As a child of the 1980s, I grew up during the heyday of the ninja craze. Black-clad assassins, adept at everything from swordplay to invisibility, were suddenly everywhere. Hollywood came out with dozens of films featuring them in some capacity, although admittedly, many of them were barely good enough to qualify for B-movie status.
On television, we had The Master. This 13-episode show debuted in 1984 and featured “spaghetti Western” star Lee Van Cleef as an aging ninja master who trains a new pupil while they traverse the country in a customized van. They would use their ninja skills to save random people from all sorts of trouble; sort of like a two-person The A-Team.
Of course, the comic book world also made extensive use of the ninja, mostly depicting them as faceless villains but also incorporating some of their aspects into the lore for headline heroes such as Batman, Wolverine and Daredevil. (And who could forget the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?)
But, that’s all fluff and fantasy. Surely there’s no such thing as ninja in the modern world—right?
Well, yes, Virginia, students of ninjutsu do exist today. And, they might very well be the survivalists of the martial arts world.
The Historical Ninja
Ninjutsu really took root in the 15th century, although it had existed in different forms for a while prior. In those days, ninja were often born to the trade, much like the samurai. Because the latter stressed honor and integrity, doing battle in the open was the way things were supposed to be done.
But, as a need developed for what we’d today call intelligence operatives, that’s where the ninja came in. They served as spies and assassins, doing jobs that might have been seen as beneath the samurai code of honor. They were skilled at infiltration and working behind the enemy’s lines.
During the Sengoku Period (1467–1615), there were several ninja clans scattered throughout the Iga and Koka (or Koga) regions of Japan. From a historical perspective, this is when the ninja were most prominent.
As opportunities for their unique skill sets eventually began to wane, many went into tangentially related trades, becoming healers and even actors, while still maintaining their training in secret for generations.
As with any martial art, what’s covered by an instructor will vary a bit from school to school. But, in addition to regular class sessions, there are often camps or other special events a student can attend to learn additional skills. In some cases, private lessons might also be arranged, whether with your regular instructor or a visiting teacher.
When we talk about training, there are common themes among many, if not most, martial arts. These include at least some degree of physical conditioning and exercise by learning how to fall and how to avoid injury while training.
However, there are a few aspects of ninjutsu training that are of particular interest to the survivalist that might not be found in many other martial arts.
Jon Merz has been training in ninjutsu since 1990. He attained his first-degree black belt during a training trip to Japan in 1997. Six years later, he earned his fifth-degree black belt directly from the 34th grandmaster of togakure-ryu ninjutsu, Masaaki Hatsumi. Prior to studying ninjutsu, Merz had attained belt rankings in a few other disciplines, including judo and aikido.
He was kind enough to lend some assistance with this article and shed some light on what real-world ninja training is all about.
Taijutsu is the unarmed combat aspect of ninjutsu. It’s fast and brutal, designed to incapacitate an opponent quickly. Its techniques stem largely from a time when an operative’s ability to defeat their opponents meant they got to go home to their family—rather than be captured and face certain death.
“Throws are designed to make an opponent land in awful ways from which there isn’t an opportunity to break their fall or roll out of it. You get dropped on your head, you’re not going to pop back up off the floor right away, if at all.” Merz said.
It’s not a showy discipline that’s filled with high-flying kicks and dazzling combinations of strikes. The focus is on winning the fight, not impressing a judge. While they cover it all, from strikes to grappling to throws and more, “ … all these techniques are geared toward doing the most amount of damage in the smallest amount of time with the least amount of effort,” Merz explained.
Other martial arts are also very well-adapted for use on the street, including eskrima and krav maga. An advantage ninjutsu has over many of them, however, is a result of the additional areas of training that are involved.
The ‘Gray Man’
When you think of the ninja, odds are pretty good you’re picturing someone dressed in black from head to toe with a short sword strapped to their back, creeping around at night and throwing whirling metal stars. The reality, as you might guess, is a bit different.
Ninja were spies. As such, they learned how to blend into their environment. This meant they went to great lengths to be entirely unremarkable.
As Merz pointed out, “If you’ve ever met an actual spy, you know they don’t look like James Bond; they tend to look like no one you’d remember 15 seconds after they passed you on the street.”
Operatives would sometimes be assigned to a village for years, establishing themselves as residents—with families and roles within the community—just in case things took a turn down the road and the ninja clan needed an intelligence asset in that area.
They were taught to use a number of different disguises that could be employed while traveling. These included posing as yamabushi—mountain ascetics who belonged to monastic orders—and wandering musicians or actors who might seek temporary sanctuary in a village in exchange for providing entertainment.
Today, the modern ninja, as well as the survivalist, would use these skills to be the so-called “gray man.” Just as in ancient Japan, this involves blending in and being unnoticed in a crowd. It means sort of disappearing in plain sight, allowing you to move about without calling attention to yourself.
At home, this involves doing nothing that makes you stand out: Avoid discussing politics, religion or other potentially divisive topics with neighbors. Keep things light and civil as much as possible. If you have prepping supplies delivered, don’t let them sit out on the front step for hours, where everyone can see the logos on the boxes. Avoid a tactical appearance as you go about your daily life, unless you work in a field that requires it.
