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Koji's Column

Samurais, Ninjas - Oh My!

A good friend of mine who works for a Japanese American historical organization recently received the following e-mail and wanted me to write back to them.

    Dear Sir or Madam:
    Hello. My name is XXXX XXXXXXXXX. I am in the 7th grade at XXXX Middle School in XXXXX, XX and I am in an accelerated education class. We are doing research projects and my topic is comparing Samurai and Ninjas. I need information before XXXXXXXX X, XXXX to write my paper.

    My topic is comparing Samurais and Ninjas, but I divided them into four subtopics which are divided into two smaller subtopics. The first of the four subtopics is the weapons they used and are divided into smaller subtopics of blooded and non-blooded weapons. Topic two is the types of clothing and armor they wore and are obviously divided into the subtopics of clothing and armor. The third topic is their fighting techniques and then branch into offensive and defensive techniques. Finally the fourth topic is the origin of them, but I just want to know about the Samurai’s and Ninja’s origin – nothing special.
    You probably have some information on clothing, weapons and armor, so if you have any could you send a photograph and a description of it? I doubt you have any information on fighting techniques or origin – but if you do, could you send me information you think is important?

    Thank you in advance for your help.

    Sincerely,
    XXXX XXXXXXXXX

This was the response that I wanted to send:

I am an expert on ninjas and samurais so it’s good that you came to me. It’s encoded in my DNA (being that I’m Japanese American). Do you need someone to sneak into your house to kill your mom with a poison dart and get out before anyone can see him? I can do that in my sleep. You wouldn’t even have to pay me.

Of course, I know martial arts... all of them... so even if I were to get caught by your dad, I would be able to hold my own against him or the police. A gun? I don’t need it. Give me a samurai sword and ninja stars any day. Where’s the honor in killing someone with a gun?

You wouldn’t know I was a ninja/samurai if you saw me in daylight. Usually, I’m the nerdy looking guy with glasses and the bowl hair cut that annoyingly answers all the teacher’s persistent questions. I’m the guy you want in your study group because I work hard and won’t complain. But never put me in a position of leadership, I’m more of a worker bee.

I’m small; so don’t pick me to be on your basketball or football teams. I have squinty eyes, very little hair on my body and a tiny... In other words, I can be a good/useful friend to have around but not a good lover. In the bedroom, I’m freaky but passive and effeminate. You definitely don’t want your sister or future daughter to date me.

I can turn a microwave into a wristwatch and can turn every day observations into ancient wisdom and say it all in a beautiful haiku. Did I mention that I drive a lowered rice rocket with gaudy rims and a spoiler?

But if you can, look at me real close. You’ll see that I’m a samurai/ninja in disguise. After all, I can’t walk around with a sword and climb walls without attracting the wrong kind of attention. Know what I mean?

So dear Sir, I’m going to answer all of your questions now. Do you have a pen? Paper? Something to write on?

1. My weapon of choice? Myself. I’m not who or what you think I am. I’m not the guy I described above. I don’t know anyone that is. I’m more than my stereotype. I hope that you’re more complex than your stereotype.

2. My clothing/armor? I look like you. I wear pretty much the same clothes as you do: Jeans, khakis, short pants, hats, and once in a while suits. I’m so normal looking that sometimes you won’t even see me. Scary isn’t it?

3. Fighting techniques? I like to scream. I feel as though if I scream loud enough and keep screaming eventually someone will listen to me and take me for who I am, instead of the stereotype they want me to be – even when that stereotype is supposed to be a compliment. I’m not going to be your model minority. Find someone else.

4. Origin? America born and raised. My family moved from Japan to Hawaii in the late 1880s. So you see I’m just as American as you. Maybe more.

I hope that I have answered all of your questions. If you have any further comments/questions, please do not hesitate to contact me any time.

This is the response I probably would have sent if I thought about it enough:

I’m Japanese American, not Japanese. Believe it or not, there’s a huge difference. I speak a different language and I have a different culture, a different way of life than those who live in Japan. So just because I may look like them, I don’t inherently have any special knowledge that you don’t. In the end, I’m probably more like you than I am them.
This isn’t your fault though. The problem stems with the way diversity is taught in the United States. Students are told that there are many different people and cultures on the earth and that we’re all equally special. A noble goal. But what ends up happening is that when these same students see people that look like the people they’re studying they tend to automatically assume that they’re from that country (like you have) and not from here.

The schools should be teaching about the diversity of people in this country first. Because America is not what I look like, what you look like or what any of us look like individually. It is what we all look like collectively. It’s what makes us unique. I know this sounds real hokey but I feel strongly that in order for all of us to get along we need to understand and appreciate the diversity here in America before we can understand the diversity of the world.

So what I’m trying to say is that ninjas and samurais are as foreign to me as they are to you. I recommend doing a good google search and/or going to your local library. If and when you have a question about Japanese Americans specifically, I’d be more than happy to answer those kinds of questions for you.

In the end, I didn’t respond to this kid’s email. Instead, I forwarded it on to my other friends who would appreciate my brand of humor.

But I do wonder how he did on his paper. And I am curious to see what he came up with because I want to know more about ninjas and samurais too. For example, if they fought each other in a steel cage, who would win? God, I’m really curious about that. Does anyone out there know?

© 2007 Koji Steven Sakai

About this series

“Koji’s Column” is a column series contributed by Japanese American National Museum staff member, Koji Steven Sakai. His column explores Nikkei identity and culture from the standpoint of a second- and fourth-generation Japanese Americana American male from Southern California.