8 questions about real ninjas — answered by historian/author John Man

Ninja history

Maybe you learned a little about ninjas in my review of historian John Man’s new book, Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior. To fill in any blanks, the author has kindly answered eight of your most burning questions, which I’m posting here.

You even managed to stump him on one.

Q: What was the ninja’s weapon of choice for assassinations?

John Man: A knife! Everything else was too cumbersome.

Q: How did they keep their villages secret so that families of those they’d assassinated wouldn’t strike them in their homes?

Man: There really weren’t all that many successful assassinations though there were several famous failures, which ended in the ninja’s death. Assassins were usually not villagers but were agents sent out by warlords living in well-defended castles.

Q: What was the average life span of a ninja?

Man: No idea! But it was a young man’s game. Since the real village-dwelling ninjas spent most of their time as farmers, I would guess they gave up being ninjas by the time they were 40.

Q: Did they really use kites for aerial assaults and infiltration?

Man: Never heard of that in real life.

Q: Where do I sign up for ninja training? (Editor’s note: Rephrased as, “Do forms of ninja training still exist?”)

Man: There are countless ninjutsu clubs and interest groups, but don’t confuse these with the real ninjas. Most of what passes for ninjutsu was devised after World War II.

Q: What is the relationship between ninjas and samurai?

Man: Some samurai were also ninjas because spying is a vital military activity; most ninjas were 
also samurai. So in military affairs, the relationship was close. But socially samurai ideals were so un-ninja that samurai had nothing to do with them.

Q: During what period were ninjas most active?

Man: During the late Middle Ages, about 1300 to about 1600. The last action in which ninjas were involved was in an anti-shogun rebellion on the Shimabara Peninsula in 1638.

Q: Did they really camouflage themselves with outfits similar to those in movies?

Man: Well, there was a ninja uniform — loose jacket and trousers — which was adapted from farmer’s clothing. But it was dark blue, not black. On occasion, they also wore a very lightweight chain-mail armor. I saw some suits of this armor owned by a restaurant owner who came from a ninja family.

Special thanks to HarperCollins for making this Q&A possible.

Learning the secrets of survival: a review of Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior

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

Ninja by John Man

[Note: I want your questions about real-life ninjas! Please include them in the comments down below or here, and I’ll try to pass them on to author John Man to answer.]

Our idea of the quintessential ninja is a little short of historical reality. In fact, what does the average person really know besides that they dress in all black and are masters of stealth and assassination techniques? They didn’t use magic, they couldn’t walk on water, and their primary goal was not to kill or be killed.

John Man’s new book Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior traces this order through history — from the first proto-ninjas to the true ninjas’ rising prevalence in Iga and Kōga in Japan and their fall and final years. Much of the foundation of ninjutsu (the way of life) came from Chinese origins, and the ninja were more concerned with survival than their flashier counterparts, the samurai, who chose self-sacrifice and would commit seppuku, or suicide by disembowelment, rather than face defeat. A ninja’s objective involved gathering information and relaying it back to his employer, where it could be of use — and that couldn’t happen if ninjas charged in on enemy territory, prepared to die.

Black wasn’t even the necessary go-to color for a ninja. Brown worked just fine, too, and dark blue was preferable under moonlight.

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Call for questions: What do you most want to know about history’s REAL ninjas?


In addition to my upcoming review of Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior, written by historian John Man, I’d love to collect your pressing questions about real-life ninjas and answer them. If not by me, then by reaching out to Man himself.

I’m hoping to round up at least 10 questions for this to happen. So — spill!

Awesome book cover Friday: Company of Liars

Why not start this Friday off with panic and disease?

By checking out this cover of Company of Liars: A Novel of the Plague by Karen Maitland, I mean.

