The Ninjas vs. Pirates debate is one that will probably rage on until the end of time. I have previously proffered forth my own take on the subject on the subject, one which I hoped would be somewhat definitive, but it seems as though some arguments can be settled by nothing short of tremendous amounts of bloodshed and dead bodies. Since the Internet as a gladiatorial medium isn't particularly exactly equipped to deal with any acts of violence more substantial than "OMG F U HOMO", this is probably one meaningless dispute which will remain forever contested.
So, what if I were to tell you that there was once a man – a Japanese samurai no less – who embodied the best aspects of BOTH ninjas AND pirates, while actually possessing neither? If your answer was, "I'd shit a brick," then you are probably correct.
Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi was a hardcore swordsman who wandered the countryside of 17th century Feudal Japan searching for faces that needed to be forcibly hacked in half longways. During his career as a katana-swinging maniac, he earned a reputation as a stone-cold asskicker who was almost peerless in his mastery of the blade, and was also rightly feared by the populace because of the intimidating-as-shit pirate-style eyepatch he wore over his left eye at all times. According to legend, he suffered a pretty serious case of getting his eye poked out while undergoing a particularly brutal training exercise, and he is said to have personally fashioned a makeshift patch out of the sword guard of a katana blade. So that's the pirate shit. As for the ninjas, the fact that much of this man's life is a complete mystery has lead to a great deal of somewhat-plausible circumstantial evidence that he spent twelve years as a shinobi, going on crazy secret, off-the-books undercover operations for the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Of course, I should also mention that Jubei probably wasn't a ninja or a pirate. A lot of people with fancy-pants "History PhDs" or whatever stupidly believe that he didn't actually wear an eyepatch or work as a ninja, but that seems like bullshit to me, because this is an awesome angle and I really REALLY want it to be true. But fuck them. What we do know is that this badass swordsman came from pretty righteous stock. His grandfather was kind of a big dog in the ranks of Imperial Japan, having written several highly-respected tomes of military strategy, and his dad was a battle-hardened samurai face-melter who had distinguished himself as a peerless asskicker fighting alongside the Tokugawas at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. When fellow badass Ieyasu Tokugawa conquered all of Japan and unified it under one shogun for the first time in I think like a thousand years or something, he brought Jubei's dad in to teach swordery to his family and his most trusted advisors. Now, you KNOW that during these days motherfucking samurai took their swordplay seriously, so to be honored as the personal asskicking instructor to the Shogun of Japan was kind of a big deal. Jubei's dad served three different Shoguns with honor, and when he eventually kicked it, he passed the mantle on to his son.
Jubei was a pretty decent choice to teach the fine arts of face-beatery to the ruler of Japan – this guy spent every day of his youth learning the fine art of strategic appendage-severing from his father (the highest-ranking swordmaster in Japan) and, as you can imagine, by the time he was ready to take over as the head honcho, he was seriously fucking awesome. One legend that effectively summarizes this point goes a little something like this:
Once upon a time, Jubei visited a wealthy and powerful feudal lord, and the lord’s top champion challenged Jubei to a friendly sparring match. The two men took up wooden swords, stood across from each other, and then proceeded to lash out simultaneously with lightning-quick strikes. In one movement, both men smashed their weapons together, and then Jubei stood back and bowed. The samurai brought his weapon back up, not fully understanding what was going on, and lunged at Jubei once more. Again, the swords clashed in a single strike that was almost too quick for the human eye, and again, Jubei stood back and bowed. The samurai was totally pissed now – “Why the fuck are you bowing and shit, you douche!” and Jubei was just like, “Well, because I totally pwned your ass, bitch, so deal with that.”
Well the moron samurai was super ripshit pissed at this point, because he seriously thought both fights were stalemates (idiot). Jubei calmly informed the samurai that if he honestly thought both fights were even, then he was obviously an incompetent ass-head. So the samurai pulled out his real sword, and challenged Jubei to fight for real. Jubei rolled his eyes, sighed, and promptly sliced the dude in half Darth Maul-style with one swing of his blade.
Kurosawa later adapted this tale into that totally awesome scene from the Seven Samurai, a battle that still stands out as one of the best duels in the history of samurai cinema.
