First off, let's get one thing out of the way. This is not an article about the history of ninjas as an actual historical group. What I'm interested in is how ninjas have been portrayed in pop culture, especially during the last fifty years. That's the time period when Japanese and Chinese lore about these shadow warriors jumped the Pacific and ultimately became a very different idea. Also, I'm describing a wide range of martial arts movies as ninja movies, including kung fu movies, because in the west, many people blur these genres together into one. I'm not saying ninja, samurai, and kung fu movies are the same thing, though they often overlap. I'm just saying that in mainstream American culture, these subgenres teamed up in a kind of pop culture melting pot that resulted in today's understanding of what a ninja is.
The Asian Lore of the Ninja
That said, it's important to know that there is an actual history behind Asian legends of ninjas, though mostly western audiences picked up on the legends (and, later, the movies about the legends) rather than the realities. Oxford military historian Stephen Turnbull, who has devoted his career to studying the history of ninjas and samurai, notes in his exhaustive Ninja AD 1460-1650 that the earliest Japanese writings about ninjas depict them as the opposite of the noble samurai. Ninja were regular foot soldiers, typically from lower class backgrounds, who turned to mercenary work and covert operations for money. They favored stealth tactics because undercover work was cheap — no need to buy expensive samurai armor and katanas. Ninjas became a source of popular Japanese legends after the fourteenth century war between two rival emperors, where some of the great military leaders from the Koga and Iga clans identified as ninjas. Over the next several centuries, ninjas became legendary warriors who specialized in covert intelligence gathering, stealth, and combat mastery.
Though Americans tend to associate ninjas with Japan, the word ninja actually comes from a Chinese pronunciation of the two characters "nin" and "sha" (忍者) that make up the word that has been variously translated as "one trained in the art of stealth," "one who endures," or more fancifully, "shadow warrior." In Japanese, the word is pronounced shinobi no mono, though in contemporary Japan people will also say "ninja" — usually to mean pop culture ninjas rather than the ancient warriors. Today in Japan, people who practice the historical art of ninjitsu are dying out and pop culture is replacing them.
The Jump Across the Pacific
The Oxford English Dictionary, which tracks the emergence of new slang into English, suggests that one of the first western uses of the word "ninja" was in Ian Fleming's 1964 James Bond novel You Only Live Twice. Bond has to take on an elite Japanese ninja force, partly by using ninjitsu spy techniques, and by the end of the novel has lost his memory and basically believes he's Japanese. It's a weird book that became an even weirder movie — both are packed with 1960s-era racial stereotypes — but something about the ninjas caught the western imagination. Especially in America, where the US occupation of Japan had already led to a lot of cultural mixing between the two nations.
The American fascination with Japanese warrior culture might also be traced to another mid-1960s event, the Summer Olympics, which were held in Tokyo in 1964. It was the first time since World War II that Japan had hosted the games — the nation was set to host in 1940, but the event was moved to Finland after the Japanese military invaded China. In the wake of the 1964 Olympic Games, Japan shed some of the stigma that remained from the war. It became fashionable again in America to admire Japanese culture and athletic prowess (Judo was introduced at these Games, and Japan cleaned up with three gold medals in it).
As the 1960s drew to a close, America was ripe for a form of Japanese pop culture that was grittier than giant monster movies, and that incorporated martial arts like the newly-introduced Judo. It was the perfect time for ninjas.
The Cultural Mashup Warrior
The ninja movies that became popular in America in the 1970s weren't necessarily about ninjas, though a lot of them were. Some were martial arts movies, and others were samurai movies. Ask somebody who grew up watching these flicks in the 1970s, and they're likely to slap the word "ninja" on everything from the Zatoichi movies about a blind samurai and the TV series Lone Wolf and Cub, to Bruce Lee extravaganzas, David Carradine's Kung Fu TV series, and Chuck Norris movies. It's not surprising that Americans immediately began casting Americans as the ninjas in our home-grown ninja stories, but usually there was some nod to eastern influences.
The ninja was no stranger to cultural mashups, even before he jumped the Pacific. Some of the most beloved ninja flicks of the 1970s were made by the Shaw Brothers, Hong Kong filmmakers who created cheesy movies about Japanese ninjas that always managed to spill over onto the mainland. The ninja arrived on American soil as a cultural mashup, which made it easy for Americans to add our own traditions to the legend, incorporating funky black street fighters and lean white dudes who learned their craft from mysterious sensei overseas.
Ninja was shorthand for Asian martial artist, but it also meant something else that appealed to Americans in the 70s. Often ninjas were social outcasts, people who worked outside the system, just as historic ninjas worked outside the traditional samurai order. The ninja movie complemented another 1970s subgenre, blaxsploitation, full of badass fighters who took on the system and sought justice beyond the law. Both ninjas and blaxsploitation heroes like Shaft offered audiences a new perspective on heroism, which had almost always been depicted in movies, TV and comics as a white guy's game. The popularity of ninjas made it obvious that Americans were ready to embrace ass-kicking heroes who came from Asia — and from Harlem.
