Traditionally, the word ninja is defined as “a member of a feudal Japanese society of mercenary agents, highly trained in martial arts and stealth (ninjutsu), who were hired for covert purposes ranging from espionage to sabotage and assassination.” These ninjas have captured the Western pop culture imagination since at least the 1960s, when the word was borrowed into English.
Since then, ninja has expanded to describe “a person who is an expert or highly skilled in a specified field or activity.” We might call someone who’s really good at video games a gaming ninja, for instance, or tell someone who is really good at their accounting job that they are a ninja accountant (weird compliment, right?).
But what is an actual ninja?
Ultimately from Chinese roots, ninja comes from the Japanese words nin, “endurance” or “stealth,” and sha, “a person.” When combined, these characters roughly mean “one who endures” or “one skilled in stealth.”
Historically, ninjas were not the elite fighters we see in movies and on TV. It’s believed that, at least by the 15th century, they were foot soldiers, usually from lower-class farming communities in Japan, who performed mercenary work, or “work that is purely for money or reward.” In his 2008 book Ninja: Shadow Warrior, author Joel Levy explains that ninjas relied on subterfuge, dishonesty, and trickery to perform tasks for which they were hired, and sought to avoid hand-to-hand combat in their efforts.
The stealth tactics and combat style of ninjas became known as ninjutsu, and eventually it became practiced as a formal art in Japan. But, the origins of ninjutsu are thought to have been introduced, in part, to Japan through the teachings of Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu and by Chinese pirates who historically staged raids on the Japanese islands.
Ninjas in pop culture
One of the first uses of ninja in English was in Ian Fleming’s 1964 James Bond novel You Only Live Twice, adapted into film in 1967. Even earlier than that, in 1962, The Times of India published an article titled “The Fabulous Ninjas” that explored the history and traditions of Japanese ninjas.
In 1964, the Summer Olympics were held in Tokyo, which ignited American interest in Japanese culture. By the 1970s, martial arts movies starring huge stars like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris were a mainstay on American screens, and ninja became a slang word for fighters who were highly skilled in martial arts in a way that few others could match.
Then, a 1984 comic book introduced introduced four, teenaged, humanoid, pizza-loving, sewer-dwelling turtles named after Italian painters who fought crime in Manhattan with their ninjitsu: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The comic books, and later, franchise of TV shows, movies, and toys, helped make ninja a household word not just in the United States but around the world in the 1980–90s.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as the internet took hold, it became more and more common to use ninja in a way that’s akin to how we might use whiz. A whiz is “a person who is quite good at a particular activity, in a certain field, etc.,” as in, a math or science whiz.
Though this sense of ninja goes back to the 1970s, the metaphorical ninja got a boost by the tech industry, with startups using ninja to describe workers who had mastered certain skills, as if demonstrating the effortless stealth of well … actual ninjas.
Is ninja offensive?
Some people consider the extended use of ninja to be appropriative and offensive. Essentially, they argue, calling someone a “fill-in-the-skill ninja” strips the word of its meaning and its cultural roots, for the purpose of being funny, grabbing attention, or worse, turning a profit.
In a 2015 piece on the misappropriation of Asian culture in the tech industry, programmer Brian Kung explained how tech companies co-opt Asian culture, language, and ideas, like ninjas, Zen koans, and Buddhism to capitalize on our collective interest in these ideas. Kung described not just job listings for, say, programming ninjas but also coding programs that incorporate language about becoming a master of a skill and achieving enlightenment.
Meanwhile, Asian labor is often exploited by major tech companies, such as in Apple factories overseas, where workers are rumored to work for low wages in terrible conditions. And, in the United States, Asian-Americans are disproportionately underrepresented in higher-level tech jobs. In 2014, Asian-Americans made up just over two percent of corporate leadership at Fortune 500 companies, according to DiversityInc, despite making up a large percentage of highly skilled and educated tech industry workers.
In 2019, we watch American Ninja Warrior, an athletic competition TV show spun-off from its Japanese original, Sasuke. We bake ninja-bread cookies instead of gingerbread cookies. We post job listings for sales ninjas. We tell our friends they’re Candy Crush ninjas when they excel at mobile games—like Fruit Ninja.
Clearly, we celebrate ninjas, but it’s worth examining how we use the word and whether or not we’re respecting its origins. Just as dressing in certain Halloween costumes (such as Native American headdresses) can be considered cultural appropriation, so, too, can adopting certain words and ideas without regard to their original culture and context.