The ninja, Japan’s historical spy-commandos, a lethal bunch who lived in the shadows and didn’t take prisoners. The late 70s and 80s saw a massive boom in their popularity with books and films bringing these tantalisingly deadly figures firmly into our imaginations. But it seems we shouldn’t always believe what we see. Founder of the Historical Ninjutsu Research Team, Antony Cummins, has spent many years studying ancient ninja scrolls to uncover the truth behind these most special of soldiers, and many of his discoveries debunk the common notions and myths of these black masked assassins.
His new book Ninja Skills is a series of 150 “how-to” lessons drawn from these manuscripts that allow us to learn their secret techniques and live out one of our childhood dreams. We sat down recently to talk to Antony about these common misconceptions, their incredible skills and just how brutal the life of a ninja really was.
The MALESTROM: Let’s talk about the book, what is it about ninjas that makes them so appealing?
Antony Cummins: Well I don’t know if you’re aware, but my goal is to change the image of the ninja because it’s wrong.
TM: Well that sounds like a good place to start Antony…
AC: Basically we’ve got this image of the ninja and it’s been shipped to us from Japan, it’s based on twentieth century films from Japan, like when Akira Kurosawa was popular and everybody nicked from The Seven Samurai and the ninja films and ninja books, and from the 1960s onwards people have just been nicking from these Japanese books – but basically it’s fantasy. The reason it’s really popular is because it’s James Bond. I’ve had this question a lot but James Bond is an icon and you can see him as an icon, if you’ve got a tuxedo, dickie bow and a guy with a gun – it’s James Bond. Same as if you’ve got a guy dressed in black with a shuriken and a sword it’s a ninja. They have a specific identity.
TM: It’ll probably shock some people, but you’re saying that ninjas didn’t actually wear the black masks?
AC: You wouldn’t believe that black mask you associate with ninjas is actually an amalgamation of a thief in Japan, that’s who used to wear masks. A ninja, or shinobi, is actually a military position. It’s like the Black Ops, there’s no way they wore those masks during raids, in fact we’ve got plenty of evidence to show that they didn’t. However later on thieves used to wear masks because the punishment for theft during that period in Japan was death! Literally by being speared to death, crucified, so people used to cover their faces.
However masks were incredibly popular in Japan, allegedly men used to wear them when they went to brothels, so their wives or friends wouldn’t see them go in. So actually seeing someone dressed in black with a mask on was quite in common in Japan, walking down the street.
TM: Also you’re saying they didn’t throw shuriken! Which is something we all wanted as kids right?
AC: (Laughs) Ha, this kills everyone’s dreams. Basically shuriken were invented – well we don’t know when they were invented exactly – but they start showing up in the 1500’s and it was actually a weapon used by Samurai swordsmen, and what it is you have them in the back of your belt, and you throw them at the enemy so you can draw quicker and they have to deal with that. It isn’t a case of ninja’s in the dark throwing them.
The only one I have ever seen – I’ve probably looked at between 75 and 100 ninja manuals – and they only appear once and it’s for when you’re capturing criminals, which was a ninja’s job. So they used to lob them at people if someone was running away, and stop them to make them defend themselves and then you could tie them up with rope. So shuriken were real but they only associate with a ninja in the twentieth century.
TM: So what weapons did they use? Did they still use the smoke bomb and the subterfuge that we associate with ninja kills?
AC: Well for a start ninjas are actually from the Samurai class, it’s a bit of a complicated one but they were either Samurai or foot soldiers and both of those used Samurai swords. So straight away a ninja uses a Samurai sword, he also uses short spears and bows and arrows and things like that. However most of the things that ninjas used were actually tools and not weapons. So for example they’d need a saw to saw through walls or a nail remover and things like that, but they were specialists in fire. They were amazing when it came to fire, they had there own version of medieval napalm, Greek fire, fire rockets, exploding hand grenades, land mines, literally anything that blew up was what a ninja dealt with.
TM: Where did your interest in ninja’s come from? It’s something your so passionate about.
AC: (Laughs) Yeah very, in fact I’m a bit geeky to be honest. I was born in 1978, so in the middle of the ninja boom and I remember my Grandfather took me to a toy shop and said do you want Cowboys or do you want ninjas? I was only young but I knew what a ninja was and it’s one of my earliest memories thinking “of course Grandpa, how can you not know this?” So it was inbuilt. However the rest of the world carried on and left the ninja boom and I just stuck with it and actually all my life savings went on going around Japan trying to find every ninja scroll I could find, I was that obsessed.
TM: Did you watch the American Ninja films as a kid?
AC: Absolutely yeah. I’ve seen them all, my favourite ninja film is Sakura Killers.
TM: Good choice. So in terms of the scrolls, so you’ve been to Japan and had them all translated, that’s how this book came about?
