THE same sun that rose in the Far East this morning is now setting on the hills above the Scottish Highland village of Tomatin. It glints along the blade of Jock Brocas’s sword and casts his shadow on a gold and purple landscape. In this light, Brocas looks as much like a mythic Japanese warrior as he ever will. Being bulky, tattooed, and shaven-headed, he still looks a lot more like a bouncer, and indeed he used to work the doors of pubs and clubs in Aberdeen. Posing dramatically, if reluctantly, for photographs, Brocas holds as still as he can while the insects eat him alive. It was probably too much to hope that he would cut them all out of the air with a blurred swish of folded steel. Even a ninja, it seems, cannot withstand the Highland biting midge. But to be fair, that word may not mean what I think it does.
“Well, it depends on your definition,” says Brocas. “If your idea of ninjas comes from those movies where guys in black hoods and masks jump out of trees and kill people with shuriken [pointed metal throwing stars], then no, that is not who we are.” This is disappointing, because that’s exactly who and what I was thinking of. I spent my childhood watching violently unsuitable videos with titles like Enter The Ninja, American Ninja, Revenge Of The Ninja. I crept around the house in black pyjamas, performing mock-assassinations on family members. My schoolfriends nicknamed me “ninny”.
Now Brocas is telling me that the original, historical ninjas of feudal Japan were not the super-spies and master-killers that popular culture has made them out to be. They were, he says, “ascetic monks and rogue samurai”, possessed of ancient skills and wisdom passed down from the exiled generals and mystics of T’ang dynasty China. “Very few would have been assassins. They were very spiritual people with a unique understanding of nature.” Admittedly, this also sounds too cool to be true, but it is the gospel according to Dr Masaaki Hatsumi, the founder of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, a modern amalgam of nine traditional schools of Japanese martial arts, three of which have been linked to the teaching of techniques now collectively known as “ninjutsu” – the art of the ninja.
Brocas has been a follower, member and practitioner for more than 25 years, and admits to a certain youthful sneakiness in his early learning. Born and raised in Lanark, he joined his first karate class at the age of seven, and had graduated to the Bujinkan system by 10, apparently without the knowledge or consent of his staunch Catholic mother. “She thought I was getting the number two bus to mass on Sundays,” says Brocas. “Instead, I would get on the number one bus to my ninjutsu class in Larkhall. The Bujinkan was my church.” He went on to join the army, and later worked in private security. Brocas can’t or won’t go into detail, and claims not know how old he is now, advising me to ask his wife. He has long since become a Bujinkan instructor himself, teaching advanced “baton and cuffs” techniques to police officers in Inverness, and providing hand-to-hand combat courses for soldiers and airmen at Fort George and RAF Lossiemouth. Two Tornado jets from that base pass overhead while we’re talking, flying low enough for the pilots to see this big man in black rising out of the terrain, like some berserk ancestral enemy come to take them on with a sword. Civilian members of Brocas’s Monday night class stand aside on the heather, all cursing and flailing and slapping themselves.
Iain Kershaw, a young builder from the Black Isle, reacts especially badly to the midge bites, which are already swelling up on his neck and face, but he manages to remain comparatively calm. “I used to be an angry kind of guy,” says Kershaw. “Very quick to fire off.” He had previously tried other martial arts – karate, kickboxing, capoeria (that Afro-Brazilian style of street-dance-fighting now a bit overexposed in popular culture), “but none of them really captivated me, and they didn’t calm me down”. Then, about eight months ago, he discovered the Bujinkan. Or, as Brocas has since told him, “the Bujinkan found me”. “I still can’t get over the look and the feel of it. Once you start training, it’s incorporated into everything you do. Even when I’m sanding or sweeping on a job, I am working on my movement.
“For me, ninjutsu is a life-changing art.” In his spare time, he tells me, he practices with rocks in his hands, standing stripped to the waist beneath a “secret” waterfall at the edge of his family’s farmland. Kershaw has quickly become Brocas’s star pupil, and is practically a test case for his Budo For Life programme, to be launched later this month in association with The Bridge project, a youth-oriented vocational training facility in Inverness. “Budo”, translated from Japanese, simply means “the way of the warrior”.
