Most people will know this name when you ask them about real life ninja. A name immortalized by history books, video games and movies. No doubt, you have heard of Hattori Hanzo (服部半蔵), master of the Iga ninja clan, at least once.
However, much like the ninja legends, the name Hattori Hanzo is an inscrutable cloud of legend interwoven with truth. There’s even some doubt about just how many individuals carried the “Hattori Hanzo” name. The Iga Ninja Hattori Hanzo Masanari was a warrior who served 3 generations of Tokugawa samurai. He created a legacy that has echoed through the ages, still admired today.
Was Hattori Hanzo a real person? – Samurai & Ninja History
Masanari is the first name of the Iga ninja known as Oni Hanzo (Demon Hanzo). This is a name many people are familiar with. Yet, there is some historical evidence that proves he was not the only Hattori Hanzo.
More than one Hattori Hanzo
Another, his father, Yasunaga, served during the Muromachi reign (1333-1573) and under the Ashikaga shogunate. Eventually, the Matsudaira clan, predecessors of the Tokugawa clan, took in Yasunaga and other Iga ninja. Historical documents confirms that the other Hattori ninja exists.
The fact there were reportedly up to five different men given the ultimate title “Hattori Hanzo” only furthers the confusion.
Head of Hattori family & others
According to Cummins’ research, the head of the Hattori family holds the title of Hanzo. This accounted for at least four of the Hanzos. Changing names several times in their lifetime is a norm for Japanese samurai.
Hattori Yasunaga was the first Hanzo. The second was. his son, Masanari. The three other Hanzo Hattori were the grandsons of the first and sons of the second (refer to the chart for details).
Of course, “Hattori” is a surname that did not just belong to Iga ninja. This also adds an element of mystery to the tales of Hattori Hanzo and everything accomplished.
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Which Hattori Hanzo was a ninja? And exploits of Demon Hanzo
A ninja is a wartime covert operative, defined by their achieved level of skill. Unlike samurai, which was something one was born into, even a lower born person could train as a shinobi — an “umbrella term for all those who deal with ninjutsu.”
With that in mind, Yasunaga was indeed a ninja, because he appears in records as the leader of the Iga ninja clan. Also, he was one of the main authors of the Ninpiden (shinobi-hiden), a confidential ninjutsu manual. He later passed it to his son Masanari, also known as the Demon Hanzo.
Hattori Hanzo II (aka. Masanari the Elder / Oni Hanzo / Demon Hanzo)
When Yasunaga died, Masanari the Elder replaced him as Hanzo. Being that Masanari was something of a progeny, he quickly earned the nickname “Oni,” which means “demon.” How did he achieve such an awesome nickname?
Hanzo II reportedly trained from a very young age in swordplay, concealment and psychological warfare while traversing between Mikawa and Iga lands. Because of the legends surrounding ninjas in general, separating fact from fiction, like how Hanzo had superhuman abilities, is quite challenging. Was Hanzo the Sengoku period version of Marvel’s Deadpool? Or was he just a man doing his wartime duty?
Masanari the Elder, Yasunaga’s son with a Mikawa woman, was actually born into samurai ranking. History books often acknowledge him as a samurai, and not a shinobi. But when looking at the facts surrounding Hattori Hanzo II—his training, nickname, miraculous feats and leadership of Iga and Koka shinobi—we can assume he was indeed a ninja.
What is certain are the pivotal roles he played in several battles around ancient Japan. Such accomplishments afford him the title of “ninja.”
The deeds of Hanzo II
At only 16 years old, Hanzo successfully led a group of Iga ninjas during a dangerous mission, getting him recognition from his superiors. In 1569, he besieged Kakegawa castle, and shortly after, in 1570 at the Battle of Anegawa, Hanzo and his ninjas aided in the combined forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga. There are some myths surrounding this battle about how Hattori Hanzo consulted with superior strategists then reported to Oda to explain the tactics.
Another notable battle, where one can see evidence of ninja handy work, is the Battle of Mikatagahara in January 1573. For most of the battle, Tokugawa Ieyasu was on the verge of losing. His rival, a renowned strategist, the daimyo Takeda Shingen, demolished Tokugawa’s forces.
Forced to retreat back to Hamamatsu Fortress, Tokugawa used the “empty fort strategy” to fluster Takeda’s men. The enemy made camp for the night, because they did not know if Tokugawa was being deceptive or not. Stopping for the night was indeed a trap. During the night, a small unit of Tokugawa warriors attacked the Takeda encampment, forcing them into a ravine. Takeda withdrew his forces the next morning. The group that infiltrated the enemy camp was indeed a band of ninja.
In 1582, were it not for the intelligence gathering techniques of Hattori Hanzo II and his Iga ninja, Ieyasu would have most likely perished during his escape to Mikawa after the assassination of Oda Nobunaga at Honnoji. Forever loyal to the Tokugawa, Hanzo protected Ieyasu during the passage through the mountains. The reward was handsome. Hanzo gained land, a group 200 Iga warriors and the ultimate task of defending the gate of Edo castle, now renamed as Hanzomon (半蔵門).
