Ninja Nursery Rhymes

Public Domain image from Wikipedia

Ninja be nimble,

Ninja be quick,

Ninja knock you on the noggin with a big stick.

***

Ninja be stealthy… healthy… and wise,

Ninja snatch like a snake, pull out your eyes.

***

Biscuit in a basket,

Ninja put you in a casket.

***

Heading home from the archives,

I met this cat who had five lives.

He’d met four ninja in lives past.

One life was lost in a big blast…

two were stabbed,

and the last one gassed.

Reaching home, ninja at his door,

his lives remaining numbered four.

***

Uh, oh, Ninja,

Have you any heads?

Yes, sir, yes, sir,

Three over in the shed.

One for my Lady,

One for my Lord,

One for the practice,

’cause I got a new sword.

***

Eeny, meeny, miny, egg.

Catch the Shogun by his leg.

If he hollers, make him beg.

Eeny, meeny, miny, egg.

***

Hey, Willie Winkie, you’re making too much noise.

Running around town, checking on girls and boys.

If you’d have done your job, and shut the kid up.

I’d not have had to put Ambien in his juice cup.

***

BOOK REVIEW: Ninja: A History by John Man

Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow WarriorNinja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior by John Man
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The author, John Man, isn’t the first historian to fall for the siren call of ninja history only to plummet into a catch-22, but he’s the one I’m reviewing right now. So, while his book isn’t exceptionally bad, it’s tremendously flawed in a manner common across ninja histories. What is said catch-22? On the one hand, ninja excite the imagination and a half-way decent book on them is sure to sell. On the other hand, there’s very little known about the ninja. If the myth of the ninja is an elephant, the ninja as we truly know him is a grasshopper. [So much so that the first Westerner to write such a history, Stephen Turnbull, has now spun 180, proposing that the ninja never existed but were purely a post-Warring States construct.] While it would seem that Turnbull goes too far given the existence of manuals and vague mentions, what we don’t know about are the nitty-gritty details of ninja missions and those are the stories that the reader desires but which time and the ninja’s legendary secrecy have put forever beyond our reach.

What is in the book? If not tales of ninja stealing into castles to abscond with information or to assassinate an enemy General, and the effect of those actions on the outcome of wars? First, there’s a lot of information that is already widely available in other English language books, such as the influence of Sun Tzu’s chapter on espionage on the birth of the ninja (probably spurious given the centuries in between) and description of the seven types of disguises. Second, there’s a lot of general Japanese history that is necessary to some degree as background, but at some point one realizes the author has ventured beyond background into padding. Finally, speaking of padding, about a third of the book by page count (cleverly disguised as only three chapters) occurs long after the end of the ninja. Don’t get me wrong; some of the World War II material is fascinating, but it’s as if one were reading a biography of Blackbeard and—all of a sudden—one finds oneself reading about a Somali hijacking of container ships in 2011. (Even while you are fascinated, you can’t help but feel that you’ve been the victim of bait-and-switch.) In short, the book has a lot of repetition and padding, and not much that’s both new and on topic. (One of the reasons that I didn’t give the book too low a rating is that if it’s the first book you are reading on the subject, it’s readable and interesting.)

There’s one more flaw that comes from the dearth of information. The author cites everyone and anyone who has said something interesting on the subject, but we don’t really know how reputable said sources are. Some may be sterling and others full-of-shit. It’s easy to say something fascinating about the ninja; it’s much more difficult to say something that’s true and fascinating.

So what does the book do right? It’s well written in terms of being readable and offering frequent mind candy. The author does challenge a few statements as he reports them. My last paragraph may have led one to believe that Man just shot-gunned information out there, but he actually takes a suitably skeptical view for addressing such a murky topic. The problem is that we don’t know how serious to take claims he refutes or those he appears to endorse because he’s not an expert in the field. He is an Asianist historian with a list of books that is all over the map. [I did see just one factual error in which he refers to the companion sword of a samurai as a tanto. A tanto is a dagger, the companion to the katana is the wakizashi. But I don’t know how big of a deal to make out of that sin as I can’t say that I noticed any others (not that I necessarily would as I’m no expert either.) On the other hand, a little fact checking…]

If you’ve never read a history of the ninja before, you’ll probably find this one interesting. If you’ve read the other books out there, it’s less clear that you will. However, I did find the discussion of Iga no Ran (the battle of Iga, a campaign meant to crush the ninja of Iga) to be intriguing. At any rate, as long as you realize the last one-third of the book is off-theme and are alright with that, you should find it palatable.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Ninja [The Bansenshukai] Trans. by Anthony Cummins and Yoshie Minima

The Book of Ninja: The Bansenshukai - Japan's Premier Ninja ManualThe Book of Ninja: The Bansenshukai – Japan’s Premier Ninja Manual by Antony Cummins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

