in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #290: Everything You Know About Ninjas Is Wrong

When you hear the word “ninja” what do you imagine?

Hooded and masked men in black garb, stealthily running across tiled roofs? Ninja stars? Renegade warriors engaging in a special hand-to-hand combat system against their sworn enemy, the samurai? 

If that’s what you think of when you think of ninjas, I’m afraid my guest today on the podcast is here to tell us it’s all completely wrong.

His name is Antony Cummins. He has spent his career researching and translating feudal Japanese texts on samurai and ninjas. Today we’re talking about True Path of the NinjaIt’s a translation of a 17th century text called the Shoninki, a field manual for would-be ninjas. 

Today on the show, Antony uncovers the biggest myths we have in the West about ninjas — like the fact that there isn’t really a ninjutsu fighting system, nor were samurai the ninjas’ sworn enemy — and then gives the real history of these ancient warriors. Antony then shares what lessons actual ninjas can teach us folks living in the modern West about psychology and interacting with others in business and life. 

The bad news is that we’re going to ruin your childhood conceptions about ninjas in this podcast, but the good news is that the real story of ninjas is even more fascinating.

Show Highlights

  • When and how ninjutsu began
  • The role that ninjas had in the military
  • Misconceptions that people have about ninjas
  • The differences between ninjas and samurais
  • The not-so-unique fighting methods of the ninjas
  • Driving principles of the Shoninki (a ninja training manual)
  • How ninjas were trained
  • The typical ninja wardrobe and EDC (hint: it doesn’t involve black robes and ninja stars)
  • Ways that ninjas disguised themselves for covert operations
  • How ninjas interacted with people
  • How a ninja gets at the truth in any conversation
  • Why the ninja tried to “lose” and look dumber than he really was
  • Lessons that ninjas took from animals
  • The ambiguous advice that the Shoninki gives on teamwork
  • Clandestine tactics ninjas used to infiltrate buildings
  • The system ninjas used to count the number of people and buildings in an area
  • Ninjutsu magic and witchcraft
  • Are there ninjas left in the world today?
  • Lessons that us moderns can take from historical ninjutsu

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

True path of ninja by Dr. Nakashima Atsumi.

The book of samurai by Natori-Ryu.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When you hear the word “ninjas” what do you imagine? Hooded and masked men in black garb, stealthily running across tiled roofs? Ninja stars? How about renegade warriors engaging in a special hand to hand combat system against their sworn enemy the samurai? If that’s what you think when you think of ninjas, I’m afraid my guest today on the podcast is here to tell you it’s all completely wrong. Well, most of it’s completely wrong.

His name is Antony Cummins. He has spent his career researching and translating feudal Japanese texts on samurai and ninjas. His latest book is the True Path of the Ninja. It’s a translation of a 17th century text called the Shoninki, a field manual for would-be ninjas.

Today on the show, Antony uncovers the biggest myths we have in the West about ninjas, like the fact that there isn’t really ninjutsu fighting system, nor were samurai the ninjas’ sworn enemy, and then he gives the real history of these ancient warriors. Antony then shares what lessons actual ninjas can teach us folks living in the modern West about psychology and interacting with others in business and life.

The bad news is that we’re going to ruin your childhood conceptions about ninjas in this podcast. The good news is that the real story of ninjas is even more fascinating.

After the show’s over, check out the show notes at

Antony Cummins, welcome to the show.

Antony Cummins: Thank you very much.

Brett McKay: You helped put out this book, the True Path of the Ninja. It’s a translation of a set of Japanese scrolls from the 1600s called the Shoninki. Did I pronounce that right?

Antony Cummins: Yes, pretty much. Yes.

Brett McKay: All right. It’s an authentic ninja training manual. Before I read this book my conception of ninjas was what I learned from popular culture here in the United States. Guys in black, ninja stars, Ninja Turtles, all that stuff, but this gave me a completely different view of ninjas. What I love about the book too is that it’s sort of like The Art of War or The Book of Five Rings. It gets very specific about ninja things, but also had these overall broad philosophies that you can apply to your life. We’ll get into some of those specifics here in a bit, but before we do that can you give us a bit of historical background on ninjas? When did ninjutsu begin? Why did it begin? Who practiced it? What the role was in Feudal Japan?