When he wasn't violently bifurcating any dumbshits that foolishly thought they could mess with him, Jubei went out and invented a badass weapon – the Yagyuzue (it was so awesome and hardcore that apparently he was honor-bound to name it after himself). Basically, this shit looks like an innocuous lacquered bamboo walking stick roughly four feet in length, but it was specially designed, hardened, and reinforced so that it could break bones and deflect glancing blows from a fucking samurai sword. So here you think you’re going to make a quick buck taking advantage of some old half-blind crazy person with bad knees, and then next thing you know, Jubei is flipping out, parrying your pathetic attempt at an attack, capping you in the kneecap with a steel-reinforced death club, and generally just caning the fuck out of you like an out-of-control Singaporean prison warden. The sweet thing was that the Yagyuzue was actually longer than a katana, giving Jubei a small (but significant) reach advantage over most samurai, and he was known for his ability to knock the swords of out peoples’ hands with his cane and then shatter their femurs with a well-placed swing. As if you needed any more convincing as to why this is totally rad to the max, this technique of hardcore, back-alley cane-fighting would later be adapted by badasses such as Andrew Jackson and Sherlock Holmes to wreak serious blunt force trauma on the craniums of their puny enemies, which utterly rocks.
That's just how Japan's ultimate one-eyed asskicker operated. This motherfucker was all about using deceptive weapons for strategic ass-smashing purposes, and basically just killing you repeatedly with many different kinds of regular household items and everyday implements. For instance, one legend claims that he once pissed off a hardcore ninja, and the ninja whipped out ten shurikens and pitched them at Jubei’s face in rapid succession. Jubei didn’t even flinch – he whipped out a fucking metal fan (!!), and used it to slap all ten ninja stars out of mid-air. Then I assume he rammed the fan so far up the guy’s ass that the dude could have been used as an umbrella, but the sources aren't really clear about that.
His non-flashy, straight-for-the-jugular style of fighting also translated to his personal life as well -- Jubei was known to be a no-bullshit kind of guy who told always called it like he saw it, which is something I think everyone can probably respect. He never sugar-coated his opinions, didn't suck up to his superiors, and didn't give a shit whether you liked him or not.
Well, this attitude, while certainly epitomizing badassitude, eventually backfired rather spectacularly for our hero - despite being spontaneously awesome all of the goddamned time, the shogun eventually dismissed Jubei from his service for being a total jackass. Apparently, according to the story, Jubei drank a shitload of sake at a party, got totally hammered, and gave a toast in the Shogun’s honor that was so inappropriate and blatantly offensive that he was fired on the spot. It was all good though – twelve years later, the shogun changed his mind and brought Jubei back into Imperial service – and Yagyu, for his part, never made another toast in his entire life. This was probably a wise idea.
So, this begs the question: What happened in the twelve years in between? Well, quite honestly, we have no fucking clue. The dude simply vanished off the face of the earth for over a decade, and absolutely no record exists of his movements or travels during this period. Isn’t that nuts? This mysterious absence from the mortal realm is what has led to the legends that he turned to the life of a Shadow Warrior – a lot of people think he went off and did some awesome flying/stabbing hardcore ninja shit, working as a secret agent for the Tokugawa and doing all kinds of CIA black-ops insanity, but quite honestly for all we know he could just as easily have ventured to the underwater city of Atlantis and single-handedly executed a complete genocide of all Merfolk on the face of the Earth. It’s really anybody’s guess. The safe money is probably on him donning some nondescript clothing and traveling the Japanese countryside honing his skills as a badass swordfighter and having crazy, Miyamoto Musashi-style adventures chopping people into shark chum. Wherever he was, and whatever he was doing, it worked, because when he showed up back on the scene in 1629 pretty much everybody in Japan recognized the fact that he was totally sweet.
Yagyu Jubei triumphantly returned from the ether, served as the martial arts instructor to the shogun for a while, taught his school of fighting to a ton of students, wrote a bunch of books about how to effectively kick asses, and then abruptly died in 1650 when he became so awesome that his heart spontaneously combusted. Nowadays, the image of the mysterious one-eyed ninja/samurai roaming the land busting peoples' asses with a giant ass-busting katana has become highly romanticized by people with a lot of imagination and not much primary source material, which is cool with me. Hell, like I said, a lot of folks out there are still arguing about whether or not he even actually wore an eyepatch, so that pretty much shows you what we know about this dude's life. Still, despite the notable setback that most historians probably couldn't pick this guy out of a lineup, Yagyu appears in all kinds of pop culture shit, video games, anime, blah blah blah, and is still the subject of tons of wild/awesome/ridiculous speculation. For his part, what we do know definitively is that during his day he was considered the greatest swordsman to walk the face of Japan, which was a pretty hefty compliment back in a time where pretty much every Japanese man with at least one functioning appendage knew how to swing a katana with enough force to decapitate an emu. His swordmanship techniques are still studied today by martial arts masters throughout Japan, and the legend surrounding his mysterious and badass life only continues to swell with time.
Lowry, Dave. “Bottoms Up”. Black Belt Magazine. June 1988.
Lowry, Dave. Traditions. Tuttle, 2002.
Mol, Serge. Classical Weaponry of Japan. Kodansha International, 2003.
Turnbull, Steven. The Samurai Swordsman. Tuttle, 2008.