An excerpt from "Clouds in the West" by Dave Lowry

By Lowry, Dave
This article first appeared in the Spring 2005 "SMAA Newsletter"

Chapter Eleven: The Mythic Origins of the Ninja

Trains in Japan are nicely suited to long, leisurely stretches of reading. The passenger is interrupted only by the girls who come by periodically to sell box lunches and other snacks, and by, if he chooses to take it in, the vista passing by outside. Otherwise, it is quiet.  

The seats are comfortable, and travelling otherwise alone, a good book is a happy and welcome companion. Almost pathologically afraid of being caught under these circumstances without a book, I select with care when I am going to Japan. It has to be lightweight, a paperback by necessity then. But long enough to be savored slowly, page after page. Johnathan Raban’s book, Old Glory, recounting his boat trip down the Mississippi was among the first items packed in my bag when I got ready to go on my last trip. 

Travel books when one is travelling are particularly satisfying. The sense of estrangement and loneliness that are a part of solo travel are always assuaged to some extent for me, by reading an author’s similar accounts of being a “stranger in a strange land.” And I was that. So Raban’s book was going to take me through the middle of Shiga Prefecture, on my way from Nara up to the northern part of central Japan. But just as I was leaving the ryokan, the inn where I had been the guest of the owner, he pressed a thick binder into my hands. A Buddhist layman with a deep interest in his faith and in the early history of Japan, Nakanishi-san had been up with me until the small hours of the night before. We’d talked of this and that and now he had a parting gift for me.

“It is a translation I did of an old book about Shiga,” he said. “Since you’re going through there, I thought you might like to read it.” 

I was taking the train from Nara up to the northern part of central Japan, passing through the center of Shiga Prefecture. While it sits in the middle of the Omi Basin, home of Japan’s largest lake, Biwa. On all sides of Shiga, mountains crowd in. 

There is the Nosaka Range to the north, the Ibuki Mountains to the east, the Suzuka on the southeast, and to the west, between Shiga and Kyoto, the forbiddingly steep Mt. Hiei dominates the skyline. Shiga was once known as Omi Province. The three great highways of the eastern part of Japan, the Nakasendo, the Hokuriku, and the Tokai, all converged here. So it was a center for commerce. The 16th century warlord Oda Nobunaga came from Omi. So, in the 19th century, did the painter-poet Kiitsu. But the history of Shiga goes much further back than Japan’s feudal era. 

The mountains all around are home to stone monoliths and weird circles of rock something like a smaller version of the formations at Stonehenge. Before Shiga was even called Omi, it was, 60,000 years ago, a center of civilization for the Jomon culture. The Jomon was a prehistoric civilization that produced mysteriously beautiful sculptures, of wide-eyed people, their mouths shouting in big, silent “Os.” Recent archaeological digs in Shiga have almost completely revised earlier concepts of the Jomon. Once they were considered simple hunter-gatherers. 

Aside from their pottery, the sculptures that somehow look more modern than the most modern of art today and clay baskets decorated with rope patterns, they were supposed to have been primitive at best. Evidence of large, elaborate wooden buildings and other clues found at the end of the 20th century point, however, to a civilization far more advanced. It seems the Jomon, named after their enigmatic pottery, may have been a kind of Japanese version of the Celts, steeped in their own lore and nature-worshipping beliefs, but technologically more sophisticated than anyone thought. And so Shiga is an ancient place, even by the hoary standards of Japanese history.

I read Raban’s account of his passage down the Mississippi until the train crossed over the border into Shiga Prefecture then, knowing I would feel guilty if I did not, I took out the binder and opened it and began to read the typewritten pages. It was Nakanishi-san’s translation of Omi no Kuni Yochishi, “An Account of the Places and Land of Omi Province.” It was fascinating. Entertaining as the account of a journey down the Mississippi had been, I soon forgot all about it. Turning page after page of the translation, I was lost. An hour passed before I knew it. The sky had been gray all morning outside the train window. Now, as I looked up from the binder, a wet autumn rain began to fall. Those long, ragged veils of mist dangled down in the valleys between the mountains as they do in the countryside of Japan at that time of year. It gave the passing scenery an eerie quality. Dark, thick forests, with only the occasional little hamlet popping into and out of view instantly as the train passed by. If you could overlook the electric lines and a few other distractions, it could have been Japan of centuries ago. Perhaps the book, devoted to old myths and occurrences supernatural and otherwise that had unfolded there long, long in the past heightened my perspective. Stories about mountain goblins and haunted temples and some intriguing hints about another of Shiga’s most renowned creatures: the ninja.

