Jesse's Reviews > Ninjutsu History and Tradition

Ninjutsu History and Tradition by Masaaki Hatsumi
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Jan 21, 2011

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bookshelves: bujinkan-reading-list
Read from January 13 to 20, 2011

In the modern world, most people, especially Americans, have a very misguided concept of Ninjutsu. Simply hearing the word 'ninja' brings to mind thoughts of black-clad assassins slinking through the night, taking out guards with throwing stars, sword-fighting through an entire fortress single-handedly, then disappearing into a puff of smoke once their missions are completed. While there is actually some historical basis to this idea, the reality was far more mundane than the fantastical images depicted by the modern media - though also far more practical. Then, if we want to dispel these illusions and shed some light on the real, historical Shinobi warriors of Japan, who better to learn from than the current grandmaster?

Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi is the 34th Soke (head of tradition), of the Togakure Ryu - possibly the oldest, and definitely one of the most legendary, traditional schools of Ninjutsu. Additionally, he is the grandmaster of two other surviving schools of Ninjutsu, and six remaining schools of the Samurai arts, but he has limited this book to the aforementioned Togakure Ryu. Hatsumi-soke learned this art directly from the previous grandmaster, his teacher Toshitsugu Takamatsu, and is the foremost authority in the world on the subject. Ninjutsu: History and Tradition is his attempt to enlighten the public on the true role of the ninja, and was written in 1981, just at the time when the media portrayal was beginning to get out of hand. The effort, in my opinion, yields mixed results.

Going on the title alone, I assumed the book would be, of course, a simple history of the martial art. Well, it starts out as such, but quickly turns another direction. It's divided into sections, rather than chapters, and the first focuses on a very brief history of the Togakure Ryu, including a list of past grandmasters and a few anecdotes of notable Shinobi feats. The introduction and this section heavily stress the fact that traditional ninja were much more grounded and real than the popular misconception, but don't actually give that much detail on how; the subsequent sections, however, become almost too detailed.

Before a warrior can learn how to fight, he first must learn how to avoid a fight. Dodging and evading attacks, falling and rolling without injury, and other more detailed escape techniques are covered in a section longer than the introduction and history combined. Next, unarmed combat is discussed in some depth, as well. Each of these chapters quickly ceases to be a narrative, and becomes more instructional on how to do the techniques. Descriptions are accompanied by photos, which begin to take up most of each page, showing the actions being performed by either Hatsumi-soke himself or other masters of the Togakure Ryu. The following section, on armed combat, quickly devolves into a list of weapons that were or could be employed in classical ninja operations. Page after page is covered with the implements' names and images, with only occasional, brief explanations of their uses. Once this catalog is complete, special tactics are discussed, such as concealing blinding powders in sword sheathes, and hiding in trees and brush, to name just a few. Once the sections on combat and tactics have taken up most of the book, a bare handful of pages are devoted to the roles of female Shinobi, then Soke finishes up with a brief discussion of energy shouts and energy focusing techniques, stressing how the warrior must become one with the flow of events around him, rather than merely carrying out a set of physical actions.

My biggest criticism of this book is its seeming lack of intent - it can't seem to decide between being a history or becoming an instructional manual, and the result is that it fails at really being either. The combat sections basically just give examples of specific techniques being used in specific ways, which means that only a handful of moves get displayed, out of the literally thousands of possible variations. The photos are black and white only, and very poor quality and resolution (even by 1981 printing standards). The catalog-style weapons listing entices readers into even more daydreaming and hypothesizing, while doing very little to dispel the fantasy and explain the mundane ways in which the tools were more commonly used. The organization of the book into sections isn't bad, but the order in which they are presented could be improved upon, and there is absolutely no transition from one to the next. After the final section, the book simply ends, with no conclusion or effort to tie the segmented topics together.

If the original purpose of Ninjutsu: History and Tradition was to counter the fantastical media portrayal of the ninja, then I'm unsure as to its success. Personally, as a student of the Bujinkan martial art system (founded by Hatsumi-soke and based on the nine schools he heads), I found the book useful. Its more instructional parts helped illustrate and explain some of the techniques I've already learned, and gave me a better understanding of them, and I'm glad it was on my dojo's required reading list. However, I don't think a casual reader will get very much out of it - except, perhaps, their interest piqued even further.

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