“A well trained shinobi (ninja) looks like a very stupid man” – Ninja instructional poem.
Ninja, or shadow warriors, shinobi, practitioners of the mysterious art of ninjutsu, are the subject of popular historian and travel writer John Man’s latest book, Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior. An amiable and personable storyteller and no stranger to opaque Asian history, he previously visited the ninjas’ cultural countrymen in his last book, Samurai: The True Story of the Last Warrior, whose subjects are portrayed here as the “anti-ninja” for their preference of performing acts openly. Unfortunately, those expecting a thorough peek into the clandestine world of shadow warrior culture may find them just as elusive after finishing this book as when they started.
Filled with historical and anecdotal evidence, Man charts the storied history of Japanese ninja (shinobi) throughout Asia, from their likely Chinese connections with Confucianism and Sun Tzu military dictum, to their essential role in embedding specific warrior ethos in the Japanese consciousness. He dives deeply into weighty tracts, targeting specific instances in both Chinese and Japanese history as reference points – in lieu of documentation – to support his thesis that the mysterious ninja mythos developed demands for great secrecy and cunning strategies emerged across both cultures.
Man’s narrative style vacillates between personal travelogue and erudite history lessons, which can be jarring when these jumps occur with little notice, seemingly to mimic the style of a BBC broadcast. Most frustrating is how often he’ll go on unrelated tangents for seemingly no reason other than to demonstrate his extensive knowledge of history, even acknowledging this fault when a story about pottery threatens to distract him further.
It’s also a bit frustrating that almost none of the included eight pages of black and white photos have much to do with the actual text, save for an entire page dedicated to the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice, a character likened to a western ninja: “a secret agent, loyal to a fault, adept with specialist weaponry, master of unarmed combat, the ultimate survivor.”
And it’s this attempt to reconcile 007 as a modern “ninja” where I think most will take issue with Man’s research, or more often, his habit of applying the label retroactively to those can seem stretched at best. Take the story of the Japan’s most famous World War I holdout, Hiroo Onoda, who rose to prominence after being ‘discovered’ by college dropout Norio Suzuki who, admittedly, was searching for “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order”. Man even titles an entire chapter to him in “The Last Ninja”. By his own account, Onoda would probably align himself more with samurai than ninja, a distinction that Man already defined earlier.
The best bits are when Man stops with the long-winded history lessons and shares stories of ‘ninja’ culture and lore directly. One such tale recounts the controversial – and unlikely – legend surrounding daimyo Uesugi Kenshin, ruler of the Echigo province, who may or may not have fallen prey to an unfortunate ‘toilet killing’ by a skilled dwarf ninja. It’s as incredulous as it sounds, but here Man invites readers to ponder “how does a shit-covered dward sneak through a castle unnoticed?”
John Man’s Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior will likely disappoint those looking for a proper history of one of Japan’s most famous cultural exports, as there’s simply too much conjecture with the subject matter to consider it reliable. Despite the premise of demystifying what the term ‘ninja’ has become in western culture, Man freely uses it as an adjective, applying it to subjects that might not qualify – James Bond gets an inordinate amount of attention here. While there’ plenty of interesting bits here for those interested in Japanese history, even this too often comes across like a superficial documentary on cable television; one can almost hear the voice-over narration and sound effects added to still pictures already. Those expecting an exhaustive and meticulously researched account on the subject may want to look elsewhere.
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