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The last of the ninja

by Thomas Dillon

There’s this guy I know in his late 50s who, like many Japanese, looks much younger than his age. Blessed with a boyish smile, a flat tummy and jet-black hair — in all likelihood dyed — the man has already retired from employment at an electronics firm and now stands at the door of his second youth.

But it is hard to imagine this fellow playing gateball or cranking out enka at some karaoke blast for the elderly. One would guess his pleasures rest in other directions, like perhaps hanging from his fingertips or maybe disappearing into smoke.

You see, he’s a ninja. No, not the mutant turtle type, nor the wisecracking Internet type, nor even the assassin-in-black Hollywood type.

I mean the honest-to-goodness type. A real ninja in modern-day Japan.

Now some people might think ninja are as a common as salarymen. After all, ninja pop out in almost every film about Japan. And then you have the world-wide lineup of martial arts schools, many of which list ninjutsu — or ninja arts — on their instruction menus. Becoming a ninja can look as easy as learning macrame. Says the ninja school graduate, “Of course, I’m a ninja. Wanna see my black belt?”

Well, real ninja didn’t have black belts. Nor did they wear those cool black clothes. C’mon. How can a person slink furtively about when dressed like a charcoal mummy? No, real ninja were nothing like the shuriken-spinning dervishes concocted in films and comics.

Real ninja were men of knowledge and honor, trustworthy professionals with a centuries-old passion for secrecy.

Take the Toshinobu Watanabe family for example. Watanabe, 70, is a former chemist for Mitsubishi who recently retired to his ancestral home of Koka in Shiga Prefecture. Koka is one of the two legendary ninja stomping grounds, the other being Iga in nearby Mie Prefecture. Yet, Watanabe had no inkling whatsoever that his family had ninja ties.

Until he unearthed old documents inside a family warehouse, documents proving his great grandfather was a ninja adviser to one of Japan’s top daimyos. Even within the Watanabe family, the ninja line was kept secret.

Most of the ninja of old melted into the ways of their profession. Experts in herbal medicines and gunpowder, they founded Japan’s first pharmaceutical and fireworks companies. Even today, Koka is nicknamed the “Town of Medicine.”

The last person with supposedly direct ninja connections, martial arts expert Seiko Fujita, perished in an automobile accident in 1966. Yet, there are those who doubt Fujita’s claim. There are those who doubt the claims of all the many martial arts wizards who have — since Fujita’s day — touted themselves as “the last ninja.”

And there are those who doubt Jinichi Kawakami as well, our soft-spoken former electronics worker.

Kawakami boasts no ninja family. His story is that as a boy he met an old man in a park who was teaching children how to fling coins with their fingers. The man, named Masado Ishida, was a medicine peddler, displaced by the war. Kawakami became his student and found himself learning skills long forgotten in the modern world. Ishida, you see, was a Koka school ninja, the real McCoy.

Or at least he said he was. That’s the problem. No one knows anything about Ishida. How very ninja-like.

Yet, Kawakami has something most other ninja claimants do not — an earnest combination of humility and scholarship. Not to mention some highly polished martial arts skills of his own.

The bottom line is that among people to whom ninja affairs really matter — study groups in the ancient ninja towns of Koka and Iga — Kawakami has won a good share of believers. The Iga-Ueno Ninja Museum — a wonderful tribute to all that is ninja — has even named Kawakami its honorary curator.

“You can’t separate martial arts from ninja,” says Kawakami with a grin more akin to a schoolboy than a master of mysteries. “But being ninja is much more than martial arts.”

For example, your typical ninja could mix up some poison at short notice. Or throw together a makeshift bomb. Men of learning, they benefited from living in a fertile crossroads of communication between Japanese capitals in Kyoto and Nara, an area also traveled by emissaries from China and Korea.

But that’s not all. The ninja of Koka and Iga also had independent, democratic governments long before either the French or American revolutions.

Steely eyed assassins? Blood-money mercenaries? Ninja were rather Japan’s renaissance men. Loyal, knowledgeable, and, yes, dangerous.

So who follows Kawakami? Is he truly the last of the ninja? Or will he one day reveal a successor?

You can ask the question, but all he will do is give his schoolboy grin.

Secrets, secrets, secrets. You can’t be a real ninja without them.