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  • Writer's pictureOliver Martin

忍術 What is Ninjutsu? Decoding Ninjutsu: A Deep Dive

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

The Ancient Art of Self Defense, Stealth, & Strategy

Post 1: History & Origins of Ninjutsu

Table Of Contents:

I’ve often wondered about this… What even is a ninja? The word gets thrown around in popular language a lot these days.

1980s Ninja Boom

Ninja in popular culture started with the 1980s Ninja Boom. Is it Sho Kasugi running around in a black suit and throwing flash-bangs?

A ninja uses metsubishi in the film "Revenge of the Ninja"
A ninja uses 目潰 "metsubishi" in the film "Revenge of the Ninja"

I remember watching the early 80s films from The Cannon Group. Movies like Enter The Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III Domination put ninjas on the map for alot of us!

Something about the ninja attracts us. I mean, they seem like the ultimate badass! This is what made ninjutsu explode in the 1980s ninja boom.

When I was about 9 years old, I read “The Ninja and their Secret Fighting Art” by Stephen Hayes. The martial arts, the exotic weapons and the stealth aspects seemed to be very practical. The strategy, the mysticism and the philosophy made it a viable path to Self Realization!

A ninja seemed to be someone skilled at defending themselves in any situation!

the actor Sho Kosugi in the 1983 martial arts film 'Revenge of the Ninja'
Sho Kasugi 1983 film 'Revenge Of The Ninja

Discovering Masaaki Hatsumi

I was inspired enough to want to study the martial arts associated with ninjutsu ryu-ha for the rest of my life! When I was in the sixth grade, I called all the martial arts studios around and asked if they had ninjutsu classes, they all said some version of: “Ninjas don’t exist! That’s for movies!”

But I had read an entire book about Grandmaster Hatsumi in Japan who teaches ninjutsu martial arts to his students!

an image depicting Grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi 34th Soke of Togakure Ryu Ninpo Happo Biken
Grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi 34th Soke of Togakure Ryu Ninpo Happo Biken

It was hard to tell what was true and what was false. Little did I know, I was getting an introduction to ninjutsu right then and there.

Turns out that ninjutsu is not just about physical combat. It is also about the ability to endure mentally. You've got to be able to alter your perspective(s) to survive.

万変不驚: 10,000 changes no surprise.

It would be another 12 years until I actually stepped foot in my first real ninjutsu class.

Blog Series Decoding Ninjutsu: A Deep Dive

In reality, answering the question “What is Ninjutsu?” will take a series of posts to begin to answer that question. With this series of posts about ninjutsu, I'll help you gain a greater understanding of what it is. You'll begin to move beyond what you've seen of ninja in Hollywood movies and comic books. You'll also gain further insight on where you can do more research about this syncretic art.

I'll even show you where you can get instruction in the martial arts of ninjutsu! Who knows, I could inspire you to don a black do-gi and become a full fledged practitioner like me! Furthermore, its my hope that you will take some insight about how this art can empower aspects of your life!

So here is what we’ll cover on the way to getting greater insight about Ninjutsu over this series of posts:

  • History & origins of ninjutsu (this post..)

  • Schools of ninjutsu

  • Ninja Juhakkei 忍身十八形 - 18 areas of training in ninjutsu - in depth

  • Principles of ninjutsu

  • The weapons and tools of ninjutsu

  • Training to become a ninja

  • The benefits and advantages of learning ninjutsu

  • Ninjutsu in use in today's world

  • Applications of ninjutsu in modern life

  • Sources of modern-day ninjutsu training

  • Where to learn ninjutsu

  • Advice on how to stay motivated in your training journey

History & Origins of Ninjutsu

Ninjutsu by its very nature is enigmatic. When attempting to define ninjutsu, it seems to slip through peoples fingers. The concrete definitions of ninjutsu that I come up with always seem somehow incomplete.

People, tribes, communities, and clans have always protected what is valuable to them. Ninjutsu was born from an innate drive to survive, preserve and protect. Shinobi are in fact mentioned at some point in ALL periods of Japanese history. [reference]

Some form of ninjutsu has always existed throughout history.

a rending of the Battle of Sekigahara, which prominantly featured ninja.
Battle of Sekigahara October 12, 1600

Judo, Karate and Aikido all have founding dates that can are identifiable. If you're looking for an actual starting point for ninjutsu, you won't find one. This fact is a testament to its effectiveness!