Company of Liars

Here’s a description:

The year is 1348, and the first plague victim has reached English shores. Panic erupts around the country, and a small band of travelers comes together to outrun the deadly disease, unaware that something far more deadly is — in fact — traveling with them. The ill-assorted company — a scarred trader in holy relics, a conjurer, two musicians, a healer, and a deformed storyteller — are all concealing secrets and lies. And at their heart is the strange, cold child — Narigorm -—who reads the runes. But as law and order breaks down across the country and the battle for survival becomes ever more fierce, Narigorm mercilessly compels each of her fellow travelers to reveal the truth, and each in turn is driven to a cruel and unnatural death.

I absolutely love the detail and attention to design in this cover. It’s very symbolic, and it looks old-timey in an England way. Plus, the book sounds awesome. What do you think?

I hope you all have a great weekend! I’m heading to a friend’s potluck tonight and then rewatching Judge Dredd on Sunday. Making delicious, delicious spinach and artichoke dip, too, and I printed out a recipe for a peanut butter “cheese ball” because YUM. ;) And playing lots and lots of games because I took on too many reviews as I’m clearly nuts.

Also, our furnace broke in the apartment, so we’re getting that fixed. :( It’s been 10 degrees outside, but fortunately, we’re not freezing to death because at least some hot air is getting through.

What are your plans for the weekend? Enjoy!

What if the South won the Civil War: a review of The Jazz Cage

“A civilian job?”

“Uh-huh, but one with a bit more color.”

As the office echoed with unpleasant laughter again, Frank suddenly realized that, if the stuffed piranha assumed human form, it would no doubt look like Lucky Luciano.

The Jazz CageIf the South won the Civil War … That’s the premise for the “Roaring Twenties” thriller The Jazz Cage. Author Ray Smith sent me an e-copy for review (sorry about the wait, Ray!) and told me, “Think of it as Uncle Tom’s Cabin meets The Untouchables.

The description fits. On one hand, The Jazz Cage is about two runaway slaves trying to find freedom, but it’s got some booze, corruption, and gangster-style gunfighting, too. As I’ve said in previous posts, it’s not exactly a book I’d grab right off the shelf. History never wants to stick in my head, so I’m ashamed to say I wouldn’t know Famous General X from the guy who lives down the street. I’m a little fuzzy on battles and law, too. Smith’s book is peppered with dates, events, and names, and sometimes that information is distracting, like he wanted to cram as much in where he could — which isn’t necessary since the focus of the book is less on what would change if the South won the war and more about slavery and abolition.

Now, that’s coming from a reader who isn’t so concerned with accuracy or alternate histories. I’m sure if my best friend were here right now, she might have different comments to make, just like she did during Lincoln — Daniel Day-Lewis be damned. But when a book is set 60 years after the South won the Civil War — which didn’t happen — you expect its story to play out in a way you haven’t really seen before. The Jazz Cage basically follows two slaves who run away and the people who try to help or stop them.

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Eleven unique ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day

I have a special gripe with Valentine’s Day: Everybody has to express their disgust with it. Believe me, I understand why so many people hate it. I used to be single, too, and for many it’s a painful reminder of a fruitless search for that “special someone.” It’s also an overblown Hallmark extravaganza (but then again, so is Mother’s and Father’s Day) that leads to a lot of mushy rom-coms and diamond ring commercials. But you know what, Christmas is commercial, too, and who doesn’t love Christmas? Scrooges, that’s who.

Okay, there are valid reasons for not liking Valentine’s Day. It can put a lot of pressure on couples to be perfect and extraordinarily romantic—like, of superhero proportions. But some couples prefer to simply crack open a bottle of wine and spend the evening watching their favorite movies.

I just want to enjoy my holiday in peace without having to hear people whine about it. That just spoils all the fun for those of us who like it. Valentine’s Day is about more than cards and chocolates and long-stemmed roses. It’s about taking the extra time to do something special for your sweetie (though you should be doing that all year round)—or the people you love. Elementary school taught us you can have more than one Valentine, after all.

So here are ten ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day with your better half—or your own wonderful self.

