Clap Your Hands If You Believe in Ninja

From A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements — available now in the UK and in the US.


Considering the ubiquity of the ninja in twenty-first-century popular culture, it is remarkable how fast they appear to have sprung out of nowhere in the 1950s and 1960s.

samurai audibleAt first, they were imagined in black – the default colour of stagehands and puppeteers, whom traditional theatre-goers were supposed to blank from their sight. Ninja were proletarian heroes, peasants and underlings in the interstices of times past, literally invisible from a military history that had been dominated by the samurai. However, despite the claims of ninja apologists, it is difficult to find any concrete discussion of them long before the novels of Yamada Futaro (1922–2001) and the comics of Shirato Sanpei (b.1932). Any attempts to make a scholarly study of ninja lead down a series of false trails, with modern sources that end up only citing each other, and credulous populist works that claim any reference in an old account to shinobi (stealth, spies, assassins) was in fact a reference to one of several secret ninja societies that stayed in the shadows. This fad achieved global recognition with the appearance of ninja in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) – reaching, by nature of its genre and franchise, a far wider audience than any more reasoned, less fantastic account of Japanese martial traditions.

As colour television took hold in Japan, ninja gained more garish colours, as well as a conveniently rediscovered martial art. The TV series Ninja Butai Gekko (1964, released abroad as Phantom Agents) gave them superhuman abilities born from simple camera trickery, and gadgets inspired by James Bond and Cold War espionage. Although ninja were found in some 1960s entertainments for adults, their most enduring legacy has always been in the children’s medium, where every generation seems to have a ninja series to imitate in the playground and the park – Ninja the Wonderboy (1964), Legend of Kamui (1969), Battle of the Planets (1972), Hattori the Ninja (1981), Red Shadow (1987), or Naruto (2002).

A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements is available now in the UK and US.


La storia segreta dei samurai

Out now in Italian, my Brief History of the Samurai, although now it’s a “Secret” History.

I samurai sono l’incarnazione della tradizione marziale giapponese: eroi senza paura, che seguono il rigido codice del bushidō e preferiscono affrontare una terribile morte per harakiri piuttosto che conoscere il disonore della sconfitta. Eppure pochi sanno che in origine i samurai erano umili soldati di frontiera e guardie del corpo di ricchi signori, e solo nel corso dei secoli hanno acquisito sempre più potere, fino a diventare la classe dominante del Paese del Sol Levante, spesso più autorevole persino di shogun e imperatori. Un potere fondato sulla tattica militare, sull’estetica della guerra, sulla ferrea disciplina, su un’etica severa, ma anche su insospettabili intrighi di corte e su vendette sanguinose e spietate.

In questo libro, Jonathan Clements – basandosi sui resoconti dell’epoca e su famose opere della tradizione letteraria giapponese – descrive le battaglie più avvincenti, le armi segrete e i personaggi che hanno reso immortale, e famosa in tutto il mondo, la figura del samurai.

Men in Black

With a gruelling shoot that spanned April 2007 to September 2008 after its leading man’s injury on set, filmed in the sub-tropical heat of Japan’s idyllic Ryukyu island chain, Kamui: The Lone Ninja recreates a lost world of fishing villages on the Inland Sea, a time when the samurai wars were done, and the people of Japan returned to their fields and their boats. It also evokes a savage era where all unwelcome influences were ruthlessly suppressed, and plays with the notion that the Japanese peasantry of the 17th century had formed secret societies of semi-magical assassins.

The son of a renowned left-wing artist, Kamui’s creator Sanpei Shirato (1932- ) was one of the last of the kamishibai painters, making panels of artwork for Japanese “magic lantern” shows. A narrator, or benshi, would tell a lively story to a crowd while pushing pictures through a lit frame. Soon after Shirato’s first kamishibai work, Mister Tomochan (1951), the advent of television destroyed the medium, leading Shirato to transfer his skills into comics. His early work included adaptations of the animal stories of Ernest Seton and works for girls, but it was as the creator of Ninja Bugeicho (Chronicle of a Ninja’s Martial Achievements, 1959-1962) that he achieved true fame. Even in his early days, Shirato was notable for his insistence on an external narrator, a voice outside the story itself that would comment on the action and steer the viewers like an old fashioned benshi.

