Mie: Teen pursues an old-fashioned vocation: ninja

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Rio Toyama, right, practices with two sickles under Hanzo Ukita’s guidance at Mie University in Tsu.

TSU — A university student has continued to educate herself and improve her skills in martial arts for the sole purpose of becoming a ninja.

Rio Toyama is a first-year student at Mie University, which is the only institute of higher education in the country that offers courses in the studies of ninja and their combat style known as ninjutsu.

Decked out in her ninja uniform, Toyama looked determined as she took a pair of sickles in each hand and demonstrated a few techniques.

As the budding ninja went through her routine, the voice of mentor Hanzo Ukita rang out: “Focus!”

The 19-year-old has been training diligently with the aim of performing the moves in a show at the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum, located in Iga in the same prefecture.

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Rio Toyama prepares to swing her sword during practice at Mie University.

“I want to become a full-fledged ninja as soon as possible and show its appeal throughout Japan and around the world,” she said.

The Saitama Prefecture native said that, even at an early age, she was always drawn to the mesmerizing way samurai and ninja moved in manga and movies.

When she was a second-year student in high school, she read a book written by Yuji Yamada, a professor at Mie University who is known for his ninja research.

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Prof. Yuji Yamada

The book provided her with a more realistic image of ninja. For example, she learned that ninja did not jump around and that shuriken blades were rarely used for throwing. She also learned that ninja would disguise themselves in various ways to gather information and would fight using hidden weapons.

Educating herself more about ninja did nothing but motivate her further to achieve her dream.

She later visited Iga to attend a performance by the ninja group Ashura. She was impressed by the historical accuracy of the show and the performers’ martial arts abilities.

After intense study, Toyama passed the Mie University entrance exam and enrolled this past spring. She took a few classes taught by Yamada, who taught about the wisdom of ninja and their fighting spirit.

“She always sits right up front and is the most enthusiastic student in my class,” Yamada said.

Toyama also joined the ninja club and would spend her days talking to her friends about the special skills ninja possess, including their hand-to-hand combat techniques.

As she learned more about ninja, she wanted to become a ninja herself.

In August, she became a student of Ukita, who heads the group Ashura and runs a ninja school in Iga. She goes to the school every Sunday to help out backstage during the performances and also receives two hours of rigorous training from Ukita. She seems to always have a few bruises and a feeling of soreness, but that doesn’t discourage her.

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Graduate students practice walking like a ninja at a training facility in Iga, Mie Prefecture.

“It’s a good kind of pain because it’s proof of how hard I’m working to become a ninja,” she said.

Toyama has the flexibility necessary for martial arts, thanks to having taken karate lessons as a young child. Moreover, she has started running 3 kilometers every day and going to the gym to build up her physical strength.

Ukita said: “She’s more enthusiastic than others because she has a dream. If she studies hard and masters the techniques, then she can become a great ninja. I would like her to use her youthful energy to spread ninja culture.”

Her current goal is to make her debut ninja performance next spring.

“While I’m still in university, I’m hoping to learn how to use real weapons, such as swords and kusarigama [chain-sickles],” Toyama said. “I also want to put on a performance that will wow the audience and create more ninja fans.”

Center for ninja research

Iga, in western Mie Prefecture, was not strongly controlled by feudal lords, so the residents developed their own form of self-government, which led to ninjutsu as a way to defend themselves.

Mie University, which has a campus in Tsu, has been researching ninja, especially Iga ninja, since 2012. Researchers from various fields are trying to get a better understanding of ninja from the perspectives of their own fields of expertise. For example, some analyze documents on ninjutsu written from the 17th to 19th centuries, while others conduct experiments to reproduce smoke signals used by ninja and the food they ate.

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So far, researchers have debunked the myth of ninja always fighting. Even though there is an image of ninja throwing shuriken blades, it seems that they avoided fighting as much as possible and were more focused on completing their main objective of gathering information.

In addition to introducing ninja studies as a course in the undergraduate program, it was also added to the graduate program in 2018, allowing students to earn a master’s degree in the subject. In 2017, Mie University also opened the International Ninja Research Center in Iga as a way to inform the public about the results of its research. The center holds symposiums and other events and also invites researchers from overseas.

“Learning about the mentality of ninja, such as valuing peace and enduring difficult times, leads us to think about what it means to be Japanese,” said Prof. Yuji Yamada, who also serves as the vice president at the center. “I would like to continue to disseminate the results of our research at home and abroad.”