A French­man is carv­ing a niche for him­self in Shang­hai with his nin­jutsu lessons and offering ev­ery­one a way to achieve holis­tic fit­ness

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By ALYWIN CHEW in Shang­hai


Peo­ple of­ten as­so­ciate nin­jutsu with the ar­che­typal ninja, of­ten de­picted in pop­u­lar cul­ture as a stealthy as­sas­sin who lurks in the shad­ows with a sword on his back. But at­tend just one les­son in this an­cient Ja­panese mar­tial art and it will soon be clear that many things found on the In­ter­net or seen in pop­u­lar cul­ture are noth­ing more than mis­con­strued facts.

“Ninja gear? You mean like a black hood and a sword on the back?” said David Saignes. “My friend, this is not Hol­ly­wood!”

A nin­jutsu in­struc­tor in Shang­hai, Saignes holds the rank of fourth dan and con­ducts weekly classes at the dojo (train­ing ground) on the sec­ond floor of the Xuhui Swim­ming Com­plex. The 33-year-old first ar­rived in the city in 2009 when he set up a land­scap­ing de­sign busi­ness. Sur­prised that there wasn’t a dojo in Shang­hai at that time, Saignes trained by him­self in parks. How­ever, he soon dis­cov­ered that win­ter in Shang­hai can be par­tic­u­larly un­for­giv­ing, which made prac­tic­ing out­doors really un­com­fort­able, and de­cided to find a proper space to prac­tice.

In 2010, Saignes de­cided to set up Bu­jinkan Tako Dojo, the first in China at that time, and started offering classes in nin­jutsu and budo tai­jutsu, which refers to sa­mu­rai com­bat tech­niques. It’s hard to miss Saignes and his stu­dents. Dressed in black grabs, they in­ad­ver­tently stand out from the taek­wondo and mixed mar­tial arts stu­dents who share the com­pound.

Al­though the French­man — who has 13 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in the mar­tial art — trains his stu­dents in the han­dling of weapons like wooden swords and spears, you won’t find them don­ning hoods, throw­ing shurikens, dis­ap­pear­ing in a cloud of smoke and do­ing the sort of things nin­jas are of­ten de­picted do­ing in pop­u­lar fic­tion.

On the topic of nin­jas, Saignes clar­i­fies that nin­jutsu stu­dents are sim­ply called prac­ti­tion­ers or stu­dents.

“The sort of nin­jas we of­ten see to­day are leg­ends from kabuki, or pop­u­lar theater. Ac­tu­ally, the word ‘ninja’ has been around since the 19th cen­tury. In Ja­pan, there used to be th­ese guys dressed in black who would change the land­scapes at pup­pet shows and peo­ple used to call th­ese work­ers kuroko, which means ‘ black per­son’, be­fore call­ing them nin­jas. Some­how that term was used to de­scribed peo­ple who were in­volved in covert mil­i­tary ac­tiv­i­ties,” said Saignes.

The history of nin­jas is in­deed fas­ci­nat­ing. His­tor­i­cal records of­ten re­fer to nin­jas as mer­ce­nar­ies who were at times hired by samu­rais to con­duct covert oper­a­tions which were dis­al­lowed as the lat­ter were bound to bushido, a code of honor. Th­ese mas­ters of es­pi­onage and clan­des­tine oper­a­tions weren’t al­ways clad in black hoods and out­fits, too.

His­to­ri­ans dis­cov­ered that nin­jas only did so for the pur­pose of cam­ou­flage, usu­ally to blend into the dark­ness of night when covert mis­sions were car­ried out.

“Th­ese guys used to dis­guise them­selves as peas­ants and monks too. Blend­ing into the en­vi­ron­ment was crit­i­cal,” shared Saignes.

Nin­jutsu, in re­al­ity, is one of the mar­tial arts that fall un­der the Bu­jinkan, an in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion based in Ja­pan. There are nine schools of com­bat meth­ods un­der the Bu­jinkan, three of which fall un­der nin­jutsu, while the other six are cat­e­go­rized as budo tai­jutsu.

“Nin­jutsu refers to spe­cial­ized com­bat tech­niques. Think of a SWAT team in the po­lice force,” said Saignes, who hails from Mont­pel­lier, France.

The ori­gins of nin­jutsu is un­clear. Some sources claim that it orig­i­nated from the moun­tain clans in Ja­pan that were in­flu­enced by the philoso­phies of ex­iled gen­er­als from China dur­ing the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907). Oth­ers con­tend that it was a sub­set of sa­mu­rai bat­tle tech­niques, while some the­o­rize that it could even have come from In­dia.