His first big success in the TV world was Shonen Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru (Fujimaru the Wind Ninja, or Ninja the Wonderboy), broadcast in 1962. His original comic was called Ninja Clan, but in a tense compromise for Shirato the committed socialist, the show was renamed to establish a link with its sponsor, Fujisawa Pharmaceuticals. Each episode of the rollicking boys’ drama would open with a Fujimaru theme song that transformed into a jingle for Fujisawa. Notably, it would close with a live-action sequence in which a breathless interviewer would quiz Masaaki Hatsumi, an accomplished martial artist who claimed to know the secrets of the ninja world, and who imparted them to an entire generation of Japanese boys. Continue reading


From A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements — out now in the UK, and in the US in May. I love this passage because nobody knows what an ?yumi was. The historian in me says “crossbow”. The science fiction author says “giant robot.”

One casualty of Japanese warfare [in the 9th century AD] was the ?yumi or crossbow. Seemingly imported from China, the crossbow existed in several variant forms, and was in use as both an infantry weapon and as an artillery piece. In this latter form, installed on mountings on castle walls like the Roman ballista, crossbows appear to have been formidable weapons, highly prized by generals. The presence of an ?yumi at a Tsushima watchtower seems to have been such a grand prospect that the weapon’s name was eventually assigned to the town where it was based.

However, the ?yumi is also something of a mystery. When they were commonplace, nobody thought to draw them or describe their construction – ?yumi were simply used in battles and regularly reported to devastate enemy lines. If they came into Japanese hands during the Korean wars, their intricate manufacture and maintenance was only sustainable for a few generations. As the Korean and Chinese military advisers faded into the local population, the number of competent operators or mechanics dropped off. By the ninth century, ?yumi were still reported in district armouries, but rarely mentioned on the battlefield. Instead, district commanders griped about the cost of maintenance, or filed plaintive reports with the court, requesting instructors be sent to teach their men how to use the legendary weapons.

The weapons show up in Tsushima, close to the mainland, and also in border forts in the wilder frontier of the northeast – yet even there they appear to have swiftly degraded, their triggers jamming or sights left uncalibrated. Whatever an ?yumi was, its delicate mechanism, expensive springs and bowstrings became harder to replace. By 914, a general described the few remaining crossbows as ‘empty nostalgia’, gathering dust in local armouries, entirely beyond the comprehension of local troops. A few large-scale versions persevered in northern forts, but no extant examples survive for modern investigators to assess.

It probably did not help the crossbow’s fortune that it seemed primarily designed for defence rather than attack, in an age when relatively few battles on Japanese soil were fought under siege conditions. As decades passed with no sign of the much-awaited invaders, the crossbows fell into disrepair.

Nor should we discount the influence of a form of martial snobbery among the Japanese. The acceptable face of martial valour, throughout the history of the samurai, required great achievements in swordsmanship and archery – both skills that required long years of training. The crossbow, like the arquebus many centuries later, may have been seen as an unwelcome equalizer, operable by any conscript, but sufficient to turn such a man into the nemesis of any samurai standing in his line of sight. There is an intriguing class-based dilemma about the fate of the crossbow – it required a skilled artisan to manufacture, and the wealth of an aristocrat to maintain, but was liable to be crewed by lowly border guards. Despite its high-tech allure, it seems to have been shunned by the samurai, who saw no glamour or glory in its use.

A Brief History of the Samurai

My latest book, out now in the UK, and coming in May in the US — everything you always wanted to know about the samurai, but were too afraid of ritual disembowelment to ask.

The samurai were the embodiment of the Japanese martial tradition. From humble beginnings as frontiersmen and border guards, they rose in power to become the true rulers of Japan, with an ideology based on military strategy and chilling battlefield aesthetics.

This new study includes their greatest battles and worst defeats, their wars and weaponry, tradition and etiquette, and their transformation from hired swords to kingmakers, from Buddhist warlords to Christian soldiers.

Jonathan Clements examines samurai facts and fictions, as a warrior society retells great battles, dramatises heroic deeds, and aspires to a code of ethics rooted in tall tales and romanticised conflict. Looking beyond the end of Japan’s civil wars in the 17th century, this Brief History depicts the rise and fall of a samurai society in which the victorious Shogun had nobody left to fight. A closing chapter examines the shadow of the samurai in modern times, as heroes, villains, and mirrors to the Japanese soul.

"I have not told the half of what I saw."

Although they may be self-indulgent and self-regarding, I’ve really been enjoying everybody else’s round-ups of the ten years since the numbers rolled over from 19– to 20–. Herewith the last decade as it looks from here.