AC: Well, first of all my Japanese is not great and what I used to do is teach English in Japan, and I photocopied as many of the ninja scrolls as I could find or pages from them. And I used to give it out as homework to native Japanese speakers and very quickly it was obvious that they’d come back and say ‘this is too old for us, it’s ancient Japanese.’ All except for one woman who came back and said ‘yeah I can translate this,’ and she did that for me.
We went for coffee and started to translate the scroll and that’s how it came about. I’ve got a background in Ancient History and Archaeology and I’ve got a Masters degree in Archaeology and I used that and she had a degree in linguistics and translation and she’s a professional translator and basically we just put it together and got the scrolls. However people have to remember they’re actually really difficult, they are medieval espionage scrolls and they’re not easy. So I’ve done Ninja Skills as it’s more accessible to people.
TM: So what will people get out of the book?
AC: Well either some people want to do Cosplay which is fine, and some people want to do it to educate themselves and really actually become as good as a ninja, and other people may be on their break at work and say ‘ok I’m gonna go into the world of the ninja and go into that fantasy for half an hour,’ and the book will allow people to do all of that.
TM: Maybe pick out one or two skills that you think people could learn and use practically in everyday life?
AC: If we’re going philosophical I like the idea of the way of heaven and the mind of man. The idea here is that it’s pretty much a Japanese concept but the ninja have to use it specifically. It’s like the Angel on the one side and the Devil on the other and what you realise is you have a dual dialogue in your brain, most of the time it’s your own self persuading yourself that it’s okay to do something, it’s okay to eat that, it’s okay to do that.
However the idea is that the ninja follows the principle of heaven and it’s beyond him, because the moment he starts getting bribed with women, materials, sex, gold, it’s like ‘yeah I should take that’ and then he’ll give himself reasons. So the idea is that everyday no matter what you do in your life and you’re presented with a situation you say, ‘what is actually the correct thing to do?’ As opposed to ‘what do I think is the correct thing to do?’
TM: Did they have a central philosophy or principle?
AC: Perseverance, the word ninja means perseverance, it’s got a dual meaning it’s stealth and to persevere and we’re talking seriously difficult things. The only way I can explain it to a modern person is it’s like taking anyone and putting them in South America or war torn Africa and saying there you go, you’ve got no backup, you’ve got to blend in with the locals and not only that you’ve got to get to a Warlord or Drug Baron’s compound and get inside it, find them and possibly burn it to the ground and then escape with your life. Enjoy that, have a good day. The stuff these guys went through was absolutely phenomenal.
TM: What was their moral code? They weren’t constrained like the Samurai were, they had to do some pretty horrible things?
AC: Right this is where people get this wrong because they think the Samurai were noble and honourable. The first issue here is that the Samurai weren’t as honourable as you’d expect, second there was honour, but it was their form of honour. So for example many people say ‘Samurai can’t fight two on one,’ which is rubbish – Samurai often fought two on one, they had killing squads and Samurai would kill locals if they rose up in peasant uprisings, so we’ve got to get rid of this idea of honour. It was there, but it was honour to serve the law for anything they wanted to do.
However ninja’s are usually Samurai but doing a specific job, which is Black Ops, so standard Samurai would be like ‘yeah we don’t do what they do, those guys are twisted,’ which often talked about in the ninja manuals. It’s not the fighting or the killing from behind, it’s the lying, cheating, stealing, murdering innocents, burning peoples property down while they’re in bed and things like that – normally a Samurai would do all those things but in the open, and say I going to come and do it to you, but they would never lie, Samurai are really against lying, however obviously people did in political intrigue, but that was the main issue, they didn’t want to cheat or lie.
TM: You mentioned Black Ops there, how similar are they to our SAS?
AC: I would say extremely similar, some people disagree with me on this point but I would say they’re extremely similar except for they have a magical element because it’s medieval time. So because of the time, there’s lots of black magic, which ninjas are steeped in. So imagine if you’re on a campaign and a Samurai army are going out, I think we’ve got one listed where the army are about four thousand strong and there are about forty ninja there and they have their own camp, their own huts and they don’t have any other duties than being ninja. And when the night time comes they will defend the outside of the camp and they’ll also go over and infiltrate the other side and then on top of that they’ll go weeks in advance and do Black Ops absolutely, but then mix that with black magic and witchcraft and you’ve got a ninja.
TM: So that’s the closest modern day equivalent, or would it be spies?
AC: Actually that’s the crossover, I would say Commando spies, that’s why James Bond and the ninja are so popular, because James Bond is a Spy and a Commando, that makes him the perfect agent. It’s the same with ninja, one of them might be a specialist in languages, and he’ll travel the country collecting information whereas another one, who I’m not saying he’s not brainy, but he’s just not a linguist, but he’s pretty much a murderer, so they’ll put him in the shock troop section of the ninjas, so ninjas branch off into lots of different subcategories.
