I’ve never felt less like a ninja in my life. Sitting on my bed under a pile of blankets. In sweat pants. Wondering how long it’ll be before I can get the prescription on my glasses updated.
Yet here I am, watching a livestream of the Online Ninja Training Experience, a 40-minute class promising “the secrets of the ninja world.” I’m hoping it’ll teach me some stuff I didn’t know about ninjas, and even a few crucial ninja skills.
Thanks to a typical Eurocentric education, I don’t know tons about feudal Japan. And surely no amount of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or the Pirates vs. Ninjas game folks played on Facebook a decade ago, was going to teach me to sort out where truth and myth about these ancient, skilled covert fighters converge. So, a rainy Friday at 5 p.m. seems like the perfect time to start learning, and maybe even to walk away with some actual ninja skills. As the world races toward apocalyptic anarchy, they might come in handy.
The course, put on by Japan’s Odawara Tourism Association, starts off with a beautiful animation sequence explaining the Hojo clan of Odawara, who ruled for about five generations during the Warring States period (1467 to 1615). The Fuma ninja clan worked for the Hojo family. Particularly in 1590, when shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi (who spent 1585-92 unifying Japan) declared war against the Hojo clan and surrounded the castle with about 160,000 soldiers, the Fuma ninjas dealt in espionage and sabotage.
That castle (or, at least the version rebuilt in 1703 after an earthquake) is now a tourist destination, housing both a ninja and a samurai museum. All these centuries later, this is where the livestream of the class is coming from. Post-video, an English translator guides those watching through what’s now the ninja museum, including an area with interactive exhibits like a short climbing wall and a fake pond offering lily pads ninjas could presumably hop on if they were there in person.
“In person” anything feels like a distant dream right now. But as much as the coronavirus pandemic has shrunk our worlds, the internet has also offered us the opportunity to expand them. In October I learned to make pretzels via Zoom. For my birthday, I got to introduce friends from high school, college, grad school and work to each other in a mind-bending virtual birthday party. Now, for $14, I can bust out of my Louisville apartment, in a sense, and take a class in a country I’ve never visited.
Waiting in the museum is Hiroshi Jinkawa, a noted ninjitsu practitioner. He’s decked out in the black ninja uniform you’d expect, including a mask (the ninja kind, not the thing your aunt sewed for you back in March).
With the help of the translator, Hiroshi explains the need to bow while keeping your katana — your sword — close at hand (at this point I ask my cat Salsa if she’s taking notes) and demonstrates breathing techniques, which he says are among the most important elements for a ninja. In battle, the aim was essentially to take quick, forceful breaths from the diaphragm. Ninjas had to be able to transition their breathing to a more calm, smooth pattern if, for example, they had to run away and hide.
In 2020, you can’t learn enough breathing exercises.
Hiroshi also shows off some of the key tools ninjas used. At the risk of crushing dreams, throwing stars, like the ones in ninja movies from the ’60s, were not high on that list.
Ninjas, like pirates and cowboys, are the kind of historical figures that have deeply burrowed into popular culture. There’s a ninja that exists purely in tropes and jokes, as shorthand for quick reflexes and the ability to go unnoticed. In a 2013 article on Gizmodo about why Americans are so obsessed with ninjas, the author noted that almost 22,000 people on Twitter refer to themselves as “social media ninjas.” Catch a plate of food as it gets knocked off a table and you’ve got ninja moves. Walk into a room quietly while your friends are watching TV and you are a ninja.
The biggest surprise from the course was that ninjas weren’t out looking for fights. For them, a straw hat for the purpose of blending in was more useful than throwing stars. They carried poison in a box called an inro, but the goal was to put people to sleep, not kill them.
Finally, Hiroshi demonstrates how to walk with a katana in his belt without having it banging around into your legs. I do not own a katana, so I have to take his word for it.
After hitting a couple more points, ninja training wraps up for the day. Obviously, I didn’t walk away a certified ninja. I don’t have the upper body strength to scale a wall with a rope, and the floors in my apartment are way too creaky for me to sneak up on anyone. Still, if ninjas were out to gather information, I can certainly say I did that.
The translator notes that there are valuable takeaways from these spies of feudal Japan: “A lot of the fundamental values and maneuvers of a ninja — the breathing, the meditation, the ability to be creative with normal everyday goods, walking, controlling your core, keeping your mind set on a goal, everything a ninja did can be used in modern-day life.”
Maybe I’ll remember to breathe like a ninja the next time I watch the news.