Ninja or Bushi?

Ninjutsu as Stealth Techniques
Bujutsu as Warrior Techniques

First a Quote from the Hagekure

Takeda Shingen once said, “If there was a man who could kill Lord Ieyasu, I would give him a handsome reward.” Hearing this, a boy of thirteen entered into the service of Lord Ieyasu and one night when he saw that Ieyasu had retired, took a stab at his bedding. Lord Iyasu was actually in the next room silently reading a sutra, but he quickly grabbed the boy.

When the investigation was held, the boy related the facts honestly, and Lord Ieyasu said, “You seemed to be an excellent young man, so I employed you on friendly terms. Now, however, I am even more impressed by you.” He then sent the lad back to Shingen.

Ninjutsu Defined

I have included this quote from the Hagekure to clarify a simple point while at the same time illustrating some other more complex points. The simple point is that stealth and assassination attempts have been and are common. Japanese call assassins by the word “ninja.” The study of stealth and assassination is the study of “ninjutsu.” There is nothing particularly powerful about ninjutsu as some Americans currently think. It is not more powerful than bajutsu (the art of riding horses). As in all cases the power of the individual may be exceptional or it may be mediocre depending on the depth of training of the individual. Simply the label of “ninja” does not render any position of power or magic.

Ninjutsu is a set of many different techniques most dealing with stealth. In addition to stealth techniques other arts may be studied. Jujutsu is the art of gentle throwing techniques; kenjutsu is the art of sword techniques; Iaijutsu is the art of drawing-a-sword techniques; suijutsu is the art of swimming techniques. All of these arts are military arts in the repertoire of many ryu (traditional collective martial systems of Japan). And, ninjutsu is stealth techniques. It is just another set of techniques in most ryu. However, in a few ryu the emphasis is on stealth techniques. These ninjutsu ryu are based on techniques of stealth. The ninjutsu ryu may encompass many other techniques (jujutsu, aikijutsu, kenjutsu, bajutsu, suijutsu, kiai-jutsu) as well, but the emphasis is stealth or ninjutsu.

That Brave but Poorly Trained Ninjutsu Boy

The boy in the example was a neophyte (thank goodness). If he had killed Ieyasu the history of Japan would have been unbelievably different. You see, Shingen Takeda (1521-1573) had to have inspired this boy’s action before 1573 and it wasn’t until 1603 that Tokugawa Ieyasu rose to power and consolidated Japan into a nation. The Tokugawa family would never have risen to lead the country if Ieyasu had not out-maneuvered all of his family’s opponents. There were no other strong contenders of military strategy in the Tokugawa family line at the time. Japan would not have come to peace in 1603 if Ieyasu had been killed by the boy.

What would have happened nobody can say, but the course of Japanese history would have been changed drastically had that boy on that night been successful.

Takeda Shingen, the sensei who inspired the boy to such rash action, was the sensei of the Kai Ryu (the traditional collective martial system of the Kai Provence). Actually he was the 16th Takeda in the keizu (list of sensei in the ryu) since Minamoto Yoshimitsu changed his name to Takeda in 1100 AD. He is thereby one of the sensei in the keizu to you. That is right! The man who would have assassinated the future Shogun that consolidated Japan in 1603 was one of the men in the list of sensei directly to you! (For more information on the Takeda family line in your martial arts heritage see the essay on Minamoto to You.) (As an aside, you may be interested that the book and movie ‘Shogun’ is about the real life character of Tokugawa Ieyasu. For some reason James Clavell changed the name of the Shogun Tokugawa to Toranaga but the book is about Tokugawa Ieyasu who was almost killed by the boy that night.)

Stealth in our Ryu

It makes me a bit uncomfortable to recognize that my sensei-forefathers would use stealth and assassination as a means in our art, but it is true. In the armamentarium of Takeda’s ryu (and hence our heritage) assassination and stealth techniques comprise a part of the techniques passed from generation to generation. Thank goodness, however, stealth and assassination are not the EMPHASIS of our ryu! Karate-jutsu is empty-hand technique. Karate-do is empty-hand way. These are our emphasis.

When Sensei Kim teaches stealth techniques I always get a bit uneasy. I would rather horseback ride (bajutsu) where I am exceptionally poor. In stealth technique I have been trained far higher capacity than on horseback but stealth techniques are still not my forte. Certainly, as most of you know, I would rather swim in ice cold water. So, why learn techniques of stealth?

The answer is, perhaps, too obvious. I learn them in the case that they are ever needed and no one else can do what I feel must absolutely be done. Yes, on a very rare occasion stealth may be needed to accomplish something that absolutely needs to be accomplished for the good of mankind and no one else can accomplish that something the instant it needs to be done. The choice falls on me, and the success or failure depends on my techniques of stealth. Such demand is highly unlikely in my lifetime but it is a possibility. And, I have some techniques whether I liked the learning of the techniques or not. The more techniques including ninjutsu I have integrated the more likely I will succeed in the task I must accomplish.