TM: Talking about the magical element, was there a supernatural side to them? They obviously studied the esoteric texts?
AC: Remembering that even in Western Europe at this point in the 1500s and 1600s, magic was… we just see it as religion, in Christianity we have mass and the Lords Prayer, well they had exactly the same, they had their own prayers. However there is dark stuff, lots of animal cruelty. For example to see the enemy at night or to hide from the enemy at night they would take a live dog, cut its eyes out, kill the dog then ground up the eyes and then they would wear them inside of a headband and the idea is it would give them the eyes of a dog at night, the same thing happened in ancient India.
Another example is they infiltrated dreams, one ninja would go and collect things from graveyards, very much witchcraft basically and they would spend their night in meditation, sending dreams to the enemy Commander, making sure he’d say they were going to be defeated, it was part of their ritual.
TM: (Laughs) It’s pretty dark stuff…
AC: (Laughs) It is. One of my favourites is divided into two. They use hair pins, remember Samurai have what’s called Chon Mage, which is a top knot, and what they would do is version one, they would get a live pit viper – we’re talking a really poisonous snake here – and they’d get a pair of pliers and pull its fangs out and they would throw them away and then they would use that in their top knots and this would give them, like the snake, the ability to slither through the grass unseen. And version two is they would take a piece of wood and they would shave the wood down into a hairpin while there was a lunar eclipse and they would capture the darkness of the eclipse into the hairpin, and then the captain would lead his Black Ops team into enemy territory with the protection of magic behind them. I do destroy people’s dreams, but if you look at the reality of it, it’s much more interesting.
TM: Were there stories from the scrolls you translated that stand out?
AC: The problem is with a lot of the ancient stories with the ninjas, there’s a trend that in ancient Japan they would tell you stories about China. Very rarely did they tell stories about their own time, they would talk about China and some guy who did this or that. However there is one story, it’s a bit more about misdirection, a guy has a bet, and there’s a ninja, and he says I bet you can’t steal my sword by this time on this day and the ninja of course is like yes I can – well what he did is watch his target for a long time, but in view, so the target got used to what clothes he was wearing and the target kept an eye on him and kept him at a distance. And what happened is the ninja swapped clothes with another who came out dressed exactly like him, so now the target was keeping an eye on the wrong person and then as the target moved onto the days festival, because he said I bet you can’t take it by then, the original ninja had changed into the disguise of an old woman and during the festival amongst the crowds he slipped the sword out of the Samurai’s belt, and when the Samurai approached the ninja later to say – well you didn’t manage to do it, but as he looks down he realises his sword has gone and then looks at the ninja and realises it’s not him. They’d basically done the classic switcheroo. tokugawa ieyasu
There is another account, which was in a way to dispel this mythical idea of the ninja. What people don’t realise is they had hand held shields in Japan, but Samurai are not shown with them, this guy called Tokaguwa Ieyasa one of the Shoguns, who had a hundred Ninja working for him, but seventy five of them were shot off castle walls climbing so he ended up paying the extra expense to give them metal shields. So there was like a 75 per cent death rate before they paid for these expensive shields. So you’ve got to imagine ninja’s just falling off walls, getting shot off it in the dark.
TM: In terms of the secrets are there some we may never know? Some would have been passed on verbally as opposed to through the scrolls…
AC: I would say very little, the reason being – there is stuff don’t get me wrong – but now I’ve done as many scrolls as I possibly can, there are more scrolls but they’re actually locked away in this one museum in Japan and they won’t let anybody see them, so that is the only possibility where there might be, but to be honest it’s their tourist attraction, it gives them a sort of power, so they don’t ever show them. However I’ve come across all these ninja scrolls and now there is very rarely anything I come across that’s new, I come across different versions for example the snake fang versus the Moon pin, but it’s the same point, almost everything I come across now, I never come across anything new. And these are scrolls from across all of Japan within that timeframe.
TM: With the various techniques of the Ninja, one that’s fascinating is how they learn to walk?
AC: They do definitely have steps, however some the ones you read on the internet are a little bit wrong, or they’ve just been made up in the twentieth century. But they do have these steps, so for example there’s one called the withdrawing step. When you’re in a marsh – remember every Samurai household had a little ditch or marsh outside, like a mini moat – what they would do is draw their foot out straight up with the toes pointing down and then move it forward ever so slightly and this stops the sloshing of the water.
Also when they were going to approach enemy camp, they would never go up river, always down river, because then the water flows with your steps as opposed to against. Also in the dark they would change their footsteps to sound like a woman walking, or someone who was drunk, to create a false impression to the enemy. Lastly there’s one which is called probing step whereby in the pitch black, when they can’t see they would put there foot ahead very gently to probe then step down, then probe and step down and so on.
TM: What about the Martial Arts side of things? What did they study?
