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Woodblock prints from the Edo Period (1603–1868) depict the area of Tabata as a hiker’s paradise, with pines clinging to cliffsides and a scenic waterfall. By 1898, in the Meiji Period (1868–1912), train access brought in more residents, and Tabata’s verdant landscapes, affordability, and proximity to the newly established Tokyo School of Fine Arts attracted an artistic community of writers and artists—Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Tenshin Okakura among them. World War II bombing raids razed Tabata’s landscape, but one vestige of Edo remains here, hidden in plain sight: a clan of ninja.

Kiyomi Shibata (65) is the 18th-generation head of the Musashi Clan. Shibata’s family served as both samurai and ninja for Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu at Okazaki Castle in Mikawa more than 400 years ago. When Tokugawa strode into Edo to unify Japan and create a new capital, Shibata’s family accompanied him. Throughout the Edo Period, Shibata’s ancestors carried out crucial business for the shogun, and her great-grandfather, Shibata Sadataro Takenaka (1823–1877), was dispatched to Europe twice in the 1860s to organize a French military mission to train Japanese in Western-style warfare.

Today, Shibata, whose shinobi (ninja) name is Suzak, manages the clan’s shihan (trainers) in Tabata. “I knew nothing about my family’s history until my father finally confided in me,” she says. “Many ninja were kusa, you know, like grass, living here and there in communities as ordinary citizens, gathering information quietly. You didn’t tell your loved ones what you were doing, of course, until you were about to die. Then you would select one of your family members, and ask them to continue the job.” According to Shibata’s great-grandfather’s diaries, Tabata had a fair amount of “grass.” “Still, Tabata wasn’t exactly a village of ninjas, or anything,” she laughs.

While Tabata might seem too suburban for a ninja school, Suzak’s relatives once lived in the neighborhood and the clan’s tomoku (master ninja) suggested they situate the dojo (training center) here, in an old printing factory. “It has high ceilings,” Shibata explains, “which we need.”

Inside the modest facilities, a board displays photos of some of the Musashi clan’s 100 members, many incognito behind masks. I ask Suzak if any of her clan are practicing professional ninja. “We are studying ninjutsu, or the ‘way’ of ninja, its techniques and philosophy,” she says, deftly sidestepping the question. “Ninja have always had other kinds of jobs—musicians or gardeners or whatever—but the skills we teach can be useful in any kind of work. It’s a way of life.”

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Suzak has recently decided to open her dojo to foreigners who would like to experience authentic training. “We start with mokuto (silent meditation) and kuji-kiri (secret hand formations said to instill power and focus),” she says. “Our aim is to achieve ku, a state of no self, a position without judgment or valuation. That’s where balance exists, and it does not bring fighting, but peace.” As two of her clan, Sasuke Yaen (15) and Aoshi (who prefers anonymity) spar nearby, I note a curious harmony in their movements.

I question Suzak about the shuriken (throwing stars), kunai (throwing knives), and tekkokagi (iron claws) hanging from the walls. “They are forged by our clan’s blacksmith,” she explains, but in the next breath reminds me that ninja have long suffered skewed cinematic portrayal as assassins. “If a ninja had to kill someone, it usually meant that his cover had been blown, and therefore he was not skillful,” she says. “Espionage was our assignment, usually, not assassination.”

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Requested by Suzak, young Yaen demonstrates some of his 12 years of training. He sinks a chopstick into the wall with scary accuracy, and performs a backflip so swiftly that he virtually disappears. The advanced skill he still struggles to master, though, is koku, or intuiting intent. Suzak takes up a makeshift sword and stands behind Yaen, where she casts no shadow. “I have to visualize striking him,” she says. Suzak is not someone you want visualizing that, I think nervously. She attacks, and Yaen blocks her. The second time, though, she lands one, hard. Then she apologizes to Yaen. “That was my fault,” she says. “My intention was not strong enough to be sensed,” she explains, backing away with ninja grace.

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Those interested in ninja thought and training may contact
the Musashi Clan: www.musashi.ninja

Kit Nagamura is a photojournalist with 25 years’ experience in publishing. She writes the monthly Backstreet Stories column for The Japan Times and hosts regular programs on NHK.
When Tokugawa strode into Edo to unify Japan … Shibata's family accompanied him.