Few characters from the East have captured the imagination of the West more than the ninja. Presented as black-cloaked Japanese James Bonds, their arts and crafts and image have been at the center of huge interest to Westerners. There is almost certainly more interest, in fact, in the ninja in say, Pittsburgh than there is in Nara. Erstwhile confederacies of “modern ninja” pursue their versions of ”ninjutsu” in training halls dedicated to it all over. It may not be a coincidence that, in contrast to all this enthusiasm, there is virtually no serious scholarship about ninja outside Japan. Go to the bookstore and look in the “Martial Arts” section and you will likely find at least a dozen books on the subject. Open them, however, and you will find almost none contain any primary sources cited in their bibliographies. What few references might be there will be secondary, English sources, most of those questionable. That’s not my problem. And I don’t have any contention with those who want to practice whatever it is of their ninjutsu that suits their fancy. It is regrettable, though, that more aficionados of the ninja do not take the time to learn to read Japanese or to otherwise access scholarly Japanese sources. There are such books and papers. And then too, one sometimes comes across references to the ninja in the most unexpected places.   As I did, in the translation of Nakanishi-san’s I was reading.

In the Account of the Places and Land of Omi Province was a brief overview of the legends that surround the origins of ninjutsu. That is understandable. Omi was home to some of the family groups that specialized in espionage and intelligence-gathering in old Japan. With the intersection of major highways and the bustling commerce there, information was a plentiful commodity. The book presented—labeling them all plainly, it is important to note, as nothing more than folk tales and not authentic history—the generative accounts of various systems of ninjutsu from Omi.

The Koga systems of ninjutsu (there were nearly thirty of them, according to records of the province) traced their ancestry back to the mythic era of the gods of Japan. Susano-o no mikoto, was the earthly though still divine offspring of the two progenitors of Japan itself, Izanagi and Izanami. A hell-raiser from his earliest years, Susano-o wreaked such mischief he was eventually exiled by the other earthly deities who were roaming about Japan at that time. He matured in exile. And must have learned something of what it is deities were supposed to do with themselves. When he shows up again, in the Kojiki, Japan’s collection of myths that explain this period, it was to embark on some high adventure. Susano-o set out to do battle with a gigantic, multi-headed reptile. (Most translations of the Kojiki call it a snake. Ethnologists speculate the better word might be something like “crocodile.” There are no such animals in Japan and never have been, fossils indicate. So the appearance of a crocodile might hint at this myth’s origination in another part of Southeast Asia.)

The battle with the reptile was joined, according to the myth, at the request of a couple who had lost all but one of their children to the beast. Think of it as a Japanese rendition of Beowulf meets Hydra. As an incentive to Susano-o, the couple offered their last child, a daughter named Kushinada-hime (“Wondrous Inada Princess”) to him in marriage. Before he went out to fight the multi-headed creature, Susano-o changed his fiancée into a “many-toothed close comb that he stuck in the august knot of his hair.” With Kushinada-hime concealed, Susano-o attacked the snake, first luring him into a maze-like fence. There are, incidentally, many kata in classical schools of swordsmanship named after this “eight-fold fence,” or yaegaki. Susano-o slaughtered the beast. In its tail he found a sword that was one of the three sacred regalia of Japanese Shinto. The Koga systems of ninjutsu, according to the book about Omi legends, credit Kushinada-hime with being the secret power that helped defeat the reptile. And she is considered their patron saint because of it. Concealed as a comb, she was hidden from the battle and yet right in the thick of the action. This was the ideal of the ninja as conceived by the Koga traditions, to be out of sight and yet at the heart of the conflict, working behind the scenes to insure success.

