Long before their ancient martial art was nabbed by a bunch of cartoon turtles, the Ninja were Japan’s most feared warriors, employed by lords as assassins and spies. They practised Ninjutsu, “the art of stealth”, which emphasized non-confrontational methods of combat. Dressed in black, Ninja moved like fleeting shadows and used a variety of weapons, including shuriken (projectile metal stars) and kusarikama (a missile with a razor-sharp sickle on one end of a chain), examples of which are displayed in the Togakushi Minzoku-kan.
According to legend, Ninjutsu was developed in the twelfth century, when the warrior Togakure Daisuke retreated to the mountain forests of Iga, near Nara, and met Kain Dōshi, a monk on the run from political upheaval in China. Togakure studied Dōshi’s fighting ways and it was his descendants who developed them into the Togakure-ryū school of Ninjutsu. By the fifteenth century, there were some fifty family-based Ninjutsu schools across Japan, each jealously guarding their techniques.
Although the need for Ninja declined while Japan was under the peaceful rule of the Shogunate, the Tokugawa had their own force of Ninjutsu-trained warriors for protection. One Ninja, Sawamura Yasusuke, even sneaked into the “black ship” of Commodore Perry in 1853 to spy on the foreign barbarians. Today, the Togakure-ryu school of Ninjutsu, emphasizing defence rather than offence, is taught by the 34th master, Hatsumi Masaaki, in Noda, Chiba-ken, just north of Tokyo.