Ninjas in popular culture

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Three people in black costumes
People dressed as ninjas during the 2009 Himeji Castle Festival in Himeji, Hyōgo, Japan

Ninjas are historically known as Japanese spies, assassins, or thieves who formed their own caste outside the usual feudal divisions of lords, and samurai serfs. They are often used as stock characters, in Japanese popular culture and global popular culture.


Ninja killing a snake with a sword
Jiraiya battles a snake with the help of a toad; woodblock print on paper by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, about 1843

The ninja first entered popular culture in the Edo period. In modern Japan, ninjas are a national myth that stems from folk tales and continues through modern day popular culture.[1] Though many Japanese warriors performed amazing feats, there is no evidence that any of them were supernatural. Some of folk tales are based on historical figures, such as a daimyō (lord) challenging a ninja to prove his worth by stealing his pillow or weapon while he slept.[2]:14

Ninja-themed international media franchises include the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Naruto manga and anime series.[3][4]

Legendary abilities[edit]

Superhuman or supernatural powers were sometimes associated with the ninja. Such powers include flight, invisibility, shapeshifting, the ability to "split" into multiple bodies, the summoning of animals, and control over the five classical elements.[citation needed] These notions stemmed from popular imagination regarding the ninja's mysterious status, as well as romantic ideas found in later Japanese art during the Edo period. Magical powers were sometimes rooted in the ninja's own efforts to disseminate fanciful information.[citation needed] For example, Nakagawa Shoshujin, the 17th-century founder of Nakagawa-ryū, or martial art style, claimed in his own writings (Okufuji Monogatari) that he had the ability to transform into birds and animals.[2]:13

Perceived control over the elements may be grounded in real tactics, which were categorized by association with forces of nature. For example, the practice of starting fires in order to cover a ninja's trail falls under katon-no-jutsu ("fire techniques").[5]

Actor portraying Nikki Danjō, a villain from the kabuki play Sendai Hagi. Shown with hands in a kuji-in seal, which allows him to transform into a giant rat. Woodblock print on paper. Kunisada, 1857.

The ninja's adaption of kites in espionage and warfare is another subject of legends. Accounts exist of ninjas being lifted into the air by kites, where they flew over hostile terrain and descended into or dropped bombs on enemy territory.[6] Kites were indeed used in Japanese warfare, but mostly for the purpose of sending messages and relaying signals.[7]:257 Turnbull suggests that kites lifting a man into midair might have been technically feasible, but states that the use of kites to form a human "hang glider" falls squarely in the realm of fantasy.[2]:22–23


Kuji-kiri is an esoteric religious practice which, when performed with an array of specified hand "seals" (kuji-in), or gestures, was meant to allow the ninja to interact with the spirit world and allow them to perform superhuman feats.[citation needed]

The kuji ("nine characters") is a concept originating from Taoism, where it was a string of nine words used in charms and incantations.[8]:2–3 In China, this tradition mixed with Buddhist beliefs, assigning each of the nine words to a Buddhist deity. The kuji may have arrived in Japan via Buddhism,8-11}} where it flourished within Shugendō.[8]:13 Here too, each word in the kuji was associated with Buddhist deities, animals from Taoist mythology, and later, Shinto kami.[8]:24–27 The mudrā, a series of hand symbols representing different Buddhas, was applied to the kuji by Buddhists, possibly through the esoteric Mikkyō teachings.[8]:24–25 The yamabushi ascetics of Shugendō adopted this practice, using the hand gestures in spiritual, healing, and exorcism rituals.[9]

Later, the use of kuji passed onto certain bujutsu (martial arts) and ninjutsu schools, where it was said to have many purposes.[8]:31–33 The application of kuji to produce a desired effect was called "cutting" (kiri) the kuji. Intended effects range from physical and mental concentration, to more incredible claims about rendering an opponent immobile, or even the casting of magical spells.[8]:31 These legends were captured in popular culture, which interpreted the kuji-kiri as a precursor to magical acts.[citation needed]

1998 East Java ninja scare[edit]

The 1998 East Java ninja scare was an outbreak of mass hysteria in East Java, Indonesia, in which the local population believed they were being targeted by sorcerers known as ninja, who were blamed for mysterious killings of religious leaders by assassins dressed in black. As many as 150-300 “sorcerers” were killed between February and October, with the most deaths occurring between August and September.[10]

Armed groups[edit]

Several real life paramilitary, police and militia groups use the names "Ninja" or "Ninjas":