The Hanzomon Gate Gifted
But history that has left yet another point unclarified.
Hattori Hanzo II (Masanari the Elder) may not have received the Hanzomon Gate post. Instead, Hanzo III may have been first gifted the post. The succession proceeded on to Hanzo II’s second son, Masashige (the fourth to receive the Hanzo title after Masanari’s death in 1596). Cummins’ book states that Hanzo III and 200 Iga ninjas were in charge of Hanzomon in 1603.
However, research done by the Genbukan Tokyo Shibu, a ninpo organization in Japan, states that it was indeed Masanari the Elder, the second Hattori, who received the role first.
Finding Hattori Hanzo in Tokyo
Hanzomon Gate at Imperial Palace & Hanzomon Station
You can visit Hanzomon at the west entrance to the Imperial Palace. Unfortunately, you cannot pass through it. Also, because the original was destroyed during WWII (along with dozens of other relics), it was rebuilt. There is also a Tokyo Metro line with the same name.
Sainenji Temple & Graveyard
One of the only remaining locations where you can see a physical connection to the past is where the Oni Hattori is buried in Wakaba, Yotsuya. It was once called “Iga-cho” or Iga Town, because many ninja lived there during Edo-period peace time. Sainenji (西念寺) is a Jodo Buddhist temple located in this district. Hattori Hanzo built it in 1590 to honor the first son of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The present location of the temple is not the original site, as it moved in 1634.
Sainenji Temple (西念寺)
Tokyo-to, Shinjuku-ku, Wakaba 2-9
Accessible from Yotsuya Station via the Tokyo Marunouchi Line or the JR Chuo Line.
Entrance Plaque of the Sainenji (西念寺)
At the gate, you’ll find a short explanation of Sainenji. There is nothing much written about Hanzo here. Simply put, it lists when he lived, died, and why the temple was built. The purpose behind the construction was not merely for the Oni to be laid to rest.
Interestingly, Cummins states that Hattori Hanzo II died in 1590, but it is even written on the placard that Masanari the Elder simply withdrew from military service at this time. He passed away six years later, in the midst of the temple’s construction.
According to the plaques at the front entrance of the temple and by Hanzo’s grave, Matsudaira Nobuyasu (松平信康) —written as 長男信康 on the inscription — was forced by Oda Nobunaga, his father in law, to commit seppuku after having gone against orders during a battle in Mikawa.
Many Japanese aren’t even clear on the exact reasoning behind the command, and there’s a lot of speculation about what truly happened, even in the history books. Hattori Hanzo Masanari, however, was ordered to finalize the act of seppuku by cutting off Nobuyasu’s head (known as kaishaku). He couldn’t do it. Not only was Oni Hanzo connected by blood to the Matsudaira clan, he was extremely loyal to the Tokugawa shogunate.
Afterward this terrible event, Hattori Hanzo II became a monk and built Sainenji Temple to respectfully bury Matsudaira Nobuyasu. When Masanari the Elder passed away at only 55 years of age, he and his beloved spear were also laid to rest at the temple bearing his Jodo Buddhist name.
At the temple and graveyard
If you’re expecting a highly trafficked temple, Sainenji isn’t it. There’s no crowds, no flair, just the temple and rows upon rows of headstones. When I arrived, the graveyard was quiet. The temple doors were tightly sealed shut. There was no sign of life other than a few black butterflies fluttering to and from the bouquets marking graves.
Like many Buddhist graveyards, there is an astounding sense of stillness despite the bustling atmosphere of Tokyo. I took a stroll through the cluster of stylized stones, appreciating both the streamlined beauty of each one, as well as the cleanliness.
Hanzo II was also a master at wielding a 槍 (やり) or spear. Not what you’d expect from a ninja, right?
Sainenji Temple received the spear as a gift after Masanari the Elder died. You can see the real spear on days when the temple is not holding services. Sadly, I arrived during one of these moments and could not enter. The spear, already battered from years of use on the battlefield, was later damaged in a WWII fire-bombing. Back when it was in one piece, the total length of the spear was around 4.4 meters (around 14 feet) in length.
Advice on finding the grave
Unless you previously looked up the whereabouts of Oni Hanzo’s grave, you could very well miss it during your stroll through the area. I found it outside of the main collection of plots, across from a gathering of Buddha. The gravestone was unassuming and decorated with some flowers and a few cans of cheap sake. Some of the engravings on the bottom stone where the bouquets stood were worn away and barely legible. But standing there, there was a strange sense of something else.
That was when a black butterfly passed in front of me. Like many cultures, a black butterfly in Japan symbolises death and the souls of the recently departed. I thought that was a pretty fitting way to conclude my trip to a graveyard. Even the historical sites of ninja like Hattori Hanzo II are veiled in mystery.