The History Of Ninjas

Japan’s old politics by other means — the real, thousand-year history of the ninja.

Sketches by Hokusai, 1817 (Wikimedia Commons)

Sketches by Hokusai, 1817 (Wikimedia Commons)

The world, our imaginations, can’t seem to get enough of ninja. The original men in black.

We see them skittering over rooftops in the night. Unknowable. Unstoppable. Or maybe as teenage mutant turtles. Whipping nunchuks. Righting wrongs.

The real history of the ninja has had a hard time keeping up with the lore. It goes back to medieval Japan, and poor villagers using stealth and guile to thwart powerful warlords. They were the anti-samurai. Homegrown guardians of a proto-democracy. Of ninjutsu.

This hour, On Point: the real history of the ninja.

-Tom Ashbrook


John Man, author of “Ninja: 1,000 Years Of The Shadow Warrior.”

From Tom’s Reading List

Asian Review of Books “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.”

BBC News “Japan’s era of shoguns and samurai is long over, but the country does have one, or maybe two, surviving ninjas. Experts in the dark arts of espionage and silent assassination, ninjas passed skills from father to son – but today’s say they will be the last.”


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