Departures: Japan 1991-92: Ninja Relics & Iga-Ueno

Excerpts from distressingly melodramatic letter written 9/92 and 10/92, months after the fact.

Today I went to Iga-Ueno [There's gobs of places in Japan called Ueno, including a famous area of Tokyo. This was Ueno in the Iga region, which was not very close to Tokyo at all.]

I promised to look over this list of things I saw in the ninja museum so that I could explain each in some detail, devoting a paragraph to each item. It's not going to happen. What I have sitting in front of me is a list of words, each of which has absolutely no meaning attached. I'm tempted to write lies. I'm tempted to make up descriptions of these implements of destruction, just to convey the mood of this museum. Look, this museum was a fascinating place--it was brightly lit, with white, reflective walls. A bright shelter from the cold outside. These tools were arranged in glass cases, with little cards talking about what year they might have been used; which collector had donated the item to the collection. Not many of the things in this room were weapons by any stretch of the imagination. And yet they all were. As you walked around this place, it reeked with menace, because you knew that ninjas were guerilla soldiers, who went about the act of killing people and commiting acts of terrorism with a sort of grim efficiency. Here there were no neon nunchuks with little sparks of electricity jumping of the chain-these were tools made of dull, aged wood, metal scratched with use; materials upon which one person's life depended on, and upon whose failure another depended. This was a time of war, of conflict. There was less of a variety of things to own, and the stuff necessary to life was pretty spread around, so you couldn't move against an enemy leader by means of economic sanctions: his radishes were much like your own, so why would he want to buy yours, anyhow? Violence was maybe the only way to force someone to act against their will.

I have a feeling that if I were in a "CIA agent museum," things would be a lot more flashy. The CIA has always struck me as being very paranoid, and that a member of the Company would things a bit flashy, more to reassure himself that he was on the side of rightness than to impress any enemies. In an FBI museum, I would expect the atmosphere of a funeral home. Grim, humorless men who sadly shake their heads as they hear squabbles carried on over phone lines. I think that a museum of FBI tools would carry a similar weight of functionality, but that there would be a sadness... also, the nature of the tools would be different. No suits of armor, maybe miniature tape-recorders. Maybe snapshots used to blackmail people into informing, or money to entice them to go beyond the cardinal playground rule against tattling. The final aim of everything in the ninja weapon was death; a piece of pottery from that museum would be a deadly weapon, because though it was not directly used to hurt anyone, it would be keeping an accustomed killer alive.

Ninjas, as you probably know, acted as reconnaisance agents and assassins. I'm not sure which they did more. I hear more about them in their role as assassins, but that might because that sounds more dramatic, and most of what I know about ninjas, I know from drama. Actually, to me a ninja is not a calm watcher and dealer of death. Ninjas come in batches of twenty or more, attacking silently, but killed off by our martial-artist hero, who makes some noise as he kicks and punches these black-clad sacks of flesh out of his way.

After looking at this museum, I think that ninjas spent a lot of time alone, at least when out on a mission. They spent a lot of time out in the woods, foraging. They spent time in towns, playing the roles of itinerant monks, learning how the townsfolk felt about things. Perhaps sometimes the ninja's assault against an enemy stronghold might have been helped by distractions provided by malcontents within the town. I don't know.

Okay, I took notes on a few items. One of them explains my thinking about the time alone in the wilderness. Apparently one of the really big pieces of ninja juju, the ones that got them reputations as sorcerors, was a "smokeless heater." These things were used to sneak up on guarded camps/strongholds during winter. You see, winters were then, as now, cold in Japan. If you were going to survive, every so often, you'd need to light a fire and stay next to it. Otherwise, you'd die. Camp guards would look for smoke plumes; if they saw one, they'd know that someone had lit a fire, maybe an enemy who was spying on the camp. So if you wanted to spy on the camp, you either blew your cover by starting a smokey fire or else froze to death. What the ninjas came up with was a sort of portable metal stove. Its top was covered with a mass of hair or fur. The purpose of which was to catch the smoke. So you'd start up a very little fire inside of this thing, and the hair would catch all the smoke. And you could stay alive and spy on the camp, hiding someplace where everyone knew no-one could hide. Invisible because your enemy couldn't conceive of this higher technology. Still, this means that this ninja was living out in a snowy field, which is kind of a strange thought for me, because in the movies the ninjas are very urban creatures, skilled at scaling buildings and such.

I wish I had sketched some of these devices. For the most part they have melded into this general feeling, this shifting of hunches. I sketched a very specialized item. This was a "door stop." This is an S-shaped piece of metal, made by bending a flat, thin strip. It's specialized for the sliding doors-with a few of these things, you could keep the people from opening any of their sliding doors. I sketched these things because you couldn't tell what they were just by looking at them. I'm used to swinging doors- the idea that this piece of metal could keep doors from opening at first seemed ludicrous. And then you realize that this simple item was too clever to be a tool-it was a result of creativity, an invention, something that some clever ninja had conceived of, a very specialized piece of metal which would allow the ninja to seal victims within their home, so that they might be hunted down, herded into some corner and slaughtered. Which was maybe all right, because these people were probably military leaders, and if they lived, then more would die. You see what I mean about this being a strange museum?

Anyhow, here's the list of items I made. Perhaps it's just as well I didn't sketch them all. It was kind of cold in that museum. In no particular order:

Cloth armor made w/hemp-Metal Links, and what looks like leather plates-checkerboard of plates linked w/metal so flexible. Flare guns, short torches, pistol in sword (maybe in sheath), small signal charges, brass knuckles of iron, ropes w/grapple, gunpowder holders, some pistols including a matchlock, many rope-ladders (one "wind-up" with reel), metal "bullet-proof" breastplate, "woman's" comb w/concealed knife, clamps to make ladders, "handclaw" weapons, chakram and shuriken, smoke bombs (including one made of turtle's shell), disguised swords (as sticks), sickles, fire-arrow (used chemical involving gunpowder), land mines, charges which look like bamboo (early pipe bombs?), blowpipes w/big feathers, wheel mortar and pestles, "medicine" (i.e. poison) mixing sieve, leaf-shaped saws from 1'across to collar-concealable, caltrops (wood tetrahedrons, "natural" blobs, iron spikes), reinforced lantern, candlestick, sheath "secret document container", vaguely pyramid-shaped blobs, kurora-kagi ("storehouse keys," (I think this might have been a piece of iron for lifting cross-bar locks to grain storehouses, but I really can't remember-aw, heck) real picklocks), gunpowder R&D, combo snorkel telescope listening device, "water spider" flotation sandals (collapsable).

I'm not doing the simple craftsmanship of these devices the credit they deserve, but maybe they don't need it. Anyhow, here's some more of the notes that I took while reminiscing about the day most of which I had spent in Iga-Ueno:

...And thus did my Japan travel narrative break off.


comment? | | home |