I’ve finished Stephen Turnbull’s Ninja: the True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult, and I have good news for current and prospective graduate students: there is still an immense amount of work to be done on ninja and ninjutsu as historical phenomena.
The early chapters cover “non-traditional” tactics in samurai warfare, defined here as any military or violent action which does not take place between mounted warriors on a declared battlefield. Only a few chapters in — the Muromachi and warring states eras — do we encounter shinobi, experts in castle infiltration and solo armed combat. Aside from the Iga-Koga warrior clans — oddly mercenary, which also becomes part of the ninja mythology — there are no well-defined schools or consistent practitioners. The Tokugawa era section of the book shifts to discussing the increasingly magical, frightening and lurid image of ninja in popular culture, a topic which remains the focus for the rest of the book. Only at the very end, after citing Ian Fleming’s role in bringing ninja to western awareness, does Turnbull come back to the question of actual ninjutsu, citing Fujita Seiko (1899-1966) as “Japan’s last practising ninja” and functionally disparaging all other books, schools and practitioners as profiteers or self-deluded (though he never clarifies the position of foreword author Hatsumi Masaaki, whom he seems to hold in high esteem as a teacher and preserver of the tradition). Turnbull seems surprised by Ninjutsu schools’ claims that their art is a “Way” of self-development, which is odd because pretty much every other school or style of martial arts in Japan makes the same claim. He openly admits that he can’t judge the actual fighting techniques of these schools — though he does spend some time talking about weaponry and the creative additions made in literature and art over the years — and he cites but never evaluates the dramatic claims of several schools to be descended from various historical figures (some of whom used non-traditional tactics but were not shinobi).
The book almost entirely fails to answer any of my questions about ninja and ninjutsu. I am not someone who can be shocked, shocked, I say, to discover that samurai sometimes snuck around instead of limiting themselves to entirely fair fights, or that some warriors actually got pretty good at these tactics. Nor does it surprise me that samurai orthodoxy distanced themselves from these tactics so that, even though they appear as successful tactics in traditional military records, the self-image and modern image of the samurai drives these tactics into the shadows. I’m not terribly interested in popular images of ninja, unless there is some serious discussion of the reality, and the two discussions are substantially separate. I am interested in the history and accomplishments of schools of ninjutsu, because it is from them, not from popular culture, that the most fantastic claims of antiquity and continuity and ability come. Turnbull quotes an interview with the above mentioned Seiko Fujita, for example, in which he “claims he can ‘concentrate his senses’ to see eight times better and hear fourteen times better than normal,” (144) but, aside from deploring the “dilution of quality since ninja became so popular” (146), there’s no validation or testing of these claims.
Even in earlier sections, there’s an odd credulity to the source handling that is hard to take seriously. Turnbull notes, for example, the odd frequency with which ninja were tested before employment with stealing an item, usually a sword, from their employer, but doesn’t bring skepticism he justifiably feels towards these clichés to bear on the rest of the documents containing them. Turnbull notes the disdain in which conventional samurai held these tactics and practitioners, but doesn’t seriously question whether the samurai sources he’s using might be misrepresenting these warriors or underrepresenting the use of these tactics. I’m also surprised at the relative thinness of pre-20c popular culture references (and the early 20c military discussion seems a terrible diversion, either unnecessary or too short), given the consistency and wide acceptance of the images in question.
To be fair, it may be that the sources and citations he found are indeed the only ones to be found on the subject, and he’s doing the best that he can. There seems to be material here that is not found elsewhere in English, and that’s always a service to the profession. And this is certainly more interesting than the vast majority of the nearly-fictional ninja material in the popular and martial arts press. But it certainly didn’t answer my questions, or the questions of my students.