The ninja struck a chord with many Western admirers and Antony Cummins was no exception. When he got his chance, he enrolled in the Bujinkan Hombu Dojo in Noda, Japan, but some things were not adding up correctly. This skepticism ultimately led him to finding his research team and researching deeply into the historical ninja, their operations, and their role in Japanese/samurai society. He has recently expanded his research into reconstructing how samurai fought during the Sengoku Period. Today, Cummins talks about his research journey. This interview is also in podcast form. View it on Anchor or on Youtube!
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Antony! Thank you for joining us to talk about the ninja!
Antony Cummins: Glad to be here!
MAYTT: What was it like to step into your first Bujinkan class in 1999 in Japan? Did you have any other martial arts experience to compare?
AC: I grew up in a martial arts family – they all did martial arts. My uncle was quite a large champion in karate, and he competed a lot. There were a lot of martial arts in the family. We all did bits of everything. It was the early 1980s, so there was a lot of martial art stuff going on and around. And, of course, it was the height of The Karate Kid. So yes, I’ve done quite a lot of martial arts when I was younger. I did a lot of Shotokan Karate. I did Shotokan for a long time and, to be honest, I still think that has really built a strong foundation.
So, the Bujinkan class was standard Bujinkan. The instructor was very standard – it was not bad, and it was not good. It was interesting. For me as a youngster in 1999 – I must have been twenty-one maybe – I really enjoyed it. It fulfilled a fantasy – I think it does fulfill a fantasy and the idea of the ninja and all of that. However, even then, I realized people were too strange with the idea of the ninja. They actually thought they were training as ninjas – they thought they were ninjas. As much as I believed in the Bujinkan then, I did not think I was a ninja or anything like that. But I had been fascinated with ninja training and Bujinkan since a very early age, so it was not very new. I read all the Masaaki Hatsumi books, I read all the Stephen Hayes books, or all the ones I could get in the UK and it was not really a shock. I have seen them in the books, so let us get on with it.
MAYTT: Around what time did you decide to disregard the twentieth century ninja manuals and start looking at historical documents relating to the ninja?
AC: It was between the years 2004 and 2008. By 2008, I had pretty much given up on the idea of Bujinkan being a historical school. Originally, I wanted Hatsumi to do the Foreward for the Shoninki [True Path of the Ninja: The Definitive Translation of the Shoninki] and I left a place for him in my work in the book before we got it published because I genuinely thought he was a real master. But by the time I had finished the Shoninki, by the time we had done other things, we just knew there was something wrong. So, about 2008 is when I stopped and that is when I brought out my YouTube channel and that was when I started doing my Shinobi Soldiers series to try to tell people, “Hey, hold on a minute. Something is wrong.” Now, I knew it was wrong, I knew it was a problem, but it did not know all the information I know now. Nothing has changed. I still have the same opinion, even after all these years. We came to the correct conclusion, and I would not change that now. We definitely got it right.
MAYTT: What were the turn of events that resulted in the creation of your research team? How did you come to find your team members?
AC: I had found Yoshie before I gave up on Bujinkan. In fact, Yoshie Minami is part of the reason. She was looking into Bujinkan and starting to say, “This looks suspicious,” and, “This is not right.” I started to look deeper and deeper too. It was a bit of a transition from Hatsumi showing this and doing this compared to the Shoninki to the end where I was like, “No. This is not right. This is not real.” Even if he has some real historical things, it is just too much to try to divide from the truth. It was just too much. So, then I met Yoshie. She was one of the students in my class. The reason she was a student was that she was actually a receptionist at the English language school, and they had to go. She did not need to be there at all; her English was way too good. But they have to be in the classes to make sure everything is going correctly. So that is how we started speaking and that is how I came across Yoshie.
