by Tara McGowan
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.”
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).
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).
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).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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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!
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!