Ninja in popular culture

Ninja in popular culture
People dressed as ninja, wearing black-hooded costumes, during the Himeji Castle Festival in Himeji, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan.

Ninja are common stock characters in both Japanese and international popular culture. The cultural references listed below are major instances separated into groups, such as novels, comic books, anime/manga, films, television shows, video games, and others.



Depictions of ninja range anywhere between realistic to fantastically exaggerated, both fundamentally and aesthetically. In stylized form, a ninja wears a dark hood, or mask, and can move in a stealthy or secretive manner. Ninja are also often a subject of parody.

Jiraiya battles a giant snake with the help of his summoned toad. Woodblock print on paper. Kuniyoshi, c.1843.

Ninja were a long-popular theme in Japanese folklore, jidaigeki literature and performing arts. For example, Ishikawa Goemon was the subject of many kabuki plays and Sarutobi Sasuke has featured in many Japanese children's stories since 1911. Koga Unôn Ninjutsu Kogaryû, a silent film from 1916[1] was possibly the first ninja movie. Ninja-based films and books became a major Japanese pop-culture craze during the 1950s and early 1960s, since then expanding into numerous comic books and video games. In Japan, the word shinobi and its variants are often used instead of "ninja".

The first major appearance of ninja in Western pop-culture was in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967), as a secret commando force used by the Japanese intelligence service. The 1960s TV series The Samurai caused a significant wave of interest in ninja among younger viewers in Australia, but the impact of the ninja phenomenon was not felt in other western countries until considerably later. Western fascination with the ninja bloomed in the 1980s, especially in the United States. Several American ninja movies starring Sho Kosugi were released in the early 1980s, largely responsible for introducing ninja to American pop culture and contributing to worldwide ninja-mania on grand scale. These included megahit media franchises such as the cartoon TV series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the late 1980s to early 1990s and Naruto in the 2000s.[2]

Ninja characters are often identified by their use of traditional blade and ranged weapons in modern and even science-fiction settings, as well as numerous superhuman abilities (such as running on water and up walls). Though depicted as nearly-invincible warriors (especially when they are the heroes of the story), they are often conversely depicted as disposable cannon fodder to be dispatched by the hero character, especially one who's a ninja himself. Thus, modern entertainment has shown ninja as either expendable "redshirts" attacking in large numbers, or as nearly invulnerable solitary warriors (who are often unmasked in contrast). In effect of this common approach, a single/small group of protagonist ninja may often easily defeat waves of incompetent enemy ninja on multiple occasions only to have far more trouble when facing a more competent lone ninja - this seemingly inconsistent portrayal is jokingly explained using the sarcastic "Inverse Ninja Law" (also called "conservation of ninjutsu"[3]), which states that ninja are weaker when they are in larger groups.

As far back as the late 19th century, erotic art was made using the ninja theme. Japanese ninja literature and cinema still contain a powerful element of eroticism, including some pornography, often focusing on kunoichi (ninja women).

According to Glenn Morris, ninjutsu in Western popular media has been (incorrectly) associated with the image of an "unemotional, heartless assassin". This would be due to the influence of Ashida Kim, Frank Dux, and Eric van Lustbader.[4] According to The Guardian, "in Japan, ninjas are now something of a national myth, a slightly cartoonish composite of old folk tales and modern pop culture."[5]

Self-styled modern groups

Several paramilitary, police and militia groups around the world use the names or nicknames of "Ninja" or "Ninjas":

  • The Santomean special police forces (of São Tomé and Príncipe) are a paramilitary police force officially referred to as the Emergency Police, but popularly known as “Ninjas”.[6]
  • Rebels in the Pool Region of the Republic of the Congo also called themselves "Ninja".[7]
  • Red Berets, a Serb paramilitary group of Dragan Vasiljković based in Knin, Croatia, called themselves "Kninjas".[8]
  • Some death-squad-type armed groups active under Indonesian rule in East Timor called themselves "Ninja". The name seems to have been borrowed from the movies rather than being directly influenced by the Japanese model.[9] The "ninja" gangs were also active elsewhere in Indonesia.[10]
  • During the Algerian Civil War, the government's feared commando units were known as "Ninjas" due to the black hoods they wore.[11]