Antony Cummins: Yeah, no problem. Basically, I am the same. I loved ninjas since a kid. I’m like pretty much one of those really sad guys who’s obsessed with it, but when I went to Japan to study with these so-called ninjas, I realized it just wasn’t right. So I decided to go around and collect as many of the ninja scrolls as possible.

I was the same. I had this idea of what ninja were, but it’s been totally changed. The first record of the ninja comes in 1375, so there’s a document called the tai haki which just talks about, they’re called shinobi originally. In fact, you should say shinobi no mono instead of ninja, but obviously everybody knows ninja. Basically, they start in this document and then they just sort of start appearing in different documents and the idea is that they’re part of the military organization. They’re the commando spies of Japan. When an army was on the move, you would literally take with you your commandos, your spies, your spy networks and people would just send them out all over Japan to get them to gather information.

Brett McKay: I thought one of the myths that you blew up in this book was there’s this idea like Ninjas versus Samurai. That was the ninja’s sworn enemy, but you talk about in the book like ninjas were oftentimes samurai. That was really interesting.

Antony Cummins: This is one of those that no matter how many times I’ve told people, people just don’t seem to be able to get it at the moment. What you’ve got is samurai is a social class, so samurai is one of four things you get. Samurai at the top, then you get farmers, then you get artisans and craftsmen, and then merchants. Ninja is not a social position. It’s a military role. It’s a job, so a ninja could be a samurai or he could be a foot soldier. More than likely they were samurai. They were trained.

This idea of the ninja peasant is total myth. In fact, the guy who wrote this, he’s called Natori Masazumi, he’s a samurai. In fact, he’s a very high ranking samurai, and nearly 100% of the text that we have left today are all written by samurai.

Brett McKay: So, basically this is a training manual. You could be a samurai, but it was specifically in how to fulfill this role as a spy, basically?

Antony Cummins: Well, the best way to look at it, if you want to look at it from a modern point of view, is you have to go and join the army or the military if you want to be a spy or a commando. You don’t just get your random farmer in the field who’s never had any training to be your spy. You would obviously take it from your military class. Obviously, you get foot soldiers and then you get samurai who are more officers. When you go to special forces, ninja are basically special forces, so when you go to your special forces you’ll say, “Okay, we need an officer from here because he’s well-trained, but they got this foot soldier here who’s a total maniac and will go murder everyone. So, we’ll use him.” That’s basically how they did it.

Brett McKay: Any other myths about ninjas that we have here in the West?

Antony Cummins: Yeah, mainly the hand to hand combat is your big one. It started in the 1960s in Japan as a very small thing and it blew up. It became massive in the 80s and 90s as the ninja hand to hand fighting system. It just doesn’t exist in history. It’s not there.

Brett McKay: So, there isn’t like ninjutsu? Like, you can get your black belt in ninjutsu? That is not a real thing.

Antony Cummins: That’s not a real thing. That all started, as I say, in the 80s, basically. It’s a bit of a problem because we’ve got a lot of emotional sort of throwback on that because a lot of people spent a lot of time training with these Japanese people. To be fair, it was just a lot of cashing in on the post-Bruce Lee era.

Brett McKay: Yeah, actually I have a book, I bought a book, I don’t have it anymore, but I bought it when I was in eighth grade. It was like How To Be A Ninja and it was like this manual and it was really cheesy, like the photographs were terrible. They were like these weird moves like how to disappear like a ninja. There was a move like “monkey steals the peach” which is like you grab your opponent’s testicles. I thought it was funny, but at the same time I thought it was cool when you’re in eighth grade. But yeah, after I read True Path of the Ninja I’ve learned that was-

Antony Cummins: This is where a lot of people get it wrong. Ninjas did fight. There’s no doubt about that, but they don’t have a specific system that only they use and it’s passed down in secret. They use the same fighting methods as everyone else.

Brett McKay: Okay. All right. Gotcha. So, if anyone says they are a ninja master, they can teach you ninja martial arts. Do not believe them.

Antony Cummins: Do not believe it. If they’re wearing a black karate gear, they’ve got a black belt on, and they say train in the ancient arts of the ninja, it was … They believe it. They’re not lying. There’s no problem there, but they were lied to.

