Ninjutsu: They Knew All About Poison Gas

By Samuel Salone
Japan Times and Mail, June 17, 1940, page 4

Journal of Non-lethal Combatives, December 1999

 …Scientific magicians who were not only entertainers, but those who materially aided the Shogunate Government in warfare, claimed to possess supernatural powers, such as that of turning themselves into smoke, or a dog or rat, or cross a river without any visible sign of the attempt. This class of people called the "ninjutsu," as can be expected, commanded the respect of the innocent masses who readily believed that mystic powers beyond their knowledge were called to the "ninjutsu's" aid. No doubt sleight of hand and the simple tricks of the present-day magician had a great deal to do with these illusions, but there is no doubt whatsoever of the "ninjutsu" knowledge of chemical science which he used to his best advantage.

 The principle of Confucius that the public should not be permitted to strike out on their own in the fields of science and invention, that they should be wholly subjugated by the decrees and whims of the government, was strictly observed by the Shogunate rulers of Japan. Any person individually dabbling with the unknown, such as science, was immediate condemned, while amateur inventors being regarded as dangerous lunatics creating havoc in the social world were sentenced to death. This state of affairs in the feudal age was certainly not encouraging to the inventive spirit, but as history has told us over and over again, the spirit of creation when present cannot be curbed by any social or legal barrier human beings might devise. Any person who felt that he was the fortunate possessor of scientific aptitude promptly became a Buddhist priest or physician, for in one of these positions he was quite justified in pursuing his "dangerous" studies and experiments. Besides these, however, there was this special band of magician advisors to the government, who in such capacities as spies, political and military, obtained valuable information for whatever side they undertook the work. They gained the awe and supremacy that they coveted and which they confidently assumed would be worthy of their work. They proclaimed to the world that they held communion with the unknown from whom they derived their various powers. Their real secrets and methods were jealously guarded, and anyone of their band who disclosed anything to the general public was sentenced to immediate death. So strictly did they enforce their desire to keep "ninjutsu" knowledge within specific boundaries that they forbade members to marry outside their own families. During the Tokugawa period, a special quarter of the capital was reserved for the sole use of the "ninjutsu" men. The district named Koga-cho in present-day Tokyo was formerly one of these quarters in which "ninjutsu" of the Koga school resided. In wartime, a government spy-ring of these men was formed. They proved most formidable in obtaining enemy plans, murdering generals and officers, stealing important documents, and kidnaping princes and princesses of the enemy camp. All these activities, the "ninjutsu" professed to do without the aid of science but through the possession of other powers. They scorned what little was known of the elements of science. They emphatically disavowed any connection with such learning while at the same time claiming to do such fantastic feats as walking over a wall of incredible height, or staying under water for long periods, or vanishing completely at any place and time. Whether these tricks were actually performed we have no means of inquiring, but a certain amount if not the whole of the belief which the public placed in the "ninjutsu" indicates that the latter must have displayed the more simple tricks of his art to the commoners, while not actually attempting any of the above-mentioned incredulous claims.

 It is known that the stage was used as a medium through which to acquaint the public of the accomplishments of the "ninjutsu". Sensational announcements were undoubted used to attract the crowds to pay wondering respect to the "ninjutsu" performers. The element of mystery with which they surrounded themselves was the background of their profession. Without it the number of their simple-minded followers who had necessarily to be kept continuously in the dark would speedily diminish. And of course that would never do.

 The "ninjutsu" were, however, assisted in their wish for seclusion by the fact that they were not regarded to be of the samurai class whose code of honor was incompatible with the "ninjutsu" type of work. They were disregarded as a secretive band of unsociable people, and that was just what they preferred. Their everyday lives were wrapped in secrecy. Their daily haunts and activities were practically unknown outside of their immediate circle. The public was kept in complete ignorance of the real truth -- that the "ninjutsu" were only human beings like themselves -- that they succeeded in their tricks through some intense physical training and some knowledge of chemistry and other fundamentals of science.

 Playwrights and story-tellers, in order to increase their own sense of importance through sensational announcements, advocated the "ninjutsu" in their fabulous claims. Needless to state the methods the "ninjutsu" used to escape from some delicate situation were, to say the least, most comical.

 On the stage, we see some lordly knight of the Tokugawa days stalking into his castle, and perceiving some miscreant trespassing within the rooms, is about to deliver a severe reprimand, when to his astonishment the rascal wrings his hands on his chest and mutters a few mysterious words and lo! a puff of smoke lingers over the spot where only a couple of seconds ago he had stood in such a sorry attitude. The startled expression of the lord can be readily imagined.

 In other cases a flash of light and a puff of smoke are used to momentarily blind the audience, and during this interval of bewilderment a rat is made to run out on to the stage. The "ninjutsu" having disappeared and the rat having come to sight at the same instant, the natural conclusion the people come to, is that the performer and the rat are one and the same. The complete disappearance act is to be seen on the Kabuki stage today, where the more wiser audience is nevertheless entertained for an idle half-hour.

 Another of the little tricks of deception in which the "ninjutsu" indulges, is the turning-into-dog disappearance act. For this performance, the "ninjutsu" has perforce to scrape up more than a nodding acquaintance with half a dozen canine creatures which he trains in a suitable fashion. Upon presenting his show before the audience, he signals to his dogs to pursue him round and round the stage. While they are madly careering round in the small space, the "ninjutsu" cleverly and deftly dodges away behind a curtain or some haven. So swiftly is this done that in a moment he is completely out of view of the audience, while the dogs still continue to chase round and round. The audience is led to believe that one of these dogs (an extra dog having been added to the original pack) is no other than the vanished "ninjutsu."

