Book Review: Ninja: 1000 Years of the Shadow Warrior

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Book Review by Lloyd Sabin, 10 April, 2013

Lloyd takes on a new book on everyone’s favorite assassins.

img src=”” alt=”ninja” width=”286″ height=”420″ align=”right” />I have been on a Japanese history kick for the last month or so. For the military historian, there are few cultures in the world that offer more than the incredibly rich military culture of Japan for the last couple of millennia, and ninja play a large part.

A big problem when studying phenomenon like ninja is separating the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the myth. Could ninjas really perform magic and stop bullets with their hands, or were they more like Japanese special forces troops?

John Man (author of previous books including Samurai) attempts to answer as many questions as he can about these mystery-clad figures in his new title Ninja: 1000 Years of the Shadow Warrior. The book is split between travelogue and history. Man explores the mountainous Iga and Koga provinces, where the ninja and their ways originated 1000 years ago, and documents what he is shown in existing “ninja-houses,” public monuments and museums. Man also compares the ninja and the tremendous amount of instructional writing they produced to the samurai and their long, proud history of military training.

Through these introductions the reader is shown where Man thinks the ninja falls into the hierarchy of Japanese history. The early chapters also review physical conditioning, mental training, and public behavior of the ninja and sprinkle here and there estimates of roughly how many practitioners there were at any given time through the different eras. These early chapters are the stronger part of the book as there were at least a few anecdotes that most readers and historians of Japanese history may not have seen before.

But the book takes a turn when covering the history of the ninja. These historical chapters are extremely similar to any general history of Japan, and pages can go by without even a mention of a ninja. Anyone with knowledge of Japanese history through the Age of the Country at War (roughly the end of the 15th century through the beginning of the 17th century) and the Tokugawa period (early-mid 17th century to 1868) will know the stories covered in these chapters. Grogs who have played Sengoku, Civilization V, Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynastie,s or of course Shogun: Total War (1 or 2) will of course be extremely familiar with this history.

It’s a rich and exciting history, but there’s nothing new about it in Man’s book, and the links to ninja and their ways are not all that clear. Ninja were of course a major part of these epic histories, but the tales told here are more mainstream than I would expect in a book about ninjas. I had read about it all before.

That changes again when the book plows on into the modern era (post-1868) with chapters on the Nakano Spy School and tales of Japanese Imperial troops like Hiroo Onoda who, even with World War II over in the Philippines, refused to surrender for almost 30 years. The comparison of these more modern day troops to ninja may be tenuous but they made for much more interesting reading than the bland generic Japanese history of the middle chapters. If Ninja: 1000 Years of the Shadow Warrior could have been condensed to Modern Ninja: The Traditions and Tactics of Japanese Special Forces Since the Meiji Restoration, it would have been a more focused and far more fascinating and readable book.

Additionally, Man does not use many primary sources other than conversations he has with the people he visits with while traveling the countryside of Iga and Koga. He relies very heavily on the books of Stephen Turnbull. And while Turnbull’s books are very good…I have already read them. A more original path would have benefitted Man’s book tremendously.

As it is, Ninja: 1000 Years of the Shadow Warrior may be a good book for readers exploring the subject for a first time. For experienced readers or historians, it will be a retread of material they know well already, with a sprinkling of new anecdotes on ninja background and perhaps more modern organizations and events that could claim descent from ninja tradition. Not bad, but so much more could have been done.


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