todd logo        Todd Shimoda's Writer's Blog                                           home | Twitter | Facebook
ENTRY

Review: Ninja
September 30, 2012

Ninja
1,000 Years of the Shadow Warriors

John Man

Like sumo wrestlers, samurai, shogun, and other Japanese archetypes, ninja are known outside Japan mostly by exaggerated and often fictionalized characteristics. The exaggerations include their black hooded uniforms and superhuman abilities like walking on water or scaling vertical walls. Ninja have been made even more cartoonish because of the popularity of the comic book and animation series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. John Man helps rectify the misunderstandings about ninja, which is not an easy task as their origins and practices are in the shadows of Japanese history.

The term ninja comes from the concept of “one who endures or hides” which emphasizes the main principles of the ninja. Their main task was spying on the enemy by infiltrating their defenses using techniques learned in the practice of ninjutsu. The techniques including hiding where they could gather intelligence or disrupt enemy plans. And to bring back the information they discovered they must endure; in other words they were not on suicide missions.

The origins of ninja are murky and go back to China more than a thousand years ago as do many Japanese arts. But the height of the ninja influence was during the constant civil wars from about 1480 to 1600 (called the Age of Warring States), and this is where Man focuses much of the book. The battles for territorial dominance by powerful families, was centered around the capital of Kyoto where the emperor resided. The main ninja training centers arose in the nearby regions then known as Iga and K¬ōga. Much of the historical record of the ninja from this time were attributed (although somewhat uncertainly) to a samurai and ninja named Natori Masatake.

Ninja were trained in many aspects of infiltration and martial arts, but also in medicine, psychology, religion, philosophy, among other subjects. These fundamentals provided the ninja with alternate ways of accomplishing their mission. Instead of donning a black uniform and scaling a castle wall, a ninja might use deception or charm to get inside. One ninja mantra was “A well trained ninja looks like a very stupid man”. Ninja rarely carried obvious weaponry, not like the samurai with their long and short swords, and protective armor. Instead Natori recommended a straw hat, a thin rope and grappling iron, a pencil, basic medicine, a long piece of cloth, and a fire starter. Rather than all black clothing, ninja were instructed to wear the colors of the locals to blend in with them.

Not that the ninja weren’t also trained to defend themselves or kill when necessary. If they needed to kill, they often used a dagger easily concealed to be used in a surprise attack. They were also trained to use ordinary tools such as shovels for weapons. Ninja training combined the physical and mental similar to the rigorous mountain training called Shugendō. But even this training was less about mindless killing than about self-improvement. Man describes the often heroic exploits and contributions of the ninja in the most detail in the chapters about the great battles of the Age of Warring States. These battles were as bloody and often ludicrous as any wars in human history. By the mid-sixteenth century, the ninja were in demand across Japan.

After the end of the wars around 1600, Japan was unified by an all-powerful shogun, and the ninja became less important. There were ninja schools that continued their training, and even one or two continue to today. But the samurai maintained order and protected their lords instead of the mercenary ninja. After the end of the shogun rule and return of power to the emperor and the rise of new militarism, some of the ninja principles and techniques were adopted to modern warfare, especially for intelligence gathering during the Asian theater of the Second World War. Man makes the case that the last ninja (although there are several to claim that title) is Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier in the Philippines who did not surrender after the end of the war. He finally gave up in 1974, after avoiding capture and efforts to lure him from the jungles where he survived ninja-like for thirty years.

John Man’s book isn’t all historical accounts; he also explores the sites where ninja influenced the outcomes of battles. He visits a ninja museum, a ninja-themed restaurant, and takes part in ninja training. There are also descriptions of ninja in popular culture and several pages of photos are also included. Overall, the book is a fascinating and highly readable account of the shadowy and misunderstood warriors that helped lay the foundation for modern Japan.

COMMENTS

Number of comments: 2
click here to add a comment

Gail
Great review! Thanks, Todd. Do you watch the taiga dramas on TV Japan? Even though they are fictionalized, I feel like I'm learning a lot about the basics of Japanese history.

Todd
Thanks, Gail. Yes, I have watched taiga, although not for a few years. They are a good way to learn about Japanese history, which is fascinating!

