by Stephen K. Hayes
Japan’s legendary ninja Hanzo Hattori appears in countless ninja movies and novels dressed in black, flying through the sky, swimming underwater, tunneling beneath the ground, and vanishing into the darkness. Ironically, the name of this real-life ninja is rarely found in historical encyclopedias. His life story is fuzzy, which is to be expected, since he was a ninja, a master of the art of invisibility.
Hanzo was a member of the Hattori family, the leaders of the ninja community of Iga Province in feudal Japan. It is thought that there may have been as many as four ninja who took the name Hanzo Hattori. The ninja who made famous the identity of Hanzo Hattori was named Masanari. He was said to have begun training on Mt. Kurama north of Kyoto at the age of eight, and became a full-fledged ninja at age twelve, and was known as a master ninja at age eighteen. His father Yasunaga served Matsudaira Kiyoyasu, the lord of Mikawa and the grandfather of future shogun leyasu Tokugawa. Though Hanzo was born and raised in Mikawa, he often returned to Iga, home of the Hattori ninja family.
The Iga and Koga regions were the birthplace of ninjutsu, and there were over 70 clandestine organizations carrying out the art. In the surrounding mountains there were large institutes for training in military tactics. Onmyodo, a Chinese system of divination propagated in Kyoto by Abe Seimei, had been brought from the capital. The village of Yagyu, along the Kyoto-Nara border, was home to a venerable school of sword technique. And the Hozo-in temple in Nara supported of a unique school of spear fighting. All the arts necessary for ninjutsu could be acquired within a radius of 45 miles from Iga.
In a folk song from Mikawa in the late 1500s and early 1600s, Hanzo Hattori is identified as one of the three bravest retainers of the Tokugawa Shogun
Tokugawa has brave retainers.
The Iga-Koga region is a small mountain ringed basin in the center of Japan’s Kinki district. Though it was rather inaccessible, it absorbed the culture of Kyoto, Osaka, and Nagoya over the years because of its proximity to them. For about 100 years from the Onin War through the Warring States Period (middle of the fifteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth century), Iga and Koga remained unconquered by an outside warlord. Its mountains discouraged attack. More importantly, its inhabitants never attempted to expand their dominion beyond the basin. But the region was not immune to violence. Each village had a castle behind whose walls arms were stored and plots were hatched.
Warriors specializing in demolition, political warfare, and gathering intelligence were based in the region. Tanba Momochi and Nagato Fujibayashi, both of Iga, established rival ninjutsu organizations based on conventional techniques of warfare, and were especially proficient in areas of unconventional warfare. Their schools improved upon techniques of the time and developed new ones by incorporating the teachings of the various martial schools in the vicinity.
In legend, Hanzo Hattori is known as a superhuman ninja warrior. It was said that he could sit behind a hand-held fan, bow, and then suddenly disappear, only to reappear in the next room. He was also master of the art of using a rope to capture an enemy who sneaked up behind him as he sat in seiza posture. He was renowned as an "other-worldly" warrior, capable of psychokinesis and psychomancy. He could discern clairvoyantly the plans and strength of an enemy army.
A well-known story is told about Hanzo and Ieyasu Tokugawa, then the future shogun of Japan. The general was fond of the martial arts, and was a sharpshooter, a master swordsman, and an excellent swimmer himself. One day in his twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth year, when he was living in Mikawa, he grabbed Hanzo Hattori by the scruff of the neck, dragged him to a river, and pulled him underwater. While Hanzo continued to calmly hold his breath, Ieyasu had to break the surface, gasping for air. He crawled ashore, pale and exhausted. "How long can a ninja stay underwater?" he asked. "One or two days, Lord. However long you request," replied Hanzo, who then dived beneath the water. Several hours passed and there was still no sign of him. leyasu became worried. He and his retainers began calling Hanzo's name. Then Hanzo rose to the surface with bursting air bubbles. He was not out of breath, but smiling. He handed leyasu something, and the general let out a cry of surprise. It was the short sword he had put on after dressing on shore.
"I was not beneath the water all the time," Hanzo proudly told his astounded listeners. "After diving beneath the water, I swam ashore, hid behind a rock, and napped. When I was called, I dove underwater and surfaced. I apologize for taking your short sword, Lord, but this is ninjutsu." leyasu was deeply impressed.
leyasu Tokugawa later established a central government that lasted nearly 300 years and spanned fifteen generations of his family. He could not have done that if he had not been a leader talented in engaging and using men of ability. He used men from various backgrounds for gathering intelligence. Ieyasu received immeasurable support from ninja like Hanzo. During the Warring States Period, ninja were the preferred agents for demolition and gathering intelligence. Many daimyo used them, though it is likely that no other daimyo controlled ninja as well as Ieyasu. In this respect, leyasu, too, was like a ninja.
