狸寝入り Tanuki Neiri no Jutsu: Sleeping Tanuki Technique

photo by rumpleteaser
Sometimes the simplest strategies or tactics are the most effective. One day my teacher, Peter asked me to be a spy, and I used a strategy that any child understands.  Hatsumi Sensei calls this tactic "tanuki nemuri." And it was very effective. I got the all the information from the target and then some! He literally volunteered information that would expose him.

A tanuki is a masked animal like a raccoon, yet big and stocky like a badger, and is known to fake being dead when surprised... because of this, the idiom "tanuki neiri" [literally "fall into a tanuki's sleep"] means to feign sleep.

The mission I was tasked with was reconnaissance and information gathering.  OK, it wasn't secret agent stuff, but I approached it with professionalism and as part of my overall training. Basically it involved one of my teacher's ex-students.  He had only trained with Peter briefly, and never made it beyond 7th kyu or so. Well, some years later, Peter received several reports that this guy was teaching and running his own training group. The reports included stories of dangerous training that sent students to the hospital. Since Peter was the senior Bujinkan instructor in the region, and had once had this guy as a student, he felt some responsibility to check into this.

The guy was training in a park, and Peter felt he couldn't just walk up himself, because this guy would recognize him and cover his activities.

All I had was the name of a park in another town. This was in the old days, before the Internet and Google. I needed a strategy. I decided the best way to get information was to pretend to want to become the guy's student. I thought it would look suspicious to just walk up out of nowhere and ask to be his student. How could I make it look innocent?

What do people do in parks? Besides Ninja training? Picnics, exercise, walk their dogs... wait, I have a dog that loves walks in the park! I put her in the car and we were off.

After an hour driving, my dog was very excited when we started circling the park. The park was crowded with families. I drove around the perimeter and quickly located the "ninjas."

My dog put her nose to the ground and we walked all over the park. As she sniffed the ground I casually watched the ninjas go through their taihenjutsu drills.  I allowed my dog to slowly find her way closer and closer.  We paused under a nearby tree.

Once I determined who the teacher was (the only black belt, and giving instruction), I made my interest more obvious.  I began actively staring and edging closer.

He caught my stare. At first he ignored me. But I edged closer.  The next time he looked my way, I asked a very dumb question, "What kind of karate are you guys doing?"

He seemed pleased to answer, "It's not karate. We are training ninjutsu."  "Oh wow! You guys are ninjas? I wanna be a ninja... How do I be a Ninja?"

Once he started talking, I couldn't shut him up. He told me all about their "deadly" art. They were training to be assassins.  They practiced invisibility and stealth. I made a comment about their "cool" shoes and asked where I could get ninja shoes.

Things got interesting when I asked him how he started teaching. He said that he had lived in Japan, and he was the personal student of an old Japanese man who was the "last" Ninja. The old man had given him a test where he tried to kill him with a sword. I asked him his teachers name, and he said Hatsumi Sensei. He said, after he passed this test he was given a licence to teach.

I was all, "Wow, so you are like a black belt? Are you licenced to kill or something?" He said that he is a 10th degree black belt.

Tanuki-neiri is said to have its origin in the days when no distinction was made between the tanuki and the mujina or badger, and the latter was believed to have been unable to see or hear during the daytime and therefore likely to just sit tight and try not to attract too much attention to itself.

Today the most common place to find people playing possum is in crowded commuter trains and subways, where younger people lucky enough to have found seats feign sleep to avoid making eye contact with elderly commuters to whom social convention dictates they give up their seat. Along with both its less common variations, tanuki and tanuki-ne, the idiom is not used as it`s English equivalent "play possum” to mean “feign ignorance."

I knew I had him on that point. Back in those days, there weren't very many Judans (in fact, maybe only the Japanese Shihan), and my teacher certainly would have known about this.

I watched their class for awhile.  My dog was bored by this time and was napping under the tree.  I soon had to move her because, to my amazement, they started throwing shuriken and shooting arrows at the tree. This seemed hazardous with all the children and families running around the park.

Most of his students appeared to be teenagers from the neighborhood. After they were done, the guy told me he could rank me up to 9th dan, one rank below his, if I started training with him. I acted excited, but drove home bewildered.


Hatsumi Sensei says, that humans will show their true nature when around a "sleeping" person. He says, "If you pretend to be sleeping you can see to the bottom of the enemy's heart and intentions." And that, "you just cannot win if you do not have this skill of playing dumb."


In the end, this guy seemed out of touch with reality. When Peter eventually confronted him, he claimed he had an evil twin brother that sometimes impersonates him. He claimed to have gotten his rank in the mail through a home study course. Then he legally changed his name and started wearing strange military garb and saying he was in the special forces. Peter informed the authorities about the guys odd and dangerous activities. Over the years, from time to time, the guy would show up at some Bujinkan event seeking rank from different instructors, and Peter would try to let everyone know to be careful with him.

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