The Ninjas today are the stuff of myth and legend in comics, film and electronic games. But once they were real, the medieval equivalent of the SAS: spies, saboteurs, assassins. In their secrecy, under-cover skills and determination to survive, they were the opposite of the overt, self destructive samurai. Could they fly? Make themselves invisible? Of course not.It was just that their skills gave them a magical aura. As a result, martial artists and story-tellers have turned them into fantasy creatures, from James Bond to Mutant Turtles.
In Ninja John Man goes in search of the truth. In a journey to the heartland of the ninjas, he takes us from their origins over 1,000 years ago, through their heyday in the civil wars that ended with Japan’s unification in 1600. But that was not the end of the ninja ethos. That re-emerged in World War Two as a little-known counterpart to Japanese militarism. Ninja ways live on in the real ‘last of the ninjas’, Hiroo Onoda, who held out in the Philippine jungle for 30 years.
A historian and travel writer specializing in Asia, Man exposes the history of the secretive ninja, a.k.a. shinobi, and differentiates him from his public counterpart, the samurai. Unlike the latter, the survivalist ninja eschewed self-sacrifice and the seppuku (hara-kiri) ordeal, aiming to "get close to the enemy" in order "to learn and return." Westerners recognize ninjas as "sinister men in black" acting as "spies, scouts, surprise attackers, and agitators," but may not realize they originated in the old Japanese provinces of Iga and Koga as peasant farmers linked to neighbors and communities in self-defense networks. Man explains other salient figures of the ninja heyday (1400-1600C.E.) like the shogun (chief samurai and military dictator) and daimyo (feudal lord). As experts in covert warfare, ninjas underwent extensive training including the casting of spells, which were "useful but not infallible." Ninjas were believed to "guarantee a quick victory" during wartime, up until their 17th century demise. Man employs humor and a casual, travelogue style, interposing relevant personal anecdotes to illustrate how the ninja's day is long past, or else his art of invisibility is more effective than ever.