Mieko Koizumi was actually a mother of one of the children in the class and she just loved writing and old things. And, of course, the monk gets involved because we met him because of the grave, so we got a monk involved. He recreated a shodo group, which means a cursive, old style writing group and basically what he did was put that old school back together. They basically went under, and we found the details for the main guy, and he put it back together while we did a scroll. I assume it is probably collapsed again now in Japan, but they all had great knowledge. At one point, we had a lot of people with a lot of knowledge doing the scrolls, but now, of course, Yoshie and Mieko are quite good at shosho and we do not really need that group anymore. Any questions I have, I now have qualified Buddhists in Natori school to go to. I got a monk to hand, I have swordsmen, I have translators, I got people who speak different languages and do swordsmanship. Mieko now has her grade in Yagyu Shinkage-ryu. We have a lot of people working around this central axis to come together to make sure everything is OK.
MAYTT: That is amazing how you found your team! What is it like working on a historical team? What benefits have you experienced that might have been difficult if you were researching on your own? Would you suggest other historians to work in related teams to assist their own research?
AC: I think it is absolutely necessary to have multiple people on a project. The problem this brings is that everybody has their own opinion on something that might not really be based on historical accuracy or research – that is one problem. For example, I am recently working on Yagyu Shinkage-ryu and I have involved about four or five Western people with sword qualifications and they just want to use what is in their school or what they think they know. For example, there is a sword stance, hasso-no-kamae, and it is clearly different in the original scrolls to the one that is standardized and taught today. They want to do the standardized version so I have to keep reminding them that the standardization came because everybody had different things and we cannot use standardized versions for single lineage scrolls. So, we start to get problems like that.
But on the whole, there is no way that I can do what I do without my Japanese translators – not a chance! [Laughs] I can do a lesser version of it. Some of my books that I write on my own are done from my own research in libraries and translating materials, but I could not do what I have done, which is bringing out the scrolls to the modern audience, because we need those translators. You cannot just have any old translator; you have to have somebody who really knows.
So yes, I think everybody should work in a team and have various people from various places. But you need someone to be a decision-maker. The problem is that no one agrees on anything. Everyone tries to put their own ideas in, which may not be the best. Not everybody has been to university. Not everybody understands how history works and how you get to the correct analysis of historical data, but you do need people’s expertise. Somebody might be great at how to read old kanji, somebody might be great with old vocabulary, someone might have a great knowledge of swordsmanship, but inside of that comes their own problems of what they try to put into the text, and you are like, “No. That does not go into the text.” So, it needs someone with a clear head, in the middle, to say, “No. Stop there.”
MAYTT: How and when did you find out that you had a knack for researching and writing? What keeps you motivated to continue to do both?
AC: I would say I don’t have a great talent for writing. In fact, one of my favorite stories to tell is that I spoke with my publisher and said, “I am not the best writer.” They said, “Do not worry about that. What you need is a good idea. You do not need to be a good writer – there are plenty of good writers and they tend to become editors. Actually, writers tend not to be very good, they just have good ideas.” Of course, me putting the team together, collecting all the scrolls, doing all of the research was a good idea.
I tend to have a knack for seeing through things. Instead of looking at, say, a sword school and thinking that is correct. I think that does not really look right; that does not work; that does not fit into the broader picture. Now, this started after I had been to university. I went to university and did my degree in Ancient History and Archeology, and I did my Master’s degree in Theoretical Archeology and the idea is that you have to look for patterns in things. You have to look at the larger picture. You have to look at how things do not make sense straight away and you look for the deeper story. And I applied that to the world of ninja, the samurai, and swordsmanship, and I realized that actually a lot of it does not make sense. By that I mean, that is not how a samurai would really fight. You look at some of the sword schools today and go, “Oh, no. That would not really do anything.” And a lot of people question aikido; a lot of people question the softer martial arts. They do have their ancestry in the harder samurai styles, but why are they doing that certain soft style now? It does not really make sense. So, I would not say that I had a knack for writing, but I definitely put the credit on the shoulders of university. Yes, I have the brain power, yes, I have the question in mind, but university really made me understand how to look at things.