ARCHIVE

date (comments)

Review: Moshi, Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto
April 13, 2017 (0)

First Annual Little Tokyo Book Festival
September 1, 2016 (2)

Review: Tales of Old Tokyo
April 13, 2016 (0)

LA Times Festival of Books
April 4, 2016 (1)

Review: The Translation of Love
February 14, 2016 (1)

Review: Holy Ghosts: The Christian Century in Modern Japanese Fiction
October 7, 2015 (1)

Review: Japanese Literature - From Murasaki to Murakami
September 25, 2015 (1)

Review: The Book of Tokyo
August 28, 2015 (1)

"Why Ghosts Appear"
July 7, 2015 (2)

Review: The Game of 100 Ghosts
March 31, 2015 (1)

Editing, editing, editing
October 30, 2014 (1)

Review: Light and Dark
July 30, 2014 (2)

Review: Landscape with Traveler
June 30, 2014 (1)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
April 30, 2014 (2)

Review: Triangle
March 30, 2014 (5)

Review: The Guest Cat
February 28, 2014 (2)

2013: Year in review
December 30, 2013 (6)

Review: Jasmine
November 30, 2013 (1)

Review: The Case of the Sharaku Murders
September 30, 2013 (2)

A well-realized voice
August 31, 2013 (1)

How to find a publisher
July 30, 2013 (2)

Review: Kiku's Prayer
June 30, 2013 (1)

Review: The Goddess Chronicle
May 28, 2013 (2)

Review: Paprika
April 21, 2013 (3)

Review: A Straight Road With 99 Curves
March 30, 2013 (1)

Gripping writing
February 28, 2013 (2)

Review: Salvation of a Saint
January 19, 2013 (2)

2012 in review
December 30, 2012 (2)

Review: Ninja
September 30, 2012 (2)

Review: My Postwar Life
August 21, 2012 (1)

New interview with Colin Marshall
July 15, 2012 (3)

Book events
April 25, 2012 (2)

Subduction
March 14, 2012 (8)

Review: A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard
January 14, 2012 (1)

Review: Plainsong
December 20, 2011 (3)

Review: The Devil's Disciple
November 29, 2011 (2)

Haruki Murakami
October 5, 2011 (2)

Busyness and demons
September 25, 2011 (2)

Characters: The Bully
July 30, 2011 (3)

Review: Manazuru
June 28, 2011 (2)

Deadlines!
June 24, 2011 (2)

Review: Butterfly's Sisters
May 18, 2011 (1)

Review: Isle of Dreams
April 20, 2011 (2)

Cades Award for Literature press release
April 12, 2011 (2)

Japan and other news
March 29, 2011 (1)

Borders bankruptcy
February 17, 2011 (2)

2010 review
December 17, 2010 (6)

Congratulations Mario Vargas Llosa
October 7, 2010 (2)

OH! wins best book award
September 23, 2010 (2)

Review: Kissing the Mask
August 22, 2010 (1)

Jonathan Lethem: Writing at the margins
July 12, 2010 (2)

Review: Love in Translation
June 22, 2010 (3)

Jose Saramago
June 18, 2010 (0)

Marketplace of Ideas interview
June 11, 2010 (2)

Imagining Memory
May 6, 2010 (1)

Upcoming Los Angeles events
April 7, 2010 (2)

Time and energy
March 30, 2010 (2)

Review: Botchan
February 28, 2010 (2)

J.D. Salinger
January 28, 2010 (1)

2009 Reviewed
December 31, 2009 (5)

Review: The Word Book
December 12, 2009 (1)

Chaat and Chat event with OH!
November 6, 2009 (2)

Home at last
November 2, 2009 (2)

Los Angeles events
October 17, 2009 (1)

Poets and poetry
October 7, 2009 (1)

Time + place
September 24, 2009 (1)

The future of books
September 23, 2009 (1)

October book tour
September 6, 2009 (1)

Blogging at Powell's Books
August 28, 2009 (2)

The evolution of an idea
August 3, 2009 (1)

The Poetics of Motoori Norinaga: A Hermeneutical Journey
July 9, 2009 (2)

Tour debrief
July 2, 2009 (3)

Book tour events
May 18, 2009 (3)

Simply in the mood
April 24, 2009 (2)

Book tour
April 8, 2009 (6)

The Necessary Book
March 2, 2009 (2)

"Murder Makes the Magazine"
February 7, 2009 (3)

John Updike
January 27, 2009 (2)

2008 misc. (good news, bad news)
January 1, 2009 (3)

Publishing woes and query letters
December 13, 2008 (4)

Punctuation compunction
November 16, 2008 (3)

The Fountain of Youth (and other Ideas)
October 10, 2008 (2)

David Foster Wallace
September 14, 2008 (2)

Ending it all
September 12, 2008 (2)

The mystery of plotting, the plotting of mysteries
August 29, 2008 (3)

Blocking out the block
August 20, 2008 (3)

"What kind of books do you write?"
August 8, 2008 (2)

Theory of Satisfaction: Part 4
July 21, 2008 (3)

Show and tell
July 14, 2008 (3)

Theory of Satisfaction: Part 3
July 7, 2008 (7)

Advice for first-time writers (Barry Gifford and me)
June 30, 2008 (6)

Theory of Satisfaction: Part 2
June 18, 2008 (3)

To be or not to be
June 10, 2008 (6)

Theory of Satisfaction: Part 1
June 3, 2008 (6)

Virtual unreality
May 31, 2008 (4)

The purpose of this blog
May 21, 2008 (5)