Brett McKay: Okay. Let’s talk about the Shoninki and specifically big picture. What are the broad themes in this set of scrolls? I mean, what were the driving principles? So, there wasn’t ninjutsu martial arts. Ninjutsu was more of a way of approaching the world stealthily, I guess. So what were the big principles behind ninjutsu?

Antony Cummins: Right. Basically an army needs every sort of specialist. You’ve obviously got your specialists in spearsmanship, you’ve got your calvary officers and things like that. Ninjutsu developed, ninjutsu means, shinobi no jutsu means “the skills of the ninja”. That’s all it means and it’s an auxiliary art that goes on the side of all your other training. You go and learn horsemanship. You go and learn how to create fire, how to fight with a spear. So you pick up the best people who would do intelligence, so those who could speak multiple dialects and languages. You can get those who do counterespionage. They will double check for spies coming in. You get propaganda agents. What they’ll do is go and spread rumors in other provinces and to try and create a division between the enemy. Then you get classic commando style infiltration. You know your sort of black war paint on and guys going in. And they form networks.

Yeah, so basically they deal with all of that including special weapons and destruction and demolition.

Brett McKay: Right. There’s books like that here in the modern day. You can buy vintage CIA field manuals for spies. Pretty much the same thing.

Antony Cummins: The good thing about the ninja, what makes the ninja so famous and special is the fact that it’s a James Bond thing where James Bond will be a spy one film or one part of the film and then he’s a commando the next part and then he’s an assassin the next part and all that seems to be mixed in together. That’s very much what the ninja trained in.

Brett McKay: Getting back to some of the myths of the ninja, there’s one chapter where Natori Masazumi he writes about the equipment and the clothing a ninja should have on him. Again, we have that idea like he’s in all black. He’s got the mask. He’s got ninja stars, but that’s not how it’s described here. What was the typical wardrobe a ninja was supposed to wear and what kind of equipment did he keep on him?

Antony Cummins: Right, well, first of all, the ninja star is not, it’s not real. The ninja star does exist, but it’s not a ninja weapon. That came later. Basically, a ninja would be wearing normal military clothes. When you see this ninja suit and you’ve got this image of it, you’ve got to remember that’s traditional Japanese wear. It wasn’t out of place there. The only thing that’s out of place is the hood. Even then, people wore hoods if they didn’t want to be seen going into brothels and things like that. They could wear a mask. So, basically, a ninja would just wear normal clothes of the day, but when he infiltrated he’d try to find something lightweight and he may or may not cover their face. We don’t know about that, but probably not.

Brett McKay: There’s whole sections dedicated to the art of disguise, like how to disguise yourself in different situations, as well.

Antony Cummins: Yeah, so, you’ve got two options as a ninja. You can either go in infiltration-style, meaning you shouldn’t be seen, you wear dark clothes and you use magical spells to hide yourself and all that, but on the other hand, you’ve got to go into enemy territory walking, outwardly walking, so you’ve got to blend in with the crowd. Say you need to be a priest or an acrobat or just wear clothes that the people of the other place wear. Make sure you’ve got the same hairstyle as that province or make sure you’re not wearing clothes that seem strange in that province. You’ve got to do your research beforehand.

I think they did the same in World War II, didn’t they? When they sent spies into France they had to make sure all the clothes were bang on correct.

Brett McKay: Right. Right. I love there’s a section too, like how to look like a sick homeless person. It’s like fast for as long as you can and rub dirt on your face and do that.

Antony Cummins: I think they even apply burns to your skin and don’t cut your nails. Yeah. Put things in your mouth and make yourself look as disgusting and as horrible as possible because everybody ignores beggars, don’t they?

Brett McKay: Right. Right. Right. Yeah, they just ignore you. Besides the clothing, what kind of equipment was standard operating procedure for a ninja? Was it the katana like the sword? Was that a thing or is that a myth?

Antony Cummins: Well, the ninja sword itself doesn’t exist. They just used normal swords, which was fine. In the Shoninki it says go with a short sword. However, the best one, to be honest, we’ve now translated about 10 different books on ninjas and a load of ninja manuals, Shoninki’s just one of them and it has the least amount of tools in it, believe it or not. The other one we’ve done is The Book of Ninjas has loads of tools. For example, climbing ladders, collapsible grappling hooks, floats to get you across water, all that type of thing.

