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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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  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    I will be sleeping with one eye open tonight ! 

    • Ray in VT

      Ninjas, not carbon monoxide or heart disease, are the true silent killers.

      • J__o__h__n

        I’m in favor of anything silent.

      • MarcusXH


  • http://twitter.com/geniepoolsfl Genie Pools

    oH YEAH THERE IS A SHINOBI IN US ALL. Ninjas are what today would be modern special forces. Awesome in every way.

  • geraldfnord

    Is what I’ve read true, to the effect that ninja didn’t wear black (which is not good camouflage), but rather that stage and film ninja followed the stage convention that puppeteers and stage hands dressed in black were officially invisible?

    The source further stated that for camouflage dun brown and grey were worn, and for infiltration any low person’s normal clothes—real spies spend much more time looking like dustmen and charwomen than in formal evening-wear….

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QMDZ3LH5U2B4GAT7J2HS4TCP6E Jim

    a guy with Kung Fu or Muay Thai can easily kill a Ninja… 

    they were originally sneaky spies from Japan going to places in Korea and Northeast China. without their sword, they would be vulnerable.

    • adks12020


      • DrewInGeorgia

        Jim also seems to assume that his Martial Artists would see the Ninja coming…and that the Ninja would play fair.

        • http://profile.yahoo.com/QMDZ3LH5U2B4GAT7J2HS4TCP6E Jim

          that is why they are vulnerable without their sword… what can they rely on… those little plastic stars?

          my muay thai invisible kick would knock their teeth out…

          • Englishknight007

            The Ninja were spies, but also masters of martial arts in general. They took the best of each martial arts to make there own. They studied there great rivals of the Samurai to learn ways to defeat them in armed AND unarmed combat. The Ninja was the ultimate in armed and unarmed combat. They was the original “Black Ops” masters of today. Kung Fu would not stand a chance 1 on 1 with a Ninja… You could even put 7 Kung Fu up against 1 Ninja, but if you did, do not forget 7 body bags.

  • ToyYoda

    Can we talk about Hattori Hanzo?  He was considered the greatest Ninja of all time.  What made him the greatest?  I just know of his name.

  • NewtonWhale

    I liked Michelangelo best.

    • MarcusXH

       eww Raphael or bust

      • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen


  • http://twitter.com/DanieloLobo Daniel Quaresma

    Comments on Bujinkan and the legacy of Takamatsu? The role of Haatsumi?

  • Wahoo_wa

    Benny is my favorite.

  • JennaJennaeight

    The ninja has been my four-year-old’s goto alter ego for more than a year now thanks to Lego’s “Ninjago” series.  Putting aside it’s pop-Buddhist, orientalist silliness, I have to thank this incarnation of ninja lore for inspiring endless roleplaying, outdoor play, costume design, and of course the perfect excuse to don a mask whenever he’s feeling shy:)

  • MarcusXH


    Best On Point EVER.

  • ToyYoda

    If ninjas are masters of disguise, did they cross dress?

  • Sean Murphy

    I’ve heard that some Ninjas would train their entire lives for just one mission. When they succeeded they would kill themselves having completed their mission. True?

  • DennisNH

    Tom, Thank you for having John on today.

    I teach the martial arts of ninjutsu. He is right that there was not a separate martial art they used the fighting systems of their day but applied all he has been talking about to those systems.

    Stealth, disappearing in plain sight, and not defeating the enemy but escaping are all still taught today in our art physically, mentally, and spiritually.


  • DrewInGeorgia

    To your guest Tom: Throwing knives yes, Throwing Stars no.

    • DrewInGeorgia

      And blow-guns, almost forgot about those.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    To the caller: Climbing claws and grappling hooks made from farm implements like he was describing earlier.

  • Michiganjf

    If the general populace could be put to death if found with certain weapons, wouldn’t it be in their interest to dismantle the weapons if they weren’t going to be put to immediate use?

    Also, if ninja weapons were often made from farm implements, perhaps the weapons were typically eventually modified back to more practical farm use over the centuries.

    That’s probably why few or none of the weapons survive to the modern day.

  • DennisNH

    Shuriken were designed as distracting weapons. There are ways to wear them in the sash near the hips along with your sword or tanto. The flat seban shuriken could be flipped toward the eyes or the hands of the sword wielding attacker to distract and either escape or move in to counter attack.