The Bansenshukai is a 17th century manual of ninja tradecraft and fieldcraft compiled by Fujibayashi Sabuji. If you’re doing related research or are a geek about historic warriors and / or spies, you’ll likely find this book intriguing–and parts of it even fascinating. However, it’s important to note that this translation’s title The Book of Ninja may conjure up expectations of stories of derring-do and assassinations set in medieval Japan. This isn’t that book. This book contains an extensive discussion of morals, guidance as to how commanders should employ ninja, how to don a disguise and impersonate your way into enemy territory, technical discussion of how to infiltrate long-obsolete fortifications, insight into how to pick medieval Japanese locks, and instructions for how to make torches and rope ladders. This book won’t teach you how to be a ninja. (a.) I suspect no book could do that, b.) This one holds back a lot of secrets, and c.) Most of the information is obsolete from a practical stand point. (However, it’s likely to have many ideas of a strategic or philosophic nature that one might find thought-provoking.)

Why is this book important and interesting (though–as I’ve suggested–some of its content seems patently boring)? We live in an era of information overload, and it’s difficult to fathom how little is truly known about the ninja of medieval Japan. We live during a time in which even the most secretive agencies document everything always (even if they sometimes manage to shred or burn that information.) In their heyday, the ninja weren’t big on writing down true and interesting information for fear it would fall into the wrong hands. Lack of documentation and false documentation were key elements of security. There are only a few manuals like this one in existence, and the Bansenshukai is considered by many to be chief among them by virtue of being the most extensive. (FYI- The other well-known manuals are the Shoninki and the Ninpiden, both of which also have English language translations available. Beyond these manuals, there are some surviving familial scrolls.) It should be noted that these manuals were written after the warring states period (though before the Meiji Restoration) when there was a fear that this information might be lost precisely because it was historically conveyed via word of mouth. And, it should be noted, throughout the work there are frequent statements to the effect of “there is an oral transmission”—meaning that key parts haven’t been written down and are only to be taught in person by hands-on instruction.

The Bansenshukai is organized into 22 volumes. The first volume is background and introductory information. The second and third volumes are more philosophical, dealing with achieving the “correct mind,” the former dealing with morality and the latter offering perspective on life and death.

The fourth through seventh volumes are designed to educate military commanders about how they might get the best use of ninja.

The next group of volumes (8 – 10) cover Yo-nin, which is the act of infiltrating enemy territory in the open through use of disguise and deception. The Japanese term yo is the same as the Chinese term yang, or sunny side—as opposed to yin (in in Japanese) which means the shady side. So these volumes offer advice for operating out in the open—in the light of day, so to speak. The previous volumes are contrasted with the next set of volumes (11-15), the In-Nin, which deals with covertly breaking into enemy houses and castles. Together the Yo-nin and In-nin chapters are likely to be the most interesting to the general reader–excepting the last of these (vol. 15, which deals with lock picking.) While I said that this book isn’t full of stories of legendary exploits, I don’t mean to suggest Fujibayashi didn’t use vignettes to reinforce his points (there are plenty of them)—just that these stories aren’t told to entertain but to educate.

The next two volumes are entitled Tenji I and Tenji II, and they discuss what the author considered the opportunities bestowed by heaven. The first of these chapters is mostly Chinese astrological hokum in painful detail. The second is a primitive primer on meteorology—which I suspect is a mix of good and bad advice based on the science of that time and place. (These people were exceptionally observant but the product of superstitious times, and so one can imagine fact and fiction being muddled together.) At any rate, I found the second chapter to have some quite interesting information of which I’d like to know more about the veracity.

The final set of volumes are on ninja tools (i.e. ninki.) These include chapters on climbing tools like rope ladders, water crossing devices like inflatable seats, breaking and entering tools, and many recipes for incendiary and explosive materials. Like the chapter on locks and lock picking, these chapters will mostly be of value to individuals with a heavy interest in the history of technology—with a particular focus on Japan and / or East Asia. In many ways the ninja were by necessity technologically advanced by the standards of that time in Japan’s history (keeping in mind that because of literally centuries of war, Japan wasn’t at the cutting edge of a spectrum of technology in the 17th century as they are today—though they made swords that at least rivaled if not surpassed those anywhere else in the world, but swords were on the way out or passé by that time in many places.)

There’s an additional text on strategy that forms an appendix to The Bansenshukai. To the front, there’s an explanation of Japanese locks of the time, written by a historian of such minutiae. There’s also front matter by the translator, providing valuable background material. Each chapter is heavily endnoted. These endnotes are generally explanatory in nature. While the text is quite readable given its era, there’s much that requires further explanation. Sometimes the notes elaborate on a statement in the text and sometimes they suggest that an explanation is unknown—either way that information can be quite beneficial. The graphics are simple drawings (I believe they come from the original text), and in some cases they wouldn’t be useful without the explanation of the text.

