Phantoms and Face Paint: The Western Myth of the Black-clad Ninja

MUCH OF WHAT many of us think we know about the cultural history of Japan is pretty wide of the mark. For example, sushi is not raw fish, but actually any dish based on vinegared rice – which may or not contain sashimi, which is raw fish (or occasionally meat), thinly sliced; sake is not rice wine but rather a brewed product and thus more akin to a strong beer. And no one in Japan had even heard of a ninja until the term was invented and misapplied by Europeans.

‘Japan’ itself is in fact an exonym of Chinese origin and only grudgingly adopted by certain sectors of Japanese commerce anxious to grease the wheels of tourism. Since ancient times, to the indigenous population the country has been Nippon or Nihon, which are the two accepted and alternative readings of the same pictogram indicating ‘the birthplace of the sun’. Of the two, the former is more popular with the older generation and the latter more so with Japanese youth. ‘Japan’ would be understood by most to mean some kind of bread. In those same ancient times the much larger China referred to Nippon as Wa, meaning small and obedient, but the diplomatic ripples caused by this condescending terminology eventually forced the Chinese to abandon this in favour of Jihpun, their own term for sunrise, which also produced the more poetic Land of the Rising Sun. These were the two names picked up by Westerners trading with China to whom Japan was still a closed door.

After the Second World War, a veritable tsunami of Western culture washed over Nippon, and everything from train seats to the height of kitchen counters had to be remodelled as the national average height shot up due to increased protein consumption driven by Western-style diets. According to the Japanese Ministry of Education, by the age of eleven the average child is now a staggering six inches taller than fifty years ago. But, despite the invasion by cola, burgers and fries, there are still many historical aspects of Nipponese life that remain grossly misunderstood by Westerners.

Western cinematic audiences have an insatiable appetite for films depicting the gymnastic antics of nimble ninjas who, after leaping fifteen feet in the air, descend to kill a dozen or so adversaries with nothing but their bare hands and a broken chopstick. So it may come as a surprise to many that the typical so-called ninja was usually female, middle-aged and spent most of her time in domestic service. So how did we end up with the notion of the lethal assassin creeping about in black pyjamas?

‘Ninja’ made its first appearance in print in English when it was used by Ian Fleming in his novel You Only Live Twice (1964). Its subsequent usage was so limited that it was denied admittance to the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary: Second Edition (1989). The word was an invention of the English-speaking West of the nineteenth century that, finding the Japanese shinobi no mono – a person of stealth – too cumbersome, resorted to the much older on’yomi, or Sino–Japanese equivalents of ‘nin’ (stealth) and ‘ja’ (person). First noted in Japan as early as the eighth century, shinobi denoted a servant in a house of particular interest – cook, gardener, maid, concubine, or whatever – who was willing to sell intelligence as to the day-to-day comings and goings of visitors and overheard conversations. The shinobi were never expected or trusted to handle any ‘wet work’ – if the shinobi’s handlers thought it was time to terminate their employer then a rogue samurai or some other such person was brought in to handle any killing. So, Japan certainly had its own coterie of killers-for-hire but they went by various other names meaning assassin or the more flowery ‘walker in the shadows’ – never shinobi and certainly not the Western-invented ninja.

The notion of the black-clad killer arose from the stage conventions of the traditional style of kabuki theatre in which the actors do not leave the stage during scene changes. Then, as now, the stagehands simply walked about the stage to effect whatever changes were required, but always dressed in black to indicate to the audience that they were not part of the story. By extension, should the storyline call for a killer to infiltrate the action but remain unseen to the other players, then he too would move about the stage dressed in black to indicate his ‘invisibility’ to the audience. Unfortunately, this left Western viewers of kabuki plays with the notion that hired killers in Japan always crept about in black.

That said, the Western appetite for the ninja myth gave birth to the present genre of martial arts films which, in turn, have convinced some viewers that the Japanese are somehow anatomically superior to everyone else on the planet. But no one in Japan can run up the sides of buildings or walk on water. The brick-breaking and head-butting of blocks in some martial arts involves much careful preparation. Obviously, as ninjas never existed under that name, all the ‘genuine replicas’ of ninja weapons advertised on the internet are, like the mace-and-chain allegedly swung with murderous intent by English knights, modern inventions. While there are indeed countless historical references to the use of shuriken (hand-hidden blades) by killers and thugs, these seem to have been nothing more sophisticated than sharpened spikes or double-ended blades. Despite what you see in the movies, no one, be they European or Japanese, can throw a knife with sufficient force to embed itself in the chest of some baddie, so shuriken were only thrown in the hope of persuading a pursuer to abandon the chase. Either way, the ‘death star’ shuriken is itself likely a modern invention. In fact, the assassins of early Japan were not traditionalists; as soon as firearms and explosives became available, they became the weapons of choice. With the completion of the contract being the overriding objective, bombs and guns were favoured over traditional weapons from the mid-1500s onwards.

