As the 21st head of the Ban clan, a line of ninja that can be traced back 500 years and the only living person who learned all the skills that were directly handed down from ninja masters, Jinichi Kawakami is considered by many the last real ninja in all of Japan.
63-year-old Kawakami, a retired engineer, says he started practicing the art of Ninjutsu at the age of six. He was just a young boy when he began training under master Masazo Ishida, a man who dressed as a Buddhist monk, and didn’t even realize what he was learning until years later. He was required to endure extreme heat and cold, as well as pain and hunger. To improve his concentration, he would have to look at the wick of a candle until he got the feeling he was inside it, and practice hearing the sound of a needle falling on a wooden floor. He climbed walls, jumped from great heights, learned chemicals and making explosives and even studied weather and psychology. “The training was all tough and painful. It wasn’t fun but I didn’t think much why I was doing it. Training was made to be part of my life,” Jinichi told AFP. Just before turning 19, he inherited his master’s title, along with his old scrolls and tools. Although he doesn’t claim the title of “last ninja” for himself in order to avoid disputes with other claimants and doubters, he is recognized as Japan’s last real ninja master.
Talking about what being an actual ninja implies, Jinichi Kawakami said the secret of ninjutsu lies more in catching people unawares rather than engaging them in combat, like you see in most modern films. “Humans can’t be on the alert all the time,” the Japanese master says. “There is always a moment when they are off guard and you have to catch it.” As a ninja, you have to exploit weaknesses in order to outsmart bigger or more numerous opponents, and use distraction tactics to allow a quick getaway. Hiding and moving silently until he reaches his target is what a ninja is all about. However, even to him some of the ancient teachings have remained a mystery. Some traditions were only passed on by word of mouth, so it’s hard to know if they were altered over the years, and others just can’t be practiced anymore nowadays. “We can’t try out murder or poisons. Even if we can follow the instructions to make a poison, we can’t try it out,” Jinichi says.
Even though he had a normal job, Jinichi Kawakami never stopped practicing ninjutsu, and is still well versed in the deadly art. But he has not taking on any apprentice to pass on the legacy of the Ban clan, which means their secrets will probably die with him. “Ninjas just don’t fit in the modern day,” the master justifies his decision. For those eager to know more about real ninjas, he will leave behind the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum and its trick house with hidden ladders, fake doors and an underfloor sword box.