One will note a heavy Chinese influence in The Bansenshukai. There are frequent references to Sun Tzu and many of the vignettes use to illustrate points involve tales from China—though there are also many that feature Japanese warriors as well—e.g. Kusunoki Masashige, a samurai famous as a paragon of loyalty but who was also known for his use of ninjutsu and unconventional tactics, features prominently throughout the work—though it’s unknown how many of these tales are fact and how many legend.

If you’re still curious about the contents of this book after hearing what it is and isn’t, I’d highly recommend it. There’s a lot of thought-provoking information in the book, and if you’re doing research on the subject this book is essential reading. I should also point out that while I’ve suggested that much of the information is obsolete in the modern era, it’s not all so. There are some interesting perspectives on strategy, tactics, philosophy, and ethics in this book. [Plus, if you want to be the office ninja, it’s a must-read along with Machiavelli’s The Prince.]

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BOOK REVIEW: You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

You Only Live Twice (James Bond, #12)You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When the film Casino Royale came out, it was panned by Roger Ebert, but not because it was a bad film. What Ebert didn’t like about that movie was that it looked and felt a lot more like the lead should have been named Jason Bourne rather than James Bond. In other words, Daniel Craig portrayed the super-suave secret agent with a license-to-kill as a gritty brawler and not the superman who could take on a swarm of SPECTRE henchmen without getting dust on the labels of his impeccable Armani. The latter is the archetypal James Bond.

The problem for film-makers is that the old Bond hasn’t aged well and seems a more suitable basis for Austin Powers’ style parodies than gripping thrillers.

You Only Live Twice is an entertaining read, but it’s best described as delightfully campy. However, it wasn’t meant to be camp when it came out. That being said, the film–which bears only a superficial resemblance to the novel–made changes specifically to make the storyline make more sense (that’s an odd twist for Hollywood.)Specifically, the arch-villain’s motivation doesn’t seem to make much sense in the novel. We are supposed to accept that the fact that the man is mad and evil to the core is sufficient for him to do something randomly quasi-evil, even if it offers him no benefit.

The synopsis is as follows: At the beginning, we find James Bond in turmoil. His wife died in the last book (within 24 hours of their marriage), and Bond has taken it hard. Since then he’s botched a couple of missions. He’s called into M’s office and thinks he is about to be canned. (He’s almost right.) Instead, M sends him on an assignment to Japan. It’s a challenging mission, but–theoretically–one of a diplomatic nature. Bond is to get Japan to turn over information from a code breaking technology they’ve developed. The Japanese only give this information to the U.S., and America is spotty at passing on relevant information to Britain.

Bond strikes up a friendship with “Tiger” Tanaka, who has no use for the bargaining chip which Bond has to offer. However, Tanaka agrees to hand over the information if Bond will take care of a delicate situation for Japan. In the country’s remote south, a European has set up a “toxic garden” of poisonous plants, animals, and insects. This garden has become a Venus flytrap for (the apparently infinite waves of)suicidal Japanese people.

Bond agrees to the proposal, and latter finds out that the European horticulturist is actually none other than the arch-nemesis who killed his wife, one Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Bond spends a couple of days in a fishing village reconnoitering and establishing the book’s romantic interest in the form of Kissy Suzuki–a pearl diver who was for a brief time a Hollywood starlet.

Bond makes his ninja-like infiltration of the Blofeld castle. I won’t get into how the climax of the book unfolds, but needless to say our hero wins the day.

The most thought-provoking part of the book may just be what happens after Bond finishes his mission. At the mission’s end, he develops amnesia as a result of a head injury. This amnesia makes the book’s title apropos.

There are some interesting themes addressed in the book. For example, there is considerable discussion of the difference of perspective on suicide between the West and Japan. Japan retains some of the samurai era notion that suicide can be used to restore honor, while Bond defends the Western view that suicide is a cowardly out. Still, while the Japanese attitude toward killing oneself when added to the stresses of a Japanese lifestyle (e.g. salaryman living) has resulted in a somewhat heightened suicide rate, the issue is greatly exaggerated to make the premise of Blofeld’s “Death Garden” seem remotely credible.

There’s also a great deal of discussion of Britain’s decline and America’s rise. Great emphasis is put on the fact that the Pacific is “America’s domain” and that the Brits have to be sneaky to operate there–lest they be at the mercy of their former colony.

