THE WAY OF THE NINJA

Master of a dying art

by Rob Gilhooly

In order to stay true to his art, James Wright prefers to keep a low profile; to blend in with his surroundings. But in his adopted Matsubushi, a rural town in Saitama Prefecture, the fair-haired, 180-cm Scot would seem to be fighting a losing battle. That he also works for the local butcher merely adds to residents’ curiosity.

“They want to know what I’m doing living and working in a place like this,” Wright says. “But I keep that to myself. Anyway, I don’t think they’d believe me if I told them I’m training to be a ninja.”

Wright, 32, has been honing his ninja skills for almost 18 years. Ten of those have been spent in Matsubushi, where he has attended training at Genbukan, a dojo specializing in ninpo, the name commonly given to the ninja’s art.

“When I was about 6, I saw a James Bond movie, and there were all these ninja flying around,” Wright recalls. “I immediately thought, ‘I have to do that.’ “

Although at first he had to content himself with practicing judo for six years, at 13 Wright entered Genbukan’s school in Edinburgh, where he gained sufficient grounding in the martial art to take it a step further. For the past decade he has practiced at Genbukan’s headquarters in Saitama under the tutelage of grand master Shoto Tanemura.

Three years ago, he became the first foreigner to gain instructor status in what is one of Japan’s most fabled martial arts.

Over the years, Wright has learned that the image of black-clad ninja of the 007 variety, lethally slinging shuriken (metal discs) amd swirling nunchaku, is somewhat off the mark. “It didn’t take long to realize that James Bond had got it all wrong,” he says, with a laugh. “We don’t climb up walls, walk on water, sneak around in the dark or disappear in a cloud of smoke.

“But far from being disappointed, I was happy to discover that ninpo is actually a very real, practical martial art and very complete — it’s both physical and spiritual and encompasses a wide range of disciplines.”

To master ninpo requires a great deal of commitment, as Wright testifies. In addition to 18 basic techniques to be learned — from henso-jutsu (disguise) to taijutsu (unarmed defense) and shurikenjutsu (blade-throwing) — a further 18 martial arts skills, such as the use of the etsu (giant battle-ax) and geki (two-pronged spear), must also be mastered.

The commitment required to do all this may explain why ninpo is losing its popularity as a martial art among Japanese, Wright says, adding: “Japan is losing the jewel of its martial arts. Without the likes of Tanemura-sensei, I think it would die out altogether here.”

Interestingly, though, ninpo is flourishing overseas. Genbukan operates some 120 dojo in 25 countries, including the United States, Italy, Greece, Israel and Australia.

Tanemura, a descendent of a founder of one of the two original ninja schools established more than 1,000 years ago, has been to the United States after being invited to instruct White House security and SWAT personnel. Indeed, there may be even more ninja lurking in the undergrowth, since one of their traditional attributes — anonymity — holds true even today.

Ninja were first seen in Japan during the Asuka Period (592-710), when they were also known as shinobi — “experts in the field of information gathering,” or “masters of stealth and disguise” who penetrated enemy territory to observe movements and obtain secret information without being detected.

Their skills were particularly called on during the widespread warfare from the mid-12th to the 16th centuries, including the Sengoku (Warring States) Period from 1477-1573. Then, however, the relative peace of the Edo Period (1603-1867) threatened to wipe them out.

Humility and anonymity were crucial to the ninja’s existence during their heyday, when they often walked the streets in peasant outfits to give the impression they had just sauntered out of a rice paddy.

“I’ve tried to follow that tradition, but unfortunately it’s not so easy for me,” Wright admits. “The people who do know what I’m doing here think I’m crazy. You can’t win sometimes.”