In literature


  • Brett Wallace: Ninja Master: An eight-book series by ‘Wade Barker’ (Richard Meyers).[12]
  • Fukurō no Shiro: Ryotaro Shiba wrote this novel as well as a collection of short stories called Saigo no Igamono; both were made into hit movies.
  • Kage Kara Mamoru!: The series of light novels later adapted into a manga and anime series.
  • Kamui: A series of five novels by Tetsu Yano that were later adapted in manga, anime and eventually live-action format.
  • Ninja's Revenge and The Bamboo Bloodbath by Piers Anthony.[12]
  • Mirror Friend, Mirror Foe: A novel by Robert Asprin and George Takei featuring a member of a ninja clan in the future. The ninja methods are quite similar to what is known historically, but advanced technology has also been incorporated.
  • Sanada Ten Braves (Sanada Jūyūshi): An old legend that originated in the Meiji period, first published in the novel form during the Taishō period in 1912; since then in several books, movies, audio shows and the other media.
  • Shinobi no Mono: A series of novels by Tomoyoshi Murayama about the life of Ishikawa Goemon. In the 1960s they were turned into a series of hit films about the lives of Goemon and the other historical ninja.
  • Shōgun: Ninja assassins are featured in one of the final chapters of this novel by James Clavell.
  • Tales of the Otori: The Tribe is an entity of five families of ninja with powers (such as invisibility, splitting themselves temporarily, a stare that induces sleep, sharper hearing and eyesight, faster reflexes, etc.).
  • The Diamond Chariot: Erast Fandorin learns ninjutsu while in Japan.
  • The Kouga Ninja Scrolls (Kōga Ninpōchō): A novel by Futaro Yamada about two rival ninja clans, the Iga and Kouga. Later turned into a manga and anime series and a live-action film.
  • The Ninja: A thriller by Eric Van Lustbader featuring a half-Japanese, half-white character who received ninjutsu training in his youth. The original book was followed by The Miko and White Ninja.
  • Tulku, a Tale of Modern Ninja: A novel by Stephen K. Hayes, famous American ninjutsu practitioner.
  • You Only Live Twice: The 1964 James Bond novel written by Ian Fleming, in which the Japanese secret service employs a top secret ninja force to play a critical role in helping the British spy stop SPECTRE's grandest scheme.
  • The series of children books American Chillers and Magic Tree House (volumes New York Ninjas and Night of the Ninjas, respectively).

Ninja characters also have minor roles in Not for Glory, Shōgun, Thief of Time, Vineland, Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior, among others.

Role-playing games and gamebooks

Ninja are also featured in Rifts, Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game and many other RPGs. The ninja are also heavily featured in some of the collectible card games, including Legend of the Five Rings CCG, Magic: The Gathering and Mortal Kombat Kard Game.

In comic books

Major franchises

DC Universe

Characters with the sort of mystical and superhuman martial arts abilities attributed to the ninja occur in the DC Comics universe. One character who is portrayed in a fashion similar to a ninja is master martial artist and assassin Lady Shiva; Shiva also killed Armless Master, who had trained both Catwoman and Hellhound. The fourth recent Batgirl, Cassandra Cain, also has the qualities of the Western perception of a ninja (there's also a book titled Batman and the Ninja). The retconned stealth and martial arts training of the recent Batman incarnations has led many latter day Batman fans to assume that Batman is a ninja; Ra's Al Ghul specifically mentions ninja during his training of Bruce Wayne.

G.I. Joe

The G.I. Joe series of comic books featured ninja far more than the cartoon series, and many story arcs revolved around Scarlett, Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, Jinx, Kamakura, Firefly and the Arashikage ninja clan, which consisted of an extended family of ninja characters (never featured in the toyline or cartoon).[13] Other characters in the comic who received ninja training from the Arashikage clan and their associates were Cobra Commander's son Billy and the shapeshifter Zartan. The massive popularity of the ninja characters completely overtook the more conventional army characters, and creator Larry Hama was pressured by Hasbro to create more ninja for the series.[citation needed]

