We all know about the ninja. All-black suits. Shuriken. Kunai. Smoke bombs. Magic ninja arts. We also know that all of this is historically inaccurate, since a spy who wears distinctive outfits and carries obvious weaponry is no spy at all, just a fool who becomes a corpse in record time. The Youtuber Gaijin Goombah explains in a video just how wrong popular culture, whether Western or Japanese, has it about the ninja (with further thoughts here.)
Yet in spite of what we know about real-life ninja, we still have black suit-wearing, shuriken-throwing, magic-wielding shadow warriors in our fiction. Why do we continue to portray ninja in this way when we know it is false?
Because if we portrayed a modern, realistic ninja appropriate for our times, he would look like this:
It’s important to remember that the ninja were spies. During their heyday in feudal Japan, they had to wear clothing that wouldn’t get them noticed and wield whatever weapons were available or whatever they could improvise, thus their distinctive clothing and weapons matched their environment. This is, of course, true of spies everywhere in the world, at all times in history.
Portraying a “realistic ninja” operating in the modern era would make him no different from any soldier or intelligence agent. He would use whatever fighting skills his agency or military taught him. He would use simple, effective firearms. He would dress in a way that blended in or, if sneaking into somewhere, camouflage him. You don’t even need to be a spy for that last one — regular soldiers wear camouflage!
In contrast, the popular image of the ninja is highly distinct and exaggerated. These exaggerations give them a glorious, larger-than-life image much like that of Europe’s knights or Japan’s own samurai, making them far more entertaining in global popular culture.
They stand out as their own thing with their own identity — perfect for fiction, which eschews the ordinary in favor of the extraordinary, standing against the urge to make everything uniform and rob individuals and peoples of what makes them different and interesting.
They link us to a heroic past, quite unlike the modern mindset that degrades humanity’s past as retrograde and hateful.
Seen in that light, ninja as we know them are not a silly farce; they must look as they do to retain what makes them interesting to us. Like all fictional constructs, the ninja of popular culture express an ideal, and when we express ideals in our fiction, we quite happily throw scientific and even historical accuracy out the window if it would spin a good yarn. That’s what imagination is all about, after all: it is surreal, above the real, allowing us to imagine greater.
So don’t roll your eyes when you see another shuriken. Clap your hands instead, for it shows that they haven’t submitted to modernity’s relentless drive to make gray blobs of us all.
Further reading: Japan’s ninjas heading for extinction.