So, if you need to get across a moat in a castle, so something like a life buoy needs to float you across, then spikes to climb up the wall, then a grappling hook to get over the last bit of the wall and then maybe some hand grenades are used, things like that.

Brett McKay: Yeah. That’s crazy.

You mentioned earlier that ninjas were basically spies. There was two ways you could get reconnaissance, you could infiltrate and that was done at night during other ways, clandestinely. But I thought it was interesting the other way was just be out in the open, but disguise yourself. It seems like most of the book was dedicated to how to recover reconnaissance in that more open way.

Antony Cummins: Yes. This is one of the problems we have in the Shoninki. It’s, to be honest, my favorite ninja manual of all time, but now we’ve been digging into it, it turns out it’s only one of 30 manuals overall. Three of those 30 are ninja manuals. It’s like a peek into the ninja, but it assumes you’ve read the other 29 scrolls from samurai warfare, from every aspect. Some bits do seem missing.

In this one it’s more about how to, because Natori Masazumi’s born in a time of peace just after the wars, he served one of the most powerful families in Japan, and he would probably go around checking for rebellions, checking if anybody’s causing any troubles.

Brett McKay: What I loved about this book is that it provides, even though it was written in the 1600s, it was written for ninjas, there are these great insights that just common people living in the West in the 21st century can apply themselves, particularly on how to interact with people in order to gain information from them because that’s a useful thing to have in business or even in just your personal life, you know, if you’re dating someone.

What can we learn from ninjas about interacting with people to get information that we might want from them?

Antony Cummins: Right. Basically, ninjas did deal with psychology and they tried to investigate their version of psychology. It says that the human mind is divided into two main aspects. You’ve got the mind of man and the mind of the principles of heaven. The idea here is that, basically, there’s what’s right and what’s wrong. Normally people will try their best to get what benefits them.

You’ve got to realize that most people most of the time are, not lying, but being mistruthful. A ninja’s job is to try and get through to what the truth is in the mind. What happens is when you study ninjutsu, you end up finding you’re realizing when people are lying. You end up realizing when people are exaggerating. You start to be able to go beyond what they’re saying and construct a big picture of what’s happening in the background just through their vocabulary, their words they use, and also their body language. Things like that.

Brett McKay: Right. There’s a lot of sections dedicated to how to read body language.

Antony Cummins: Yes. That is one of the bits that’s a little bit out of date because it’s using an old Chinese, almost mystical method, but yeah, absolutely. Ninjutsu was very much about … Because you’ve got to remember the enemy are trying to hide what they want to do from enemy spies and they don’t know who the spies are. This is where we go back to the question that these ninja were walking around in normal clothes, getting information, because they were inside of the enemy province. Bit by bit they have to reconstruct from what people say and what people are doing.

Brett McKay: I love, too, there was a bit in there about understanding people’s psychology and the best places to go for information. For example, they said at the time of the ninja, the best place to go to get information oftentimes was the temple amongst priests. What was it about the temple that made it such a great place to get information about your enemy?

Antony Cummins: Most people had to be registered at a temple at some points in Japan and the temple, it’s like the church in probably the early 20th century. Everybody went to the church and had a chat, all information was being done there. It actually says in the scrolls, it says don’t bribe lower level people with gold because they’ll become a bit wary. That’s too much. Yet, if you offer gold to priests, they love it. They will lap up as much money as possible and they are the ones in the know. They know what’s going on in the community.

Brett McKay: So a bit of cynicism there from this guy.

Antony Cummins: Absolutely. There’s actually a quote from an Englishman, the first Englishman that got to Japan was in the 1600s and he said that the monks just run down on their day off and get as much silk as they can and posh food. Nothing’s changed.

Brett McKay: I thought another interesting bit of psychology that the ninja used, there’s this interesting section called “How to avoid defeating people”. Why have a chapter on how not to defeat your enemy if that’s what the whole point of ninjutsu was, to get reconnaissance to defeat your enemy?

