Ninjas are some of the most feared and mysterious warriors in the history of warfare. Silent, deadly, and skilled in a variety of covert, unconventional methods of fighting and infiltration, they have captured the public’s imagination in many ways. They have made their way into pop culture as invincible assassins, and wielding deadly weapons. Sometimes, they may seem more fiction than fact, and indeed it’s difficult to separate what’s real from what’s exaggerated.
To Jinichi Kawakami, the last of the ninjas, the art of ninjutsu is more than just a fairy tale or a trope in media. Ninjutsu is a tactic of war in which body and mind are just one. Having trained to that effect for decades, the 66-year-old engineer can hear a needle being dropped in an adjacent room, climb walls, create smoke and explosive bombs, and withstand extreme heat, cold, and survive without food or water for long periods of time. Along with learning in mind and body, he also studied psychology, pharmacology, medicine, astrology, and espionage.
He is the twenty-first and last leader of the Ban clan, created over five hundred years ago in Japan. It was there where he learned his skills at the young age of six by his mentor Masazo Ishida. At the age of nineteen, he inherited the title of master, thereby accessing to knowledge and tools reserved for the privileged few who managed to gain this distinction.
Now, the last ninja of Japan has refrained from taking any disciple to pass on all this knowledge. Kawakami has stated that his art, and ninjas who could follow it, “just don’t fit with modern day.” According to him, the abilities of ninjas to “spy and kill, or mix medicine” were once useful, but in the age of the Internet, modern firearms, and better medicines, such old techniques no longer have a place. In addition to that, there is no place in modern times for trying out murder or poisons, so Ninjutsu practitioners wouldn’t be able to try out the theory of their craft anyway.
For these reasons, Kawakami has decided to take a vow of silence and take the secrets of this famous art to the grave. Yet, that does not mean he does not value the legacy of the art that he has trained with for years. Today he is an honorary director of the Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum, a museum devoted to the history of ninjutsu, featuring displays of actual ninja implements such as shuriken, and scientific analysis of old writings and weapons. He also works as a researcher at Mie University, exploring and uncovering the secrets of Ninjutsu from an academic perspective.
Kawakami says the key to ninjutsu is to engage without warning the opponent, taking advantage of the distraction and confusion to the same beat. The use of force and the size of the ninja is not essential anymore when it comes to winning against the adversary in combat. Thanks to the confusion created in the confrontation, the ninja has the ability to attack and win, or simply take the opportunity to escape unharmed.
Kawakami said that ninjas were far more than just the murderers and assassins that the media often depicts them as – many of them were far more important as masters of espionage, and their skills in stealth, medicine creation, bomb making, and endurance were more useful than outright being able to fight. That doesn’t mean they weren’t skilled warriors, of course – at the drop of a hat, they could quickly dispatch foes, as needed.
There are plenty of self-proclaimed, self-promoting ninjas out there who want to bank on whatever flimsy grounds they have of calling themselves ninjutsu masters. They usually want the fame and fortune of associating themselves with this ancient art. Yet Kawakami is a humble, quiet man who is allowing the craft to die with him, and has been backed up by reputable organizations and persons, as well as the Japanese government.
“Ninjas proper no longer exist,” Kawakami said, who claims that there probably is no one else in the world who has been directly handed down the teachings of the ninjas. And someday, with his passing, they may remain a memory of the past.