Ninjas at Night, Dragons at Dawn: Magic Tree House does Japanese History

Lego Ninja 2011 B1Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series is intended to educate and entertain by taking its protagonists to different times and places, real and mythical. These Scholastic books are mainstays of schools, libraries, and primary curricula, and some of the books have companion “Research Guide” publications for kids who want to know more about the historical, cultural or scientific background. Some of these books are aimed at early readers: the first 28 in the series are short, with short, simple sentences appropriate to 1st or 2nd graders; after that the series shifts into the slightly more fantastical “Merlin Mission” mode, longer stories with more complex writing suitable for 2nd or 3rd grade students; the research guides seem to be aimed at 2nd through 4th graders.1 In these stories, Jack and Annie are given a book which, combined with the magic of the tree house, takes them to a time and place where they can carry out a mission of some kind, while learning about the site of their adventure. The whole thing is supposed to be an encouragement to learning, so to speak, showing the value of book reading. Twice in the series, Jack and Annie have visited Japanese history: in the earlier, shorter work, we get nature-loving ninja and threatening samurai; in the later adventure, we get the nature-loving poet Basho, a magical dragon, and threatening samurai.2

The text that Jack and Annie work from — more Jack than Annie: he’s the cautious, bookish one, and she’s the impulsive, intuitive one — gives an explicit frame to the story, and the book is never wrong. Because of Annie’s impulsiveness, they never get to read through the book carefully, but look up facts as they become relevant: the facts are short, context-free chunks of information that usually explain what the characters are seeing, and remembering these bits often comes in handy at critical moments. In addition to the books they read, they often get guidance from people they meet: many of the adventures feature a “local informant” who helps them navigate local custom and landscape and often is critical to their larger mission; usually they are supposed to return to the Magic Tree House with a specific item or piece of information.3 As with the books that bring them to these times and places, their local informants are never wrong, either, though sometimes they misjudge Jack or, more often, Annie.4

The first Japan adventure is Night of the Ninjas5 in which Jack and Annie return to an unidentified moment in Japan’s medieval period. Here’s what their book has to say about it:

  • “Very little is known about the shadowy warriors called ninjas. Historians believe that ninjas lived in Japan between the 14th and 17th centuries. Both men and women were ninjas. Sometimes they fought to protect their families. Sometimes warlords hired them to be spies.” (15-16)
  • “Sometimes ninjas held meetings in hidden mountain caves to plan secret missions.” (31)
  • “Ninjas took orders from a ninja master. The master was a mysterious wise person who knew many secrets of nature.” (31)
  • “The samurai were fierce Japanese fighters. They carried two swords to cut down their enemies.” (45)

This is the most authoritative information Jack and Annie have available, and the vast majority of it is entirely incorrect. Ninja — the black-suited nemesis of samurai living an independent existence in the hills, etc. — are a figment of early modern imaginations built on a sliver of truth, reified by modern martial artists’ pseudo-historical self-justifications and entertainment industries more than willing to dramatize and amplify the mythologies for fun and profit.6 The myth of hostility between ninja and samurai, though, runs through a lot of Japanese historical fiction.7 (38) The idea of the ninja as a kind of eco-warrior seems to be a relatively new addition to the mythology: it’s an interesting way of working “harmony with nature” into this Japanese narrative:

“Remember three things,” said the master…”Use nature. Be nature. Follow nature.” (38)

The nature-ninja turns the samurai into a kind of modernist nightmare.8 But samurai, described in the book as “fierce,” are all bark and no bite: their armor is made of “bamboo” (45), they wander around the woods at night with torches looking for ninja (37, 58), and they can be fooled by a kid in a hoodie pretending to be a rock. (48-49)

In Dragon of the Red Dawn9 samurai are also a threat, again in a distinctly modernist mode, because of the ban on foreigners. As their guidebook “A Journey to Old Japan” (7)10 says,

  • “The late 1600s in Japan were years of peace and prosperity. Art and culture thrived. But it was a time when the country was completely closed to the outside world. No one was allowed to come in. The citizens of Edo were frequently checked to make sure they had passports.” (15-16)
  • “Anyone who did not have a passport was considered a spy and punished severely.” (16)

All samurai, in this version of Genroku Japan, are police agents: the only samurai who are mentioned are either former samurai, like the poet Basho, or some form of patrolling security who are quick to draw their swords and challenge people who are out of place. (21, 42, passim) Basho tells Jack and Annie that “You must remember, seek harmony with your surroundings. … Observe the people of Edo and do as they do. If you do not stand out, you will not be noticed by the samurai.” (25-26) Jack and Annie have to learn how to use chopsticks — while eating makizushi, which it’s a little early for — under the gaze of samurai who are on the lookout for foreigners. (42) Oddly, the samurai they face suspect them because of where they are but not how they look, whereas Basho can tell immediately that they are foreigners; this may be part of the magic of the tree house, which also gives them appropriate clothing and gear and skips right over language issues. (25, etc.) In spite of the fact that Jack and Annie repeatedly come under suspicion of being spies, the samurai questioning them are thrice convinced that they are merely poetry apprentices (22, 48-52, 96-98) who do not need to show their passports, twice by extemporizing poetry.11

In addition to their simple duties and simple-mindedness, samurai are part of a very simple political system. As often happens, Osborne has conflated the past and present, Shogunal and Imperial institutions. Here’s what “A Journey to Old Japan” says:

  • “In the 1600s, the Imperial Garden surrounded the Imperial Palace in the capital city of Japan. The city was called Edo (Say EE-doh). In the mid-1800s, its name was changed to Tokyo (Say TOH-kee-oh.)” (14)
  • “In the 1600s, the military ruler known as the shogun (say SHOW-gun) lived in the center of the Imperial Garden in a palace that had hundreds of rooms.” (17)
  • “Often the shogun’s warriors traveled with him. They were called samurai (Say SAM-uh-rye).” … “Samurai were excellent horsemen well trained in the arts of fighting. The code of the samurai was strict. Samurai did not show their feelings. They had great powers of concentration.” (18)

There’s a pronunciation error, the elimination of daimyo from the political picture, the bushido stoicism and assumption that all samurai are the same, and the confusion engendered by referring to the Shogunal keep by its modern title. Osborne carefully refers to the Shogun as “the military ruler” but doesn’t explain the distinction between the Shogunal and Imperial institutions or note that the castle and grounds were not considered “Imperial” until the 1860s.

But the samurai are just an obstacle: the heart of the story is poetry, fire and magic. Despite their failings, Basho admits “Yes, the samurai greatly honor the art of poetry. Poetry helps focus the mind. The samurai believe a truly brave warrior should be able to compose a poem even in the midst of an earthquake, or while facing an enemy on the battlefield.” (61) Basho instructs the children in the art of haiku12 and shares the frog pond verse which he wrote just yesterday, even giving Jack the piece of paper on which the world’s most famous haiku is written. (62) The guide book tells us that “Basho is one of Japan’s greatest poets. He wrote short, beautiful poems that speak to people as clearly today as they did during the Edo period of Japan.” (59) Some of them certainly do: Basho has about the same linguistic issues as Shakespeare, namely that he’s one of the writers whose work shaped the early modern language, but idiom and usage have changed over time.

Unlike Night of the Ninjas, this book has a precise historical moment. Or, rather, several precise moments: the frog poem was written in 1686, but the main action of the book focuses on the fire that destroyed Basho’s home in 1682, after which he embarked on his famous travels. Also, the cherry blossoms are blooming. Aren’t they always? Anyway, on their first walk through the city, Basho notes the drought-like conditions and remembers the 1657 Meireki Fire.13

“When the weather is very dry, the people of Edo worry about fire. … Twenty-five years ago, during a dry spell, half our city was destroyed by a terrible fire. Thousands died.” (30)

Probably a hundred thousand or more. But there’s an up-side to fires, he says later:

“I suppose that is why the ancients called our fires ‘the flowers of Edo.’ … After something is destroyed by fire, a good new thing often takes its place. Just as after the bleakest winter, beautiful flowers return with the spring.” (89)

This is not, of course, the actual source of the “flowers of Edo” idiom, which is both relatively recent at that time instead of “ancient”, and sarcastic rather than heartening. But Basho himself endured several fires that destroyed his home, and did take the opportunity to travel, producing some of his greatest work (including the above-mentioned poem) as a result.

When the fire breaks out, Jack and Annie join the citizens of Edo fighting the fires – no mention of the competitive firefighting teams, their uniforms or equipment, just people with buckets – and then draw on their magic to invoke the Cloud Dragon, “one of the guardian animals of the four directions. She has the power of flight and commands the rain clouds.” (37) Though a very minor figure in Japanese astrology, the Cloud Dragon answers their call with a drenching rain.

There are a few interesting touches: yo-yos, which are a long-standing Japanese toy; hot towels at meals; sumo wrestling as entertainment, though it’s unlikely that Genroku-era wrestlers would have been 400+ pounds. (38, 39, 46)

But as educational materials, these books represent a huge step backwards, a terribly wasted opportunity. According to the Wikipedia page, these books have been translated, along with most of the series, into Japanese. I can only imagine what the Japanese thought of them.


  1. Check the Scholastic web site for official suitability levels. Also if you have any doubt about the fact that these are aimed at an education audience….  

  2. I could put a spoiler alert here, but how many 2nd-4th graders are reading this blog, who haven’t already moved beyond Jack and Annie adventures? Well, my son wants to read this post when I’m finished with it, but other than him?  

  3. Missions are part of larger projects: the series is built around four-book units which share a problem and theme. Jack and Annie accumulate skills and credentials over the series. This makes up for the fact that the individual books are very short, and acculturates young readers to longer works. That’s the general idea, anyway.  

  4. I suspect that most of my readers at this point are either familiar with the series, or have stopped reading. But I want to establish the authority of the voices: readers of the series are acculturated, if they read more than one or two, to accept the authority of the guiding book and teachers.  

  5. Book 5, published in 1995 by Random House, with illustrations by Sal Murdocca.  

  6. And, as with most Japanese nouns, the plural of “ninja” is “ninja” not “ninjas”  

  7. And is almost certainly based on self-serving mythologies of post-pacification samurai  

  8. The picture on p. 46 is the only time they are depicted visually  

  9. Book 37, Scholastic, 2007  

  10. Complete with pseudo-bamboo typography  

  11. including, I regret to inform you, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.” Basho likes it.  

  12. though without any of that picky stuff like syllables or turning words, or seasonal indicators  

  13. They also see puppet plays on “a row of stages built along the riverbank” (36)  

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