This novel (and its film) introduced many exotic elements of Japanese culture to an audience beyond the Japanophiles for whom they were no surprise. This exotica includes ninja (spies of medieval Japan), fugu (poison blowfish–a potentially lethal delicacy), and Geisha (female entertainers and escorts.) It’s clear Fleming put some research into these matters. However, it also seems like he picks every element of Japanese history and culture that Westerners would find odd and unusual. At some points, one wonders what stereotype Fleming will next exploit.

There are a lot of patently ridiculous happenings in the book. At one point while Bond is hiding out on the grounds of the garden in a manner reminiscent of the ninja of old, biding his time, he decides that he simply must have a cigarette. Now, I’m not going to get into the plausibility of someone with that bad of an addiction having been able to swim a mile through waters with treacherous currents after having spent a few days rowing out to pearl dive. However, the notion that a special operative would light up in the middle of a covert operation is pretty far-fetched. It’s like saying, “I don’t care if this mission succeeds or even if you kill me, I’m going to have my Marlboro moment.” Some readers may think I’m engaging in hyperbole, but not those of you who’ve been in the military. The scent of cigarette smoke is extremely potent, and then there’s the glow. You don’t get out of boot camp without learning that you don’t smoke on LP/OP (Listening Post / Observation Post,) let alone into Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Bond’s transformation through makeup into a person who looks passably Japanese is another point at which credulity is strained. This make up survives ocean swims, fights, and even after the mission when Bond has amnesia, he can’t recognize that he, himself, looks nothing like the villagers of his hometown hamlet. (Tiger Tanaka has a card printed that says that Bond is deaf and dumb to get around his inability to speak the local language. [Props to Fleming for not going the Hollywood route and making his spy fluent in every imaginable language.])

The most ridiculous piece of the book involves an elaborate machine works that Blofeld uses to make the volcano let off liquid hot magma every 15 minutes like clockwork. He has this ready in anticipation of a need to test whether a victim can understand his instructions to get up and walk out to avoid being burned with hot lava. If Bond understands, he must not be deaf and dumb like the card says, and if he stays put–oh, well, he’s just a deaf and dumb coal miner who went sleepwalking in his ninja suit and ended up inside the heavily guarded castle retreat of the SPECTRE leader. What’s more, he puts the control for this Rube Goldberg contraption where the interrogated can see it (a fact that Bond later puts to use), and even though it’s inside a box, Bond knows exactly what it must be (he’s just that good.)

And, of course, in the most mocked device in this genre, Blofeld gives a long speech when he should be killing Bond.

You’ve got to read this with a certain mindset, and if you want a realistic, gritty thriller you’re not in the right mindset.

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As I said, the movie doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the book besides borrowing some character names and a few scenes. However, below is the trailer for the movie.

Your Life is Hard? Try Working with Ninjas,Pirates, and Smugglers!

Ninjas, pirates, and smugglers aren’t exactly chatty. They burn, or shred, their correspondence. They sow seeds of disinformation to confuse the authorities. They lurk in the inkiest of shadow worlds behind doors we don’t even know exist. Still, who wants to do a hatchet job on a pirate? Right?

Did I mention that these are characters in the novel that I’m currently revising (or did I let you believe I was talking about in-the-flesh smugglers so that you’d keep reading.) Sorry, no one ever accused me of NOT being a deceitful bastard. Well, my friend, you’re now more than Tweet deep in this post; that’s quite an investment; it’s the modern-day equivalent of having read The Iliad, so you might as well keep reading.

Kiss the Cobra (my third working title) features a cast of characters of not only the aforementioned occupations but also monks  (both the scholarly and  kick-ass kung fu varieties), an Emperor, a muay Thai master, and a secret society that makes ninjas look like chatty Cathys. Like all good lies, this novel begins with a seed of truth. That seed is the rescue of Emperor Go-Daigo from imprisonment by an evil (ok, quasi-evil) shogun in 1337.  From that seed, it’s my wild imagination run amok… or is it? The Emperor assigns the loyalist ninja who rescued him, Korando, to travel to Southeast Asia to acquire an artifact that legend has it will help him re-consolidate power.

Cut to the present day, a linguistically-talented young man, Matsuo (a.k.a. “Matt”), comes into possession of a scroll. The scroll is Korando’s journal, written and hidden as a confessional. Matt investigates Korando’s journal on an electronic bulletin board only to find himself being chased by nefarious characters. Matt discovers that there are still people willing to kidnap, kill, or commit treason for the secrets that Korando’s journal may possess.

The novel weaves the 14th century journal with this present-day cat and mouse game between the forces of good and evil. There’s murder and mayhem, love and betrayal, victory and defeat, virtue and vice; in short everything you love in a novel is densely crammed into this book.  There’s even one character who may or may not be a Zombie–I’ll let you be the judge.

Now let me just add this screenshot of me to show you ho

Do you ever get a chill on the back of your neck?

Did you ever get an inexplicable chill on the back of your neck?