Real Life Ninjas? All About Parkour in Japan and Parkour Performer Zen

  • When it comes to Japanese culture and entertainment, ninjas are just as iconic as samurais. And when a typical moviegoer gets asked how to describe a ninja, he or she might say, “Ninjas always wear black. They move so swiftly when they climb walls, jump on rooftops, infiltrate territories, and assassinate enemies with their special weapons.” These are the romanticized images of a ninja.

    However, in reality, ninjas don’t really go running around wearing masks since wearing an all-black outfit would raise suspicions more easily. Instead, they are more likely to dress as civilians to blend in with others. This systematized martial arts that ninjas follow is called ninjutsu. Many people easily assume that parkour is associated with being a ninja, but they are worlds apart as the philosophy behind ninjutsu is different from the art of parkour. Let’s learn more about them!

    Ninjutsu vs. Parkour

    Although ninjutsu’s exact origin remains as mysterious as its practitioners (the shinobi or ninja), it is said that this technique started way back during Japan’s Sengoku or Warring States period. Ninjutsu focuses on stealth and espionage. Parkour, on the other hand, is freerunning – the method of efficient movement amidst impediment.

    To put it simply, a ninja climbs a wall as a means to avoid detection. He doesn’t need to do so if it isn’t necessary as there are other ways to accomplish his spy missions. On the contrary, a freerunner does not give any regard about being seen by the public. He goes from point A to point B and climbs a wall when it stands as an obstacle along the way. He may also jump, swing, or backflip over it depending on the situation.

    Short History of Parkour

    Parkour originated from France during the late 1980s. It was developed by Raymond Belle, inspired by French naval officer Georges Hébert’s “méthode naturelle.” This natural method of movement has been later on adapted and used for military exercises on obstacle courses. The discipline was passed down to his son, David Belle, who put together his skills in martial arts and gymnastics with his father’s “parcours du combattant.” That was when the method named “le parkour” began.

    Belle and his friends founded a group called Yamakasi to further enhance this art of movement. The word “yamakasi” is often mistaken as Japanese but is actually from the Congolese Lingala term, “ya makási,” which means “strong body, strong spirit, strong person.” A person who takes part in parkour or freerunning is called “traceur.”

    In Belle’s 2009 book, he explained that parkour is more than just physical movements. It is a state of mind. One person’s jump is different from another’s. The first jump is not the same as the next because the movement depends on the surroundings and the traceur’s own technique. Parkour is not practiced just for the sake of looking cool. More than just upper body strength and physical balance, it is a method of improving one’s self-control.

    Parkour has been incorporated in several films. Compared to explosions and car chases, it can deliver the same amount of excitement for action scenes without requiring a budget as high as those that need special effects. David Belle himself starred in a French action movie called District 13 depicting parkour in stunts that don’t use wirework or computer-generated images. This received mixed reviews as international fans appreciated the impressive action sequences but critics, especially the French, griped about the lack of plot.

    Parkour in Japan

    More and more people in Japan have become interested in parkour. Tokyo’s parkour community is a bit small, but enthusiasts get together to form a group and practice urban freerunning. Others even set up their own obstacle course and facilitate a parkour class. There are also some otakus who have combined parkour with their passion for anime and cosplay.


    Suntory’s C.C. Lemon soft drink commercial attracted viewers’ attention as it featured sprinting and backflipping girls in uniform.

    Japan is known for its conservative and traditional culture. People don’t really do things that may cause some disturbance to others. Since most Japanese cities are flocked by both locals and tourists, it was suggested that an ideal place for parkour is the abandoned Hashima Island (端島). It is more commonly known as “Gunkanjima (軍艦島),” meaning “Battleship Island,” and is located in Nagasaki (長崎). It has been devoid of life since 1970 but the picturesque ruins were used as a filming location for 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall, as well as the Attack on Titan (進撃の巨人) live-action. The Japan Parkour Association gives information on locations where people can practice freerunning.

    Recently, GENERATIONS from EXILE TRIBE’s “RUN THIS TOWN” video which was released by Avex has garnered 4 million views and counting. The trailer for the Rude Boys’ action scenes featuring the same GENERATIONS’ song on HiGH & LOW’s official Youtube channel is reaching the 3 million mark. The popularity doesn’t come as a surprise since the Rude Boys are fully utilizing the art of parkour in their kinetic action choreography, looking more impressive than the other factions from the HiGH & LOW universe.

    At first glance, one might assume that Rude Boys’ member Pi played by Zen Shimada (島田善) is a member of GENERATIONS from EXILE TRIBE. He was born on May 13, 1993 – the same year as the said boy band’s leader, Alan Shirahama (白濱亜嵐). But Zen’s jaw-dropping high jumps and spinning backflips in HiGH & LOW are not done by stunt doubles but are results of his real life parkour training.

    Zen Shimada

    Zen Shimada is LDH Inc.’s professional running athlete known as “Parkour Performer.” He has been getting a lot of attention after winning several Japanese and international competitions and appearing in HiGH & LOW, the entertainment project produced by his management.

    Zen started at the age of 15 when a parkour video piqued his interest. A year later, he decided to undergo training in the United States under a professional freerunning team, Tempest Freerunning. In 2011, Zen joined the Red Bull Art of Motion in Yokohama (横浜), a highly competitive freerunning competition that is held worldwide and requires athletes’ agility and creativity. He finished in 5th place.

    Zen then continued to participate in more freerunning competitions such as All Japan Tricking Battle, Red Bull Art of Motion Detroit, All Japan Tricking Battle vol.2, North American Parkour Championships, and most recently, the 2015 WFPF Parkour Pro-Am Championship held at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas wherein he finished in 3rd place.

    Here’s a video showcasing Zen’s parkour skills along with freestyle footballer Kotaro “Tokura” Tokuda who is dressed up as a samurai:

    Young, attractive, and athletic, Zen’s appeal allows him to share his passion for parkour through various media and performances. His notable appearances include EXILE TRIBE’s LIVE TOUR 2012 ~TOWER OF WISH~, EXILE’s “All Night Long” music video, Adidas and Sony Xperia commercials, and a Microsoft Windows 8 commercial that was shown not only in several Asian countries but in Hollywood movie trailers as well. He also released a photo essay book aptly entitled, FLY.

    In the past few years, Japan has seen an exponential growth of parkour in its culture, but along with this is also the increasing number of accidents. So please keep in mind that one of parkour’s core values is humility. Remember to have fun but at the same time, be aware of your limitations and that going beyond them could be fatal. Whether it be fear of failure or injury, fear has always been something that hinders us from facing challenges. Parkour allows people to deal with fear, take risks, and feel free.

    The world is your playground. What do you think? Would you ever try parkour?

    Japan Parkour Association Website *Japanese only

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