Shinobi, or ninjas, are a huge part of Japanese culture. But who were these black-clad assassins? Asian Boss recently posted an interview on their YouTube channel with Kawakami Jinichi, the last successor to the Koga ninja family line. His explanation of who the shinobi really were dispels many of the popular misconceptions about these covert operatives.
I grew up on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at a time when the American Ninja and Three Ninja Kids franchises were milking the ninja stereotype for everything it was worth. A steady dose of TMNT and The Karate Kid formed a life long fascination with the martial arts that lead me to pick up the katana and enroll at a Kendo dojo. I quickly discovered that the true history of Japanese budo (martial arts) was just as rich as the fantasy of budo portrayed in anime like Naruto. Behind the mysticism the West often paints over martial arts, there was a deep practicality and wisdom worth exploring. Yet, the shadow of the ninja was ever present, deeply shrouded in popular myth, beyond true understanding.
According to Kawakami Jinichi, the last Koga ninja, ninjitsu is more about survival, stealth, and espionage than combat. Intel was valuable, and a ninja would do better to avoid detection and a fight than to confront an enemy, risk death, and the loss of that intel.
‘Ninja stars,’ or shuriken, were not actually a ninja weapon at all, but an expensive weapon of the samurai class. Shinobi, who were commoners, preferred weapons that looked more like tools, such as the kama (sickle) or pruning shears that could double as nunchakus. The ninja didn’t want to cast suspicion on themselves by carrying around obvious weapons, and baby carts ala Lone Wolf and Cub probably just weren’t in vogue. Good thing Scorpion can spit fire and Sub Zero can shoot snow cones at people — nobody will find those weapons when frisking them.
If you find this slap of reality disheartening, then take solace in just how bad-ass the ninja truly were. Shinobi were the punks of their time, fighting against the establishment with the help of a skill-set that was arduous to acquire. They were the hackers of their day, who had to think outside the box to secure information about their enemies. The ninja were writing their own underdog story before The Karate Kid or Cobra Kai ever came along.
Here’s the interview from Asian Boss, so you can learn more about the ninja from Kawakami Jinichi, the last Koga ninja, himself, including the truth behind Naruto’s ninja run.