As I have written and sourced in Ninjutsu: A Commoner’s Guide, there have been 70-80 families existing throughout Japanese history who can been referred to as ninja.
It is confusing, to those who wish to define ninjutsu, that these families received their status title of shadow warriors despite the paucity of information within the historical record respecting the delimitation of specific techniques which collectively comprised their particular brand of ninjutsu.
This difficulty, in ascertaining the extent of each family’s ninjutsu, avails to the inquisitive mind a basis upon which a definition of the art can be premised.
Since these families were referred to as ninja despite insufficient evidence of a ‘system’ of techniques, it can be surmised that ninjutsu itself is not a system of techniques.
But if not a system of techniques, then what is it?
Shigenori Chikamatsu, an 18th century retainer of the collected traditions of Iga and Koka, states in Yokan Kajo Denmoku Kugi (1737 ad.) that his intentions for writing down the teachings of the ninja were to preserve them for future generations – implying in the same text that one who studies what he has written with due diligence can come to possess, to a certain degree, the skills of the shinobi. From Shigenori’s words one may infer, inasmuch that he bequeathed his knowledge of ninjutsu to anyone with the capacity to read Japanese (or English thanks to Western researchers), ninjutsu is not necessarily constrained to familial lines of descent. Rather, the art seems to exist as an amorphous system of warfare that has no defined boundaries of specific techniques or familial values. Fujibayashi himself mentions in the Bansenshukai that the proportions of the art are vast and interminable, further substantiating the notion of no distinct demarcations.
Also worthy of note is the time-period in which Shigenori scribes his teachings – 1737, roughly in the middle of the relatively peaceful Edo period. This fact galvanizes the idea that to learn the teachings of the shinobi, one need not exist during the height of the Sengoku period (1467 -1603 ad.) – the time which is historically attributed to the zenith of ninja activity.
The art then, is not constrained by time. It is in fact timeless.
Because of this timeless characteristic, it can be further reasoned that specific techniques are not the ‘stuff’ of ninjutsu, for times change, and with this change, specific techniques for addressing novel or nuanced threats must be developed.
Therefore ninjutsu can be classified as a system of warfare principles that emphasizes the functions of espionage and information in the scheme of conflict, for these functions are the most evidenced within the writings of the ninja.
What are the principles that comprise the art? I cannot list all of them definitively, but I can say that the principle of adaptability to prevailing circumstances is one.
Stephen K. Hayes refers to this principle as Ki-ai or the “[p]ersonal harmony with the total scheme of things”.(1)
The individual characteristics that informed ninjutsu are more readily discerned.
Here are a few:
- Agile body movement
- A mind of clarity and discernment
- The will to survive
- Readiness and ability to learn anything of use to self-protection
- Mastery of various sub-disciplines such as fire arts, cultural arts, fighting arts, arts of strategy, and others
- Hayes, S. (2013). The Complete Ninja Collection. p20