The samurai, of course, were a different matter. While they certainly did exist, they were hardly the men of honour depicted in sword-and-sake epics today. As with the knights of Old England, who were basically thugs in tin suits, the samurai were a warrior elite who reserved honourable behaviour for those who could best appreciate it – themselves. No courtesy or act of chivalry was squandered on the lower orders as the samurai went about the bidding of his paymaster without question. Much of the bidding was also pretty underhand, dishonourable and treacherous. All the fanciful notions about some imagined code of practice called bushido, or the way of the warrior, were largely the invention of Japanese writer and diplomat Nitobe Inazo for his Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1899). Although bushido as a term made a handful of appearances in pre-twentieth-century Japanese literature, other terms such as mononofu, tsuwamono or saburau were more common. If dishonoured, a samurai might be expected to commit seppuku, the form of ritualistic suicide erroneously called hara-kiri by Westerners, but which was rarely the gruesome spectacle of popular imagination. Often, the samurai picking up a knife was taken as indication of suicidal intent, and then the victim’s ‘best man’ was given the nod to cut off his friend’s head.

No matter how frequently it is stated, the fact is that karate did not evolve in feudal Japan to enable the peasants to punch through the bamboo armour of the oppressive samurai. Not only was samurai armour made of stiffened leather and metal plates, but karate was not a skill developed in early Japan. Chinese Shaolin monks of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907) introduced such skills when visiting Okinawa, the principal island of the ancient and independent Ryukyu Kingdom, where it was for centuries known as ‘China hand’ or ‘Tang hand’. In 1922 the Japanese Ministry of Education invited Okinawan martial-arts master Gichin Funakoshi to give a demonstration of his skills and Japan went China-hand-mad. But, due to the historic and ongoing hostilities with China, the Japanese decided to rename their new hobby karate, meaning ‘empty hand’, to obscure its Chinese origins.


The traditional white face mask of the geisha used to be achieved with lead-based cosmetics, but when the dangers of such applications became apparent it was replaced by preparations based on powdered rice. Because both made the teeth look an unhealthy yellow in contrast, geisha used to paint them black.

Removal of the white mask was achieved with uguisu no fun, or nightingale faeces. Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, made into a film by Steven Spielberg in 2005, made the purity and use of uguisu no fun so pivotal to one particular aspect of the plot that, after seeing the film, some were left with the erroneous impression that bird poo was an ancient Japanese beauty treatment. Since then, the rich and famous have been willing to pay up to $250 a time for a ‘geisha facial’ which involves their faces being smeared with nightingale ‘no fun’ – perhaps someone should tell them that the pigeons will happily ‘anoint’ them for free.

And, just as everyone in the West has a mental image of a ninja or a samurai, the very mention of geisha conjures up images of white-faced and elaborately clad women who are essentially highly refined and highly paid sex workers. Not only is such a perception completely erroneous and regarded in Japan as ignorant and offensive, but all geisha were originally male – as indeed a few still are.

With their history dating back to the early thirteenth century, the true geisha has never been involved in the sex-for-sale industry. The name translates as a person skilled in the arts, and it takes about five years of unpaid study to attain such rank. Until the eighteenth century all geisha were men who were hired on an individual basis for a small group meeting in a teahouse to provide entertainment in the form of music, poetry or even bawdy tales of yore. Sometimes geisha were hired in groups to ensure larger private functions went well by mixing with the guests, making sure everyone felt welcome and important before putting on assorted entertainments. To suggest that any geisha, male or female, would sleep with the guests for payment is akin to expecting a famous operatic diva to offer the same services if hired to sing at a private and high-class function in the West.

The first woman recorded as joining the ranks of the geisha was Kikuya, an entertainer in the Fukagawa district of Tokyo. Already a proficient singer and musician, she quickly retrained as a geisha around 1750 and became so popular that many other women followed her lead. In Tokyo in 1770 the male geisha still outnumbered their female counterparts two to one, but by 1775 that ratio had shifted to an even split and, by 1800, the male geisha were outnumbered. This takeover continued until the 1920s when there were about 75,000 female geisha operating throughout Japan, with the number of males by then dwindled to fewer than a hundred nationwide. Today it is very different; the only ‘geisha’ the tourist will see is a poor reflection, kimonoed and white-faced in pale imitation to pose for holiday snaps, while the real thing is hidden away. The only way to visit a geisha house is by invitation. As the current cost of the five-year training can exceed £350,000 (which the maiko, or geisha-in-training, is expected to repay her sponsor once working), just to have a geisha sing you a couple of songs in the guarded privacy of a formal teahouse will cost something approaching £1,500.

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