Unmasking the Myth
‘A valuable book that deftly steers through confusing and controversial materials. Even ninja apologists will feel that honour has been served. Turnbull admirably exposes and investigates the “careless retrospective interpretations” of the 20th century, but in doing so, manages to reclaim the historical shinobi.’
Jonathan Clements, Author of A Brief History of the Martial Arts
The ninja is a well-known phenomenon in Japanese military culture, a fighter who is widely regarded as the world’s greatest exponent of secret warfare. He infiltrates castles, gathers vital intelligence and wields a deadly knife in the dark. His easily recognisable image is that of a secret agent or assassin who dresses all in black, possesses almost magical martial powers, and is capable of extraordinary feats of daring. He sells his skills on a mercenary basis and when in action his unique abilities include confusing his enemies by making mystical hand gestures or by sending sharp iron stars spinning towards them.
That is the popular view, but it is much exaggerated, as this exciting new book explains. The Ninja Unmasked is a revealing, fascinating and authoritative study of Japan’s famous secret warriors. Unlike all previous books on the subject the author, who is an expert in the subject, does not take the ninja for granted. Instead he examines the entire phenomenon in a critical manner, ranging from accounts of undercover operations during the age of Japan’s civil wars to the modern emergence of the superman ninja as a comic book character. The popular ninja image is shown to be the result of several influences that were combined to create the world’s greatest secret warrior.
Many well-known features of the ninja tradition such as the black clothes and the iron stars are shown to be complete inventions. One important feature of the book is the use of original Japanese sources, many of which have never been translated before. As well as unknown accounts of castle attacks, assassinations and espionage they include the last great ninja manual, which reveals the spiritual and religious ideals that were believed to lie behind the ninja’s arts. The book concludes with a detailed investigation of the ninja in popular culture up to the present day including movies, cartoons and theme parks.
Rating: 5 out of 5 starsNetGalley, Matthew Codd
Stephen Turnbull brings his usual meticulous detail and writing flair to Ninja: Unmasking the Myth, a fascinating account that does its best to dig through centuries of growing mythology to uncover the truth of Japan's famous spies and assassins. It's something of an update to Turnbull's 1991 book Ninja: The True Story of Japan's Secret Warrior Cult, using new sources and information (much of which has not been available in English before now) to paint a fuller, more accurate picture.
Turnbull traces the path from the espionage and covert tactics that weren't unusual in the Sengoku era, but weren't necessarily the domain of highly-trained specialists, to the image we see of ninja today, heavily influenced by comics and pop culture. The common assumption is that the mythical depictions we often see are heavily embellished but nonetheless based on kernels of truth, but Turnbull's research throws that into question as he unpicks the accuracy of even the more realistic, "historically accurate" portrayals.
Which isn't to say this book completely rejects or discredits the idea of and cultural fascination with ninja, either. As someone with a lifelong fascination with ninja, I was a little concerned about shattering that illusion, but the truth is every bit as interesting, as is piecing together how those myths came to be in the first place. This is a must read for anyone with even the slightest interest in ninja, whether in a pop cultural or historical sense, or in Japanese history more generally.
Ninja: Unmasking the Myth was a fascinating read from start to finish. I enjoyed the way the book covered both the known facts and the way the myth of the ninja has developed in popular culture. The work was clearly well researched and full of interesting information.NetGalley, Nicki Markus
A fascinating read especially for anyone with an interest in ninjas whether from the historical pov or because of their role in the eyes of modern society.NetGalley, Rowena Andrews
Very informative! I've been quite interested into Japanese culture, especially in Ninjas. To be fair - my "knowledge" about them has so far come from Animes and books and they've always been portrayed rather different.NetGalley, James Walter
It was great to read some more actual references about Ninjas and Japanese culture and get a more realistic view on that.
Very informative and an actually educational read!
Turnbull’s excellent case study of the ninja myth takes readers on a whistle stop tour of Japanese history. With references to Japanese linguistics, art and modern popular culture, Ninja: Unmasking the Myth is truly an entertaining and fascinating work. Above all, Turnbull breathes new life into the ninja and teaches us an important lesson: we should be critical and look deeper into the history of the things we blindly view as fact. Ninja: Unmasking the Myth really does, without a doubt, prove that the true history of the Ninja is just as interesting as the myths themselvesJapan Society Review
The result is a valuable book that deftly steers through confusing and controversial materials. Even ninja apologists will feel that honour has been served. Turnbull admirably exposes and investigates the “careless retrospective interpretations” of the 20th century, but in doing so, manages to reclaim the historical shinobi.All The Anime.com
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Click here to listen.BBC Radio Leeds, 7th April 2018
NOTE: set cursor to 1:10:50 for interview.
A valuable book that deftly steers through confusing and controversial materials. Even ninja apologists will feel that honour has been served. Turnbull admirably exposes and investigates the “careless retrospective interpretations” of the 20th century, but in doing so, manages to reclaim the historical shinobi.Jonathan Clements, Author of A Brief History of the Martial Arts