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.

Continue reading “Learning the secrets of survival: a review of Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior”

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.

Continue reading “What if the South won the Civil War: a review of The Jazz Cage”