MAYTT: That is an interesting take. Do you feel your research and writings have altered or added to the historical knowledge of the ninja in such a way that other historians and enthusiasts would find the information a valuable starting point for their study?
AC: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I would go as far as to say I would ignore everybody’s research before my team. Now, that just sounded a little bit narcissistic, however, that is the entire point of my research team. It simply was that the research was not good enough, so I just used the single rule to throw everything away and start again. So basically, if you are reading something by someone else from before we started, it is not worth the trouble. I went through it. I did it all. You do not need to. It was so full of incorrect information, of stereotypes and tropes, that it has no value whatsoever. You can nitpick it if you know what you are looking for, but you have to really know what you are looking for and not fall into the traps. So, if you start with our research, you don’t fall into any traps, and we get rid of all of that for you.
MAYTT: How much impact do you feel the ninja actually had on Japanese culture and martial arts as a whole compared to their samurai counterparts?
AC: I think that the ninja has a smaller impact than what we believe. They are not really well recorded in the historical record. They are only a small part. The ninja themselves say they are amazing and cannot do without them. And yes, you cannot do without spies. We need spies. The Japanese samurai needed spies. But I think, on the whole, the ninja are far more popular now than they were in the past. I think the samurai were far more influential because, of course, they were the main staple of samurai culture. I think that ninja are far more famous today than they were in the past. But, of course, they were an intrinsic part of samurai life. They were an important part of samurai life, but I don’t think they were as important in the past as people would like to believe.
MAYTT: What have you seen as the biggest misconception people have regarding ninja and their existence in Japanese history and/or lore?
AC: I think the biggest misconception people have regarding the ninja is the fact that the ninja are separate from the samurai. That is not simply the case. Yes, there are parts of Japan where they are more famous for their ninja skills. Absolutely true. So, they would have more ninja-centric areas, but without a doubt, people have this idea that eh ninja are separate. To this day, I see people from Japan saying this. I see high-end people saying this – big YouTubers saying this. It is just not true. It is just not true that ninja are different from other samurai. We have only three pieces of art that come from the ninja themselves – drawing ninja – and they look exactly like all of the samurai. There is simply no difference.
MAYTT: Ah! Where do you think this misconception began and why do you feel it has been propagated and still propagated in today’s age?
AC: The ninja, how did we feel that they were separate or against the samurai? Now, you cannot find anything that has to do with ninja versus samurai before the twentieth century, but I do think that this starts with a misconception of the origin of how samurai clans work, what ninja are, and what are ninja clans. Those terms can be very destructive in English – they can be very bad.
One of the first things is the Iranki, which was written in the 1600s and it was the tales about the wars in Iga, which was from around the 1580s. So, this is like, seventy years later it is being written and the author who was writing was observing the people of Iga and he said, “Oh, they do their ninjutsu in the morning. They do their farming in the afternoon.” Because remember, the people of Iga were taken away from their lands, thrown off their lands, or at least their ownership of their lands were taken away. And in fact, they actually had to work on their ancestral lands, but for someone else. They were a defeated people. The so-called ninja clans of Iga are a defeated set of families. So, what we find is, all the way back to the 1600s, they were declining into farming. And what happens is that we get this idea that they’re no longer full warriors – they’re half warriors, half famers. During the twentieth century, people picked up on this, saying, “They farm in the evenings, and they do their ninjutsu in the morning. They’re out in this area that’s detached from people. It is inside a ring of mountains.”
Technically, it is inside a ring of mountains, but the term mountain is very ambiguous in English. A mountain can be anything from a large hill to mount Everest. I’m going to be honest with you, the “mountains” are not so big in Iga. There’s actually a main road that goes through Iga through to Kyoto. They had trade going through Iga. It was a very open place, but it was also very easy to defend because of the hilly terrain. You would say “hilly terrain” rather than “mountains.” You can see the difference, when I visited Iga and Koka, you can clearly see the difference.