There are several clues in what remains of the Koga systems of espionage that allude to their particular relationship with Kushinada-hime. Supposedly, there were references in their teachings to kamikakure: “hidden in the hair.” And some of the kamon, or family crests of families that have long resided in the Shiga region, like that of the Rokkaku clan of old Omi, for instance, are stylized depictions of a hair comb. This famous samurai clan was involved in many of the battles and intrigues of the imperial court during the 14th and 15th centuries. One can only guess they must have had several occasions to employ some of the secrets of the Wondrous Inada Princess.

To be sure, a number of arts, martial and otherwise, that come down to us from long-ago Japan describe divine or supernatural forces as the instruments of their founding. Just as the Koga methods of espionage credit a princess turned into a comb for their inspiration, another, the Iga systems of ninjutsu go just as far back in detailing their own evolution. According to the account in the book of Omi legends, it was another episode detailed in the Kojiki that was the genesis of their traditions. The Kojiki tells about a schism that had formed between the heavenly deities and their earthly counterparts. The former watched down on the gods who were actually living in Japan at this time. And they were unhappy with what they saw. The earthly deities had been bickering and fighting among themselves; Japan was in a state of chaos. The situation became so dire the heavenly gods dispatched a scout to get a clearer picture of the goings on. The scout was a pheasant, Naki-me or in some versions Naka-me, who winged down from the heavens to reconnoiter. No sooner had he landed in a tree than he was spotted, however, by Ama-no-waka-piko. The latter had good reason to be worried about the appearance of a divine pheasant who was looking around carefully. Ama-no-waka-piko had himself been ordered by the heavenly deities to go to Japan to investigate. He had, but found he liked the neighborhood so well he decided to defect. He was living happily in the fraternity house kind of shenanigans of mythic Japan. Fearful that his defection would be uncovered, he shot Naki-me with an arrow.

The bolt passed through the bird, then “shot up and through the heavens,” piercing the sky as it flew. It was another god there, Taka-ki-no-kami, who found the arrow, covered in blood. He recognized it as one that had been bestowed upon Ama-waka-no-piko, when that deity was preparing for his trip to the earth. Furious, Taka-ki-no-kami hurled the arrow back down through the same hole it had torn in the sky on the way up. It struck Ama-waka-no-piko, killing him. “Such,” notes the Kojiki, “is the origin of the saying ‘beware the returning arrow.’”

The ya no gaeshi, or “returning arrow” is a very old Japanese expression, not used very much at all any more in Japan. In earlier times, it was an aphorism of warning. Sort of like the more modern Japanese bachi ga ataru, or “watch out for your luck coming back to hit you.” In the Iga tradition of ninjutsu, however, the returning arrow was adopted as a symbol. The pheasant Naki-me is given credit at their patron. The pheasant was, after all, sent out on a mission to gather intelligence. He was a spy. His names, variously given as Naki-me, which can be translated from very old Japanese as “listening to one’s own cries,” or Naka-me, meaning “a nameless one.”   It doesn’t require much imagination to see where both these could have a special significance to the ninja who dealt in “listening” and in tricking enemies into believing false information, as well as those who had to remain nameless in order to succeed at their tasks. There is as well an archaic expression in early Japanese literature about the “one-way errand of the pheasant.” The phrase, of course, comes from this incident. Just as Naki-me died trying to complete his mission, he was supposed to have been a model for the ninja of Iga who were expected to complete their assignments even if it meant they would not come out alive.