“The aim,” says Brocas, “is to take troubled young people and teach them aspects of budo that will centre their minds and give them the tools they need to feel good about themselves. While they’re learning these martial techniques, they will also be learning the martial virtues of respect, honour, and discipline.” His regular students have had their own problems, and this evening they offer their own testimonials. Polish brothers Konrad and Christian Gorak, recent immigrants to Scotland, tell me that these classes have restored the confidence they lost in the move. “When we came here I was really overweight,” says Christian, the younger of the two, who is in his mid-teens. “I was getting bullied. I was sad all the time, and angry. My training became my motivation. I lost 17 kilos. Only my close friends know that I do ninjutsu, but everyone at school is respecting me now.”
Andy Saunders explains that he took this up while recovering from a life-threatening illness and related complications, which included a stroke, a bout of peritonitis, and a kidney transplant. “It’s me brother’s,” says Saunders of the replacement organ, his accent and attitude still overtly Liverpudlian, six years after relocating to the Highlands with his wife (their two small children were born here). “I’d been taking the piss out of him since we were kids, so I thought I might as well have his kidney.” For Saunders, ninjutsu has been an esoteric form of physiotherapy. “I remember lying in hospital, having a bad time, and thinking this might be a way to pick myself up. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it. When I first started, I couldn’t even hold a sword over my head. One arm is still knackered, and it’s never coming back, but compared to where I was, I’m fucking fantastic now. When I walk home from a class, the energy is flowing. I’ve got the moon and the stars and the farms, and I feel this sense of rightness about things. Just this … calm.”
Saunders is, in his own words, “fairly well grounded”, and he knows that he sounds a little born-again. “I certainly haven’t found God,” he says, “but I do think the training has made me a much better person.” Jock Brocas will concede that each of his students is on their own “spiritual journey, whether they know it or not”. But he also draws an emphatic line between religion, which he calls “man-made”, and this particular martial art, which supposedly proceeds from nature itself. Back indoors at his “dojo” – a generic Japanese term for any hallowed space where traditional forms of combat are practiced, in this case a semi-derelict village hall just down the road from the Tomatin malt whisky distillery – Brocas shows me what he’s talking about. Inviting Konrad Gorak to attack him, he steps breezily aside from the blow, takes a light, almost friendly grip of Gorak’s arm, twists the hand and fingers into an excruciating loop, and turns his assailant in an elegant spiral down to the floor.
“Work in a circular motion,” he instructs his class, “with the feeling of wind.” Fire, water, and earth apparently add their own variations to this theoretically infinite range of defensive movement, along with a fifth and more abstract Buddhist element of “emptiness” or “void”. “Nature can be gentle,” explains Brocas, “or it can be a hurricane. The trick is to achieve a balance of both. To be devastatingly gentle.” Zen-like aphorisms sound a lot less like bullshit when applied as painful physical lessons. Brocas illustrates his point with a relatively soft and off-handed chop to my neck, and I almost go to sleep standing up, as that void opens right before my eyes. So this is what it feels like to be struck by a ninja.
I’ve been wondering for a long time. Like many young men of my generation, I was a child of the “ninja boom”, a term later coined by martial artists to demark that period of the late 1970s and early 1980s when these so-called “shadow warriors” stole into the West through B-movies, comic books, and early video games. I watched, read, and played them all, mentally projecting ninjas into the bright green bushes of suburban Dublin. My mother bought me sew-on badges and screen-print jumpers emblazoned with hooded oriental death-merchants. My father, whose regular work-related visits to Japan must have shaped this fixation in the first place, brought me back a pair of tabi boots, the split-toed slippers that were said to enhance a ninja’s stealth. Unfortunately, the soles on mine not soft cloth but heavy-duty rubber, and the one time I wore them to school they squeaked so loudly in the corridors as to disrupt classes when I walked past.
For this, and their general failure to train me from birth in poisons, disguises, and archaic lethal weapons, I bitterly resented my parents, who retorted with their own subtle artistry. Between the ages of eight and 11, my every complaint, however legitimate, was dismissed as “un-ninjalike”. “A ninja wouldn’t whine like that,” said my father, twisting the knife. And when I eventually accepted that I would never be any more dangerous, mysterious, or physically adroit than Winnie the Pooh, I almost stopped believing that ninjas had ever existed. According to the British martial arts scholar Paul Richardson, author of A History Of The Nine Schools Of The Bujinkan, few Japanese now believe it either, after generations of home-grown entertainments in which ninjas can turn to smoke, burrow under their victims like moles, or swallow whole attack dogs in mid-leap.