 When reading such accounts, one is apt to smile incredulously, but it is essential to remember that all the deftness of the magician, and all the advantages of a supple and trained body, coupled with some knowledge of elementary science, are called to the aid of the "ninjutsu-tricks." However ignorant the audience, their eyes and ears are intact, and the "ninjutsu's" major purpose is to create his illusions in such a way as to satisfy these two bodily organs. When the awe-struck onlooker cannot doubt his eyes and ears, and yet sees and hears something which borders on the supernatural, he is apt to ascribe the strange phenomenon to the mystic powers of the unknown. Hence the power and might of the "ninjutsu." The playwright, of course, uses these powers to his best advantage, instilling the element of surprise and comical situations. In some stage-plays the climax is reached when a knight armed to the teeth manages to corner his victim, and is just about to bring his sword to effective play, when -- puff! The victim who was there is not there any more. The armed knight who is invariably a skillful actor manages to set the audience rocking with laughter by the expression of startled indignation which he assumes on his face. The whole play is one whole deception, and a clever one at that.

 Referring back to the poison-gas which "ninjutsu" documents aver to have been discovered in the 11th century during the Fujiwara period, it appears to have been used for none too gentle purposes. Ingenious murders, so cunningly outlined to have done credit to any modern psychological detective-crime writer, were devised by the recondite "ninjutsu." Small poison balls composed of herbs and special chemical solutions, prepared according to a formula carefully kept secret by the Shiba Shinyo school of "ninjutsu," are believed to have been the means through which they did away with their enemies. These balls when furtively rolled into a room are said to have poisoned the air within a definite period of time. In the old days of castle-like houses, when knights put up in inns, all that had to be done was to secrete a few of these innocent looking balls into the victim's room, and the devilry would be done. To this date, the secret of this poison has been kept intact, being handed down from generation to generation along the Shiba Shinyo line of "ninjutsu." Needless to state, many tempting offers have been made, several of them from abroad, for the formula, but as has been explained above, the "ninjutsu" where his professional secrets are concerned is indomitable. This is undoubtedly for the good, for if this type of dangerous knowledge should fall into the hands of those with evil intentions, the results would be disastrous.

 The list of deceptive implements which the "ninjutsu" carries about his person are too numerous to mention in detail. Suffice is it to outline a few of the most interesting. The scroll which the "ninjutsu" ostensibly displays as a roll of paper which contains some mystic instructions for the disappearance act is nothing more than a cylinder of chemicals used to produce a dense screen of smoke. Under cover of this, he is free to produce any eerie sound or effect, such as the shuffling or sound of many footsteps, or through their ventriloquistic powers to converse with themselves in different voices. All these feats of the magician, it will be gathered, are the results of intense practice and a thorough training of the body, every muscle of which is trained to answer the slightest action. The success of most of "ninjutsu" tricks depends on his quickness of action -- a fact which is kept in mind by every performer. Science is thus called into assistance only as a subsidiary, while on the mental alertness of the performer and the deftness of his fingers, the success or failure of a trick depends.

 Such chemical compounds and acids as arsenic which in Europe today is used as a persuasion among criminals to confess is known to have been a powerful instrument in the hands of the "ninjutsu." Through it, their victims were made insane or rendered mentally deficient.

 Many of the feats which the "ninjutsu" profess to do are blood-curdling in the extreme. Walking in fire, treading on sharp sword blades with bare feet, consuming sulphuric acid and wine glasses, dislocating bones, are just a few of the "duties" which he performs without turning a hair. There is something tragically humorous in seeing these witchcraft performances being done before our eyes, while knowing all the time that Mr. Ninjutsu has something up his sleeve.

 Sarutobi Sasuke and Kirigakure Saizo of the Koga and Iga schools respectively in the Tokugawa period, are regarded as two master artists among "ninjutsu." They were both retainers of the famed warrior, Sanada Yukimura, and learned their "ninjutsu" art from Tojawa Yamashiro-no-kami, a hermit who lived in seclusion among the hills and to whom the origin of the art is attributed.

 With regard to the events which are attracting world attention at present, one can well imagine the havoc which would result if a party of expert "ninjutsu" took to the field of war. The Allies have perhaps to thank their stars that Herr Hitler's soldiers are no more "ninjutsu" than the rest of us.

 Editor's note: Japanese military intelligence established the Nakano school for spies in 1938. (Its official name was "Training Unit for Rear Duties Agents." Special Operations Executive and the Office of Strategic Services were British and American equivalents.)  While national leaders were interested in foreign studies, its romantic young officers believed themselves to be modern-day ninjas. ("Success in clandestine activity comes from integrity" was the unit motto.) Accordingly, Nakano students studied martial arts and disguises as well as infiltration, propaganda, and sabotage, and some of the nonsense written about ninjutsu originated from this location.

 And, in 1966, Fujita Seiko, who claimed to be Japan's last practicing ninja, died. In interviews, Fujita always deplored the commercialization of ninjutsu in the movies. He added that people such as Hatsumi Yoshiaki were not describing true ninjutsu, only interesting aspects of the traditional Japanese martial arts. These statements correspond with what Richard Bowen wrote in the Budokwai quarterly Judo in October 1957, "I saw in a [Japanese] newspaper to-day that in Veno Mie Prefecture a group of young office workers had come across some old books dealing with a defunct school – Nin-jutsu. They became so interested that for fun they decided to try some of the methods  The idea is to break into fortifications, etc., do what you were going to do in the way of murder, abduction, spying, arson, and such like pleasant pastimes, and then get out again without being slaughtered."

JNC Dec 1999.