Antony Cummins: Yeah, that’s good. That’s a common misconception. You don’t want to defeat the enemy, meaning the enemy spy or the person you’re interviewing, if you like. You don’t want to defeat them because they’ll close up. The idea behind this is when you’re in a conversation, you need to create an argument. A ninja would create an argument and they would say something that was clearly wrong and the enemy spy or the person they’re talking to would correct them and they would have to admit defeat, but through correcting them they give away loads of information.

This is the difference between losing the points battle, but winning the war. You’ve got to lose lots of little battles, so you can gain information and then eventually you put all that information together and move in and get them because most people will not want to lose an argument. That’s one of the skills of the ninja. You have to end up looking stupid and losing so people will get carried away and say too much.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I thought that was an interesting point. The guy repeatedly throughout the book is like “Look dumber than you actually are.” It’s amazing. It’s an effective strategy. I’ve read books where leaders in the modern day have taken that approach. Dwight Eisenhower, here in the United States, he was a really sharp guy, but he often played as himself sort of this rube from Kansas, just a country boy. By taking on that persona, he was able to get more information from people than he otherwise would have.

Antony Cummins: It’s absolutely. They even say you should pick people who visually look stupid, as well, people who you automatically think, “Oh, you look stupid.” But yet they’re clever underneath and they play the role of the idiot and they go out as beggars looking stupid, but inside they’ve got phenomenal minds just working overtime in multiple different dialects on multiple levels and they’re just collecting information by memory, as well. The idea is that you’ve got like this front of a really stupid, silly person, but in the background you’ve got a work excellent.

Brett McKay: Right. So, there was also sections where the ninja were told to find lessons from animals. This is a very common thing in ancient Asian cultures like learn lessons from the dog or from the cat or something like that. What were some of these lessons that we find in the Shoninki about how ninja can learn from nature and how to approach their work?

Antony Cummins: In the manual they divide it into two here. What he says is from four-legged animals, by that he means cattle really, domestic cattle and by wolves and raccoons. This has got something to do with the traditions in Japan. In Japan, a fox, a wolf, and a raccoon they have magical powers sometimes and they can disguise and mutate themselves. What he’s saying here is if you follow the path of the wolf, the fox, you use deception, you go deep into the mountains, you go clandestine at night, and use all the attitude, but if you use like the cattle it means let people lead you where you want to go.

Another and ninja master called Chikamatsu, he basically said that most ninjas will automatically go and try to climb over the gate or do this, but he said instead, why don’t you just get a job as a servant to someone who’s allowed in that castle? If you remember, these guys are mainly samurai, so they have to really, really lower their sort of standard, become a servant to someone who’ll probably hit them and hate them and then what happens is when they go through the castle gates they’re allowed in. They automatically infiltrate without having to risk their lives.

That’s the idea. You divide. One is wolves, like climb over, get in, deception. The other one is just go in with someone who’s meant to be there. Follow. Be a cattle and be lead in.

Brett McKay: Right. I think applying that to our own selves, I think the tendency for us in our sort of hyper-competitive world is you want to be the wolf. Be confrontational. Get right in there. But the better way is to be a cow.

Antony Cummins: Absolutely. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Get led to where you want to be.

Antony Cummins: Yeah. It’s less risky, isn’t it? “This way, chaps.” “Okay, thanks.”

Brett McKay: It’s hard though because you don’t want to be put in that subservient role, but sometimes you need to do that. Going back to that idea of looking dumber than you really are might hurt your pride a little bit, but you’ve got to look at the long game.

Antony Cummins: That’s exactly back to the same issue with that not to defeat others. If you defeat them, they close up. They stop talking. You know if you suddenly have a go at someone and you’re clearly more intelligent than they are, they’ll make an excuse to leave or they’ll stop talking. Whereas if you look more stupid than they are, they will just love it and go for it.

Brett McKay: Right. There’s some sections too about teamwork. I found the author was a little bit ambivalent about ninja teams. I got the idea that if you had a really good ninja with you working, it was better, but if you had a bad one, a bad partner, it made things worse for you. What insights can we learn about teamwork or working with other people from ninjas?

