Analyzing a Treasure from Ninjutsu of Old

On February 22nd, it is officially “Ninja Day” in Japan. This day is to honor the history and culture of the ninja, as well as the growing movement of adapting the lessons found in ninjutsu of old for innovation, to promote pop culture, tourism, and so on. As a form of tribute to this day, I’ve written a post on a treasure of ninjutsu, called Ninjutsu Kishōmon¹ (忍術起請文), which stands for “Ninjutsu Document of Written Vows to the Gods”. This post will include a brief background info, my translation of the document, as well as an analytical discussion to give a better understanding of this document.

THE WRITER BEHIND NINJUTSU KISHŌMON

The Ninjutsu Kishōmon was drafted by Kizu Inosuke in 1716, who became an inheritor of a ninjutsu system taught to him by Nagai Matabei. Inosuke is from Iga Province, which is home to many families who specialized in ninjutsu. As an agreement to his new inheritance, Inosuke wrote the Ninjutsu Kishōmon and gave it to his teacher.

This document was a form of agreement to uphold the strict ways of the ninja. If he had failed to do so, Inosuke promised to not only return everything he received from his teacher related to ninjutsu (this includes texts and ninjutsu-related tools), but to accept punishment from the gods. The Ninjutsu Kishōmon is a great example of how those inducted into the world of the ninja were sworn to secrecy, while taking the lessons & skills associated with ninjutsu very seriously.

After Inosuke’s death, this Ninjutsu Kishōmon made its way back to the Kizu family, and kept for possibly decades. When exactly was it returned, and why, is unknown.

NINJA ACTIVE DURING EDO PERIOD

After the Tokugawa clan took control of Japan in the early 1600s, many families from Iga Province (present-day Mie Prefecture), and at a later date from Kōka Province (present-day Shiga Prefecture), moved to Edo (present day Tokyo) where they used their skills in ninjutsu for various types of work under the employment of the Tokugawa Shogunate. At the time, which is known as Edo period, the country was strictly run by the new Shogunate, and everyone had to abide to the rules. Different from during the warring periods beforehand, where those ninjutsu experts could sell their abilities to serve one of the many warlords vying for power, ninja during the Edo period took advantage of their unique position to directly serve the Tokugawa Shogunate for rank, merits, and means of work. Kizu Inosuke was most likely in the same position, where he may have had to seek employment under an elite individual who held an important position in the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Times have changed, and modern Japan is very different from the past, as the country is no longer a military-centric state. Much of the skills that the ninja took pride in using are deemed illegal today. Also, such unwavering loyalty and strict dedication to the ways of the ninja through written pacts are not much in practice, for there is a great amount of information regarding ninjutsu (from their ancient documentations, tools, and strategies) made public as a means to study and appreciate a past history. Ninja of old (in reference to those families who were actively using ninjutsu for the sake of work several centuries ago) treated their craft as something of great secrecy, thus the need for such agreements and rules. Nowadays, such things are no longer in use.

UNDERSTANDING THE NINJUTSU KISHŌMON

The follow is a translation done by myself of the 6 rules & concluding pledge found in the Ninjutsu Kishōmon. Note that everything in the picture below is read from right to left, with the text lined up from top to bottom.

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How the original Ninjutsu Kishōmon looks. Image from “Iga Portal

1) On this occasion, I receive the teachings of ninjutsu. I will not show or disclose the contents of the ninjutsu and ninki (tools of the ninja) I inherit from you to those who bear a relationship to me, such as my parents and siblings. I will act like I have no knowledge on such information. I will also not allow another person to copy the contents.

2) From the Mansenshūkai, the sections on the Preface, Seishin (Correct Heart), and Ninpō (Treasures of the ninja) will be made viewable, unquestionably, to our lord and his personal administrators, such as his chief retainer, if they desire. I ask for your pardon, for when called upon to do so, I will not refuse.

3) Outside of the ninki, the kaki (tools for fire and explosives), and those from the Mansenshūkai, I will inform you of new & unique ninki and kaki that I am able to devise.

4) If, as a young master, I have strayed from the ways of justice, I will return the documents that I have copied from your possession, and will leave no trace of ever possessing those documents.

5) I will not allow the secret techniques of the Mansenshūkai to be written in another document.

6) I will not use ninjutsu and ninki I am inheriting for the acts of mere thievery. However, anything will be done for my lord’s sake no matter what.

PLEDGE: It is forbidden to oppose the rules written on the right, even by just a little. May the great and minor deities within over 60 provinces of Japan, especially the gods of my home town, extract their punishment upon my own children and future generations wholeheartedly, if my incompetent self, ever so young acts like a betrayer even by just a little.