The story of the relationship between leyasu and the ninja of Iga is well known in Japan. Accompanying leyasu, who had been informed of the betrayal of Nobunaga at Honno-ji temple, Hanzo Hattori proposed that his lord enter Iga, return to Mikawa with the help of ninja from Iga and Koga, and then attack the warrior who had betrayed Nobunaga. Ieyasu agreed to his proposal, and Hanzo then visited a famous ninja living on the border of Iga and Koga and asked for his help. While guiding leyasu, he shot a rocket into the sky to signal ninja to gather at the Otogi pass, on the border of Iga and Koga. When leyasu arrived at the pass, 300 ninja had already gathered there. Hanzo had Ieyasu ride in a kago, and he himself stood guard at the future shogun’s side. Guided by the ninja, Ieyasu headed for Mikawa, safely negotiating difficult places day and night. Hanzo received reports about the repercussions of the attack against Honno-ji and the movements of the various daimyo. He, in turn, informed leyasu, riding in a kago beside him.
Two hundred of the ninja who had served as guards were permanently retained by Ieyasu. They were organized into the Band of Iga, led by Hanzo. In 1590, when leyasu entered Edo, they accompanied him. They were given residences outside the west gate of Edo Castle. The area was named Hanzo-cho, and the west gate, at the back of the castle, was named Hanzo Mon gate.
In a castle town shrines and temples and the residences of key retainers were arranged to impede an attack against the castle. The creation of a ninja quarter outside the west gate was astute, because it was from the back of the castle that the people within would escape and that an enemy would stage a surprise attack, and ninja were best qualified to guard such a place.
The Band of Koga ninja who had rendered leyasu distinguished service during the Battle of Sekigahara, were assigned to the defense of the front gate of the castle. In peacetime they guarded the castle around the clock. In time of war they spied on the enemy.
Hanzo Masanari died in 1590 at the age of fifty-five. He was succeeded by his eighteen-year-old son, whose name was also Masanari, though written with different Chinese characters. Hanzo’s son had not mastered ninjutsu, and he mistreated the members of the Band of Iga. The ninja did not consider him worthy of the name Hanzo, and the band revolted. Armed with guns and bows, they holed up in a nearby temple and demanded his dismissal. If their demand wasn't met, they vowed to kill Masanari and to take their own lives. Their number was large enough that historians consider their action to be the first strike in Japan. The year was 1605. The Band of Iga was divided into four factions, each led by a low-ranking samurai. They could no longer boast that the band was headed by Hanzo Hattori.
The Battle of Winter and the Battle of Summer, fought in Osaka in 1614-15, were the largest battles ever fought on the Japanese islands. In those battles the Tokugawa destroyed the Toyotomi. They were a dramatic close to the Warring States Period, and they were also the stages on which the ninja played their largest roles.
Ninja had developed the art of sending secret letters by arrow. When Sanada Yukimura, a brave Toyotomi general and excellent tactician, was busy in a corner of Osaka Castle hatching schemes, leyasu sent him by arrow a letter offering him a fief of 100,000 koku of rice. He also had ninja disguised as ro-nin unemployed samurai infiltrate Osaka Castle, where they gathered intelligence and engaged in a campaign of disinformation that included identifying certain members of the garrison as part of a spy network. leyasu utilized as double agents Toyotomi ninja captured by his troops. He sometimes let prisoners escape after allowing them to hear false plans.
Because ninja operated in the shadows, the full scope of their activities in the Battle of Winter and the Battle of Summer will never be known. Some historians credit the shadowy warriors in the service of leyasu with the destruction of the Toyotomi.
In the first years of the Tokugawa Period, ninja were active in protecting the Shogun. As the Tokugawa family consolidated their power and peace came to the nation, ninja had fewer and fewer opportunities to practice their craft. The Band of Iga and other ninja organizations drifted apart.
Hanzo’s remains now rest in the Sainen-ji temple cemetery in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The temple also holds his favorite spears. Hanzo’s Gate is now one of the entrances to the Imperial Palace, and a Hanzo-mon subway line, named for the gate, runs between central Tokyo and the southwestern suburbs.