Antony Cummins: Right. In the teamwork area the problem is if you’re infiltrating at night and you’re moving into an enemy house, this is basically what it’s talking about, you need a watchman, you need an infiltrator who creeps deep into the enemy, and you also need people they’ll get ready with swords next to the doors for when everybody starts running out to start cutting them down. What happened was you have to work as a unit absolutely, so practice, practice, practice because if you don’t, one of you messes up, everybody wakes up starts drawing their weapons and it becomes a bit of a blood bath really and they don’t want that. Especially when you go in in open disguise, if someone’s not good enough, they’re not speaking well enough, or they’re just not working right it’ll give up the entire team.

That was a problem, so his point there is if you can do it alone it’s better, but if you have to do it in a team you must be really gelled together and like each other as well.

Brett McKay: We’ve talked big picture, the tactics that allow you to get information in a more open way. Let’s talk about some of the clandestine things. Those are fun. That’s like the things we think about when we think “ninja”. What were some of the tactics ninja used to infiltrate a palace or a building to get information?

Antony Cummins: In this one the book talked about using sickness. So what you do is you walk up, you’ll knock on a door, and you’ll be like vomiting or make yourself vomit or look really ill and you say, “I’m so sorry.” But what you don’t do is you don’t push your way in. You just say, “I just need some water. That’s fine.” You take the water and you take refreshment and then you go on your way. Then what you do is you’ll case the joint around for a few days, but then you pretend you’ve been on your journey. You come back with some presents and you go in and you say, “Thank you for looking after me. I feel better now. Here are the gifts.” And then what you do is you map out the internals of the house and you map it by memory. If you get a chance you open the locks to the windows and things like that. When you say, “Goodbye. Thank you very much. Goodbye.” Later on that night when everyone’s gone to sleep, you’ll use the window that you’ve opened and creep through and then crack on and do what you need to do.

Brett McKay: Wow. There were sections about roof walking. That’s a stereotype we have of ninjas, like they’re out in the night walking the tiled roofs. That actually happened. That was a thing.

Antony Cummins: Oh yeah. Without a doubt. Don’t get me wrong. What we need to do is change the image of the ninja. It is how we imagine it, but it’s a little bit different. It’s more sophisticated and there’s two parts. As I said before, there’s the part where you go in open disguise and then there’s climbing on roofs. It says you have to walk along the ridge so that all the beams, to make sure that you don’t make a squeaking noise as you go along. Or if somebody looks up at you, you throw a stone down one side and jump down the other and people will hear the stone and then follow that way as you jump over the fences and move out.

Brett McKay: There was also, too, how to walk when you’re in a house because, I guess, there’s a diagram in there how the mats were arranged in the floor in homes in Japan. I guess if you walked on it normally you’d make a lot of noise, but if you walked on it a certain way it didn’t make as much noise. Did I read that right?

Antony Cummins: Yeah, you did. That’s actually though, that’s an addition from another school. That’s in the back of the book. That’s from a school called katori shinto ryu. But absolutely, yeah. It’s not from the manual. That’s a secret tradition that’s passed down by one of the oldest schools in Japan.

But yeah, ninjas absolutely talk about how to walk. For example, if you’re in a marsh you have to pull your toes up very directly up. Otherwise, if you just push forward you do that squelching sound. If you’re in corridors, you have to go along the inside of the corridor and slide your feet gently, because if you’re in the middle you will spring on the boards and you’ll making creaking sounds. There’s even one, which we don’t really know how real this is, but where you put your hands on the floor and you put your feet on top of your hands and use your hands almost like a crouched frog type movement.

Brett McKay: That sounds really uncomfortable.

Antony Cummins: It does. It does sound uncomfortable, but it’s appeared in two separate manuals now from different times, so they must have been using this one. I’ve had a professional dancer test it and they did it really quite well actually.

Brett McKay: Also, another thing was to avoid water. That was the one thing I saw. Avoid water at all costs, but if you do, tread with caution.

Antony Cummins: Yeah. Pretty much. One of the old techniques they used to use was they’d clip the wings of some waterfowl and they’d put that on the moat or on the water outside a house and when somebody came in, it’d try and fly away, but it’d make a splashing noise because it couldn’t fly away. Always water gives away your position.

Brett McKay: They used that as a distraction technique. There’s also great tidbits in there about how to distract your enemy. They’ll go one way, so if you’re on a roof, you’d throw a rock on the other side of the roof so they’d go check that out while you’re getting out the other way.