Marvel Universe

In the Marvel Comics' universe, ninja have been often featured as exotic antagonists and allies, such as Spider-Man foe White Ninja,[14] X-Men supporting character Yukio, Ghost Rider's foes Deathwatch and Death Ninja,[15] Wolverine's mentor Ogun, Hawkeye (currently operating as Ninja Ronin), the Punisher's friend Katherine Yakamoto (from Shadowmasters),[16] the Pacific Overlords operative Kuroko (Aya Komatsu), and the original owner of Psylocke's Asian body, Revanche (Kwannon). In the Marvel Mangaverse, Spider-Man is the last member of a clan of ninja. A sinister ninja cult called The Hand (comics), is prominently featured in several comic series, particularly X-Men and Daredevil. The Hand and their associates were responsible for the martial training of Psylocke, Elektra, Daredevil, Black Tarantula, Kitty Pryde, Lady Bullseye and Wolverine, among others. The Hand's good rival group are The Chaste; they are also at odds with their Korean offshoot, True Believers.


In the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) series, all four main characters and many of their friends and foes are ninja, including the deadly Foot Clan (a pastiche of Marvel's group The Hand). The comic achieved a massive popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s, which resulted in a franchise of four movies (three live-action and one animated), four animated series, a live action series, several video games, and a wide range of toys and other merchandise.

Other comics

Less notable and/or short-lived titles include Codename: Ninja, Corporate Ninja, Surban Jersey Ninja She-Devils,[18] Savage Ninja[19] and Zombee.[20]

Minor roles

Chastity (while technically not a ninja, Chastity uses ninja weapons), Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos (a short lived comic about Chuck Norris fighting ninjas), G.I. Combat (Kana is Japanese-American WWII spy for the OSS[21]), Judge Dredd (Dredd battles ninja robots in one volume), Masters of the Universe (featuring an evil ninja Ninjor[22]), Scott Pilgrim, Sonic the Hedgehog (female ninja spider Uma Arachnis[23] and her children, the Arachne), The Order of the Stick (featuring a female half-orc ninja named Therkla, as well as minor goblin, hobgoblin and human ninja), Y: The Last Man (featuring a mercenary ninja woman named Toyota).

In anime and manga

Major roles

Minor roles

In film (separate article)

"Super Ninja" was also the stage name of the actor and stuntsman Taimak.

In television shows

Major roles

Animated series
Live-action series
Super Sentai series

There were several ninja-themed Super Sentai shows:

There were also some more minor ninja themes in many of the other series. In the Power Rangers episode "Gung Ho!", Jason and Tommy enter the Team Ninja finals facing two ninja-dressed characters, while in "The Ninja Encounter" Rocky, Adam and Aisha take part in the Team Ninja Competition dressed as ninja. There are also many ninja villains in the various series. For example, Negative Syndicate's Dark Shadow clan in GoGo Sentai Boukenger, Miratrix and some other of Kamdor's henchmen in Power Rangers: Operation Overdrive, Ninja Org Duke Dorodoro in Hyakujuu Sentai Gaoranger (Onikage in Power Rangers: Wild Force), Dora Ninja in Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger (Dark Warrior in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers season one), Shinobilar in Denkou Choujin Gridman and Kirikage in Mahou Sentai Magiranger.

Other television shows

Ninja Warrior (Sasuke) and Women of Ninja Warrior (Kunoichi) are two Japanese sports entertainment shows, featuring (respectively) male and female competitors on an obstacle course. In the Prank Patrol shows, "ninjas" are the show helpers setting up the pranks.

Minor roles

Animated series
Live series

Ninja were featured in Charlie's Angels, Charmed, Chuck (in the first episode Chuck is attacked by a ninja and there also is a ninja in the show's opening), Criminal Minds (a ninja appeared in the episode "True Night"), Danger Theatre, Dude, What Would Happen, Knight Rider, Kyojuu Tokusou Juspion, Kung Fu, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (the episode "Chi of Steel" featured a Robin-Hood style ninja that stole from the rich and gave to the poor in Chinatown), Mortal Kombat: Conquest, Samurai Girl, She Spies, Shōgun (features a realistic ninja castle raid in feudal Japan), Verbotene Liebe, Zatoichi (a long-running classic Japanese samurai series).

