At first glance, the ninjas looked to be an obvious sequel to my previous book on the samurai, in which I focused on the ‘last samurai,’ Saigo Takamori. At second glance, ninjas seemed a foolish choice, because there is so little hard fact and so much recent nonsense – flight and invisibility, mutant ninja turtles and James Bond, gratuitous violence, few real characters, no ‘last ninja.’ I almost gave up. Luckily, I didn’t.
There is a hard kernel of historical truth to the ninjas, and much to explore. Also I found in them a surprising streak of idealism, a little-known trait that has run through Japanese society for centuries. And there is, as it happens, a last ninja. He’s still alive. You will have heard his story. It’s just that no one called him a ninja, and it did not occur to me to link him to the ninja tradition until I learned the details.
The ninjas – as secret agents, spies, ‘shadow warriors’ – have been around for over 1,000 years. Of course they have, because no commander can do without them, as the great Chinese theoretician of military matters, Sun Zi pointed out in the 4th century BC (Sun Tzu, as he is in another transliteration). As he says, the reason a general wins is his foreknowledge of the enemy situation. ‘This foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits, nor from gods, nor by analogy with past events, nor by astrologic calculation. It must be obtained from men,’ namely spies. Japan, which revered all things Chinese, knew Sun Zi. It had ninjas of a sort way back: ‘ninja’ is a name with Chinese roots, meaning ‘one who endures.’ (The Japanese word is shinobi. The two are used as alternates).
Like all warriors, the ninja trained hard, sharing commando-style routines and training areas with the so-called yamabushi – ‘mountain ascetics’ – men who retreated into forested mountains to undertake rigorous ordeals, living rough, conquering fear, striving for serenity and ‘right-mindedness.’ You can get a feel of this yourself today by studying Shugendo, the Way of Mountain Aceticism, whose adepts worship nature-spirits and go on commando-style training courses.
The trouble (for historians) is that ‘shadow warriors’ left few records. By definition, they thrived on secrecy and obscurity. Also they were outshone by the samurai, who lived and died for the exact opposite of the ninja ethos, all dissplay and bravado, sporting exotic armour, courting death, even ensuring it. If they survived defeat, if their lord and master died in combat, they asserted their loyalty by committing hara-kiri - seppuku as it is in Japanese - slitting open their stomachs and releasing their souls. A ninja’s purpose was to survive, for that was the only way to bring back his news.
The ninja, however, had their moment in the sun. In the late middle ages, two regions known as Iga and Koga, a morning’s drive east of Kyoto, became the ninja heartland. The two, now parts of today’s Mie and Shiga prefectures, were lowlands protected by chains of forested hills. Here peasant communes arose, free of the warlords that turned Japan into a chaos of rival mini-states. Committed to their sturdy independence, the small-holders of Koga and Iga built earthwork fortresses and honed their skills as peasant warriors for some two centuries, often becoming mercenaries elsewhere. But in the late 16th century, Oda Nobunaga rose to power as one of the three great warlords seeking to unify Japan. No dictator can tolerate sturdy independence. In 1581, Oda mounted an overwhelming invasion. Though few details were recorded, the event is well remembered today in Iga-Ueno and Koga (now Koka), the local centres. Both towns have turned their ninja traditions into tourist attractions.
Ninja ‘right-mindedness’ culminated in war-time traits that, for Japan’s enemies, seem very un-Japanese. From the need for good intelligence sprang a group of remarkably idealistic ‘shadow warriors’. They trained in the Nakano Spy School, aiming to lead all Asia to freedom from western imperialism. The school’s few graduates, some 2,500 in all, had an agenda exactly opposite to the xenophobic, samurai-like militarism of the Army. Though of course loyal to the Emperor, they were encouraged to be self-reliant, creative, flexible, generous, critical and committed to self-rule for colonised nations. Among its allies was one of the leaders of Burmese independence, Aung San, famous father of a more famous daughter, Suu Kyi. But early victories pumped up the Army’s ethos. Xenophobia and arrogance displaced generosity of spirit. Nakano graduates were sidelined.
One ninja-style activist remained at large after 1945. Hiroo Onoda was a Nakano graduate with the job of setting up a base on the Filippino island of Lubang, preparing for a Japanese return after the inevitable defeat of America. His orders from his divisional commander were clear. On no account was he to act the samurai. ‘You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand.’ Onoda, loyal to a fault, stuck to his orders for 30 years, closing his eyes to all evidence that the war was over. For years he was utterly alone. No one called him a ninja, but his loyalty, survival-skills and genius at improvisation made him one. He also held on to a ninja-like idealism, which, at 90, he still displays, running a charity that works with young people.
Ninja by John Man is out now, published by Bantam.