Antony Cummins: Yeah. Absolutely. Another manual states that if you set up Chinese firecrackers, so when you leave if somebody sees you, you can set fire to the firecrackers and it sounds like muskets are being shot at them, so they will stop and start firing back while the ninja runs off in another direction.

Brett McKay: Oh, and another cool tidbit that I thought was really neat was on how to do reconnaissance, how to count people. They would have this elaborate system … It wasn’t actually an elaborate system of bags. You get these bags with different colored rocks and you would transfer them as you were counting and the end you can just look at the bag and see automatically how many people were in that building you were at.

Antony Cummins: Yeah, so there’s two skills here. There’s one where if you need to know how many buildings are in a town. If you need to know how many houses are in a town, you can get the population number, and what you do is you put in your sleeve, they have long sleeves in Japan, you’d put beans and you’d drop one and you know if there’s 100 beans in your sleeve, if you’re only left with five there’s 95 houses.

Similar when you’re counting people, you would have like, say, 10 bags, one bag for mounted horsemen, one bag for gunners, and you’d just pick out the beans. You don’t have to actually count, just pick the beans out and then count them up at the end.

Brett McKay: It’s really clever. I thought that was pretty cool.

Antony Cummins: Yeah. It’s really easy and really clever.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about something I had no idea that existed, but was ninjutsu magic or witchcraft. Can you talk a bit about that? What did they believe that this magic could do for them? What were some of the spells or talismans that they used to perform this magic?

Antony Cummins: Obviously it’s a medieval society, so magic is throughout. Natori Masazumi himself says don’t trust magic too much, it’s a little bit dark and seedy, but he also says don’t throw it away. For example, in the Shoninki it has spells of protection, so the idea is that when you go on a mission you’ll fast for seven days, you’ll write out these spells, and sometimes they consume them by eating the paper, and the idea is that the enemies won’t see you or capture you.

Other manuals go really quite dark, to be honest. There’s ones where they actually take out the eyes of living dogs and they’ll grind them and they’ll paste them on their foreheads or around their eyes, and the idea is that you can see better in the dark or that the enemy won’t see you.

Invisibility spells, things like that. Protection spells or curses for the enemy, so you can curse them. For example, one of these schools, which is a bit crazy, goes into infiltrating people’s dreams. Ninjas would cast these spells and send dreams to the enemy that will make the enemy really upset the next day for battle.

Brett McKay: That’s crazy.

Antony Cummins: It is crazy, isn’t it?

Brett McKay: There are some of the spells in the scrolls you all translated. If you want to check that out and you’re listening, pick up a copy of the book. It’s pretty interesting.

The end of the book it’s not part of the scroll, as you said earlier. I referenced something that wasn’t in the scrolls, but it was this sort of oral tradition of how to defeat a ninja. Can you talk a little bit about that? Where did that come from and what were some of the insights on how to defeat ninjas?

Antony Cummins: Do you mean the entire system at the end?

Brett McKay: Yeah. The entire system.

Antony Cummins: Basically, this school been around for about 500 years, it’s call katori shinto ryu and they had a ninja tradition, but the idea is to defeat ninja. They themselves said you should never become a ninja because it was a pretty horrible job to do. The idea is that you would set up as many defenses as possible to stop shinobi infiltrating, to stop them getting in. For example, in that oral tradition they have a certain smell of burned powder because a ninja will move forward and he’ll throw this powder in the air and what happens is that floating almost like dust will hide the outline of a ninja, so if you’re in the dark the human eye can automatically see what looks like an outline. Even when it’s a tree you think “Is that a man?” You know, because it sees the shape of a human.

What they do is they try to hide the shape. It’s just skills like that basically.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. We mentioned earlier that ninja martial arts does not exist. Are there individuals where this idea, ninjutsu, has still been passed on and it’s still practiced as a philosophy? I don’t know if it’s a philosophy be a right word … but is it still exist in some form today?

Antony Cummins: That’s the emotional question, I think, that’s out there. There’s a big ninja community out there and they, obviously, some of them practice hand to hand combat and some of them don’t. I would say, and my honest opinion is, and I’ve searched for these, there is no, it’s all died out. There are now around three Japanese people who claim to be the last ninja, but none of them have any proof whatsoever. All of their stories only go back to like the 1960s, 1970s and they don’t really fit history. It’s a little bit strange, to be honest.