So, it was a mixture of the ninja losing their position and their samurai status – even that’s misleading. It is the samurai families of Iga losing their status, being taken over by other families and then being famous for ninjutsu but losing the amount of money they needed to practice ninjutsu, therefore, the decline of ninjutsu and the decline of wealth. When you mix all this in and put it into the twentieth century, you end up with poor people who are cut off from the rest of Japanese society, who are practicing espionage arts, which is technically true to a certain level, but the reality is, these are ex-samurai; they have run out of money; their land has been taken away from them; they only just barely hold on that they used to be very popular shinobi that were hired all over Japan. And actually, the place where they lived in is defendable, but it is also very accessible via roads and main highways in and out of it.
MAYTT: Almost throughout your career, controversy has followed you, specifically when dealing with the ninja and their respective historical documents – even now with your research into historical Japanese fencing. How do you usually respond to such people looking to defame you?
AC: Yes, we have had a lot of people come against our team, against everything. To be honest, I divide them into two types of people: those with real questions – generally polite people that have questions, asking this does not make sense or I do not understand this. Normally, the answer is that they have not thought about it in full and then when they think about it, they go, “Oh, I see what you mean.” But the majority of the people really just want to believe in their school, usually Bujinkan. The other type are people who are rude and out for aggression. I do not deal with those. I simply have the line, “If somebody is aggressive or rude or just emotional, we do not deal with them,” because there is no point. When you are dealing with history, you have to deal as a dispassionate observer. This is where you are not emotionally involved with it.
So, what I find with the sword schools is that every single person that has a problem with what we do with the sword research is the fact that it is not the same as their school. If it is not the same as their school, they hate it, especially if we are doing a different branch of their school, they hate it. When it comes to ninja, if they have trained in ninja martial arts, ninja hand-to-hand combat, they hate what we do because it does not fit with what they do. So, this is the problem: if what I say is right, is correct, then what they are claiming has to be wrong. That is specifically true with the ninja.
With the Japanese swordsmanship, to me, it is strange because obviously, Japanese swordsmen have different approaches and have different things and they do not seem to understand that there are different ways to do certain things, even if they look similar and they follow the same line, they really struggle with the idea that there are slight variations in the world and they cannot seem to get past that point.
MAYTT: In 2016, you published a book entitled, The Lost Samurai School, essentially reviving a long lost ryu. After a beginning many would consider to be lucky, what was the deciding factor for you and your team to ultimately piece together this manual?
AC: For clarification for those, the long dead ryu is Natori-ryu. The Lost Samurai School is based on the Mubyoshi-ryu and the jujutsu of this school is still alive and has been alive for four hundred years and it is only known by about two or three people, even then, it has been altered to fit a more karate-centric base. Here, the school is not long dead, in fact, it was thriving in the 1800s and 1900s, but it has declined so much that it is almost dead. What we did do is piece together as much as the school as we could that people a school actually looked like in the past. And the reason we did Mubyoshi-ryu is because, as you said, it seemed lucky. Just too many things came together from fate, if you like, where we found scrolls, we found teachers, we found information, and it was just too good to pass up. So, we put this school back together. So, what we have done is not revive a long dead school of Mubyoshi-ryu but put it back together from its base components and give it back to the headmaster who did not have these facts, who did not have these scrolls, he did not know about them. As far as he was concerned, he only went back to the 1800s, but we have told him that he goes back to the 1600s and is one of the biggest schools in Kanazawa. Actually, he is still there, if I remember right, in the same area. So that school seems to be the main line, or at least the only line left, which would then make it the main line. And hopefully that school will go on further and further. I want more and more people to get involved with that school because it would be better for more and more people to train in it to keep it alive.
MAYTT: I see. Additionally, you have resurrected Natori-ryu, which has its own following, organizational structure, and study groups. What led you to find and ultimately reestablish Natori-ryu today? How has the greater martial arts world received the modern incarnation of Natori-ryu?