Parody references

There were also numerous ninja references in Family Guy, MadTV, Robot Chicken and The Simpsons.

  • Family Guy: in the episode "Wasted Talent" Jerry Nelson is a ninja, in another episode Joe dresses as a ninja, and in still another episode Peter's black son is a ninja.
  • MadTV: several Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme parodies, including one Seagal When Harry Met Sally parody that had a ninja in it, one that had him filming a Kung Fu movie with ninja in it and an "Average Asian" skit that had him summoning a ninja attack; still another skit was called "Nodles and Ninja".
  • Robot Chicken: various episodes of the show featured TMNT references, a Gatchaman parody, a kid dressed as a ninja, a Batman Begins parody with ninja, a Jewish James Bond parody with ninja, the Mortal Kombat characters Smoke and Sub-Zero, and a TV show called Ninja Stars.
  • The Simpsons: in the episode "The Telltale Head" Bart Simpson disguises as a ninja, sneaks out of his house and sawes-off the head off from Springfield's founder's statue; in another episode Lisa plays a video game with ninja in it; still another episode has Homer dreaming his workplace was attacked by ninja. In the episode "Treehouse of Horror XVIII" one of the aliens is dressed as a ninja, in "Husbands and Knives" the Comic Book Guy has ninja weapons, and in "Yokel Chords" Bart plays a spoof video game featuring a female ninja character.
American Idol (a contestant Danny Noriega is a self-proclaimed "sexy intense ninja pickle"), Big Brother Australia (the people who have to enter the house to do things such as maintenance are referred to, even by Big Brother himself, as "ninjas"; on the Friday Night Live show, the "ninjas" are much more prominent, are given personalities and have segments dedicated to them), Cheat! (episode "Cheat-jitsu"), Deadliest Warrior (in one episode a ninja fought with a Spartan, but lost), In Living Color (an episode featured a skit about a ninja home security system in which a ninja was used to kill intruders), Gamers, Late Night with Conan O'Brien (Conan and Jim Carrey fought ninja), Mystery Science Theater 3000 (an episode featured Joel and the 'bots singing a song called "Master Ninja Theme Song", which became a popular song from the show), Mythbusters (a ninja special of the show tested classic ninja myths such as walking on water, catching a sword and catching an arrow), Screen Test, The Lance Krall Show, You Don't Know Jack (in one episode the host was attacked by ninja).
Ninja also apparead in television advertisements, including for Honda Civic Si, Esurance (in an Erin Esurance commercial), Lego, Netflix and Pop-Tarts, among others.

In video games (separate article)

Besides the large number of video games, there are also several game developing units that used the word "ninja" in their name (such as Ninja Studio, Ninja Theory, Ninjaforce, NinjaKiwi and Team Ninja), a group of gamers called Ninjas in Pyjamas and a video gaming magazine character Sushi-X.

In a massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), the term "ninja" or "loot ninja" may be used as an adjective to describe a player who has stolen another players item (this is perceived negatively by the other players - if a player is labelled a "ninja" in the game they are often rejected by the community and find it difficult to join guilds or raid parties).[36] In the first-person shooter (FPS) multiplayer community, "ninja defuse" is a term meaning sneaking-up to defuse the bomb immediately after it was planted by the enemy player in a team-based deathmatch game.[37]


In music

Bands and musicians

Several musicians and bands have the word ninja in their name (or even pose as ninjas), among them:

Shadow Warriors, a joke side project formed by members of the band DragonForce, refer to their music as "evil ninja punk metal".


Bands 7 Seconds of Love, Concord Dawn (in the album Uprising), Europe (The Final Countdown), ICP (Tunnel of Love) and Jay Chou all have songs named "Ninja"; in addition, GO!GO!7188 has a song "Kunoichi" (in the album Ryūzetsuran).

