Review: “Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior” by John Man

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As a person with deep convictions in democracy, I think it’s important we, as a people, take the time every once in a while to step back and reflect on ninjas.

Seriously though, these days ninjas are important, and I admire John Man for writing this. A product of the ninja-turtle age and a long-time consumer of other shrouded assassin fare, I had to stop when I saw Ninja in the bookshop. “A history of ninjas,” I thought. “Damn, why didn’t I think of that?” It’s a great subject, both because ninjas are so popular — from Connery-era Bond films to YouTube phenomenon Ask A Ninja — and because everything people know about them is fluff. Just who were these shuriken-flinging bad-ass spy dudes, anyway? I certainly wanted to know; I expect many others will too.

But there’s a catch. It turns out there’s a good reason why all we know of ninjas, or shinobi as they’re known in colloquial Japanese, is myth. I hope you’re hungry for slow-baked legend in wild embellishment sauce, because that’s about the only thing on the menu when it comes to shadow warriors. ‘Shadow’ is the operative word in this whole ninja business.

The result is a book more on what ninjas aren’t. So we discover most popular thinking on them is bullshit. Black suits? Nah, dark blue, sometimes other colours. Ninja stars? Nope, according to Man there couldn’t be a dumber weapon. How do you carry something that’s got blades on all sides? How do you get it out quickly in a fight? And how do you avoid cutting yourself? Instead, you were more likely to find ninjas wielding knives and swords (or blowdarts — not everything we imagine about them is false).

Man also does his best to humanize the ninjas and ground them in the social world of medieval Japan. Since there’s basically no info available on individuals, he turns to the fiercely independent communities in the Iga and Koga regions south of Kyoto where the shinobi originated. Man recounts how ninjas emerged there in an effort to avoid rule by the central government. As he lays out this background, we find that lots of these ninja guys were farmers (gotta have something to do when you’re not sneaking into castles and poisoning feudal lords). Indeed, many ninja tools were adapted from farm implements, and their gear actually seems more like a carpenter’s toolbox than an assassin’s arsenal — folding ladders, rope, saws, etc.

In this vein, he notes ninjas were often fixtures of their local communities, and devoted themselves to the common good. They weren’t all rootless killers-for-hire and unscrupulous mercenaries. There’s something truly interesting in this. There’s fascinating tension in a life where you creep around at night scaling manor walls with grappling hooks and poisoning aristocrats, only to spend the days sowing rice with your wife and kids.

Unfortunately, however, most of what Man writes on ninjas — even this stuff about their social roles — is weakly substantiated. While the author no doubt made the best of a difficult topic, Ninja has the feel of a book improvised in the absence of sources. All he really has to go on are a few anecdotes from people he interviewed in Japan who claim to descend from ninja families — but oral evidence that dates back so far (the 15th and 16th centuries) is notoriously problematic. Aside from that, he mentions one or two treatises on ninjitsu (ninja ways) penned following the decline of the ninjas as a professional group. (This was after the shogun united Japan and the feudal lords stopped hiring ninjas to assassinate each other.) In other words, the book is a bit superficial, reading more like an extended journalism piece than the work of someone who’s a true expert in the field. Then again, for certain readers that might be just the level of detail desired.

The highlight of the book is the final two chapters, which aren’t actually about ninjas per se. Man makes the case that Japanese spies in WWII were modern ninjas, and charts the incredible stories of these men. His argument for modern ninjas doesn’t hold much water. (A good definition of “ninja” doesn’t appear in the book at all. He even claims James Bond is essentially a Western ninja, thus conflating shinobi and spies in general. And throughout the book he refers to any deceptive behaviour as “ninja-like,” which really waters down the term.) But making this link does allow him to delve into fascinating material, particularly on the life of Second Lieutenant Onoda Hiroo, who survived for 30 years in a Philippine jungle refusing to believe the war was over.

This guy’s story is insane. Thirty years? Alone? In a jungle? Not only that, but the Japanese government — and even his own siblings — contacted him on multiple occasions and begged him to come out. But he refused to believe them. Clearly these were wily attempts by the Americans to lure him into the open and sabotage his mission. (“Amazing that they found someone who looks and sounds just like my brother! How clever these Yankees are…”)

His determination to stick to his orders until his commanding officer appeared to rescind them is staggering. And indeed there’s something quintessentially Japanese about it, although that sense of conviction doesn’t belong solely to ninjas (think of all those samurai slicing their guts out to show loyalty to their masters).

When Man gets ahold of this rich seam — for once a subject that actually has source material! — he shines. The writing is engaging, emotionally charged, and addictive. Here the pages turn easily. The rest of the book, however, is a hybrid of the worst features of academic and popular writing — dry like many scholarly works, and lacking intellectual rigour like many popular titles.

But this, again, is likely due to the material, or the lack thereof. Facing such an impossible assignment where most of the history is just scraps of legend, Man has to pick up the pieces as best he can. The result is a book that’s actually more about wars between proto-shoguns vying for control of Japan than about “shadow warriors.”

That being said, Ninjas is an interesting read and essential homework for ninjaphiles. And if you like to deconstruct pre-modern beliefs as “mumbo-jumbo,” you’ll probably enjoy John Man’s personality, as he delves into myth-busting quite heavily. If you’re after some light reading on the warring-state era of Japanese history, Ninja is absolutely worth checking out in this regard too. But if you want an authoritative history of the shinobi that’s readable yet scholarly, you’ll have to wait.

———-

Thanks to Harper Collins  for a review copy of this work.

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