But unlike blaxsploitation, which favored gritty, urban realism, ninja movies were full of characters who could defy gravity, use throwing stars and nunchucks with almost magical deftness, and pretty much acted like superheroes. As ninjas got more and more Americanized, superhero powers became crucial to the legend. And in the 1980s, ninjas changed comic books forever.
From Shogun to Batman
In 1980, westerners were gobbling up Shogun miniseries, which dug deeply into the medieval roots of eastern martial arts, highlighting samurai culture and ninjas. Like many martial arts movies before it, Shogun offered audiences a western perspective in its white guy hero. Shogun (and the Kung Fu series) can probably be blamed for the whole white ninja subgenre, culminating in 1980s cult classic American Ninja. Still, it wasn't all white guys: 1981 flick Enter the Ninja also kick-started the career of Japanese martial artist Shô Kosugi. And there were other ways the ninja was slashing his way the American style of heroism, too.
A young comic book writer named Frank Miller, who would later go on to reinvent Batman as "the Dark Knight," was turning the comic book Daredevil into one of the bloodiest and most memorable stories people had ever read. He'd even added an awesome new character, Elektra, a trained ninja assassin. His inspiration? Ninja movies. Writes journalist Sean Howe in his recent book about Marvel comics:
Miller had spent long hours watching martial arts films in boisterous Times Square theaters, an experience he compared to "attending a revival meeting." He synthesized his fascination with ninja lore into comics that would add further fuel to the burgeoning craze of Japanese martial arts . . . Miller, as much as anyone, was responsible for adding shuriken (throwing stars) and sai to the contraband wish lists of junior high school kids everywhere.
In the 1980s and early 90s, ninjas also fit neatly into a new vision of the superhero as dark, violent and out-of-control. You see hints of the ninja in Rambo, whose eponymous hero goes back to Vietnam to finish up what the established military would not permit. It's the ninja versus the samurai all over again, only this time the US government plays the aristocratic samurai role, refusing to acknowledge the sacrifices and skills of its lowly foot soldiers. Many action heroes were like Rambo during this period, from John McClane in the Die Hard films to Ripley in Aliens. They are all the fighters we least expect, who must use subterfuge and trickery to defeat their enemies (as well as punching and giant guns). They are also out of their elements, either working directly against authority (the government in Rambo, or the Weyland-Yutani corporation in Aliens) or without any authority (McClane is a New York cop in Los Angeles).
As the alienated ninja hero crept into American action movies, ninjas themselves became cute, stylized fun in the form of the GI Joe cartoon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So ninjas as such had become cartoons, and "serious" movies like Equilibrium turned ninjas into futuristic white guys who used "gunkata" — or, even less charmingly, "gymkata" in the movie of the same name. Ninjas may have become jokes, but at the same time, the essence of the dark, outsider ninja had become almost inseparable from mainstream American heroism.
The Matrix, the Internet, and the Asian Revival
The latest wave of ninjas, who use their throwing star skills to make Twitter accounts, can probably be traced back partly to a sea change in ninja representations around the time that The Matrix came out. Though there had always been a fantasy component to ninjas, in the late 1990s they became science fictional too. And nothing could exemplify our era of "code ninjas" more than Neo, inside the cyberworld of the Matrix, getting software downloaded into his brain which allows him to say, "I know kung fu." Of course SF authors like William Gibson had long associated Japanese pop culture with computer-dominated futures, but it wasn't until the Matrix trilogy that audiences were able to see a gorgeous, big-budget film that perfectly melded the glories of a Bruce Lee fight scene with the wonders of computer graphics.
That was the moment when a generation of internet "wizards" gave way to our current generation of web "ninjas."
Throughout the 2000s, and now in the teens, we've also seen a new wave of cross-pollination between Hong Kong action filmmakers, Japanese anime creators, and Hollywood. John Woo's ninja-like heroes electrified us, and anime continues to exert an enormous influence on VFX artistry in the United States. Meanwhile, some of the greatest martial arts movies are coming out of places like Thailand (Ong Bak) and Indonesia (The Raid: Redemption). In the US, the movie Ninja Assassin was written by an American, set in Japan, and starred Rain, a Korean pop star.
In America, the ninja continues to be a cultural mashup, a hero torn from the pages of comic books inspired by martial arts movies inspired by actual Japanese and Chinese lore. The ninja is one of those rare legendary figures who has moved from one cultural context to another, changing along the way, but retaining some of its basic elements. He or she is a warrior who fights alone, an outsider, who comes out of nowhere to strike down an entrenched and dominant group. Highly trained, often imbued with magic or techno-superpowers, the ninja darts in and out of our pop culture like a ghost. Where the ninja goes, mayhem and chaos spread, but maybe justice is done. And the samurai, those traditional power elites who control us, cannot rest easy at night.
Sources linked in the text.
Many thanks to a secret society of ninja brethren who helped me out with a quick, stealthy analysis of this cultural phenomenon.