The CIA, the FBI use similar stealth techniques today only with long-range rifles, explosives and various devices of death. I don’t know anything about the modern assassin working for current national security, but the strategy of stealth, such as the ability to get within knife striking range of a person at any time of the day or night, in any place in the world is an interesting strategy involving many complex tactics and techniques. I have taught many of the techniques to my student, Paul Billimoria, over the course of the years. He is one of our best trained stealth trained karate-ka. I know he will never use these techniques for assassination (at least I hope he won’t) but he can’t be stopped easily by physical barriers.

Indeed, is Paul Billimoria a ninja? Or am I?


Neither Paul Billimoria nor I consider ourselves ninja. We don’t want to be ninja. That we know techniques, tactics and strategies of ninjutsu doesn’t make us ninja. We are Karate-Do-Ka. Our branch of martial arts is Aoinagi-Ha, a karate-do based martial art. Neither Paul nor I want to be anything in martial arts other than full bushi in the art of karate-do. We are not ninja. We do not practice in a ninjutsu ryu. We practice in a karate ryu. But we know many techniques of ninjutsu, the techniques of stealth, just as many ninjutsu-ka know techniques of karate-jutsu, jujutsu, and, etc..

Examples of Ninjutsu Technique Use

Although ninjutsu techniques are designed for assassination, the use of these techniques is not necessarily without application in other realms of life. I have used techniques traditionally considered ninja techniques in mountaineering, spelunking and mountain rescue.

Many ninjutsu techniques aid the ninja to climb or descend walls by use of ropes. These techniques can be used in mountaineering and mountain rescue although some of the older ones are rather painful.

Here is a rather lengthy example but one that may clarify the use of some techniques generally regarded in the martial arts as ninjutsu techniques. While a member of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Team years ago I was on a search for a missing butterfly hunter on the north slopes of San Jacinto mountain. The man had been missing for three days and the rescue team had just been called out.

We organized the search in groups of two each group with a radio and adequate provisions for several days searching. We took off at 4:00 PM. Having a keen interest in butterflies I had a strong inclination to where the man was. You see certain short-lived butterflies use a special technique to find mates during their brief stay on Earth as adult butterflies. The specialized technique is called hill-topping. The males of the species go to the top of hills and await the females. When the female emerges from the cocoon she attempts to find a food plant. When she is successful she turns uphill to hill-top where the males await her. All she has to do is find the top, a rather easy task, and she meets all the males she will ever desire. Once impregnated she returns to the food plant and deposits her eggs and dies. The next generation is secured.

Well, just to the west of where the butterfly hunter’s car was parked a beautiful hill could be seen. It looked quite innocuous without steep ridges or many rocks. I figured that it would be the most likely place for a butterfly hunter desiring to capture the hill-topping species in abundance to go. So, my partner and I set out. I was wrong. We didn’t even find a foot-print during several hours of the first day of the search.

The team covered much terrain that night, calling the butterfly hunter’s name over and over again. At 2:00 AM we stretched out for some sleep over deer trails and depressions in the slopes of the San Jacinto’s most rugged north side. By first light we were up again searching and calling. This was day four for the butterfly hunter’s wild exposure to the elements.

Looking at the map I found another hill with potential for butterflies to hill-top on. My partner and I took off in that direction after getting permission from base camp to cross the designated search divisions. The base camp director was quite confused as I attempted to explain to him about butterflies and butterfly hunters, hill-topping, males and females, food-plants and short-life. Finally, he just said, “go for it Doc if you think he might be there.”

So, my partner and I went straight for the next hill. We never got there.

Only, half-way up the hill was a ravine falling to the stream bed below some 300 feet. My partner called, “Hello! Chuck!” In the wind we thought we heard a faint “Help!” We listened in silence. It came again but very faintly.

Moving around the edges of the cliff the best we could, peering into the abyss we could not see anything. We didn’t even hear him again. We kept looking, but in vain.

Meanwhile, we called basecamp and notified them that we had heard calls for help from a steep cliff but had no visual contact. The search became a rescue. Every member of the team was directed to the rescue location.

A decision had to be made. We couldn’t find him from the top. Someone had to go over the edge. Instinctively, I tied in as my partner secured a rappel rope. I was over the side on a rope to begin a visual search. My partner anchored fixed lines every 50 feet so that I could transfer from one rope to another all the way along the cliff until I had a visual on the victim. Just after switching to the second line I saw the butterfly hunter. He was below me in the direction of the third line and about 45 feet from the top of the cliff edge. How he survived such a fall I have no idea but he was there and not responding to my calls any more.

The technique I used in descending on the search, transferring to a second rope, and re-descending to the victim were basic techniques taught in ninjutsu, the art of stealth.

