Ninjutsu's long history doesn't exactly lend itself to a one page synopsis, but for those encountering the art for the first time this outline may prove helpful.
In the main Ninjutsu was the inevitable reaction to the attempts of Japan's nobility to create a working national government. This led to some very nasty wars among the nobility over who lead the emerging government and what today would be considered "police actions" against those content with the status quo. This has happened in most countries at one time or another but in Japan events took the road less traveled, creating a unique history that starts in the Koga and Iga regions of central Japan.
Thinly populated, mountainous (which favors the defense) and distant from the major cultural centers the Iga and Koga regions were populated by clans of relatively independent peasants, mystics seeking enlightenment, and various soldiers, (some from as far away from China) who were on the wrong side of the last war.
Not exactly the kind of people to welcome an increase in outside supervision. During the 13th-17th centuries a segment of the local population, Drawing from the talents of its diverse population including the training techniques of mountain ascetics, evolved into guerrilla warriors. Teaching each other the skills needed to stay alive these guerrillas developed a system of small unit tactics and self defense emphasizing audacity, stealth, and ambush. Centuries of constant combat purged this system of failed training and doctrine while winnowing the remaining elements down to their most basic truths.
This hard won wisdom is the basis of Ninjutsu and its students are called the Ninja. In tandem to the martial arts the Ninja developed strict cultural, ethical, and moral standards, rule of engagement, that established the Ninja as a secret but fully formed society. Within this world with in a world clans emerged, specializing in different tactics and techniques, which were taught in schools called Ryu. Of the several dozen Ryu formed only nine are known to have survived to the present day. Six of these were adapted from the martial arts practiced by the Samurai. Three were wholly developed by the Ninja.
Life as a Ninja was normally very harsh and very short. Nobody liked you. The government forces looked on you with a loathing undisguised. You were a thief, a forger, an assassin, an insurgent, fit only to be killed when convenient. The Peasantry hated the special government attention you brought to the region and would turn you over to the government in order to be left alone. Even the Clans and Ryu often worked independently of one another.
Despite the animosity the Ninja flourished for a longer period of time that separates modern America from the Pilgrims and the first thanksgiving. The Ninja survived by being useful to the people who most wanted them dead. Princes and generals often called on the Ninja to neutralize social, and political rivals. Fresh blood flowed into the Ninja from the lower parts of the nobility. More than one Samurai, Japan's knights in shining armor, defected to the Ninja rather than undergo the ritual suicide demanded in the event of failure.
But in the end the isolation and disunity condemned them to defeat. By the 17th century an increasingly united Japan allowed an increasingly unified nobility to act decisively. The Princes declared the knowing of Ninjutsu, or knowing anyone trained in Ninjutsu a capital offense. Bureaucrats opined there could be no pardon or quarter was given. Better innocent deaths than a live Ninja. By the early 18th century the hunt was in full force. Whole villages were destroyed as clans and Ryu were hunted into extinction. By end of the 18th century Ninjutsu was broken as a political and cultural force.
At this moment of victory Japan's leaders stopped the persecution of the Ninja. After initially shutting out the west, Japan's elites chose to embrace modernization. Industrializing the nation became job one. As the social and cultural fabric of Japan morphed from feudal to modern Ninjutsu and it practitioners began appearing as quaint relics of an earlier era. Since they no longer mattered they were no longer hunted. Some even questioned if they had ever existed at all.
It was a cold, bitter peace for the Ninja. To small to replenish their numbers from with in and unable to openly seek new members the remaining clans and Ryus withered. As the 19th century closed all that was left were old men, memories, and a little boy named Toshitsugu Takamatsu (1877-1972). The boy became a man, who by his conduct and longevity set the stage for Ninjutsu's revival.
Born to a family long associated with the Ninja, Takamatsu spent his childhood surrounded by old men who just happened to be the last grandmasters of their respective Ryu. He got get an unorthodox education, learning the whole of Ninjutsu by the time he was a teenager. It made for an interesting life. At the age of 13 Takamatsu single handedly put down a riot. As a young man he stared down the local mafia and sought his fortune in China. He found ample opportunity and was dubbed the Mongolian Tiger. His reputation for ferocity in battle and personal integrity was absolute and he was asked to return to Japan to oversee the training of the Emperor's bodyguard. A far cry from the reception he would have gotten a few generations earlier.
Having re-habilitated Ninjutsu's reputation by his conduct and courage Takamatsu retired to his village and lived out latter years. The question of how Ninjutsu would survive his passing being unanswered. In time he was paid a visit by Masaaki Hatsumi, who had mastered the martial arts as child before going on to obtain degrees both in theater arts and osteopathic medicine. He eventually earned a Ph.D. in the arts. Never losing his interest in the martial arts Dr. Hatsumi made a point of searching Japan for new instructors and methods. After finding Toshitsugu Takamatsu he began training as Takamatsu's only student and after 15 years was recognized by Takamatsu as the only other individual on earth fully trained in the art of Ninjutsu.
It became Dr. Hatsumi's responsibility to walk Ninjutsu back from grave. He devoted himself to openly teaching Ninjutsu full time and doing what he could to spread information about the art through the then new mediums of motion pictures, radio, and television. He also made the decision to open Ninjutsu training to non-Japanese. At the time these were bold moves, considering the conservative tendencies of Japanese culture, but ones that were well worth the trouble.
As the 21st century opens Ninjutsu has emerged as a global phenomena. Due to Dr. Hatsumi's unflagging efforts Dojo's run by his senior students exist in most of the word's urban centers and have provided over 100,000 people world wide with some degree of training in the art. A decisive, and almost unimaginable, reversal of fortune.
Faced with extinction a half century ago Ninjutsu is now known through out the world and is the subject of multiple, yearly, national seminars called Tai Kai. Nearing the age of 70, Dr. Hatsumi is still actively teaching and aggressively using the latest technology to get his message out. His dojo's website is at http://Bujinkan.org.