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Stephen Turnbull risks nine deaths in the eye of the ninja storm… or does he?

Many years ago I practised aikido. One evening we were joined by a man dressed from head to foot in black with only his eyes showing. Somewhat taken aback, our instructor enquired as to the reason for the stranger’s unusual costume. ‘I’m a ninja,’ he replied. ‘I practise ninjutsu; it’s the art of invisibility.’

The instructor was not impressed. ‘You mean to say you have driven across London dressed like that? You’re hardly invisible!’

‘No,’ said the ninja triumphantly. ‘I didn’t drive here. I came on the bus. BUT I DIDN’T PAY!’

Iga-Ueno, a modest town in Japan’s Mie prefecture, has been the epicentre of the ninja craze for over half a century and still shows no sign of losing that lucrative position. It is not far from Osaka or Nagoya as the crow flies, but crows seldom travel on public transport. Humans, by contrast, are conveyed via a series of trains that get smaller and smaller with every change and culminate in a tiny one-man operated carriage. This is the ninja train. Like the man in London only its eyes are showing, although the colour is inexplicably green. On arrival at Iga station one is greeted by a dummy ninja perched above the ticket barrier. I would like to say that the taxis are black. They are, but so are most taxis anyway.

From thereon in it just gets worse, or better, depending upon your frame of mind and your motives for visiting Iga-Ueno. In 2004 I went there with a film crew to make a documentary about ninja. They had arranged for live-action takes, but something had been lost in translation between the terms ‘stunt man’ and ‘actor’. The poor guy they hired was required to scale the walls of Iga-Ueno castle and got stuck half-way up. There is a photograph somewhere of me leaning over the parapet to rescue him.

This time I was there on business because I had arranged a meeting with someone who takes ninja very seriously indeed. Two years ago Mie Prefectural University realised that they had an important cultural phenomenon on their doorstep that was as worthy of attention as any manga or anime, and it was all theirs! So they decided to set up a Department of Ninja Studies. They now carry out research into the history of the ninja and the ninja’s modern role as Japan’s greatest military fantasy, in everything from Kamui to Naruto. Students can take courses in ninjutsu and one of their guest lecturers, a sincere and very knowledgeable man who is much in demand for supplying skilled stunt men as ninja, obligingly dresses up for the occasion. There is clearly never a dull moment at Mie University.

I was there to meet the professor in charge of this remarkable advance in higher education. We decided to meet at the Ninja House Museum. It seemed appropriate. We didn’t dress up. We could have done. Most people did, particularly if they had children, so we were surrounded by little pink and blue ninja as we conducted our erudite academic conversation. Iga-Ueno’s ninja house is a genuine old farmhouse transferred from its original location a few decades ago. It is famous for its hidey-holes, secret staircases and revolving doors that snap shut so quickly that the ninja appears to vanish. There are similar ones in Asda but they work much more slowly.

The house is on the slope of the castle hill and beneath it is the Ninja Museum, an institution of breathtaking audacity filled with re-labelled burglars’ tools, sharpened farm implements and flotation devices that break the laws of physics. Here the supposed material culture of the ninja myth is set out on display as at nowhere else in the world. There is a fine collection of shuriken: the beloved ‘ninja stars’ that can be accurately dated as far back as 1962. A wooden firework launcher from a Japanese festival becomes a ‘ninja cannon… chosen for its lightness of weight’. Best of all is a black ninja costume on display together with a caption that explains that it wasn’t black after all! I love it.

The museum is planning to open a branch in Tokyo, which almost says it all, yet only the most dogged ninja sceptic would argue that the idea is a total fabrication. During Japan’s time of civil wars undercover operations were a vital part of any samurai general’s compendium of tactics. They had to be. No military society in world history has dared to ignore secret warfare, but we are also required to believe that in Japan such operations were performed not by any samurai who possessed such skills but by a hereditary corps of specialists: the ninja. We are also required to believe that at a time when fighting was carried out from Okinawa to the fringes of Hokkaido the tiny and insignificant province of Iga produced a warrior caste so uniquely skilled that its talents were widely exported.

That, in a nutshell, is the core claim of the Iga ninja tradition, but to prove that ninja really existed would require making a link between reliable, historical accounts of secret warfare and the ninja as they are portrayed in 20th century media. Somehow I feel that the researchers of Mie University are going to have their work cut out.

And yet there is more to the ninja myth than meets the eye. By 1638 all wars had ceased under the police state of the Tokugawa family, yet within twenty years armchair generals were busily writing manuals of military theory, including speculations about sneak attacks, night-fighting and backstabbing. A master of dirty tricks, as described in Bansen Shukai, which the museum claims to be a ‘ninja bible’ of 1676, is very similar to the ‘ninja’ as he is popularly understood today. Nor is the media portrayal of the ninja merely an innovation of the 1950s. The first movie featuring black-clad assassins was a silent film produced in 1916.

I do not believe that someone sat down at his desk around the year 1660 and decided, ‘Let’s invent ninja.’ Nothing springs from nothing. There must have been something to base it on: a folk memory, an old soldier’s tale or two that had survived the devastation of civil war. But even if the ninja cult was a complete invention dreamt up by a master of public relations, its sheer antiquity demands as much respect as is commonly given to some questionable aspects of the samurai tradition. None of the suits of armour you are likely to see in museums were ever worn in battle. They were the products of a time of peace. Even bushido, the sacred ‘way of the warrior,’ owes nearly all its formulation to a book published in 1900 by a Japanese Christian living in California. As bushido is such an important concept for defining the way of the noble samurai, it is ironic indeed to realise that certain aspects of the cult of the ninja predate it by almost three centuries.

Yet there is also an innocence about the ninja myth. It was bushido, not ninjutsu, that was pressed into service to persuade boys to die for the emperor and to despise their victims. No kamikaze pilot was ever exhorted to emulate a ninja in those most ninja-like of all surprise attacks. The ninja therefore survived untainted the horrors of World War II to become the craze of today.

So go to Iga-Ueno as I did. It is sincere, great fun and most impressive of all for the accomplished way it has embraced a supposed cult of ruthless assassins and made them into something cute. Dress your little daughter up as a pink ninja. Buy a Hello Kitty ninja key-ring, magic ninja slippers, a bottle of ninja beer (it’s the colour of Guinness, naturally) and go home with that most vital of accessories for any ninja operation: a roll of ninja toilet paper. Only the wrapper is black. Every tear-off sheet bears mysterious characters that may be magic spells but are more likely to say, ‘Property of Iga-Ueno Town Council’. At the worst, at the very worst, you will be participating in Japan’s oldest, most respectable and most genuine military fake.

Naruto, Japan’s best-selling ninja, is available on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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