Well, in case you want to know about the end of the rescue I will continue the story. I used a pendulum and scratched my way to the third rope, transferred to it and descended to the butterfly hunter. I found him to be nearly unconscious, dehydrated and with a broken hip as well as some minor injuries. His airway was patent, his breathing was rapid and his pulse was fast and weak. I had intravenous solutions in my pack at the top of the rim but I had no radio. My partner had the radio. We couldn’t communicate. I had to ascend the rope quickly, get the intravenous fluids and descend again, this time with the radio.

This was one of the most unusual intravenous fluid injections I have ever put in place. Hanging on a rope suspended 250 feet above the canyon floor with a fellow butterfly hunter perched on a ledge I felt the energy of a life-and-death encounter. I vividly remember saying to myself “Raymond, get this one on the first stick. You have no room for error!”

It is amazing what a liter of normal saline can do to a victim at times. The butterfly hunter began to yell for help. I reassured him he had found help. He looked into my eyes, settled back, and fell asleep.

Meanwhile at the top of the rim the team had assembled. The collapsible litter was assembled and arrangements were being made for a hoist. The only trouble was that a hoist of two people from 45 feet below the rock rim while the team was on nearly a 30 degrees slope itself required more mechanical advantage than what the team had brought along at the time. We communicated via the radio as dusk was approaching rapidly.

It looked like the butterfly hunter was going to spend his fifth night as we readied for an early morning hoist after assembling more mechanical advantage.

I wasn’t thrilled at all at the prospect of spending a night with an unstable victim where there wasn’t even enough room for two on the jagged perch he had landed.

With a second rope, the one on which I had pendulumed across to the current rope, I wove a ninjutsu rope ladder, suspended it from two anchors ten feet above the victim and had a makeshift hammock. Within this open carcass of a bed I slept merely one foot from the victim’s face. I listened to his breathing and moans all night. But, alas he remained alive.

I don’t think I will ever forget that night with moonrise shining over empty space below me and the cold night wind.

Before first light the radio crackled with a “Hello, Ray, you there?”

“Yes, Good morning! Who stole my floor?”

“Hey, we’re ready with the main hoist rope. We’ll lower it to you when you’re ready.”

“I’m ready.”

I saw the litter descending on the haul rope 25 feet away from us. The 25 feet was to keep it from dislodging rocks onto us. I released myself from the rope hammock and did a pendulum over to the litter in a few wide steps. When I got back to the butterfly hunter I realized a great difficulty.

The butterfly hunter had to be put into the litter because he could not move himself. I had to pick him up and put him in the litter. But I had no footing. I was suspended on a nylon rope that bounced and stretched with every change in tension. As I attempted to lift the victim the rope stretched and I went downward more than he went upward. And the more I moved the butterfly hunter the more he suffered.

Again I had to be resourceful. Using the ninjutsu rope ladder, an anchor point and a one of the old ninjitsu mechanical raising techniques I set up a workable lift mechanism sufficient to lift the butterfly hunter into the litter. It took several hours but finally the butterfly hunter was in the litter tied down securely and ready to hoist.

Straining at the limits of their strength the team raised the butterfly hunter and me in jerky movements about six inches at a time. The litter had to be held away from the rocks so my job for an hour was to “hang out over space” horizontally and balance everything on my two feet so that nothing caught on the cliff rocks.

The lip of the cliff was another unforgettable experience. As the butterfly hunter and I came over the lip I lost balance. The litter smashed into the cliff. I followed. The lip of any vertical ascent while on a rope is the most difficult part of a hoist. But, finally we were over the lip and onto the 30 degrees slope from where the butterfly hunter had fallen five days before.

The butterfly hunter rescue established me as a member of the rescue team. It was serendipity that I happened to have known about butterfly hill-topping, but it was training in ninjutsu rope handling that allowed me to perform the difficult pendulums, ascents, descents, and hammock stringing of this rescue. The members of the team accepted me quickly after this experience.

Later, I learned similar techniques to the ninjutsu rope handling techniques while learning mountaineering. Still later I learned more at mountain rescue training camps. The techniques do not belong to one or the other. They belong to all.

I will always maintain that I am not a ninja. I am a warrior. I do know some ninjutsu techniques and I am very glad that I do. They have saved my life. But, I am first and foremost a warrior.

The Emphasis of a Ryu

What is the difference between a warrior and a ninja? It is only the emphasis of techniques of the ryu. I am a warrior not a ninja by virtue that the ryu I study doesn’t emphasize stealth. A ninja emphasizes stealth (but certainly is not limited to it).

Takeda Shingen and Tokugawa Ieyasu of the first story of this essay were enemies. The boy was unbelievably bold but, luckily for Japan as we know it, poorly trained in ninjutsu. Or the history of Japan would be quite different.