from the storm healthy, rather than disabled. Just as the other stories emphasized the ability of disabled children to participate fully in educational and revolutionary activities, so do the endings of these stories emphasize the abilities of the sisters. While it is true that neither sister lost the ability to walk, Yurong needed prosthetics and could not engage in physical activities in the same way she could before losing her feet.

Immobilized Yurong, stubbornly and heroically crawling forward, much like the disabled children featured in other articles and stories, demonstrates the ideal revolutionary hero, who struggles for the revolution and the masses, fearing neither injury nor death. In these stories, children are raised up as revolutionary models, showing that children, just like adults, were important social and political actors.

You might also like to read the post on the portrayal of the disabled in recent Chinese picture book or another on soldiers who lost limbs in the Napoleonic wars.


[1]. 崔玉娟, “玉荣: 有些事留给时间去验证,” 中国青年报, (Jan. 13, 2015): 7, http://zqb.cyol.com/html/2015-01/13/nw.D110000zgqnb_20150113_2-07.htm