“Most people in Japan think that researching ninjas is like studying Robin Hood,” Richardson told me when I contacted him by phone. “They treat it as kind of a joke, in the same way that people in the UK don’t really know or care if Robin Hood was based on a real guy.” In academic terms, the word “ninja” seems to be as elusive as the people it is supposed to describe. No historian has found a single record of its use before the mid-19th century, when these characters began to appear in children’s stories and kabuki plays. (Their trademark black outfit may actually be a theatrical conceit, adapted from the clothing worn by prop handlers to conceal their presence on stage.)
Richardson has identified different names for the skilled agents of the earlier feudal period – “shinobi”, “tupa”, “rapa” – who were hired by rival samurai power blocs for covert operations. But he now believes that “ninja” itself might properly be considered more adjective than noun, “referring to a particular kind of activity, such as espionage, rather than a specific type of person”. Tell that to the Indonesian death-squads, Angolan Emergency Police, and rebels in the Pool region of Congo, all of whom have called themselves ninjas in recent years. The spelling was amended to “Kninjas” by a unit of Serbian red berets stationed in Knin, Croatia. In each case, they were likely thinking of the quasi-supernatural mercenaries from such films as Sakura Killers, rather than the secret caste of benevolent fighting philosophers from whom today’s students of budo and ninjutsu tend to claim descent.
There is not much documentary evidence to support one definition over the other, except for the surviving “densho” scrolls of those original nine schools, which now serve as training manuals for a worldwide community of over 100,000 Bujinkan members – from Grandmaster Hatsumi’s headquarters in Tokyo, to Paul Richardson’s own dojo in Lincoln, to Jock Brocas’s remote outpost here in the Highlands. However tenuous the surrounding narrative, the techniques themselves are verifiably old and demonstrably effective. I can vouch for this myself, lying prone on a crash mat with a wooden staff wedged into my jaw-hinge, like a lever for prying my head off. Picking me quickly back up, Brocas explains that it is his responsibility to “demystify” ninjas, whose reputation precedes them even here.
Prospective disciples occasionally turn up wearing cloaks and metal gauntlets, asking him to teach them how to kill and disappear. “I tell them that they’ve come to the wrong class,” he says. Some of the moves that he shows me tonight would indeed be fatal in real life. “Cut, cut, cut,” says Brocas, turning one pupil’s rubber training knife against him. “Finished. End of.” Other techniques seem to expose physical roots beneath fanciful myths, striking at the opponent’s eyes or skirting around him, into his blind spot. “If he can’t see you,” says Brocas, “then you have, in effect, disappeared.” And when he talks about “controlling space and time”, he simply means the perfect geometry by which he can evade and counter-attack four assailants at once. “It’s a good kind of pain,” says Andy Saunders – who surely knows all about the other kind – when I wince at a particularly sore-looking arm-lock. “You can learn from it.” “Budo doesn’t teach you how to fight,” Brocas tells me. “It teaches you to see the beauty in life, and not just the bad.” Towards the end of the lesson, he gives a short speech, almost a sermon, on the less tangible aspects of this art, which sound more like matters of faith. “We are all part of the divine balance of nature,” he says. “We are spirits in human form. Everything in this world is driven by thought, and behind every thought is intention…”
Brocas loses me a little here, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. If it’s a question of belief, I would sooner live in a world where ninjas really exist, and I can honestly say that I have yet to meet one that I didn’t like. After class, Brocas introduces me to Black Watch Sergeant Colin Hamilton, who missed tonight’s lesson because he was being fitted for a new artificial leg. Hamilton lost the original limb to a landmine in Kosovo in November 2001, and has since used ninjutsu to test the strength and durability of experimental prosthetics. “To see if they can take the knocks,” as he puts it. “I’ve never actually broken one in training,” he says, “but some have been slow and unresponsive, like the ‘rheo knee’, which was bulky.” The skills he has learned in the dojo have helped him outside it, “with daily challenges like slopes and stairs and uneven ground, but also with my confidence in general”.
“Being an amputee, you need to work quite hard to get your balance back, and that’s the whole essence of ninjutsu – to keep your balance, and take the other guy’s away.”
Sergeant Hamilton may actually be the living epitome of a ninja. For all its uncertain etymology, the original written word is composed of two separate Chinese ideograms, usually translated as “heart” and “blade”. But taken together, they can also be read as a simple verb: “to persevere”.