2000. In the first week of January, I discover that I am not going blind after all. Instead, the screen is dying on the laptop I have used since grad school. The purchase of a new desktop unit brings the internet into my home for the first time, and with it, an avalanche of Amazon parcels. Manga Max magazine is shut down in July, two days before I receive a Japan Festival Award for editing it. I write six episodes of Halcyon Sun, and briefly work on an IMAX movie project that falls at the first hurdle. Then, I’m hired to storyline and then co-script a console game that has been part-funded by a crazy arms manufacturer.

2001. The mad game is cancelled, apparently because of 9/11. By this time I am already working on another console project, writing three new “episodes” for a much-loved sci-fi franchise. It is only after the voices are all recorded, with the original cast, that the manufacturers decide to pull the plug. Something to do with the game being a stupid idea in the first place. All this gaming money gets funnelled into the Anime Encyclopedia, which eventually breaks even for me in 2007. I love working on that book so much that I look forward to getting out of bed every morning (a condition regularly repeated over the following years — I really do love my job). My first trip to America: Atlanta, for the book launch.

2002. Having superb fun working on the Dorama Encyclopedia. I am a presenter on the Sci Fi channel’s bizarre and mercifully forgotten Saiko Exciting, which first involves me reading the anime news, and later speed-translating and performing modern pop classics into Mandarin. I am offered the editorship of Newtype USA seven times, but decline because I have just got my dream job: a publisher has commissioned my obsession of many years, Pirate King. First DVD commentary, for Appleseed; I’ve since done many more for Manga Entertainment, Momentum Pictures, Artsmagic and ADV Films. Consultant on the first season of the TV series Japanorama. Film festivals in Italy and Norway.

2003. Working for a famous toy company on the “story” that will accompany their new line of toys. Fantastic fun, and very educational. Back to Japan for the first time in years, Kyoto and Tokyo; Dallas for another anime convention, and Turku, Finland. Writing the Highwaymen novelisation, and a whole rack of Big Finish scripts, including Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Sympathy for the Devil. Start learning Finnish, because life’s not difficult enough.

2004. Sign a deal to write a book a year about China ahead of the Beijing Olympics. This year, Confucius: A Biography. Back to Atlanta for another anime convention. Buy half a flat in London.

2005. A Brief History of the Vikings presents a fantastic excuse to poke around old sagas for a few months. Present my History of Japanese Animation lecture series at the Worldcon in Scotland, and later sell it as a series of magazine articles. I also write a massive 12-part History of Manga for Neo magazine. Start writing the Manga Snapshot column, which is still running five years later. Publication, somewhat late, of my novel Ruthless.

2006. The First Emperor of China. Off to Xi’an and Beijing. A new edition of the Anime Encyclopedia. Consultant for The South Bank Show on anime, although I am largely ignored. Write the novella Cheating the Reaper.

2007. Got married — honeymoon in Estonia after Mrs Clements vetoed Georgia. Wu. Not a book title that is easy to bring up on search engines, although you can hear me doing a great interview about it here on Radio Four. Before it’s even published, there are excited feelers from a TV company, which hires me to work on the outline of a 16-episode drama series based on the early Tang dynasty. Nothing comes of it, although I do spend the money going to Japan to get materials for another book: Nagasaki and the Amakusa archipelago.

2008. Beijing: The Biography of a City is published. But my next book, Christ’s Samurai, is left in limbo when Sutton Publishing can no longer afford to pay for it. Luckily, Haus Publishing has decided it wants a massive multi-volume history of the Paris Peace Conference, and has me writing the biographies of the Chinese and Japanese representatives. Big Finish scripts for Highlander and Doctor Who. Titan Books ask me to start this blog.

2009. Switzerland for the Locarno Film Festival. Back to Japan for a month getting materials for three new book projects. Then Shanghai, Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York on the way home. Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy is a Christmas bestseller… in Finland, although it goes down a storm at the launch in London’s Finnish Institute. Big Finish scripts for Robin Hood, Judge Dredd and Doctor Who. My collected articles and speeches appear as Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I am rendered poor as a church mouse by an exploding boiler.

2010. Next year, I am supposed to be going to Taiwan for the filming of Koxinga: Sailing Through History, a documentary for National Geographic. I have two big publications coming on Admiral Togo and A Brief History of the Samurai — although if it’s got more than 300 pages, can we really call it brief? I’ve got a deadline for another book in January, and after that, who knows…?

I don’t know about you, but that little list sure scares the hell out of me. This, I guess, is the flipside of those cheery little adverts in the broadsheet press, that trill “Why Not Be a Writer?” That’s why not. Because unless you love your job so much that you need to be dragged away from it, you will never put in the required hours. And yet, like Marco Polo, “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Happy New Year.