According to legend, it was the warrior and spymaster Hattori Hanzo who founded the Iga traditions of espionage. Hattori was born in Mikawa, but his families’ ancestral home had been in Iga Province, now part of Mie Prefecture, which was directly to the southeast of Omi. In the translation of the book, Hattori is mentioned, along with a story that linked him with a mysterious Chinese scholar. The tale has it that in 221 BC, a physician named Hsu-fu came to Japan. (This would predate by many centuries any proven historical record of such a visit; remember, we’re talking about legends here.) Hsu-fu was a Taoist, in search, as Taoists often are, of the elixir that would provide eternal life. He brought with him a retinue of six hundred men and women. From this band, so says one version of the legend, was created the Japanese nation. Understandably, few serious scholars would entertain this fabulous account. Historical records do acknowledge the existence of a visitor from China named Hsu-fu or, as the characters for his name are read in Japanese, Jofuku. His grave is in Shingu, in Wakayama Prefecture; there are numerous shrines and temples dedicated to him as well.

While he was looking for eternal life, Jofuku brought with him a vast store of medicinal knowledge along with fantastic abilities of wizardry. The book of Omi legends states that it was this combination of science and arcane teachings became the basis for the principles of ninjutsu and that Hanzo Hattori was descended from Jofuku or from one of those who came from China with him. The truth might be that Jofuku’s name was fixed onto the origination stories of ninjutsu to give the system behind it an aura of importance and grandeur. To be sure, there is no verifiable lineage we can trace back to Jofuku. But when we are in the realm of myth, why not? If a venerable celestial wizard does not add prestige to your lineage, who would?

But if you couldn’t exactly prove your ancestor was a Chinese master of the occult, how about claiming one’s progenitor was the lord of one of Japan’s most powerful families? A clan, like the Otomo, that pulled strings and manipulated political events in early Japan much the same way as the Borgia did in 16th century Italy. While the connection between Hanzo Hattori and Jofuku is more fantasy than anything else, the secretive Hattori and the Otomo family have a common thread that gets more interesting the more you pull on it. The name Otomo itself may have meant something like “auspicious protector” in early Japanese. The Otomo, if we are to believe their history, were founded by a grandson of the Sun Goddess who accompanied her when she traveled to earth. At least slightly more supportable is evidence the Otomo were a distant branch of the imperial family who lived in and around the lands that are now Shiga Prefecture. From the 6th century until the 9th, the Otomo clan produced several political leaders who were also military men. Incidentally, more than a few of the Otomo of this period were poets as well. The literary works of Otomo no Yakamochi, Otomo no Tabito, and Otomo Kanamura are still read today in Japan.

Otomo no Hosoto was a strategist for the Soga, a family (really it was more like a confederated tribe) that included Shotoku an offspring of the Soga’s leadership, still in his teens. In the late sixth century erupted a power struggle of the sort that would occur again and again in Japanese history. The Soga and the Monobe clans vied for the right to claim imperial succession. Looking at their land and political connections and wealth and the size of the armies they were able to raise, the smart bet would have been on the Monobe. But somehow—exactly how has continued to elude historians—the Soga, backed by Otomo no Hosoto, emerged the victors. Young Shotoku was elevated to the status of regent, serving under the empress Suiko. Prince Shotoku is one of the towering figures of this epoch of Japanese history. He wrote a constitution that carved out the legitimacy of a ruler’s supreme authority that would last in Japan for almost 1300 years. He adopted the Chinese calendar, along with encouraging the spread of Buddhism. He is responsible for instituting a centralized and bureaucratic government. Did Shotoku and his Soga clan benefit from behind-the-scenes machinations by the crafty strategist Otomo no Hosoto? There isn’t any doubt there were assassinations, double-crossings, and double-dealings, and political intrigues of every sort going on in the struggle for political control in Japan at that time. So it is easy to see there might have been some espionage or counter-intelligence activities and Otomo is a natural suspect in anything like that. Whatever the truth, Otomo is often cited as being among the first of the agents we might think of as ninja today. And guess who could trace his ancestry back to Otomo no Hosoto? Hattori Hanzo, of course. Think about it. A warrior in the last half of the 16th century who participated in espionage for the Tokugawa shogun, who had come from an ancestor that could have been doing the same for an imperial regent in the sixth. I closed the binder and looked out the rain-streaked train window and thought about Hattori and Otomo, both of whom had lived in the countryside that was passing by me.

