They appeal to every child’s idea of the killer in the night, with powers that seem to defy human capability.
Their legend triggers the imagination with a combination of awe and fear. Their story seems designed almost like an advertisement campaign, perhaps even created by the protagonists themselves, to serve their evil purposes.
Everything about the ninja conjures up a mystique that’s riveting as much as it is unbelievable.
I’m sure that unlike most of you, I was alive during the 80’s ninja craze.
I remember buying magazines and books dedicated solely to the ninja. Amongst these the books of Stephen K. Hayes were foremost on the list.
Hayes was an American martial artist who had traveled to Japan to study with one of the last remaining ninja masters in the world. Or so that person claimed. The allure of that journey had an almost hypnotic effect on me. It wasn’t only the fact that I wanted to do something like that myself but this incredible sense of exotic truth that surrounded the art of ninjutsu. I was buying into the advertising just like everybody else.
Stephen K. Hayes and his teacher Masaaki Hatsumi Hayes in Japan
Ninjutsu was a super secretive art that the grandmaster himself had kept hidden for many years until he finally was ready to reveal the existence of what was then labeled as “real ninjutsu,” the martial art practiced by a band of guerrilla warriors from the regions of Iga and Koga in medieval Japan.
The ninja craze had come out of a resurgence of the mythical figures in modern pop culture, especially with the movies of Sho Kosugi and later the American Ninja series and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
In their modern incarnation ninjas were depicted as ruthless and even invincible assassins. Very much the way they were advertized by the medieval military society of 15th Century Japan.
Back then, ninjas had been feared as well. They were depicted as dishonorable assassins that murdered innocent people in the night.
In truth, they were probably a group of farmers and masterless samurai or “ronin,” that mounted opposition against their local warlord and had to be exterminated. And they were. But not before awakening fear in the population with the stories of their trickery.
It is true that ninjas from the Koga and Iga region used unconventional techniques to defend their land. These included espionage, sabotage, infiltration, confusion tactics and even assassination. But these were really a matter of necessity rather than ruthlessness and lack of character. They could not possibly oppose the samurai on the open field. That would have been suicide. They did what they had to do. And they paid for it with their lives and bad publicity.
And even though it was the propaganda machine of the time that created the legend, the same aura remains to this day. Actually, it’s become an asset.
Later on, ninja spies served the shogunate, including the enigmatic figure of Hattori Hanzo, the famous ninja master that commanded a vast web of spies during the rule of the Tokugawa Shoguns.
Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan
You may remember the name from the character in the popular Kill Bill series by Quentin Tarantino. Hattori Hanzo is the name of the sword master, played by Sonny Chiba of “Streetfighter” fame, that makes the killer katana the Bride wields throughout the movie.
Anyway, the ninjas that emerged in the 80’s, at least the ones who claimed to be real martial artists and not just figments of the imagination, seemed to be of a decidedly more benevolent sort.
That pack was led by Master Masaaki Hatsumi, who claimed to be the last ninja left alive and his American disciple Stephen Hayes.
Masaaki Hatsumi 34th Soke of Togakure Ryu Ninjutsu
Lots of literature came out at the time and ninjas achieved their legendary status once more. I remember reading some of those books and feeling, not only that I was learning something secret and exciting, but I distinctly recall a certain sense of epiphany and almost mystical enlightenment, after absorbing the information like a sponge. I guess I was caught up in it just like everybody else at the time.
Later Hayes and Hatsumi seemed to have had a falling out as the ninja craze came again to an end and disappeared once more into the shadows of history.
One can only wonder if it was all just an elaborate hoax, a trick the masters played on us to make us believe they are all but extinct again. That frees them to carry on with their evil ways in secrecy and stealth. It certainly matches their MO. It would make a great next chapter to the story.
One thing is for certain. One must always be weary of attack by ninjas!
Of course the rules of the ninja world apply to such a calamity, and they are well documented by film and Television works:
When attacked by multiple ninjas never fear. These guys are cannon fodder and can be disposed of by the protagonist in droves of dozens if not hundreds.
It’s the lone ninja that comes to you unmasked, the one you didn’t know was a ninja at all. That’s the one you have to worry about. For he or she has the power to defeat entire armies.
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