What do you think our most major misconception about the ninja is?
I had thought they would be assassins or would-be killers, but I was surprised that they had a spiritual dimension and that shugendo was an important part of the training. Even now, the experts in ninjitsu tell you that right-mindedness was a prime element of their training.
Did ninja have special weapons?
In the many weapons that are displayed in the ninja museums, first there was an awful lot of adapted farm equipment, and secondly none of it’s authentic. It was all made long after the ninja became redundant.
What about the tales of ninja as magicians?
There was a folk tradition of magical belief that if you write certain things, certain statements on bits of paper and put them in the right place in a room, then magical things would happen. But these are in the manuals which come after the event.
You write about a Japanese WW II-era spy, Hiroo Onoda, who hid in the Philippines for 30 years. Why is he, in your view, the last of the ninja?
It was wondering about him and how he survived there which told me there was a tradition in Japan, which is exactly the opposite of the sort of xenophobic militarism that we associate with Japan in the Second World War. There was a spy school that taught an extraordinary degree of liberalism and generosity and non-xenophobia. The idea being that the Japanese would bring freedom to the peoples of Asia — of course, it turned out to be exactly the opposite after Pearl Harbor. But this different tradition was preserved by the Nakano Spy School and by Hiroo Onoda himself, who is still alive. Other people would dispute this, but I’d say he’s the last of the ninja.