Ninjutsu Evolution in Feudal Era Japan

Ninjutsu evolves from the Yayoi Period (300 BCE to 300 CE) all the way to the Tokugawa Period from 1603 to 1867. But it's during the feudal era of Japan that ninjutsu reaches a high degree of refinement. The strategy, tactics, and application of this craft of warfare gets tested to a great degree.

But there were powerful precursors to the phenomenon of Japanese ninjutsu. These early iterations developed in China, India, and Tibet.

Japan existed as many small states during this time period. The central shogunate would give their supporters land to manage. These supporters became powerful daimyo with their own armies.

As their power grew, they challenged the central shogunate as well as other daimyos. As a result, this era was fraught with a lot of conflicts.

Ninja versus Samurai
Ninja & Samurai in feudal Japan

It was during this period that ninjas were often employed to fight alongside samurai. This fact does away with the whole Hollywood idea of ninja vs. samurai. They acted as a kind of special forces for the military armies of the daimyo. It's true that many ninja were samurai and many samurai were ninja.

The ninja had to readapt their strategies and tactics often to survive in this era. It is because of the pressure of constant conflict that ninjutsu evolved to a high degree.

Ninja were the clandestine agents of conflicts going on at that time. They scouted information before battles. Carried out assassinations. Sabotaged important targets. Created chaos behind enemy lines. They gathered intelligence about the affairs in enemy camps. Along with foretelling future battle plans of enemies.

The ninja were to Warring States Japan what special forces are to modern militaries. It is because of these kinds of operations that much of ninjutsu training is clandestine. Ninjas would often become Buddhist monks, merchants, drunkards, street performers, and/or bodyguards. They did whatever was necessary to complete the mission behind enemy lines. Ninjas had names such as: shinobi (forbearance), rappa (ruffian), and seppa (grass) because of this.

Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Spies

I remember reading the Art of War and seeing the last chapter on “spies”. “That's what ninjutsu is!” I thought. It turns out that it was Sun Tzu’s astute observation that spies aka ninjutsu in the most universal sense, were absolutely necessary for success in any sort of conflict.

An image depicting Sun Tzu the author of The Art of War
Sun Tzu 544–496 BCE author of The Art of War

Whether the object be to crush an army, to storm a city, or to assassinate an individual, it is always necessary to begin by finding out the names of the attendants, the aides-de-camp, and door-keepers and sentries of the general in command. Our spies must be commissioned to ascertain these.” -Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu's Art of War 兵法 bīng fǎ/heiho was a key aspect of the philosophy and martial arts skill imported from China. It defined much of the underpinnings of ninjutsu philosophy and skill.

I was really shocked by the fact that shinobi are referenced in ALL periods of Japanese history from the Paleolithic Age all the way to modern day Japan. Perhaps some form of ninjutsu has always existed throughout all history…

The Nakano School - Intelligence Agencies

A modern incarnation of ninjutsu in Japan was the Nakano School during World War 2. The Japanese Imperial Army trained more than 2,000 men from 1938 to 1945. Their training mirrored many ninjutsu skills adapted for the modern battlefield.

The Nakano School curriculum included:

  • Foreign Languages

  • Code breaking

  • Disguises

  • Infiltration

  • Firearms

  • Explosives

  • Psychological Tactics,

  • Automobiles/Planes

  • Guerrilla Tactics

Ninja ethos on an institutional level continues in today's modern intelligence agencies. These agencies continue to expand upon tactics and strategy used by ninja. This shows how ninjutsu continues to endure throughout the ages despite changing form.

Yamabushi/Shugendo In Ninjutsu’s Training Philosophy

I was always fascinated by the mountain mystics that influenced ninjutsu. These yamabushi are practitioners of mountain asceticism or shugendo. It is a very syncretic spiritual system consisting of Shinto, Mikkyo, Daoism/Onmyodo.

A warrior-monk wearing geta and a modern shugenja practitioner.
A warrior-monk wearing geta and a modern shugenja practitioner.

