Samurai and Ninja – Book Review
Historical memory is a funny thing—ever changing, never stable, and always subject to radical changes. Nor does history exist in a vacuum: as a whole, our understanding of the past is shaped more by art and popular culture than by the dry dissertations of scholars. I’d wager more young Americans developed their understanding of the Vietnam War through Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and We Were Soldiers than through any real historical text; there’s a good reason so much of college history courses consist of debunking the heroic myths taught in popular culture and in grade school social studies lessons. Even historians aren’t immune. Are their basic assumptions about their fields of study that are not at least partly shaped by the movies and books they’ve consumed?
This complex intertwining of history, pop culture, and art has shaped our understanding of feudal Japan as much as any other culture and era. Much of Antony Cummins project in Samurai and Ninja: The Real Story Behind the Japanese Warrior Myth that Shatters the Bushido Mystique is peeling away the layers of stereotype that surround these historical warriors. In his prologue, he mentions that a similar revolution has already swept away the Victorian stereotype of European knights as comical and romantic figures—the heavily armored knight being hoisted onto his horse by a pulley system so he can do battle with the evil dragon has been replaced with a cunning and agile martial artist, steeped in the art of war. (A similar revolution for the global and ancient art of archery is underway, being led by reenactor Lars Andersen, most famous for his YouTube videos.) A similar revolution of our perception of the samurai and ninja is well overdue. No longer should we consider the samurai as the romantic figure of the honor-bound warrior with his mystical sword, locked in eternal battle against the sly and dishonorable, but magical, ninja.
Mr. Cummins instead presents a more nuanced portrait of samurai as people whose place in society changed over time and varied by clan, social position, and individual choices. Whereas early samurai were pure warriors, only tangentially concerned with high culture (they were land-owning gentry, too), the samurai of the Age of Peace (after the unification of Japan by the Tokugawa shogunate) were more decadent and romantic, only sometimes used in actual fighting. In the long centuries between, different threads of samurai history and culture emerged: the codification of bushido, the separation into different schools, the arrival of gunpowder and invention of new technologies, and changes in the social status of the samurai and gentry.
Samurai and Ninja also goes into depth regarding the highly refined art of war practiced during Japan’s feudal centuries. Samurai were more than just glory-hound individual warriors; they were more akin to military officers in modern society, highly trained in the theories of war. Mr. Cummins presents several highly detailed manuals in which the proper layout of a camp and organization of an army on the march were clearly well-studied and thought-out subjects. Japanese armies did not march in ragged order and camp in muddy anarchy, as we imagine the “Dark Ages” peasant militia of Europe (itself a stereotype long dismissed in scholarly circles). Instead, the army of a daimyo (Lord) had a clearly established hierarchy, diverse officers and a complete staff system, and camped in a clearly established order of tents, fortifications, and tidy walls governed by intricate procedures. In Japan, the art of war went well beyond Sun Tzu’s vague truisms into a highly sophisticated system that would not be unfamiliar to a modern, professional officer.
Similarly, Mr. Cummins brings the ninja out of the shadows. Whereas in popular culture, ninja are the black-clad dishonorable nemesis of the noble samurai, in real life they were highly respected and sophisticated practitioners of espionage, counterintelligence, scouting, and raids. Ninja (more properly known as shinobi no mono, or just shinobi) were professional warriors retained by lords and samurai to protect their estates and families and to aid their armies on the march. Rather than being regarded as beneath samurai, shinobi were an accepted part of warfare with established positions in the order of battle and command structure. Samurai war manuals include recommended positions and duties for shinobi around a camp or an army on the march. Indeed, shinobi were more akin to modern special forces, raiding and reconnoitering enemy camps. Frequently the line between samurai and ninja blurred—shinobi were formidable warriors in their own right and samurai were expected to know some of the arts of shinobi no mono. In fact, several samurai “schools” included curricula that emphasized stealth and were more suited for our stereotypical understanding of the ninja!
Most revolutionary for our modern understanding is Mr. Cummins corrections to the popular clichés around the code of bushido. Neither the popular perception of bushido as a rigid code nor the post-Meiji Japanese militarists’ perversion of bushido are anything like the truth as the samurai and shinobi lived it. Most shocking to me was the way in which we completely misunderstand ritual suicide—both as presented in popular culture and as it ultimately appeared in the dying days of the Second World War with the kamikaze and the mass suicide of cornered Japanese soldiers and civilians. Indeed, seppuku and hara-kiri were generally not voluntary expressions of atonement nor a means to avoid capture, but instead were punishments enforced by a lord and his retainers. The rituals surrounding them and the role of the second were designed explicitly not to provide mercy so much as to keep the suicide from fleeing or attacking his executioners! Though samurai could be brutal (Cummins provides a detailed rundown of the practice of collecting decapitated heads of defeated foes), a real samurai would have been just as shocked as American GIs by the madness and brutality of Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
All of this revolutionary scholarship would be for naught if it were inaccessible or poorly written. I’m happy to report that Mr. Cummins’s writing style is easy to grasp and fun to read. He very clearly lays out his points and supporting evidence and provides illustrations and photographs, everything from diagrams of an army camp to pictures of how a ritual “suicide” would be performed. The book does have its slow bits—there are several long laundry lists of techniques and schools that could have been better presented —but overall it’s a very enjoyable read.
You do not have to be deeply “into” Japanese culture to enjoy Samurai and Ninja. My primary exposure to Japanese culture comes through middle-school Japanese lessons, my teenage fondness for anime, and Shogun: Total War, yet I found the book to be easy to pick up and absorb. I imagine that a true scholar of Japanese culture would regard the book as “old news,” but for the average admirer of Japan, this book will be a gripping revelation. If you want a unique and more challenging “beach read” this summer, Samurai and Ninja is a great choice.
Matt Richardson is a freelance social media consultant and web traffic analyst in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has a degree in History from Davidson College, with a special interest in military history and the Civil War. You can follow Matt at @MT_Richardson or read his blog at Ritalingamer.com.