1. Read a book! Big surprise here, huh? There’s lots to choose from—from the romance section to young adult to holiday specials like Love Monster by Rachel Bright. Comics are always a good pick, too. I really enjoyed the NEW MUTANTS #37 Valentine’s Day special this year.

2. Learn about the history. Fact or fiction: People in France and England believed that February 14 was the beginning of mating season for birds, making the day a perfect one for romance? Take a quiz on Valentine’s Day traditions from around the world.

3. Write a love letter. The official National Card and Letter Writing Month isn’t until April, but some are starting the challenge early. February has been declared a month of letters. Not much of a writer? Send a free, classy digital card (much nicer than many e-cards, in my opinion) instead.

4. Play a video game. Twisted Metal (for PlayStation 3) is hitting retailers today, on Valentine’s Day. If you and your snuggle-poo like to play video games together, nothing says love quite like killer clowns and Rob Zombie. You can also get a four-game indie bundle of various PC titles for ridiculously cheap.

5. Make arts and crafts—they’re not just for kids, you know. Check out cool ideas at the Better Homes and Gardens website (like a case wrap for beer or caffeinated drinks, an “I Love You” library card and journal, and 34 other snazzy gifts). The Martha Stewart website has 48 other suggestions, like heart-shaped pot holders and lacy votive candle holders.

6. Concoct and bake your own super candy bar. Blogger Erica at Erica Takes Over the World will show you how.

7. Review ten of the greatest kisses in literature. Perfect for living vicariously.

8. Learn about the Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia, which among other mementos features a smashed garden gnome that was hurled at a car during an angry breakup.

9. Watch twenty-five Valentine’s Day movies for twenty-five different relationship stages. This one made me giggle: “You love Nicolas Cage no matter what anyone says: Moonstruck.”

10. Cut costs with a romantic dinner at your favorite fast food chain, with restaurants like White Castle, Waffle House, Chick-fil-A, and more participating.

11. Take Valentine’s Day less seriously with these disgruntled quotes by famous comedians. Why not?

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today honors Martin Luther King, Jr., one of history’s greatest and most influential orators. His empowering speeches and involvement in civil rights has made him a national icon, bringing hope that little words like “I have a dream” can change a country.

Below are five top books on Martin Luther King, Jr.:

1) The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Clayborne Carson

Summary: A factual, first-person reconstruction of Dr. King’s life using archival material from Stanford University, including previously unpublished writings, interviews, recordings, and more.

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Year:
Page Count:
416 (paperback)

2) A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Clayborne Carson, Kris Shepard, and Andrew Young

Summary: Reprints King’s most famous oration (“I Have a Dream”), his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, and his “Beyond Vietnam” argument against the war. Renowned civil rights activists—Rosa Parks, the Dalai Lama, Ambassador Andrew Young, etc.—offer their insight and provide relevant introductions to King’s words.

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Year:
Page Count:
240 (paperback)

3) Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Summary: Martin Luther King’s recollection of the Birmingham campaign in Alabama (perhaps the most racially segregated American city at the time), which highlights the importance of the year 1963 to the civil rights movement. Launched by Fred Shuttlesworth, King, and others, the campaign showed how nonviolent direct action can be effective. Dr. King reflects on the history of the civil rights struggle and what future generations must do to achieve full equality. The book includes King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication Year:
Page Count:
256 (paperback)

4) Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Summary: In these short pieces, written in jail cells and the trying years of the civil rights struggle, Dr. King conveys his commitment to justice and the intellectual, moral, and spiritual pillars kin to Christian discipleship.

Publisher: Fortress Press
Publication Year:
Page Count:
192 (paperback)

5) A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. by MLK, James M. Washington

Summary: Martin Luther King’s words on the day before his assassination describe the “promised land” of racial equality, an ideal that King devoted himself to in the last twelve years of his life. This collection contains King’s writings, speeches, interviews, and autobiographical notations, underscoring his thoughts on nonviolence, social policy, black nationalism, and more.

Publisher: HarperOne
Publication Year:
Page Count:
736 (paperback)