AC: So, Natori-ryu is fully brought back from the dead school. It was totally dead. We do not know when the last dojo closed down. All we have are the scrolls and we resurrected it. Now, the reason we resurrected this school was simply the fact that it was a full gungaku school, which means military skills. It is not a martial arts school – it does have some elements in it and hand-to-hand combat – but it is mainly about samurai tactics. And that is what is really missing in the martial arts community. There is nothing on samurai tactics. You try to find a book on how it actually happened – how did an army cross a river? How did they move? What formation did they take? How did they get water? How did they move their baggage train? All these types of questions; just no answer for them. Natori-ryu has the answers for all of that. That is why I got into that. And of course, that seemed to be the best option, because it came from the Shoninki. I named my website Natori-ryu; everything was aiming towards Natori-ryu. And now we have a great set of books, a great system, and hopefully, people are enjoying it around the world.
What I have found, though, is that people tend to not like it. If you go back to the original scroll or one of the unpublished scrolls, it says that actually, even in the 1700s, people were not so interested – by people, I mean samurai. Samurai were not so interested in gungaku and military studies because they just wanted to do fighting and cool things and a bit of magic. But actually, the lectures on military tactics were not well received or nobody really cared. It has been the same today; nobody really cares about the old ways of samurai. They just want to look good with a sword or argue about what way to look good with a sword. Very few people actually navigate the old ways of samurai.
MAYTT: Other than reviving the two aforementioned ryu, what else did you hope to accomplish? How did having a Bujinkan background, rather than a koryu, affect your interpretation of the historical scrolls that made up the manual?
AC: With Natori-ryu, I want to bring about samurai background, samurai strategy, samurai tactics, everything that people need to know beyond swordsmanship. That is what I would like to do there. I would like to bring back people to the realistic side of fighting. I know HEMA has its problems but actually, it is getting closer to real fighting, I think, than anybody else in the world, because they are actually doing the research and doing the practical effort as well. I do think that really helps. I would like people to have a really good grounding in what used to happen in samurai swordsmanship and also have a good physical understanding of interpreting the scrolls – what does work and what does not work. And I do not mean which of the scrolls does not work, what I mean is that we read things like, “Stand up straight and hit the sword down.” It is like, “No, you need to do a bit more than that inside of the movement.”
So, one of the good things about the Bujinkan is that the Bujinkan actually stayed away from static movement and the one thing I would like to praise Hatsumi for is the fact that he actually got rid of the static movement. I think is Hatsumi would have continued down the path he started on – the honest martial arts and honest idea how to fight in reality – he would have gotten a lot more respect now in his later age, but he went silly with too many strange things; like multiple attackers going down for no reason and it just ended up a bit strange.
So, I think, if anything, I’ve captured the old Bujinkan essence and if you apply that to the scrolls, you get a far more dynamic and more realistic understanding than just step one, step two, step three. Let me explain. I think that koryu does hold the essence of swordsmanship, but I think it is how they used to teach children after the War or I think a lot of things changed in the twentieth century when we started to get big business dojos. Actually, dojo culture started in the 1600s so I think it is becoming more and more systematic. But until you get to the twentieth century, they’re just teaching lots of people in the early twentieth century, prewar. Remember, there were lots of soldiers; how to teach soldiers martial arts, how to teach lots of people martial arts. nationalistic, samurai fervor. They love it. But after the War, it became, very much, a peace and Zen way. So, if you mix up the popularity of swordsmanship before the War and the love for samurai and the postwar look to peace, because nobody wanted to go back to the warring days. I think there are too many problems in koryu. If you come from a more movement-based background, dynamic background, you can cut through those issues that actually happened in Japanese culture.
MAYTT: One of your more recent endeavors is to find out how exactly the samurai fought during the Sengoku Period. What factors led you to this line of questioning and what steps have you taken and plan to take in order to answer that question?