According to, there was a 7,000-percent increase in the number of job listings with the word "ninja" from 2006 to 2012.[20] A former Russian soldier who committed robberies in Italy in black attire and a bow was called a "Russian ninja" by the BBC.[21] The video-game series Tenchu was adapted for the Japanese stage.[22] In 2006, Miss Japan Kurara Chibana appeared in a ninja-samurai costume for the Miss Universe competition.[23] Goth Ninja, a type of Japanese street fashion, became popular in 2009.[24]

In information technology, "cyber ninja" are sophisticated counter-hackers.[25]


Subway train with cartoon characters and lettering on its side
Iga Railway Line ninja-themed trains in Mie Prefecture, Japan in 2010
Four young women dressed in black
Attendees of a 2011 one-day ninja camp in Koga Ninja Village, Kōka, Shiga

Iga Ueno Ninja Festa, the annual ninja festival in Iga in the former province of Iga, has had ninja-inspired performances, competitions and opportunities to practice ninja skills since 1964.[26]


Other ninja attractions in Japan include the Koga Ninja Village and Kogaryu Ninjutsu Yashiki (Ninja Houses) in Koga-gun, Shiga Prefecture, the Togakushi Ninja Village for children, the Togakushi Ninpo Museum and Karakuri Yashiki (Ninja House) in Togakushi, Nagano, the Edo Wonderland theme park in Nikkō, Tochigi and the restaurants Men no Sato and Ninja Akasaka in Tokyo and Ninja Kyoto in Kyoto.[1]






Video games[edit]

In addition to video games, several game-development companies use "ninja" in their name: Ninja Studio, Ninja Theory, Ninjaforce, NinjaKiwi, and Team Ninja. In massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), "ninja", "loot ninja" or "ninja looter" pejoratively describes a player who has stolen something from another player.[citation needed]

Traditional games[edit]



Ninja-themed novels include:

  • Yagyū Ichizoku no Inbō novels by Yoshihiro Matsunaga (松永義弘)
    • Yagyū Ichizoku no Inbō (柳生一族の陰謀) (1978).[68] [novelization of the film of the same name]
    • Kiru: Zoku Yagyū Ichizoku no Inbō (斬る 続・柳生一族の陰謀) (1978).[69]
  • Nicholas Linnear novels by Eric Van Lustbader [70]
    • The Ninja (1980)
    • The Miko (1984)
    • White Ninja (1990)
    • The Kaisho (1993)
    • Floating City (1994)
    • Second Skin (1995)
    • The Death and Life of Nicholas Linnear (2014) [e-book short story]
    • The Oligarch's Daughter (2016) [e-book short story]
  • Tulku, a Tale of Modern Ninja (1985) by American ninjutsu practitioner Stephen K. Hayes.[71]
  • Shimabara (1986) by Douglass Bailey [72]
  • Vineland (1990) by Thomas Pynchon.[73]
  • Batman: The Dragon and the Bat (1994) by Geary Gravel.[74] [novelization of "Night of the Ninja" and "Day of the Samurai" from Batman: The Animated Series.]
  • Zorro and the Dragon Riders by David Bergantino (1999).[75]
  • Young Samurai novels by Chris Bradford.[76]
    • Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior (2008)
    • Young Samurai: The Way of the Sword (2009)
    • Young Samurai: The Way of Fire (2012) [e-book short story set between books 2 and 3]
    • Young Samurai: The Way of the Dragon (2010)
    • Young Samurai: The Ring of Earth (2010)
    • Young Samurai: The Ring of Water (2011)
    • Young Samurai: The Ring of Fire (2011)
    • Young Samurai: The Ring of Wind (2012)
    • Young Samurai: The Ring of Sky (2012)
    • Young Samurai: The Return of the Warrior (2019)
  • Tsuma-wa, Kunoichi novels by Machio Kazeno (風野真知雄) [77]
    • Tsuma-wa Kunoichi (妻は、くノ一) (2008-2011): 10 volumes
    • Tsuma-wa Kunoichi: Hebino Maki (妻は、くノ一 蛇之巻) (2013): 3 volumes
  • Yin-Yang Code novels by Warren Chaney and Sho Kosugi.[78]
    • Yin-Yang Code: The Drums of Tenkai-Bo (2017)
    • Yin-Yang Code: Shadow of Tenkai-Bo (2018)


Four people in costume
Ninja Hattori-kun cosplayers at Comiket 76
Young person in costume, holding a scroll and artist's brush
Cosplay of the Naruto character Sai

The following stories contain at least one ninja character, but are not ninja-themed:

Non-Japanese comics[edit]

Scantily-clad young woman with a sword
Psylocke cosplayer, 2014




See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]