One of Japan’s most successful exports is the image and lore of the ninja (neen-jah), a special breed of secret agents who began playing an extraordinary role in the political life and strife of Japan around the 14th century — with antecedents that go back another 600 years.
The mysterious nature of the ninja has long captured popular imagination in Japan. Ninjas figure prominently in folklore and legend, and as a result it is often difficult to separate historical fact from myth. Some legendary abilities attributed to the ninja include invisibility, walking on water, and control over natural elements — all things the ninja could actually do with special techniques and equipment.
In the 15th century, during a long period of civil wars between contending provincial lords, the demand for secret agents became large, resulting in whole clans in the Iga and Koga regions of Japan becoming “ninja clans,” with both male and female members of the clans trained in all of the arts and skills of assassination, espionage and spying, using special techniques and devices invented and perfected for all of the challenges presented by these activities.
The role and number of ninja decreased dramatically following the unification of the country under the powerful Tokugawa shogunate in 1603, but during the Tokugawa era (1603-1868) a series of books about the exploits of the ninja, both fact and fiction, were published and became bestsellers.
In the 1950s Japan’s movie industry picked up on the ninja theme. In the 1960s the image and lore of the ninja began to spread to the outside world via movies, TV shows and cartoon books, with a number of foreign actors (and a few actresses) becoming major stars in ninja roles. This led to millions of kids around the country becoming ninja fans.
What most visitors to Japan may not know is that the world of the ninja has been recreated in the city of Iga in Mie Prefecture in the mountains that separate Kyoto and Nagoya, and is one of the most fascinating attractions in the country.
Large numbers of tourists — who apparently got hooked on ninja lore when young — now visit Iga to watch authentic performances by ninja actors using the tools and techniques that made real ninja such formidable assassins and spies, and whose real exploits make James Bond look like a namby-pamby boy scout.
The Iga style of ninjutsu was the most developed, the most sophisticated and the most sought after by the clan lords during the long civil wars of the 14th and 15th century, and the city of Iga now makes the most of it.
In addition to an Iga-ryu (Iga style) Ninja Museum on the grounds of Iga’s Ueno Castle, where ninja performances are staged, there is also a Ninja Tradition Hall where visitors can learn about the history of the ninja, and a Ninja Experience Plaza where visitors can watch demonstrations.
The busiest period at “Ninja Town” is April and May, especially during Japan’s famous Golden Week, an extended vacation period when the Iga Ueno Tourist Association sponsors a ninja festival.
During the festival, visitors can experience using some of the ninja’s most famous weapons, like the shuriken (shuu-ree-kane) — a small wheel-shaped throwing device that could stop a target in his tracks or kill him if aimed at the head, and blow-darts that were equally effective in stopping a victim.
In October the museum hosts a shuriken competition, which attracts up to a hundred participants who must follow strict rules regarding the size, weight and material of the shuriken. The most recent winner was awarded a special shuriken made of gold.
You don’t have to be a ninja fan for a trip to Iga to add a special touch to a Japan visit. It is a place where history comes alive.
Editor's note: Boyé Lafayette De Mente (1928-2017) first came to Japan in 1949 as a member of the occupation forces. He held a degree in economics and Japanese from Tokyo's Sophia University, and a BFT from the American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona.
He was best known as the author of a highly successful series of books on social and business customs in Japan, China, Korea and Mexico. As a journalist with the Japan Times, and later on as editor of 'The Importer Magazine,' he witnessed at close hand the rapid growth of Asia's 'tiger' economies. His guidelines to westerners wishing to do business in the new post-war Japan were widely recognized as ground-breaking.
I am indebted to Mr. De Mente for sending the above article to republish here in Japan Perspectives.