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ANALYZING THE CONTENTS

We’ve just finished a brief overview of the document’s writer of the Ninjutsu Kishōmon, ninja during the Edo period, and the rules in this document. Here is an analytical review based on some informative (as well as contradictory) points regarding this document, and why certain practices were done based on the time period it is from.

  • From the Edo period onward, those from Iga Province were hired to work for the Tokugawa Shogunate, whom many are said to have specialized in ninjutsu.
  • Kizu Inosuke is said to be from Iga Province. However, it is not certain if Nagai Matabei was also from Iga Province.
  • For rule #1, Inosuke swears not to let his family know he studied ninjutsu. Yet, apparently this agreement was given back to his family sometime after his death. This document was give to his teacher, so it is strange that it made it back to Inosuke’s descendants.
  • While Inosuke promises not to show anything related to ninjutsu to his family, he wouldn’t hesitate to show some chapters of the Mansenshūkai, a very important text on ninjutsu, to the Shogun and his high-ranking officials. Why is this? For starters, if Inosuke were to gain employment serving the Tokugawa shogunate like many others who came from Iga Province, then he would be obligated to share some information of his knowledge of ninjutsu. For example, the 3 aforementioned sections of the Mansenshūkai give an overview of ninja and their art, such as the mindset & spirit they were to develop. Since these didn’t include their techniques, tools, or strategies, then it was no real risk of losing their secret trade. Disclosing some info as such was possibly necessary, especially to the high-ranking officials, for they probably hired ninja and needed to understand who was working for them.
  • Speaking of which, the Mansenshūkai was offered as an official documentation to the Shogunate on 1789 by several individuals from Kōka Province. Before this, it existed much earlier in secret as a collection of ninja tools, strategies, and philosophy all contributed by many different ninja families. Inosuke received a copy before or around the time he wrote his agreement in 1716. There are supposedly 2-3 variations of the Mansenshūkai, but it is reported that, other than 1-2 sections missing from one that has yet to be shared with the public, these all share more or less the same contents.
  • In relations to rule #3, it is possible that Inosuke’s personally devised ninja tools (that is, if he was successful in doing so) were added to the Masenshūkai by him or his teacher. There is no way to confirm this, but if this is the case, then these same tools may very well have made it into the the public version of the Masenshūkai.
  • For rule #4, for Inosuke to return all his possessions on ninjutsu was a grave and serious matter. It meant that if he is judged as failing in his duties, or committed a crime and is caught as doing so, he would have to forfeit being a ninja. In some ways, this rule is more as a promise to be a “good & righteous” person or else. Such promises were common not just for those who study ninjutsu, but for many other occupations throughout Japan.
  • For rule #5, letting the contents of the Mansenshūkai be copied into another documentation was obviously frowned upon. Other than the lost of secrets that gave ninja of that time an edge, if the version of the Mansenshūkai was unique to Inosuke, and the same exact version was found elsewhere, his teacher would immediately know from whom it came from. This could get Inosuke in big trouble.
  • Rule #6 is one to take note on. For starters, it has been examined that many of the techniques found in ninjutsu are similar to those used by thieves. What sets ninja apart are the morality they possess, and that they only use their abilities for the greater good. Now, there is an exception to this. If their employer, or better yet, an order from the shogunate, required them to use their techniques for acts that were on the level of thievery or worst, a ninja was required to adhere…for this was also part of the “greater good”. This is what the 2nd part of rule #6 hints at.
  • To cement his promise to uphold the 6 rules, Inosuke pledges to accept “heaven’s wrath” upon his family line. This is a bold statement, but nothing unusual. Due to the influence of religions such as Shinto and Buddhism, along with the belief in the power of gods, it was natural to put such a superstitious seal in an important document such as this. It’s no different from other promises made, even for those made in other countries in the past.
  • Written agreements of this nature were not only done by those who study ninjutsu. It has been found that those who belong to military families, as well as many who studied martial arts, also signed similar agreements which express calamity on themselves and their family line if they do not uphold to specific rules. For example, the Mōri family (毛利氏), who once specialized in naval warfare as pioneers, have several documents of written vows done by Mōri Hidenari (毛利秀就). There is also one for those who where accepted as students for a martial system called Asayama Ichiden ryū Bujutsu (浅山一伝流武術).

ENDING

This here concludes the discussion on the Ninjutsu Kishōmon. A document of antiquity, it serves to help researchers understand more of ninjutsu when it was actively used in the past. On an additional note, this document was originally a planned translation project. Because of this, there is an accompanying page under the “Translations” section, which features the same translation, along with other info not found in this post. You can access the “Translations” tab at the top of the page, or click here.


1) Note that this is a shorter label for the document. The full title is actually “Keihaku Tenbatsu Reisha Kishōmon Maegaki” (敬白天罰霊社起請文前書), which stands for “Pre-written Vows of Declaration of Divine Punishment from the Sacred Shrines”.