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!