Sunday 15 November 2020

Book Review: Ninja - Unmasking the Myth by Stephen Turnbull (Non-Fiction / History)

Title: Ninja - Unmasking the Myth
Author: Stephen Turnbull
Publisher: Frontline Books
Publication Date: 30 January 2021
eBook - PDF
Genre: Non-Fiction / History
Source: ARC via NetGalley

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 recognizable 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.
Ninja: Unmasking The Myth 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.


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; however, a couple of the chapters felt a little 'dry', which is why it gets four stars from me, rather than five, as I did have to persevere through those before things picked up again. As someone currently learning Japanese, I appreciated the inclusion of kanji for some of the terms mentioned, with explanations of their meaning and origin, as that added an extra layer to the book. Overall, this was an enjoyable read and I would recommend it to those interested in the idea of the ninja or anyone keen to learn more about Japanese history and culture.

I received this book as a free eBook ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

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