There are also many songs and tracks with the word "ninja" in their titles, including "Deadly Lethal Ninja Assassin" by Reuben (We Should Have Gone To University), “Hoodie Ninja” by mc chris ("mc chris is dead"), "Imaginary Ninjas" by Vince Dicola (Falling off a Clef), "Ninja Goon" by Gruvis Malt (Sound Soldiers), "Ninja Hi-skool" by Bis (Play Some Real Songs: the Live Album), "We Are Ninja" by Frank Chickens (We Are Frank Chickens), "Ninja Highschooool" by Peelander-Z (P-Pop-High School), "Ninja Rap" by Vanilla Ice (TMNT II Soundtrack) "Ninja Step" by RZA (the soundtrack for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), "Supa Ninjaz" by Method Man (The Pillage) and "This Secret Ninja" by AFI (Very Proud of Ya).

  • Ninja Tune is a London-based independent record label.
  • Fans of the white rap group Insane Clown Posse, commonly identified as juggalos, sometimes refer to themselves as "ninja" and to any female as "ninjettes".[38]
  • Ninja were also featured in the music video for the Presidents of the United States of Americasong "Peaches" and the singer Cheryl Cole dressed as female ninja and performed with a group of similarly-themed dancers in the TV special Cheryl Cole's Night In.[39]
  • Ninja dressed dancers were featured in the official video to rock band Heart's These Dreams.[40]

In sports


On the Internet

There have been numerous popular websites dealing with the parody of the ninja, the most well-known including:

There has also been a recent movement on the World Wide Web to celebrate International Creep Like a Ninja Day (December 5). Internet spoofs have often pitted ninja against pirates and asked which would win in a Pirates versus Ninja fight.


A man dressed as a ninja in Edo Wonderland, Futami, Mie.

Iga Ueno Ninja Festa, the annual ninja festival in the Japanese city of Iga in the former province of Iga, features ninja-inspired performances, competitions, and opportunities to practice ninja skills since 1964.[43] Iga is also location of the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum and many local businesses such as ninja-style restaurants and cafes.[5]

There are also other ninja attractions across the country, such as the Koga Ninja Village and Kogaryu Ninjutsu Yashiki (Ninja Houses) in Koga-gun, Shiga Prefecture, Togakushi Ninja Village for Children and Togakushi Ninpo Museum and Karakuri Yashiki (Ninja House) in Togakushi, Nagano, Edo Wonderland theme park in Nikkō, Tochigi, and Ninja Akasaka restaurant in Tokyo.[5][44][45] Outside of Japan, there is also Ninja New York restaurant in the New York City.

Several products have been named after ninja:

In information technology, "cyber ninjas" are the sophisticated counter-hackers.[46] Ninja is also a name of modification of the K-Meleon web browser, and "ninja" has been used as corporate slang for a master software developer or master software troubleshooter.

There are also roller coasters named Ninja and The Ninja, and an American media company named Kunoichi.

NINJA loan is a slang name for a type of subprime loan to someone with "No Income, No Job, or Assets", and "ninja miners" are Mongolian miners that dig small unauthorised mines for gold.

Sometimes, petty criminals are nicknamed "ninja". For example, an American burglar reported to have used nunchaku on one of his victims was known by the media as the "Staten Island Ninja", while a former Russian soldier who engaged in robberies in Italy using a black attire and a bow was called "Russian ninja" by the media.[47] "Ninja rocks" is also a name for a type of burglary tools.

In 2006, Miss Japan Kurara Chibana appeared in a ninja/samurai-style national costume during the Miss Universe competition.[48][49] Goth Ninja is a type of Japanese street fashion which became popular in 2009.[50]