Yamabushi acted as mercenaries because of their ability to endure hardship. They were also very adept at staying unseen in harsh environments. One meaning of yamabushi is to lay low in the mountains. They could run for miles and miles to cover great distances.

This marriage of guerrilla warrior and mountain warrior ascetic always captured my imagination. They could cover vast distances and be one with the elements of nature. It's easy to see how they were a contributor to ninjutsu training and philosophy. One wonders what the actual extent of their abilities were in real battle.

The American Ninja

A Native American Scout Warrior could be thought of as the American version of a ninja.
Native American Crow Scout Warrior - The American version of Ninja

Before the SEALs and the OSS/CIA, Native Americans had their own ninjutsu. The scouts of the Pawnee, Apache, Crow, Shoshone, Tonkawa and many other nations were ninja of their day. They had their own systems of tracking, guerilla warfare, and survival. Their abilities mirror much of what ninjutsu was in Japan when it came to subduing enemies.

Again, there is some version of ninjutsu in each culture throughout the ages.

Ninja Juhakkei 忍身十八形 - 18 Areas of Training in Ninjutsu

Sensei Oliver Martin demonstrates the use of metsubishi 目潰 within a tradition Togakure Ryu ninpo taijutsu kata.
Sensei Oliver Martin demonstrates the use of metsubishi within a tradition Togakure Ryu ninpo taijutsu kata.

Let's give some context to what ninja skill entails. The Ninja Juhakkei "Eighteen Skills of the Ninja," refer to the skills and techniques of ninja. These were skills essential to the ninja's role as clandestine agents. In classical periods of Japanese history ninja would train in these 18 areas:

  1. Seishin teki kyoyo (spiritual refinment)

  2. Taijutsu (unarmed combat)

  3. Ninja Ken (ninja sword)

  4. Bojutsu (stick and staff fighting)

  5. Shurikenjutsu (throwing blades)

  6. Yarijutsu (spear fighting)

  7. Naginatajutsu (halberd fighting)

  8. Kusarigama (chain and sickle weapon)

  9. Kayakujutsu (fire and eplosives)

  10. Hensojutsu (disguise and impersonation)

  11. Shinobi iri (stealth and entering methods)

  12. Bajutsu (horsemanship)

  13. Sui ren (water training)

  14. Bo-ryaku (strategy)

  15. Cho ho (espionage)

  16. Intonjutsu (escape and concealment)

  17. Ten-mon (meteorology)

  18. Chi-mon (geography)

In a later post, I'll outline each skill in more detail.


It will take more posts to continue to answer the question: "What is Ninjutsu?"

I'm a twenty-five plus year practitioner of ninjutsu-based martial arts. I am still understanding what ninjutsu is by my study of Budo. Ninjutsu is a complex and fascinating aspect of martial arts, history and philosophy.

It's easy to see why the ninja as portrayed in films and tv shows sparks our interest. I know it did mine! But I am glad that I didn't listen to the dojo owners who told me it's not real. The true practice of ninjutsu goes far beyond throwing stars and smoke bombs. Because what I've discovered is that ninjutsu enriches life in a mysterious way.

It is a complete system of physical, mental and spiritual development. It has survived for generations as a total Path for overcoming adverse circumstances.

In this post, you've gotten an idea about the history of ninjutsu in feudal Japan and beyond. We’ve also touched on some formative forces behind ninjutsu. But this is still a taste when it comes to the vast body of knowledge that ninjutsu encompasses.

In future posts, we'll delve deeper into various aspects of ninjutsu including:

  • Principles of ninjutsu

  • The weapons and tools of ninjutsu

  • Training to become a ninja

  • The benefits and advantages of learning ninjutsu

  • Ninjutsu in use in today's world

  • Applications of ninjutsu in modern life

  • Sources of modern-day ninjutsu training

  • Where to learn ninjutsu

  • Advice on how to stay motivated in your training journey

It's my hope that this series of posts will help better answer: "what is ninjutsu?" and provide you with greater insight into its true nature.

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1 Comment

Nakia Chase
Nakia Chase
Mar 31, 2023

A great site ...!

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