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Almost every character in the Naruto series, from minor character to boss level character, uses this jutsu (Kawarimi no Jutsu).

Ever since I started watching the series, I wanted to know how this technique works. It may look like a Ninjutsu 101 technique in the early parts of the series, but in many of the serious fights later in the series, it seems to fool even the opponents who are well-versed in combat. Is this jutsu based on any real life technique?

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    Substitution is basically Izanagi without sacrificing your eye. I killed you! No, you actually killed a log! Dec 12 '12 at 10:23
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According to this, it is indeed based on a real-life technique:

This technique is based on a real-life ninja art, kawarimi. It was an ancient ninja art revolving around misdirection and the split-second timing of a switch between a 'body' and a location, or between two or more bodies: A technique utilized by ninja in ancient Japan, involving the ninja and anything that can be mistaken for them, (such as a dummy or a mannequin).

As you mention, it is used by all levels of characters, because it is one of the basic techniques being taught in the Academy.

Now, for the "it seems to fool even the opponents who are well versed in combat" part. This is also similar to the real word. For example, all boxers use pretty much the same punches, yet some of them are much better than others, meaning they also use those punches better (stronger, faster, etc).

That is why a technique performed by a stronger shinobi would also have a stronger effect, so if the opponents are close in power, they can still use this jutsu to distract each other.

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    This is why mastering the basics is common advice for most disciplines. :) Jan 30 '13 at 17:52
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Prepare a log or a mannequin and a smoke bomb.

Position yourself where there are a lot of hiding spots or objects that block the enemy's sight.

Throw the smoke bomb, leave the log and start hiding REALLY FAST.

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