See also


  1. ^ Koga unôn ninjutsu kogaryû at the Internet Movie Database
  2. ^ "FROM THE ARCHIVES - Black Belt Magazine". Retrieved 2010-06-30. 
  3. ^ "Conservation Of Ninjutsu - Television Tropes & Idioms". TV Tropes. Retrieved 2010-06-30. 
  4. ^ Glenn Morris (1993). Path Notes of an American Ninja Master. North Atlantic Books. ISBN 1556431570, 9781556431579. 
  5. ^ a b c Dressed to kill: Japan's ninja festival, The Guardian, 26 February 2011
  6. ^ Reuters AlertNet (October 10, 2007), Elite "Ninja" police free hostages in Sao Tome, Reuters,, retrieved August 26, 2009 
  7. ^ Tsoumou, Christian (June 8, 2007), Congo's Ninja rebels burn weapons and pledge peace, Reuters,, retrieved August 26, 2009 
  8. ^ Robinson, Natasha; Madden, James (April 13, 2007), Captain Dragan set for extradition, The Australian,,20867,21548551-2702,00.html, retrieved August 26, 2009 
  9. ^ Lane, Max (March 1, 1995), 'Ninja' terror in East Timor, Green Left Online,, retrieved August 26, 2009 
  10. ^ BBC News (October 24, 1998), Indonesia's 'ninja' war, BBC News,, retrieved August 26, 2009 
  11. ^ Christopher Dickey (1995). "The Ninjas Crack Down". Retrieved 2011-01-12. 
  12. ^ a b DEATHWISH with throwing stars!
  13. ^ Arashikage Clan - G.I. Joe Wiki - Joepedia
  14. ^ White Ninja (Spider-Man foe)
  15. ^ Death Ninja (Ghost Rider foe)
  16. ^ Katherine Yakamoto (comic book character)
  17. ^ WHISPER covers - Vintage Ninja
  18. ^ Surban Jersey Ninja She-Devils (Marvel comic book)
  19. ^ Savage Ninja (comic book)
  20. ^ Zombee Review - Comics Review at IGN
  21. ^ Kana the Shadow Warrior
  22. ^ Ninjor -
  23. ^ Uma Arachnis - Mobius Encyclopaedia - Sonic the Hedgehog Comics
  24. ^ Sampei Shirato - Unofficial Italian Fansite (Akame)
  25. ^ ZANPEI KUMOTORI - Vintage Ninja
  26. ^ Kasumi - Hyper Police - Anime Characters Database
  27. ^ Oniwabandana - WikiMoon
  28. ^ E-91 Lady Ninja - Sonic News Network, the Sonic Wiki
  29. ^ Espio the Chameleon - Sonic News Network, the Sonic Wiki
  30. ^ Film Details: Blood Of The Samurai: The Series DVD
  31. ^ Judy Ongg as KAGERO - Vintage Ninja
  32. ^ Henshin Ninja Arashi - Transforming Ninja Arashi
  33. ^ Batman Beyond: Curare
  34. ^ Curare - The Silent Killers of Film and TV -
  35. ^ Bios - Kyodai Ken | The World's Finest - Batman: The Animated Series
  36. ^ Urban Dictionary: loot ninja
  37. ^ Urban Dictionary: Ninja Defuse
  38. ^ "ninjette". Urban Dictionary. Retrieved 2010-06-30. 
  39. ^ Sophie Freeman (2009-12-10). "Cheryl Cole prepares for Saturday's X Factor fight with Ninja routine on TV special | Mail Online". London: Retrieved 2010-06-30. 
  40. ^ Heart, These Dreams
  41. ^ WWE 2008 Cyber Sunday Halloween Costume Contest Results
  42. ^ Julian Cram. "dbmagazine au dv ivNinjaChops". Retrieved 2010-06-30. 
  43. ^ Kim Kyung Hoon (2008-04-08). "Japan village exposes secret world of ninja fighters | World | Reuters". Reuters. Retrieved 2010-06-30. 
  44. ^ Guide to Japanese Ninja attractions - Japan Travel Guide
  45. ^ Touring Famous Ninja Villages - Travel - Kids Web Japan - Web Japan
  46. ^ Drew, Christopher (2009-12-29). "Cybersecurity - Wanted - 'Cyber Ninjas'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-06-30. 
  47. ^ Fraser, Christian (2007-06-12). "Europe | Russian 'ninja' arrested in Italy". BBC News. Retrieved 2010-06-30. 
  48. ^ "News on Japan – Miss Universe in ninja high heels". 2006-07-19. Retrieved 2010-06-30. 
  49. ^ 14 Incredibly Hot Japanese Women (You've Never Heard Of) | Gunaxin Girls
  50. ^ Betts, Kate (2009-12-08). "Goth Ninja - The Top 10 Everything of 2009". TIME.,28804,1945379_1944764_1944762,00.html#ixzz0psA7ImHB. Retrieved 2010-06-30. 

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