Antony Cummins is a historical ninjutsu researcher whose team has analysed existing sources about the shinobi and samurai. He has kindly answered my questions on ninja martial arts as a unique combat system, different from the samurai’s.
This is what he has to say.
Antony Cummins’s Views on a Unique Ninja Martial Art
What do historical sources say about martial arts used by ninja?
What can historical records tell us about the martial arts shinobi trained in? Were there specific arts?
There is no record that tells us what martial arts ninja trained in. None. So logic tells us they trained the same as everyone else.
How did ninja gain an advantage against their adversaries?
Based on the Bansenshukai, shinobi also served as criminal hunters. For that specialization, it appears that the shinobi’s martial ability had to be better than their opponents.
Do historical records suggest how they would have gained an upper hand? For example, did they psychologically manipulate their opponents?
That’s not true. The ninja would use gas, rope, fire, water and tools to capture and probably captured through having multiple agents against one, there is no evidence to say they must be better than the other person.
Could tactics in the Bansenshukai have influenced a ninja family’s martial art and make it unique?
From what I understand, shinobi being from the samurai-class would have generally been trained in their clan’s martial arts. Is it therefore plausible that specific-scenario tactics (within the Bansenshukai for instance) have influenced individual clan martial arts? Is there evidence to substantiate that?
And could these tactics as specified in the Bansenshukai, for example, evolved a particular clan’s martial art into a unique system?
There is simply no evidence to say that ninjutsu has any influence on martial arts.
The idea of trying to find an influence comes from a need to connect modern ninjutsu and traditional ninjutsu. This was not an issue for actual ninjas of history.
All that is known is that there are specific ways a ninja can act if found out, or a specific way a pursuer would chase. There are no certain ways to kick, block, punch for a ninja.
But there are ways to help in some situations.
Knowing which stance an enemy will take on one side of a door, or knowing that an attack may come from below the stairs or from a hearth, all of these situations help the agent to change to his environment but none of it dictates his martial arts training.
My Commentary on Antony Cummins’s Response
Antony Cummins made it clear that there was no unique system of ninja fighting techniques present in historical sources. Logical deduction concludes that martial arts used by shinobi were regular samurai bujutsu.
However, why isn’t it plausible that a unique shinobi martial art was developed? Isn’t that just as valid a deduction as the one made earlier that ninja used samurai bujutsu?
This depends on the body of evidence you rely on.
Using Only Validated Sources
If we rely only on validated historical sources (Shoninki, Bansenshukai, Shinobi Hiden and Gunpo Jiyoshu) and assume everything else doesn’t exist, the most compelling conclusion would be that ninja used the same martial arts as samurai. They were, after all, mostly from the bushi-class.
Any other deduction would be pure speculation that requires a higher threshold of proof (i.e. if the ninja did not use samurai martial arts that existed back then – despite being mainly from the bushi-class – then what?).
Of course, refinement, adaptation and evolution of the arts is a logical byproduct of time. The problem is that no validated sources confirms this happened. And thus, it remains a theory – a possibility.
No Compelling Reason That Combat Advantage Was Needed
Also, Antony posed a good point. The ninja did not necessarily need a combat advantage. There were non-combat tactics in place to ensure the shinobi completed his job, and reduced the chance of failure.
Since necessity is the mother of invention – or in this case development – would a superior martial art have evolved if there was no need for it?
It doesn’t seem probable.
How about mindset? Wouldn’t that influence shinobi’s martial arts?
But, even if an advantageous combat system was not needed, isn’t it still possible for some form of shinobi philosophy or mindset to seep into their martial arts practice? After all, bushido came about and became intertwined with samurai martial arts. Couldn’t there have been a similar philosophy for bushi who engaged in espionage and subterfuge?
Possible. Would that alone create a unique ninja fighting style though?
Alas’, you can’t know for sure. Until more primary sources are uncovered and/or validated, it remains a theory yet to be substantiated.
To put it plainly – no one knows. What do you think?
You can read all articles in the ninja martial arts series below.