AC: Ok this is really important, this is the Number 1 thing I’ve been fighting against for the last ten years. So we all know there is a Martial Art called Ninjitsu yeah? And that is it! That is wrong, that is 100 per cent wrong! That was invented in the 1960s by a Japanese man, it was made famous by a man called Steven Hayes who’s an American that studied it, there was only a handful of people studying, but he brought it to the West. A lot of the Martial Arts of today were not trained back then, for example Aikido was invented in the twentieth century, Judo was invented in the late 1900s, Karate was not Japanese it’s from Okinawa, it didn’t come to Japan until 1922, so all the one’s that you would reel off were never there!
Realistically a ninja would be a good Martial Artist no doubt about it, unless he was a linguist or something, but if he was a commando ninja, he would have training in what we consider to be Jujitsu and what we consider to be swordsmanship. However those today have gone through a massive amount of change. So the Jujitsu back in the day would probably be much more brutal, much more realistic .
TM: So the modern day equivalent of a Martial Art wouldn’t be close to what the ninja trained in?
AC: Probably – have you ever seen HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts)? Basically these guys recreate the Knights swordsmanship and they go at it full on – so yes it would be like that. Kendo it’s nothing like Kendo, Kendo is actually nothing like what Samurai used to fight with, again it was invented in the 1800s. If you want to imagine it, you’ve got to imagine everybody carries a knife, even the commoner was allowed to carry a short sword or dagger, so there was no fisticuffs, they all knifed each other. If you wanted to knife someone in Samurai times, you do it three times, to the throat or the guts, or you’d have a mate with you and you’d double up – it was a rough, rough world.
Do you know Iaidō? The way of response? Realistically what they would have done is Iaijutsu, which means skills. So instead of being slow, it would have been fast, very quick. Have you ever seen it at the end in a film when they flick the sword at the end to get the blood off? That’s fantasy, made up. Actually they used cow shit to take the blood off.
TM: You’re shattering dreams left, right and centre here Anthony?!
AC: (Laughs) Ha – you want to hear the death threats I get! I get so many emails saying no you’re wrong! But actually I’m right. So I’ve made a distinction between modern Martial Arts or modern skills, and traditional skills, those skills that are passed on generation to generation and they’ve changed, they may look like the original but they’ve changed. And then you get the historical, and you’re going back in time and saying what did they actually do?
TM: If you were around back then, what would you have been a Samurai or a Ninja?
AC: Well considering remember ninja are just a sub branch of Samurai, so actually both, but I know what you mean. Basically there is Samurai, who are standard Samurai and one of them might be a Lancer, a Cavalier, the other one might be a Musketeer but one of those is a ninja. So the question is, would I be a normal Samurai? Or would I be a ninja? Now that’s a difficult one, because you would need serious balls to be a ninja, like really, really serious. Maybe if push came to shove I’d be a standard Samurai, because I don’t think I could do it.
TM: So the ninja being so brutal would be favourites in any fight?
AC: Say a ninja squad were chasing a criminal or going to infiltrate and kill everyone in a house, they would get a musket and they would fill it with gun powder and then they’d fill it with a compound of sulphur and arsenic, then there’s something called a blister beetle which has a chemical inside it that if you take enough milligrams it makes you bleed from your anus and from your eyes and cough up crap. So they would mix that together, put it in the musket, aim it through the window, which would have no glass and then they’d shoot it and having trip wires at every exit and as everyone is trying to escape, bleeding from their eyes, they’d trip over and get their heads chopped off – that is basically how ninja’s work.
TM: Crikey – you don’t want to mess with a ninja!
AC: (Laughs) You don’t want to mess with these guys – you know when you see the Paramilitary guys today, I know they glorify it in movies, but these guys are really full on and I’ve spoke to quite a few of them, and what they have to do is just brutal.
So what do you think then? It takes away from that guy jumping around in the shadows in black with shuriken doesn’t it?
TM: Yeah but they’re still pretty cool aren’t they?
AC: Ten times cooler now, ten times cooler…
TM: Ha definitely! Ok then finally we always ask for some words of wisdom, so from all your research and studying what can you offer our readers?
AC: Well I would say one of my books is called True Path of a Ninja and one of my favourite things in there is the idea of Mumonkan which is the Gateless Gate and it’s a Zen idea and the point is – the Gateless Gate, is your face, your voice, your body language, so every human is always lying, always, not always in a bad way, but they are never telling you exactly what they are thinking. To find out the truth behind this is like watching fish come up in a pond, occasionally you’ll see a little ripple of water and you can see the path of the fish, and it’s the same as this, every now and then somebody will do something or say something that matches up and gives you the truth about what’s going on inside their heads. However my real bit of wisdom is the fact that if you really, really study ninja psychology and ninja skills, you will lose all of your friends (Laughs).