“… there are a few aspects of ninjutsu training that are of particular interest to the survivalist that might not be found in many other martial arts.”
When you’re out and about, stick to neutral colors and fashions. Avoid bright colors or clothing styles that stand out from the crowd.
As any hunter will tell you, anomalous movement can bring attention. So, whenever possible, walk with the flow of the crowd, not against it. Keep your head up and your eyes open in order to maintain your situational awareness. However, be as discreet as possible about doing so. The ultimate goal is to be forgotten the moment you leave someone’s line of sight.
The ninja would use both subtle and overt means of gaining a psychological advantage over an opponent.
For example, they would do what they could to perpetuate myths and legends about the ninja that were already beginning to form and spread. They would use something to generate smoke or mist and then slip away—seemingly disappearing into thin air—while those around them were distracted.
Deception was one of their most important tools.
Merz said, “If, by chanting a mantra and weaving their fingers together, it would cause a battle-hardened, but superstitious, samurai to think they were about to face a demon, you can bet they would use that to their advantage.”
They often hid weaponry in their clothing—yes, even the now-stereotypical shuriken, commonly referred to as “throwing stars.” While these were actually used as distractions, rather than implements of immediate death, the sudden appearance of whirling metal blades seemingly out of nowhere would give many pursuers pause.
The same sort of delay would result from the ninja tossing a handful of caltrops on the ground. These spiked, sole-piercing weapons were even more painful than stepping on Legos with bare feet in the middle of the night.
Actions such as these not only slowed down pursuit due to the immediate risk of injury, enemies would also then have to wonder what awaited them around the next corner, down the hall or at the next bend in the road.
Translated to modern times, there are many opportunities for today’s survivalists to psych-out those who might seek to do harm. The same basic concepts are universal; they just differ in the execution.
For example, something as simple as putting alarm company stickers on your windows (even if you don’t have a security service) can be enough to cause a burglar to ply their trade elsewhere. It might not be as “cool” or “sexy” as a flying shuriken, but it works.
Booby traps are rarely a good idea, because they bring with them a whole litany of potential problems—from legal trouble to the risk of self-injury. But, a few well-placed alarm triggers could jangle the nerves of an intruder and also give you a heads-up that something’s amiss. Even if they spot and disarm the first trigger, that, alone, might cause them to slow their approach, fearing there could be more.
However, vaguely threatening signs such as, “This property is protected by Smith & Wesson,” don’t work very well. All they really accomplish is letting a potential thief know that if they wait until the house is empty, they can find easily sold firearms inside. On the other hand, indications of a large dog on the premises are a different story altogether.
Vetting an Instructor
Should you decide to seek out ninjutsu training, there are a few things to watch for in terms of finding a qualified instructor.
According to Merz, achieving the first black belt is akin to obtaining your driver’s license.
“Today, the modern ninja, as well as the survivalist, would use these skills to be the so-called “gray man.” Just as in ancient Japan, this involves blending in and being unnoticed in a crowd.”
“The real learning starts at that point and continues for a lifetime.”
A qualified instructor should have at least 10 to 12 years in the system (ideally, they should have at least two decades worth of experience).
They should possess some sort of certification, which will likely be found hanging in a frame on the wall inside the school. Don’t be afraid to take a photo of it and do some homework online to verify it. A good instructor will be happy to answer any questions you have about their training background and experience. Any that seem evasive or get touchy about questions should be avoided.
Most importantly, sit in on a class or two and see how it runs. Is respect given and received by all? Do you get a bad feeling in your gut when you observe how students are treated? If so, the class might not be for you. If the instructor is bad-mouthing other disciplines, that’s another sign that something might not be right. There’s no universally “best” martial art for everyone, and anyone who claims there is probably has a financial reason for saying so.
Finding a school in your area might prove difficult. But, there are many other avenues for education and training.
One that’s definitely worth considering can be found at NinjaSelfDefense.com. This is an online school operated by Stephen K. Hayes—one of the foremost authorities on ninjutsu. He’s also been recognized by Black Belt magazine as one of the most influential living martial artists in the world today.
Ninjutsu isn’t for everyone, but the ninja, themselves, might be the best embodiment of the survivalist mindset that exists in the martial arts world.
The Well-Dressed Ninja
Perhaps the single most common myth about the ninja—thanks to Hollywood—is the depiction of them being dressed in black from head to toe, with just a slit open for their eyes.
Think about this logically for a moment: If someone wants to go about unnoticed, would they really go about wearing black pajamas everywhere? Of course not!
Even at night, an all-black outfit tends to not work very well. Instead, if one wishes to remain unseen, a mottled look that incorporates dark colors such as blue, gray, black and even deep red will help conceal the appearance. Wearing a dark-blue windbreaker with gray slacks won’t get a second look out in the open either.
The average survivalist or prepper doesn’t need a suitcase filled with all manner of fake beards, spirit gum and outfits that range from repairman to librarian. However, should the need arise, your appearance can be altered quite a bit with the simple addition of a hat, a pair of glasses or a jacket.
Any or all of those could be kept in your EDC bag for their normal use, doing double duty as expedient disguises if you need to evade someone. Duck into a store, toss on the hat and jacket, and casually walk out a moment or two later.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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