BOOK REVIEW: IN SEARCH OF THE NINJA: The Historical Truth of Ninjutsu.
Article By Phil Elmore
I’ve tried. I’ve tried more ways than I can count to review In Search of the Ninja: The Historical Truth of Ninjitsu. I’ve attempted to do so in good faith but, honestly, this book has defeated me. Its prose makes my brain hurt. The claims of its author Antony Cummins make my brain hurt. Its author’s self-important presentations make my brain hurt. (In his most recent video, Antony appears wearing a t-shirt with his name, CUMMINS, emblazoned across the chest). Ultimately I simply cannot take seriously what is in this book because the claims of any “historian” rest on his credentials and his credibility. Mr. Cummins appears to have neither, at least not in the traditional sense.
“To begin with,” writes Cummins early in the book, “this will be done by exposing what is believed to be the origin of the ninja and then replacing it with the facts. Like Hansel and Gretel we will then trace the breadcrumbs into the darkness, through the grammatical gore and the slippery surface of syntax…”
Is this a realistic goal? Mr. Cummins’ Internet critics frequently cite the fact that he is not fluent in Japanese — which would seem to be a prerequisite for translating and understanding ancient Japanese texts on war, warfare, and ninja business of whatever stripe. Apparently Mr. Cummins is also on the outs with the most significant of the latter-day ninjitsu schools, too — that of the Bujinkan, an organization he seems to spend a lot of time denigrating online.
Add to this the fact that Mr. Cummins associates, at least through the Internet, with a number of characters from the Koga-ryu ninja crowd that I would consider people of extremely low character and credibility, and this, at least by association, does him no favors. A historian must have your trust before he can tell you about things you have no way to verify or to know. He can easily lie; he can make things up as he goes; he can befuddle you with BS as readily as he can baffle you with brilliance. In reading through the tortured prose of In Search of the Ninja, I can’t help but conclude that, while a very entertaining story about the history of said ninja, I cannot afford to believe anything written in its pages.
By what authority would I check its validity? Shall the reader learn Japanese and then compare Antony’s work to the source material? Those who speak Japanese and who have compared Cummins’ translation of the document called the Shoninki (a translation Cummins calls the “definitive work” on the topic) say it does not hold up favorably to other translators’ work. But we shall have to take their word for it, too… won’t we?
Cummins is the man behind the “Natori Ryu” and “Ichigun Ichimi.” The latter is a loose confederation of every half-baked Koga-lineage YouTube-ryu ninja school and practitioner you could ever want. Its Facebook page quotes a Natori Masatake, who allegedly said, “Later, the people from Kōka甲賀, next to Iga伊賀, followed this path of ninjutsu and having made the oath of Ichigun Ichimi一郡一味, the friendship oath of ‘one district and one band,’ joining the people together. They went out expansively to various provinces to utilize their skills…”
As you can guess, there’s a link here: Cummins claims that the last descendants of the Natori family gave him their permission to “resurrect” the “Natori-Ryu” under Cummins’ guidance. “The school manuals will be translated and published in English for students to enter the school and study the military ways of the Natori Family,” says Cummins, who at this point has essentially appointed himself as the head of some kind of ninja and/or samurai school of martial arts or feudal traditions.
Where does a dedication to historical research end and a smug, self-important cult of personality begin? It’s hard to say. Certainly the line blurs here. I don’t normally review the author of the book to the exclusion of the book itself, but frankly, there is no other means available to me. Anthony asked me to review the book; he encouraged me to trash it; he wrote, in an inscription, that I should “take my best shot;” he then called me a liar and demanded I ship the book back to him in England when I didn’t review the book on his schedule (which I told him would not be possible).
When you buy a book written by Antony Cummins, I fear you have no choice but to buy the man as well. There is no quantitative measure by which we can gauge the accuracy of his research if we are not both fluent in Japanese AND have access to his source materials. Neither is possible.
Either you belong to the cult of Cummins and you laud his work, or you are vaguely suspicious of everything he does. Either might constitute a truthful evaluation of In Search of the Ninja. Don’t ask me which, though. I honestly couldn’t tell you.