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Meet Jinichi Kawakami, Japan’s Last Ninja

This 63-year old engineer, is probably Japan's last true ninja

smithsonian.com

A wanna-be ninja. Photo: Seth W.

Jinichi Kawakami, a 63-year old engineer, is probably Japan’s last true-blue ninja. He’s the head of the Ban clan, a family that traces its ninja roots back 500 years.

For the past 10 years, Kawakami shared his skills through ninjutsu classes, or the art of the ninja. In a Raw Story article, he points out that the skill set he has inherited is sometimes difficult to verify or decipher since ninjas typically passed on their secret ways via word of mouth rather than written documents. Plus, it’s sometimes hard to exercise the full ninja skill set in today’s world. “We can’t try out murder or poisons. Even if we can follow the instructions to make a poison, we can’t try it out,” he says in the article.

The line between lore and history blurs when it comes to ninjas. About.com explains what’s known of the smokey past:

Japanese folklore states that the ninja descended from a demon that was half man and half crow. However, it seems more likely that the ninja slowly evolved as an opposing force to their upper-class contemporaries, the samurai, in early feudal Japan.

Most sources indicate that the skills that became ninjutsu, the ninja’s art of stealth, began to develop between 600-900 A.D. Prince Shotoku, (574-622), is said to have employed Otomono Sahito as a shinobi spy.

In 1162, a fallen samurai decided not to kill himself as was the custom of the times, but rather spend his retirement forming the country’s first ninja school, the Togakureryu.

Between 1336 and 1600 the ninja culture peaked. Those times were defined by constant wars, so ninja skills were a plus for survival.

Most ninja were not disgraced samurai or Batman-type nobility, but seemingly ordinary peasants and farmers who learned the ninja art as a way of protecting their property. Women also became ninja, or kunoichi, and infiltrated enemy strongholds in the guise of dancers, concubines or servants where they would carry out assassinations or gather information.

Starting in 1603, Japan’s stable and peaceful Edo period made ninja skills less important. The practice began dying out, though some families, like Kawakami’s, held on tight to their ninja heritage.

Since he was 6 years old, Kawakami trained in the art of ninjutsu, acquiring a diverse skill set that included study of chemistry, weather and psychology in addition to the rigorous physical demands we associate with nimble assassins clad in black.

“For concentration, I looked at the wick of a candle until I got the feeling that I was actually inside it. I also practised hearing the sound of a needle dropping on the floor,” he said.

He climbed walls, jumped from heights and learned how to mix chemicals to cause explosions and smoke.

“I was also required to endure heat and cold as well as pain and hunger. The training was all tough and painful. It wasn’t fun but I didn’t think much why I was doing it. Training was made to be part of my life.”

When he turned 19, Kawakami became a full-fledged master and his robe-clad teacher gave him access to secret scrolls and tools.

To him, being a ninja is less about force and more about catching people when they’re off their guard.

“Humans can’t be on the alert all the time. There is always a moment when they are off guard and you catch it,” he told Raw Story. “We also have a saying that it is possible to escape death by perching on your enemy’s eyelashes; it means you are so close that he cannot see you.”

Sadly, Kawakami – the 21st head of the Ban clan – will likely be the last of his kind. He’s decided not to take on any new apprentices because ninjas “just don’t fit in the modern day.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

A Walk Through Old Japan 

For these precious scrolls, aged glue and ‘damaged maps’ 

 

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