63-year-old engineer is Japan's 'Last Ninja'

IGA, Japan - A 63-year-old former engineer may not fit the typical image of a dark-clad assassin with deadly weapons who can disappear into a cloud of smoke. But Jinichi Kawakami is reputedly Japan's last ninja.

As the 21st head of the Ban clan, a line of ninjas that can trace its history back some 500 years, Kawakami is considered by some to be the last living guardian of Japan's secret spies.

"I think I'm called (the last ninja) as there is probably no other person who learned all the skills that were directly" handed down from ninja masters over the last five centuries, he said.

"Ninjas proper no longer exist," he said as he demonstrated the tools and techniques used in espionage and sabotage by men fighting for their samurai lords in the feudal Japan of yesteryear.

Nowadays they are confined to fiction or used to promote Iga, some 350 kilometres (220 miles) southwest of Tokyo, a mountain-shrouded city near the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto that was once home to many ninjas.

Kawakami, a former engineer who began teaching ninjutsu - the art of the ninja - ten years ago, said the true history of ninjas was a mystery.

"There are some drawings of their tools but we don't always find all the details," which may have been left deliberately vague, Kawakami said.

"Many of their traditions were passed on by word of mouth, so we don't know what was altered in the process."

And those skills that have arrived in the 21st century in their entirety are sometimes difficult to verify.

"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," he said.

Survival techniques

Kawakami first encountered the secretive world of ninjas at the age of just six, but has only vague memories of first meeting his master, Masazo Ishida, a man who dressed as a Buddhist monk.

"I kept practising without knowing what I was actually doing. It was much later that I realised I was practising ninjutsu."

Kawakami said training ranged from physical and mental skills to studies of chemicals, weather and psychology.

"I call ninjutsu comprehensive survival techniques," though it originated in war skills such as espionage and guerrilla attacks, he said.

"For concentration, I looked at the wick of a candle until I got the feeling that I was actually inside it. I also practised hearing the sound of a needle dropping on the floor," he said.

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