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Authors: John Man


BOOK: Ninja
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A Note About Transliteration

Introduction: Ghosts of the Shadow Warriors

1    Origins

2    How to Be a Shadow Warrior, Part 1: Mind and Spirit

3    Anti-ninja: The Samurai

4    How to Be a Shadow Warrior, Part 2: Deception—and Charm

5    A World of Violence and Undercover Ops

6    How to Be a Shadow Warrior, Part 3: Magic

7    Building the Ninja Heartland

8    The Rise of the Conqueror

9    The Calm Before the Storm

10    The End of the Old Ninjas


11    Nobunaga's End, Ieyasu's Rise

12    The Final Battles

13    Shadows in Retreat

14    The Nakano Spy School

15    To Japan, with Love

16    The Last of the Ninjas




About the Author

Also by John Man



About the Publisher


In the printed edition of this book, most Japanese names—except those that are common in English, eg, Toyko, Kyoto, shogun—have been Romanized according to the “revised Hepburn” system, with a macron above
to indicate long vowels. Unfortunately, because most e-book formats cannot accommodate macron symbols, these marks are absent from all electronic editions.


Once you get the details and layout of the castle or the camp, all you need to do is get back with the information as soon as possible.

Ninja instructional poem

someone half his age, was talking about his ninja ancestors. A firm gaze behind huge glasses, a ready laugh, a torrent of words: Mr. Ueda's ninja blood had kept him youthful and exuberant.

“But how do you know all this?” I asked, because ninjas were famous for leaving few written records.

“It's in the family. My grandmother was a Momochi.” A famous name, an eminent family, one of several hundred who shared these forested hills and steep-sided valleys. “She used to talk to me about the past, when I was helping her on the farm and when we went away on holiday.”

It was from her, with her childhood memories of her grandparents—his great-great-grandparents—that he had learned about Iga's ninja families, about the way they had worked together to build an early form of democracy, keeping themselves independent of power-hungry lords. Did people where I came from know about this? No, I said, it would be news to them, because most people thought ninjas were comic-book creatures.

Mr. Ueda had much more to tell, but I was short of time, and interrupted with a glance at my watch and an abrupt question. Was there anything else? I was hoping for another swift bullet point that I could follow up on at leisure, and was utterly unprepared for what came next.

“I would like to show you what I inherited from my grandmother.”

How could I refuse, without seeming impolite? He led the way past tables, pushed aside boxes, and revealed a narrow door into the roof space, for like most countryside buildings in this earthquake-prone country, the restaurant was a single-floor structure, with a loft for storage.

“Be careful,” he said, stepping over a mat on the floor. “That's to catch rats. Very sticky. If you step on that, you will not get off.”

The stairs rose steep and shoulder-width into shadows. I followed, with a twinge of anxiety at the delay, wondering how on earth I could beat a gracious retreat.

Above and ahead, he stooped clear of the sloping roof along a little space too small to be called a corridor, and led the way into a gloomy attic packed with, of all things, what looked like tailor's dummies. It took my eyes a few seconds to get used to the half-light before I realized what was before me: suits of ninja armor.

There were ten of them, slung over simple wooden crosspieces, lined up among piles of empty cardboard boxes. They were nothing like the theatrical creations favored by samurai, with segmented breastplates and garish face masks and exotic helmets. These were austere, dark, hooded, cloak-like doublets, the ghosts of shadow warriors. When I got up close, they turned out to be chain-mail doublets made of minute metal rings. From a meter away they looked more like cloth than metal, armored versions of the black peasant costumes that are nowadays considered traditional ninja garb.

Downstairs, Mr. Ueda had regaled me with family memories that may have been no more than folklore. These were the real things, direct links back centuries to a time when ninjas were ordinary farmers until called upon to defend not some lord but themselves—fighting for their families and villages against armies that had to be opposed with covert, nighttime operations because to engage with them in open, daylight conflict would be suicidal.

Nothing could have more powerfully brought home a fact I had hardly glimpsed until that moment: I was involved with a tradition that was very Japanese, yet completely different from the more obvious, better-documented traditions of the samurai. To learn about ninjas, I would be peering into shadows, and it would take a good deal of help and luck to discern underlying truths.

Before starting on this book, I thought I would be engaging mainly with myth: cartoon turtles, invisibility, flying, and other such nonsense. I was wrong. The ninjas, for centuries secret agents acting for their communities and their employers, had remarkable qualities—among them an extraordinary ability to inspire legends—but there was nothing magical about them. If ninjas ever mastered the art of invisibility (the subtitle of at least one book about them), they did so by being masters of disguise and camouflage.

I found instead a complex subject, rooted in true events, real people, and a charming region, little known to outsiders, of steep, forested hills, hidden valleys, mountain streams, and patchworks of paddy fields. Here, in the two areas that used to be the provinces of Iga and K
ga (and are now parts of Shiga and Mie Prefectures in central Japan), the ninjas were part of life for centuries, and still are, because they are a growing tourist attraction. I got to know a little about a way of life—
—that had less in common with martial arts than with the arts of survival. And I learned something of the mystical traditions the ninjas shared with those who sought to gain their power, by undertaking rigorous mind-and-body training regimes in sacred mountains. The true ninjas were, it turns out, not only masters of exotic fighting skills who worked as spies, mercenaries, police, and soldiers; they were men who sought “right-mindedness” for all aspects of life.

What was going on here? What was it about Iga and K
ga and the late Middle Ages that suited the development of the ninja way of life? In the 1970s, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins suggested that ideas take root and spread in the same way as genes. He called the intellectual equivalent of a gene a “meme.” Perhaps
started as a recessive meme in ancient China and Japan, evolved into a dominant one because it proved useful to its hosts, and was then spread to outlying areas by carriers, who in this case were mercenaries. It seemed there was much to explain: Why then? Why there? Why did
in the end cease to be so effective?

Perhaps most surprising to me was the realization that the ninjas had been around in Japan for seven hundred years before the word
appeared, and remained a thread in Japanese history long after the “real” ninjas had been deprived of almost all relevance by unification in 1600. The ninja ethos resurfaced, remarkably, in World War II as the very opposite of mainstream Japanese militarism: These ninjas (though not named as such) were no less loyal to the emperor but imbued with a spirit of generosity, creativity, and internationalism, utterly at odds with the arrogance and xenophobia that typified the armed forces until they went down in defeat in 1945.

There have been several “last of the ninjas.” In fact,
seems to have found its final and most extraordinary expression in the career of the World War II soldier who held out for thirty years in the Philippines, Onoda Hiroo.
In his commitment to survive, in the techniques he used to do so, and in his humanity, Onoda—who, as I write, is still going strong at ninety—is in many ways the
last of the ninjas.



Make yourself resolute with the idea that you will win whenever you go on a mission, and you can win even if it is not so realistic.

Ninja instructional poem



time, roughly 1400–1600, in a particular region, and in particular circumstances. But they did not spring into existence fully formed. To find their roots, look far away and long ago, to China, almost eight hundred years earlier.

BOOK: Ninja
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