Com­pared to its mod­ern coun­ter­parts such as karate or judo, both of which boast mil­lions of prac­ti­tion­ers world­wide, nin­jutsu would prob­a­bly be con­sid­ered a very niche dis­ci­pline. Ac­cord­ing to Saignes, there are just over 400,000 Bu­jinkan mem­bers around the world.

Stu­dents be­gin warm­ing up for class by per­form­ing a se­ries of tum­bles on the mat. They then per­form a bow and say “shikin haramitsu daikomyo”, which ac­cord­ing to Saignes means “to seek a bright fu­ture of en­light­en­ment by lov­ing, be­ing true and per­se­ver­ing with ded­i­ca­tion”.

Saignes then guides them through a se­ries of ma­noeu­vres in which they learn how to evade on­com­ing at­tacks be­fore re­tal­i­at­ing with a swift counter. Weapons train­ing re­volves around the same con­cept and one par­tic­u­lar tech­nique in­volves par­ry­ing with a sword be­fore mov­ing the blade along the as­sailant’s spear and slic­ing his guts open.

In this mod­ern age, there is of course lit­tle need to be pro­fi­cient in han­dling a sword, but it is nev­er­the­less this as­pect of nin­jutsu, along with its mys­te­ri­ous na­ture, that proves al­lur­ing to many peo­ple.

“It’s all about ob­serv­ing peo­ple, see­ing how ex­posed and vul­ner­a­ble they are,” said She­lan Alexan­dre Daune, a 16-year-old stu­dent who is of French and Chi­nese parent­age. “I love the biome­chan­ics in­volved in this mar­tial art.”

For Gu Jie, one of the few lo­cals who had signed up, it is learn­ing self de­fence tech­niques from a mys­te­ri­ous brand of mar­tial arts that at­tracted him.

“My friends rec­om­mended that I pick up some­thing to lose weight,” he said with a laugh. “I really like what I’m learn­ing al­though some of the moves are a lit­tle hard to ex­e­cute be­cause I’m a lit­tle ro­tund. Be­sides, I also get to meet in­ter­na­tional peers.”

Ev­ery­thing is done at a cau­tious pace, be­cause the fo­cus is on mas­ter­ing the tech­niques. The phys­i­cal fit­ness that one de­rives from nin­jutsu train­ing is not so much from ex­er­cises like pushups or situps, but from the sort of dis­ci­pline the mar­tial art re­quires.

“Nin­jutsu re­quires us to con­trol our al­i­men­ta­tion, such as no al­co­hol, no smok­ing and no fast food. The dojo is like a lab­o­ra­tory where you prac­tice but out­side of it the train­ing con­tin­ues,” said Saignes.

He also notes that nin­jutsu is not a sport, but the truest form of a mar­tial art — tra­di­tion­ally, mar­tial arts prac­ti­tion­ers are re­quired to use weapons. Also, un­like karate, judo or taek­wondo, there are no nin­jutsu com­pe­ti­tions.

“Com­pe­ti­tions would pros­ti­tute the spirit of nin­jutsu, which is really to be in har­mony with your­self and your senses. As mys­ti­cal as it sounds, nin­jutsu is really all about be­ing your­self, and be­ing happy,” he said.

Saignes has since been to Ja­pan count­less times over the years and has even met 84-yearold Grand­mas­ter Masaaki Hat­sumi on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. He is plan­ning to re­turn to Noda in Ja­pan’s Chiba pre­fec­ture next year to un­dergo a test to re­ceive his fifth dan.

All Saignes needs to do is to avoid one strike of the sword by the examiner in or­der to pass, but it’s really not as sim­ple as it sounds — the examiner is ac­tu­ally stand­ing be­hind Saignes, who has no way of see­ing where the strike will land.

“So this is what we learn, you can call it qi or ki. It’s like gain­ing an an­i­mal in­stinct. It’s all about feel­ing, not about think­ing or an­tic­i­pat­ing,” said Saignes.

“The sen­sei can strike you any­where — the top of your head or on your shoul­ders. You just have to sense the at­tack and dodge it with the proper tech­nique. If he hits you, that’s it — you fail.”

For now, Saignes is look­ing to draw more stu­dents to his classes. He is op­ti­mistic that par­tic­i­pa­tion num­bers will im­prove fur­ther as he be­lieves that younger Chi­nese th­ese days have demon­strated a pen­chant for the older mar­tial arts such as taichi and wushu as it ap­pears to be novel and in­ter­est­ing.

“If any­thing, I’m a white guy in China who teaches Ja­panese mar­tial arts. It’s not a very log­i­cal thing, but maybe that’s why peo­ple sign up!” laughed Saignes.


Nin­jutsu in­struc­tor David Saignes has been teach­ing the mar­tial art in Shang­hai for about six years.

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