The Practice of Disguise

Ninpiden Vol 4 page 1
“Secret Transmission on Preparing for Shinobi Missions” from the Shinobi Hiden

I spoke about how I adapted the recommended tools in the Shoninki recently. During the same Spring/Summer of 2013, I had also implemented a certain level of disguise in order to get and maintain employment. I am essentially a desk worker, either spending hours in the books or in front of a computer; that’s where I am happiest. However due to various social circumstances, I found myself homeless for the second time in my life. This time however, it was more of couchsurfing all spring and summer rather than living right on the streets like I did in 2010.

At that time I had been working on translating selective sections of the Shinobi Hiden and Shoninki, and then merging the content into existing translations to make a sort of personalized collection of shinobi lore. At the time of this writing I am also working on doing the same with the Bansenshukai, though that will of course take a bit longer…

Disguise in Context

Classically, the groundwork for the practice of making up an identity, especially one that you will have to live in for a long period of time, was made up of understanding and knowing deeply the local customs, language, dialect, and local attire including how to wear the hair, carry the sword, and so on. The classical ninja was supposed to be familiar with many, if not all the provinces of Japan with at least all of the above subjects. Since in a certain respect, each of the provinces of Japan during the warring states periods (Sengoku Jidai; 戦国時代) might as well have been considered their own countries. With that came a considerable amount of variety in dialect, clothing, and various other aspects of culture. This is was no light feat to learn about all these “countries” to the extent that you could mimic and disguise yourself into their midst.

For myself, my current skill set was not getting me employed, thus I moved into the carpentry and general labour occupations, doing freelance labour on a contract to contract basis. One of the first jobs was demolition and cleanup after the Massive floods in Mississauga 2013. Basically, a bookworm-computer geek was up to my knees with a sledgehammer, and various other tools smashing up drywall, tearing up carpets, totally out of his element.

Disguise in Practice (変装ノ稽古)

I quite literally treated this contract like a shinobi mission (hows that for living in a dream bubble eh?), no really, how better to be as prepared as possible? I generally knew the geography as these days it is easy with Google Maps, the needed dialect was that of city-folk, though with less emphasis on technological know-how or scientific jargon as this is physical labor after all. Appearance was casual with a company-branded shirt, or safety equipment. However, there’s still elements that cannot be discerned before the actual situation.

Understanding the pursuit of luxury in the labour trades was initially a perplexing one; Facing heat stroke, trench foot, and exhaustion all day, one would think that these people would want to sleep or at least sit down… Try drinking, gambling, and lewd pursuits. In order to adapt to the behaviors of those situations, one must observe and listen carefully, and disguise yourself like you belong there. The most important thing is to blend with the social situation, not trying to be different – No ego allowed!

The Science of Disguise (変装ノ術)

Shoninki, Shinobi Hiden, and other manuals all in one book.

Now what do the classical texts say on the subject? Well in the case of the Shoninki, not much. Besides the shichihode (Seven ways of going; 七方出), which highlights seven disguises that were good for getting privileged access to certain areas in medieval Japan such as a monk or entertainer. besides this, there is a short paragraph that highlights this:

[. . .] “You should choose the identities that would best suite your personality and demeanor so that you can remain unperturbed throughout your shinobi mission.(Shoninki, 54)

While in the Bansenshukai there was a considerably small amount of content, at least in-depth:

When you disguise yourself as someone with a trade or just make a basic impersonation, you should be skilled in the [science] of whatever you are going to disguise yourself as. When you infiltrate using yo-jutsu 妖術 disguise techniques, if you try to impersonate the appearance or the speech but have no skill in the trade, your stratagem will easily be revealed. Therefore, you should learn in advance not only how to act or speak like the person you are going to impersonate, but also the [science] of the trade that they do.” (Bansenshukai, 101)

Again nothing too overly useful; some may find this to be common sense, while others may realize that they might well overlook the above details. I myself, had little trouble adapting my practice of the martial arts into the labor of the work site. I was already fit from training, and the basic uses and manipulations of the various tools were easy to infer from martial arts: our carpet scraper was more effectively used as a tsuki (Thrust; 突) movement for Sojutsu (spearmanship; 槍術), while things like the sledgehammer was utilized in a more controlled fashion (less miss-swings) when handled like a hanbo (short stick; 半棒) or other short striking implement.

In the end, the Shinobi Hiden proved to be the most useful of all the texts to me in that it provided a clear social model for the role that I was undertaking. Without something like this, and no proper personal experience, I would soon be interpreted as not a team-player or I wouldn’t seem to “fit in” to the team. Indeed I have lost many jobs from this, but with a proper model, a drive to have nothing prevent me from achieving my mission, and the tenacity to match, not only did I keep the job for the remainder of the contract, but I was promoted to second in charge, was given two teams of laborers to work under my supervision, and was treated to a second contract on a very different project after this one. The section that helped the most is as follows:

“When you are mixed up with merchants or craftsmen, you should have little sense of decency, behave inconsiderately, have a mild temper, but be ignorant. They tend to talk a lot about their own profession. When they gossip about current subjects of the province such as the pros and cons of the military governor or of the bugyo-nin [administrative stewards], they will often like to hear of current affairs concerning their own provinces.” (Shinobi Hiden, 42)

The first half or so covered my behavior, in certain light, I was required to be verbally sexist, or indirectly racist, sometimes mildly belligerent, selectively disagree, and so on. I even went to the extent of starting to smoke cigarettes as that is after all the thing to do on breaks and any kind of downtime. Talk casually about the flood situation and how many more houses we may have to tear up. Complain about our higher-ups, or Rob Ford, whatever gossip was going on.


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I can honestly state that much of my survival through the first 2/3rds of 2013 was thanks to my studies in ninjutsu, but to bring it to the level that I had implemented, one would need years of at least having this rolling around in their heads. In order to make it fluid and flow in a way that makes it practical and usable, it needs to be ingrained to at least some extent. If it does not come naturally, then it will be awkward and unconvincing. To be able to maintain a disguise, go about your daily duties which oftentimes demands some cognitive strain (making it easy to exaust and drop your guard), and on top of all that gather information without anyone knowing is taxing to say the least, but that is why they call it ninjutsu (Science of Enduring; 忍術) after all…



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