Ninjutsu: Violence and De-sensitization

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         What human beings call warfare, (its activities, sights, smells, and casualties), should not to be regarded with some distorting light of fantasy. But, respecting “ninjutsu” enthusiasts and dojos, the mythical lore of the ninja is so pervasive and misrepresentative of reality that he/she who clings to it can come to develop an idea that fighting as a shinobi would have been “cool”, “badass”, or “awesome”. This is very misinformed, erroneous thinking.

To be blunt, anyone who holds to such perceptions of historical shinobi and their operations lacks even a superficial awareness of the grotesque content of warfare or its psychological and physiological ramifications on the human being.

Shinobi were more or less soldiers, and indeed, the violence that the shinobi might have encountered in the course of his/her missions was of such a horrendous quality that it is quite difficult for the denizens of our comfortably modern Western civilization to comprehend it.

To serve as illustration of this declaration, imagine if you would, infiltrating a castle in the dark of night with the knowledge that to be detected is to be killed. KILLED. So now that you have, do you feel your heart racing? Do you feel the fear? Do you long to see your family again? No? I wouldn’t expect you to, for this abstraction of a potential death and its implications hardly serves as an adequate replacement of the real experience. One must be in the midst of such circumstances to ever have an accurate understanding of what it was like to be a wartime shinobi – let alone a warrior.

Consequently, for some, the idea of a shinobi in combat is one to be romanticized with. I have personally witnessed individuals who attend “ninjutsu” dojos describe the shinobi as a sort of hero figure whose qualities and military exploits are worthy of civilian emulation. How wrong they are! The participants of these dojos are more like children continuously engaged in pretend play of shinobi warfare that isn’t at all representative of the horrid reality.

This phenomenon is similar to the modern advent of violent video games that glorify the sweat, blood, and death of war despite the massive disparity of realism present between virtual reality violence and violence of physical reality. One should not make the mistake of thinking it would be “cool” or otherwise self-gratifying to take the place of a real shinobi engaged in a life or death struggle, for again, one does not know the horror of battle until one is immersed within it (talk to a combat veteran).

To illustrate the degree of perceptual disparity between how violence is presented in “ninjutsu” dojos and the reality of warfare violence that historical ninjutsu is associated with, I would like to introduce the work of a prominent speaker, soldier, and psychologist – Lt. Colonel David Grossman.

In his book On Killing, Grossman collates and analyzes first-hand accounts of military combat by soldiers who have actually had attempts made on their lives, saw others killed, and continued to live with the psychological ramifications of having killed another human being. The book is incisive, compelling, and a poignant step in understanding the implications of human violence on the psyche and in society including those of the Japanese shinobi warriors. But for now it is sufficient to know that Grossman makes the argument that interpersonal violence of real-world combat is not something that the typical human being is wired to enjoy:

“[T]here is a force within mankind that will cause men to rebel against killing even at risk of their own lives. That force has existed in man throughout recorded history, and military history can be interpreted as a record of society’s attempts to force its members to overcome their resistance in order to kill more effectively in battle.”1

In tandem with what may be inferred from Grossman’s statement, Randall Collins, the author of Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory supports the notion that human beings are not inherently adept in methods of inter-personal violence writing that:

“[d]espite their bluster, and even in situations of apparently uncontrollable anger, people are tense and often fearful in the immediate threat of violence- including their own violence; this is the emotional dynamic that determines what they will do if fighting actually breaks out.”2

In light of the above, it would be prudent for the defense oriented individual to take note of the idea that human beings are typically very timid or downright resistant to the idea of having to face an aggressive enemy and possibly take the life of another human being. Consequently, one should not delude oneself into thinking he/she will thrive under conditions of violence that are often encountered in military campaigns, or on the street, simply because one has attained a degree of competency in a martial art. True, the techniques learned within self-defense dojos may be extremely effective, but it is important to approach violence with a mature mindset that doesn’t reflect characteristics of a sociopath i.e. violence itself should not be considered “fun”. The training can be, but the real act probably isn’t.

Make no mistake, the true shinobi of old probably did not roll around on mats in dojos merely for the sake of promoting exercise or self-confidence in one’s ability to fend off an attack. True shinobi probably did not learn and teach ninjutsu for the purposes of self-aggrandizement or profit, and they certainly did not display their skills to potential consumers of defense classes as if to suggest credentials best suited to prepare a student for a real, violent altercation. No. The shinobi of old learned, among other things, how to kill and did kill, and this truth cannot be ignored by those who are ninjutsu enthusiasts, “ninjutsu” dojo operators, or those who attend said dojos.

  1. Grossman, D. (2009). On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. p336
  2. Collins, R. (2011). Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory. p8
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