  • DennisNH

    The Ian Flemming book sent Stephen K. Hayes to Japan to find Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi and then when he returned in the 1980′s the ninja boom started in the west and to our Hollywood  images of today.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    Thanks so much for your time John Man, GREAT show OP!

  • DrewInGeorgia

    You hear that Ray? The caller says there’s a particularly good training school in Vermont! Gives “put your dress blues on” a whole new meaning.

    • Ray in VT

      I only heard half of the episode, so I missed that bit, but thanks for the update, Drew.  Where in the episode was it as best you can guess?  Maybe I’ll try to track it down.

      I did like the mention the Japanese cultural emulation of the Chinese got, as well as the unification of China in 221 B.C.E.  I was hoping to hear Qin Shi Huang of the Terra Cotta Warriors fame get a name drop, but I didn’t hear one.

      • DrewInGeorgia

        It was near the end of the show, probably within the last ten to fifteen minutes. No details were given but the caller said there was a particularly good ninja school in VT.

        I really enjoyed the entire show, I never would have thought I’d hear Koga Ninja or Shintoism mentioned during On Point.

        • Ray in VT

          It does surprise me what comes up from time to time, especially when it is some rather obscure historical reference.

          So, I was looking up something this morning, Drew, and I am interested in your opinion on something.  I was looking at the Georgia Congressional district map here:


          I don’t know much about the lay of the land and such down in Georgia, but how would you characterize the area that comprises the 10th district.  I ask this because I was reading an article that referenced some of the more colorful comments of one Mr. Paul Broun.

          • DrewInGeorgia

            The only quote that pops to mind was something about Science and a pit of hell, I don’t remember the details.

            I know the area fairly well, I’m assuming if you’re asking if the district is primarily made up of backwoods bozos. Athens is in the district, it’s not so bad. Winder, on the other hand, is like Georgia’s version of South Park. Milledgeville is also in the district, that’s where the majority of the State used to send their sanity challenged folks. The Supra Geniuses (like Broun) seem to be scattered liberally across the state. Even with Atlanta, all you have to do is get just outside of the city and you’ll come across some of the most “colorful” characters you’d never want to meet.

          • Ray in VT

            That was pretty much what I was getting at, but I didn’t want to say something like “what kind of boobs elect a nut like that?”, but I guess that I just have.  You were pretty much right on about the qoute.  Evolution and embryology are “lies straight from the pit of hell” if I remember correctly.

            One of my friends used to live in Hotlanta, and I’ve always heard that Savannah is nice and that Athens is kind of a funky college town, but that’s about the extent of my general knowledge about the state, at least georgraphically speaking.

  • DeJay79

    “The elusive Ninja right to the end” -Tom

    I love it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Nozawa-Thurwachter/1003498190 Peter Nozawa Thurwachter

    I know Tom is familiar with Matsuo Basho from the Haiku episode, so he might appreciate that there is a theory that Basho was a Ninja.  There’s no direct evidence but there is some intriguing theories on the internet.  Anyway, Tom, if you’re interested, the internet is a colorful place.

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    ninjas are a perfect example of asymetrical warfare  

  • Jarret Stanko

    Well one thing is clear, is that a ninja would totally desimate a pirate.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/SXNYXBZXITQJQQXJUCW65SSZNI BJ

    Two of my favorite movies are American Ninja 1 & 2

  • http://www.facebook.com/santiago.b.tejada Santiago B. Tejada

    Too short for dismantling the facts from fiction. I wish the questions section could have been longer since callers with some knowledge started to become additional contributors

  • Mark Davis

    Mark Davis from Boston

    Mr. Ashbrook – thank you for initiating a conversation about Ninjitsu based on your most recent interview which aired on
    February 5, 2013. I would like to introduce some basic points about the Ninja of old Japan, who had a diverse set of skills and training methods. There were some ninja’s that had ‘martial skill’ referred to as Ninpo Taijutsu and some that
    did not. The Ninpo Taijutsu skill set that we see today is a moving reference of notes for modern self-defense – as well as history lessons. Within the study of Ninpo Taijutsu (of today) we can also see how one would have moved and
    fought with old school Japanese armor. However, the art itself teaches flexibility in that we learn how to move our body in a natural manner which would be effective in a changing environment of today. If one were looking for
    notes on Ninpo Taijutsu from old Japan one would be hard pressed to find a first-hand step by step handbook on the subject, as it was highly illegal to ‘spy’ in old Japan. Today such traditions have been passed on by generational
    teachers and they currently sit with Dr. Hatsumi or his student Stephen K.Hayes, who has published extensively. I have had the honor of training with both of them and have known them for over 30 years. Additionally, here are some
    basic areas of study that a ninja would look at:

    Seishin Teki Kyoyo (Spiritual Refinement)




    Ryu-Tai Dragon body Yoga

    TaiJutsu (Unarmed Combat)

    Ninpo Bikenjutsu (Ninja Sword)

    BoJutsu (Stick and Staff Fighting)

    Shuriken-Jutsu (Throwing Blades)

    YariJutsu(Spear Fighting)

    NaginataJutsu (Halberd Fighting)

    KayakuJutsu (Fire and firework,Smoke)

    HensoJutsu (Disguise and Impersonation)

    ShinobiIri (Stealth and Entering Methods)

    Bajutsu (Horsemanship)

    SuiRen (Water Training)

    Heiho (Strategy)

    ChoHo (Espionage)

    IntonJutsu (Escape and Concealment)

    TenMon (Meteorology)

    ChiMon (Geography)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=709881835 Jon F. Merz

    As a fan of On Point,  I must say that the author in question truly fell short of accurately chronicling the evolution of Ninjutsu within feudal Japan and up to current times.  I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to spend the last 22 years of my life studying at the Boston Martial Arts Center where the Chief Instructor teaches authentic Togakure-ryu Ninjutsu.  Further, as a fiction author myself my exposure to authentic Ninjutsu has enabled me to bring it into the pages of my novels for both adults and younger readers.  During the course of my time spent studying this art, I’ve traveled to Japan and trained with the 34th Grandmaster of the system as well as his senior students.  Here in the US, I’ve been fortunate to study with Mr. Davis here in Boston and Stephen K. Hayes – the western world’s foremost authority on the subject.

    It’s unfortunate that Mr. Man neglected to adequately and accurately research this amazing art.  His arguments that he could find little evidence of the art are largely dismissible when we remember that Ninjutsu was a system of espionage – punishable by death if found out.  While we would no more expect a CIA operative to keep a detailed chronicle of their operations sitting in the front drawer of their desk at home – easily discoverable if the authorities ever came across it, and indeed, punishable by death if said operative was operating on foreign soil under a non-official cover – neither should we expect that the Ninja of old keep such detailed records.  Mr. Man should also realize that for a great part of its history, teachings were handed down orally as opposed to being written.  Such kuden, as they were called, were meant only for direct transmission between teacher and student.  It is only within the last hundred years or so that many martial arts – not just Ninjutsu – have been systematized and written down in any sort of detail.

    I would urge Mr. Ashbrook to revisit this topic soon and this time be sure to have on an actual expert who has trained in this art with the leading teachers of Ninjutsu.  In Boston, we are truly fortunate to have one such expert.  

    • http://twitter.com/allen2saint allen 2saint

      Nothin’ like a little self promotion, right?

      I think it’s clear that this well regarded and prolific author operates from a historical, rather than a martial arts afficianado point of view. 

  • Bibliodrone

    American cultural perceptions surrounding ninja and martial arts in general, in books, film, television and other media past and present, would make an interesting topic of study in itself, along-side the equally important discussion about the reality behind the myths.

    It would also be interesting to explore the ways in which these arts were translated from their “traditional” sources and integrated into modern American society and its own characteristic worldview. As with yoga, meditation and other “Eastern” practices, there are issues around commercializing these teachings, as well as the pitfalls of cross-cultural misinterpretation.  Also, what kind of cross-influence was there between American martial arts and the rising New Age and “self improvement” culture in the 20th century (ie. fitness, alternative medicine, self-help, yoga, etc.)?
    As for information on the realities behind the myths, I would turn to people like Mr. Merz and Mr. Davis. They know what they’re talking about.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001708537001 Joshua Evans

    Did you know that some people today don’t even know that Ninjas were real?

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