Engaging stuff about which to speculate and upon which to let one’s imagination wander, yes, even though it was only a book of legends and some facts that may have been open to dispute. Like a lot of what passes for “information” about the ninja today. The modern popular depictions of ninja are—to put it gently—inaccurate. To put it more bluntly, they are to the reality of Japan during the feudal era what Cinderella is to life in Europe’s Middle Ages. There is also no doubt, however, that those popular depictions are just that: popular.   As I noted earlier, there are places proposing to teach the arts of the ninja in nearly every city of any size in the US. I have passed these schools in Kansas City or Tucson or Seattle, and wondered: how did a mediaeval Japanese spycraft come to inspire a strip shopping mall rental space full of people clad in black, somersaulting, tossing about and whacking one another with odd weapons?

Whatever their motivations, I like to think the modern American ninjutsu students are not there believing they are studying some art with an unbroken linkage going back dozens of generations, keeping bright and hot the flame of secret agents of Japan’s feudal cloak-and-dagger. (Kimono-and-sword?) Not so much as a sliver of documentation exists for nearly all the fantastic historical claims made about ninja. What little we do know of the ninja during the mediaeval period is intriguing, but hardly the stuff of camouflaged derring-do, acrobatics, and 007-type gadgets. Some members of the warrior class, like Hattori, specialized in espionage techniques. Among them, again like Hattori, were leaders who were able to organize spy networks, some of them sizable and complex. They engaged in intelligence gathering and other clandestine tasks as part of their duties to their daimyo. There were also ninja, most of them outside the samurai caste and not a few of whom were among Japan’s criminal class, who worked for the highest bidder. They would have committed arson or kidnapping or terrorism and strong-arm for whoever paid them. A case might be made that such distinctions were morally moot. If I, as a samurai, steal into your house and kill your daughter to prevent her from marrying a political enemy of my lord, an arrangement that would weaken my lord’s power, how is that any different that if I, as a blood-for-hire outlaw, sneak in and kill your daughter, acting on orders from a local business rival who wants to intimidate you? 

No matter how we look at it, though, spying and skulking in the dark are never as romantic in reality, not in old Japan nor in our own age, than they might sound or look in movies or novels. More importantly, romanticizing the feudal period of Japan is anathema to understanding it. Myths and legends are never substitutes for solid and objective historical research. My own writing has often been aimed at stripping away fantasy about historical Japan and trying to get readers to understand what it was in reality. Feudal Japan (even more so its history before that) are so different from our time and place as to form significant obstacles in getting to what they were about. Accepting uncritically legends aren’t going to help in navigating that path. That is not to say, however, that we should entirely and always discount the legendary. So much of the past of Japan’s martial traditions are swirled with the mists of legend. Old stories can provide clues. Was it a crocodile that held the miraculous sword in its tail in the earliest versions of the Kojiki? If so, anthropologists can make some intelligent conjectures about the origination of the Japanese people. A plausible theory has arisen about another tale of the Kojiki. The Sun Goddess retreated to a cave, goes the account, and had to be lured out to save the people of Japan from the long, cold darkness that ensued. Geological evidence hints at a series of convulsive volcanic eruptions that rocked Japan a few thousand years back. Clouds of ash would have covered the sky for years, maybe long enough to have inspired a myth about a fickle deity who needed to be flattered into returning and bringing light and warmth with her. (See Chapter 13 for more on this.)

Even if they are not historically accurate and factual in every way, the annals of legends about Omi Province have a value for the glimpse they offer into the past of that part of Japan. And, I have to admit, they are worthwhile simply because they have the power to stir our imagination. I sat and read them and looked up every once in a while to take in the scenery. Shadowy forests, the steep hills cut by ravines threaded with streams that boiled and splashed over mossy boulders. These were the places where men like Hattori Hanzo had walked and where a well-aimed arrow could have been seen to piece a pheasant and then the heavens, places where the mythic and the real could understandably become hard to separate. No, the records of Omi legends are not history. Still, there are worse ways to spend a rainy afternoon on a train in the mountains of Shiga.


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