I picked up the second installment of the Young Samurai at the library today. I was thinking about starting it, and looked at the back inside dust cover, where I read the following:
Chris Bradford is the author of Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior. Aside from having a black belt, he is trained in judo, karate, kickboxing, and samurai swordsmanship. Before writing the Young Samurai series, he was a professional musician and songwriter. He lives in England.
I’ve read that a dozen times, and I read it to my wife, and the question remains: “Aside from having a black belt….” in what? Is there some default martial art whose black belts speak for themselves and which need not be named? Or is he just making a fashion statement?
No, a quick visit to his website reveals that the black belt is in “Kyo Shin Tai-jutsu, the secret fighting art of the ninja.”1
If only Disney/Hyperion had some black-belt copyeditors….
Amusing and disturbing at the same time. “Aside from what?” indeed.
It is all too tempting to use this topic as a springboard to launch into a diatribe against the historically-suspect pedigree of “ninjitsu” and the various problems and substantial misunderstandings that surround the term “ninja.” I am, admittedly, sorely tempted to do just that. But with the start of the new semester just a few days a way, I think I had better pass up the opportunity for the time being and return instead to prepping for class.
I do want to ask Jonathan, however, how many children’s/young adult books are out there on samurai, and why it is that he seems to be seeking them all out in such a thorough fashion. Is this part of an evolving research project, or are you just curious about just what it is that young people are likely to learn when they read such books? It is, I will readily concede, a genre that I am almost totally unfamiliar with, though I do faintly recall having read a book of this sort called _The Samurai’s Tale_ around the time when I was just starting middle school. Set in sixteenth century Japan, the story seemed somehow quite convincing back then, though of course I knew next to nothing about the time period in which it took place. I am sure that, were I to go back and re-read it now, I would find all sorts of anachronisms, mistakes, and out-and-out oddities in the text, but that is only because I have since become a historian who specializes in precisely this period in Japanese history. Coincidence? I’m not sure, but at any rate, having read this particular work of fiction does not seem to have left any lasting negative impact on my approach to the study of this period, though I am not sure that it did much to help it either…
The short answer: I have an eight-year-old son. I spend a lot of time in the children’s section of the public library, and while I’m waiting for him to load up on the latest adventures of spiritual bears, warrior cats, cowdogs, demigods, dragon-taming vikings, etc., I sometimes find my eye drawn to a familiar word on a book spine. I don’t know where this project will end up, frankly; it started out of idle curiousity (and a little frustration) and has become something else. What I’m looking for, I think, is a youth-oriented historical fiction of Japan that I can recommend to people with a straight face. What I’m ending up with, it seems, is a collection of curmudgeonly debunkings which I can only hope teachers and librarians will stumble across before handing out these books to hungry young minds.
I’ve discussed the ninja thing here before: you’re not going to get an argument from me about the ahistoricality of Edo-period ninjutsu, the mythology of modern martial arts traditions, etc. I give my students a version of the same diatribe in class on a pretty regular basis!
Jonathan, thank you very much for the prompt and very informative reply. First, I want to make clear that I was not suggesting that you or likely anyone else who regularly posts to this blog were likely to step up and defend “ninja” in the form in which they are most commonly portrayed. I think most of us, including but not limited to both you and I, regularly attempt to debunk these images when teaching our classes, and to at the very least encourage students to think about the topic in terms of the need to analyze historical evidence rather than accepting uncritically a combination of hearsay and invented myth. That you, I, and others have taken up this issue before both here and on H-Japan is yet another reason that I restrained myself this time around from indulging in a rambling critique prompted by Chris Blackford and his apparent blackbelt in “the secret fighting art of the ninja.”
I also appreciate you reminding me that the initial impetus for looking at these various titles stemmed from time spent with your young son, as I am sure that I should have more or less known or remembered this based on what you had already written in previous posts. Undoubtedly you are providing a service to teachers and librarians should they happen upon your summaries prior to assigning or recommending these books. But given that you have begun to amass quite a few titles here, I hope that you may find a way to put this information to use for some sort of history project, or at least the way certainly elements of Japanese history are altered in popular media. Again, I know very little about children’s books, but I do have an ongoing interest in similar issues in the realm of video games, so if you ever do decide to to start a research project or want to organize something, please keep me informed!
I sense a panel forming…. 2012 AAS in Toronto?
Could be… Let’s keep our eyes out for anyone else who might be interested in joining such a panel and, at the very least, I will keep my schedule open for late March/early April of next year.