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

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John Man's book

Cover art for John Man's Ninja, 1000 Years of the Shadow Warrior


British travel writer and historian John Man, who has published biographies of such Asian historical figures as Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and Kublai Khan, is out with a new history titled Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior. While this work is eminently readable and engaging, Man draws extremely tenuous connections and stretches the definition of a ninja beyond the breaking point.

All kinds of cultures have developed different techniques for spying and assassination over the centuries, and Japan is no exception. Some of the skills that came to be associated with the ninja were created as long ago as the sixth or seventh centuries CE - but that does not mean that the practitioners were ninjas. John Man overcomes this semantic obstacle by calling the proto-ninjas "shadow warriors" instead - but he uses the term interchangeably with the word "ninja" in later chapters.

In chapters seven through twelve, Man generally does an admirable job of cobbling together the intentionally obscure history of ninjas in the eleventh century through 1600 CE. This is the period when the classical ninja existed, training under ninja masters at schools (or ryu) centered in the mountainous Iga and Koga regions of southern Honshu. Although, as Man emphasizes, ninjutsu emphasized spiritual self-improvement and self-defense, the ninja also hired themselves out to daimyo for spying and assassination assignments.

Man overreaches, however, when he compares the shogun Oda Nobunaga, who began the reunification of what is now central Japan, to Genghis Khan, who conquered much of Eurasia. Although Oda was also ruthless, and like Genghis Khan, killed one of his own brothers, that is about as far as the analogy goes. Fratricide is one of the most common stories in history, sadly - see Cain and Abel. This stretch foreshadows the flimsy reasoning behind the final chapters of Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior.

When Japan's "Warring States Period" or Sengoku ended in 1603, the ninjas' reason for being ninjas ended as well. With the peace of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which lasted until 1868, the daimyo no longer needed spies and covert operatives. By 1700, the authentic ninjas had died out.

As a show of pride in their heritage, and also to attract tourists, descendants of the ninjas have passed down some of their knowledge and added to the lore, probably inventing some of the "traditional" ninja techniques and weapons along the way. While Man acknowledges these facts, and provides interesting examples, he then goes on to assert that Japan's World War II-era spies and special operations soldiers were ninjas. He also singles out Onoda Hiroo, who held out in the Philippines until the 1970s, refusing to believe that Japan had lost the war, as the "last ninja."

Man defends this extremely unlikely identification by stating that the 20th-century spy school graduates shared "11 of the 18" traits of sixteenth-century ninjas. However, trained covert operatives from any country would have had a similar number of those traits.

The final straw for this reader was Man's seven-page long recap and discussion of a James Bond novel and film that featured ninjas. While the British author's obvious love for 007 is endearing, the extended tangent about Bond left me wondering if he just needed more padding to hit his publisher's expected word count.

If you are looking for a fun read that includes some ninja history along with a bunch of other material, then Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior could be just the ticket. On the other hand, if you want a serious and accurate account of ninja activity, this book isn't it.

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