Brett McKay: Yeah. It is. Going back sort of the idea of ninja, the history of it, was the skill of ninjutsu, was this something that was passed on from father to son or was it something that you were trained to do? Like you were brought into spy school, ninja school, and you were taught how to be a ninja. You were called to do that.

Antony Cummins: Yeah. Basically, a different version. You know that one we just talked about where it was the how to defeat a ninja tradition? That’s only a very small amount in a samurai sword school. From one end, the smallest end, they’ve got these how to defeat a ninja or how to stop them coming after you, just passed on and right at the other end you have full on schools and these are places called Iga and Koka there, different cities or towns if you like, areas in Japan. Those guys were brought up in their samurai families and their speciality was ninjutsu. They were only passed on from within the family.

From one end you get highly specialized ninja, right to the other end where little tidbits are passed on in schools. Also, in this one, the Shoninki here, it’s basically, he is picked the best people, so this guy, Natori Masazumi, was teaching in a place called Kishu and when he got samurai students come in, those who were really good or they suited ninjutsu, he would teach them ninjutsu as time went on.

Brett McKay: We’ve learned a lot. I think a lot of people’s childhood illusions or dreams were shattered in this podcast.

Antony Cummins: Destroyed. However, though, guys, I would like to say if you’re listening, honestly I was one of those guys. I was like childhood, that’s what ninjas do, but even though this historical ninjutsu is difficult, it’s far better than the fantasy by a long shot.

Brett McKay: You’ve spent years researching ninja and ninjutsu, all this research that you’ve done. What are some lessons that you think we can take from the life of the ninja and we can apply to our own lives even if we’re not clandestine spies? We’re just average Joes making our way through 21st century western world, here. What are some lessons that guys today can apply from their lives from the ninja?

Antony Cummins: The thing about historical ninjutsu, obviously, you can’t do it for real because it’s highly illegal. That just wouldn’t do. But what I found out studying this is it reshapes your mind. When you start at the beginning of samurai training and you go all the way through to the ninja training, you start to think differently, you start to look at the world differently, different things become more important, different things go off the other side. I would say the number one thing people can take from ninjutsu is how to reconstruct the way you think and how you re-approach the world.

Absolutely, I think once you’ve done the training, once you go through it, you come out with a much more structured mental attitude. Definitely.

Brett McKay: I love that. Antony, where can people learn more about the book and your other work?

Antony Cummins: Right, if I could say to everyone, basically, if you want to go to my website you can use, which is N-A-T-O-R-I and just click “Antony Cummins” and you’ll see there. But what I would say, guys, I’ve been working now for 10 years and I’ve been going backwards and forwards to Japan and I’m trying to reconstruct what we understand about the samurai and the ninja. If possible, of course you can just go onto Amazon and type in “True Path Of The Ninja” and I’d recommend, guys, you get the red paperback because it’s the most up to date version.

If you find that interesting, then I would say, if you want to start at the beginning go to a book called The Book of Samurai. It is the first work Natori Masazumi writes and we’re publishing that from volume one all the way to volume ten and the Shoninki will be republished in it.

For those guys who just are brand new at all ninjas, brand new at everything, I would definitely, definitely recommend a book called Samurai and Ninja by Antony Cummins. I just say that because there’s lots of different books out there with similar titles. That will give the absolute beginner the full lot.

Lastly, if you’re absolutely obsessed with ninjas, I would say go for a book called The Book of Ninja or another book called Iga and Koka Ninja Skills. With that, guys, you can learn everything you know. I would be grateful to you guys could help out because we’re a self-funded team and the only way we get money is through book sales.

Thank you very much for the obviously opportunity through this podcast.

Brett McKay: Antony Cummins, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Antony Cummins: Thank you very much.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Antony Cummins. He helped translate the book the True Path of the Ninja. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can also find more information about Antony’s work at That’s A-N-T-O-N-Y C-U-M-M-I-N-S dot com. You can find more information about his other books he’s published. Check out his books about the samurai. It’s really fascinating as well.

Also, make sure to check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at If you enjoy this show, I’d really appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That really helps us out. It gets the word out about the show.

Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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