AC: So, what I want to do is I want to realize or understand or bring about a correct understanding of how samurai fought in the Sengoku Period. The reason I picked the Sengoku Period is because, of course, it was the warring period, but it is probably not the best to look at swordsmanship. My eyes were opened when the head of Taisha-ryu said that probably the best swordsmanship was in the end of samurai times, when they were fighting street to street, hand-to-hand, in Kyoto, and it was not big, epic battles; it was people fighting between the streets with swords. But, of course, that mixes up all of the problems with the evolution of swordsmanship in the Edo Period. So, if you have the evolution of swordsmanship in the Edo Period and try to pick out the great bits in the Kyoto street fights, it is too difficult. So let us go back before the Edo Period when we know that swordsmanship started to get a little bit flowery, more ritualistic, and less realistic. So let us go back there.
But that creates an even bigger problem – well, a different problem – which means, we have almost no information. Most people do not know this but all the information on swordsmanship comes from a handful of schools and most of them come after the Edo Period and even if they do predate the Edo Period, they probably changed a lot. So actual Sengoku Period swordsmanship is difficult to pinpoint. So, we have two options: the swordsmanship from the end of samurai times, 1868 where people were hand-to-hand fighting in the streets, or you got the pre-Edo Period, where people were fighting before the Edo Period and the period of peace made swordsmanship redundant. So, you have two problems there and both are equally difficult to surmount. However, we know in the Sengoku Period, people were at war, there was no reason for swordsmanship to become a bit static, unrealistic – it needed to work back then. What we do know is that, when the gun came in, swordsmanship actually did start to go static and did start to become unrealistic. So, you can sort of pinpoint the use of the gun with the decline of the sword. Which, of course, the use of the gun brought about peace in Japan and then the decline of the sword really started to happen during that period. This is the problem that we have, and it is my job to get through all of that and try to find what the samurai actually fought like. and I think it will be a lifelong project, but bit by bit, everybody will start to understand it.
MAYTT: Final question. What obstacles do you feel will be in your way as you continue down this line of research?
AC: I believe that the main obstacle, to be fair, would be people’s emotional attachment to their sword schools. The simple fact is you have to let go. There is no way that the sword schools that are out in Japan today are teaching fight-realistic swordsmanship that would work in a real duel. It just wouldn’t work. I am not saying it is not the right swordsmanship; I am not saying it is not the right moves; I am just saying that it is taught in the wrong way, and it is not relaxed enough, it is not flowing enough, it is not dynamic enough. So, I think if everybody let go of the idea that they only have one way to do it, or their way is the best, just relax and start to investigate and start to free up their bodies and free up their movement, I think we would find a lot more people benefit.
And it would be great if people out there came to me and said, “Hey Antony. I got this idea about this” or, “I am going to try and go back in the research and dig out some information for you in this scroll.” That would really help me; that would really help. If that happened, it would be great. What I would like for all the koryu practitioners in the world to do two things: one, start learning Natori-ryu because it is the only school out there that has a full gungaku school, full military tactics school, and it does not cross over with samurai sword schools. We know that samurai used to practice multiple schools. This idea that you only train one school is not right – it is absolutely ridiculous. You only train in one sword school or you only train in one spear school, or archery school, not two sword schools. But you can do a sword school, you can do an archery school, you can do a gungaku school, you can do all that. There is no problem whatsoever.
So, I hope that people out there, or somebody reading this will think, “right, I am going to Antony’s YouTube channel. I am going to look at the swordsmanship that he is doing and try to bring that into what would have actually happened in the past; how would samurai really fight.” If somebody out there is graded in koryu, they can say, “Okay. Would this really work? This skill might be correct, but would they do like this?” or, “Does this feel like it would be how you teach a child? Or to teach a room full of people?” So let us get rid of the individual steps and make it fully with motion between the fights.
MAYTT: Thank you for this insightful conversation into your research! Best of luck with it!
AC: Thank you! It was great talking with you!