How Ninjas, As You Know Them, Only Date Back To The '60s

By Sarah Norman | May 22, 2024

Ninja Basics

How old are ninjas? Pop culture in the U.S. and Japan has long been fascinated by the ninja, a black-clad assassin practicing ancient Japanese martial arts and armed with throwing stars and swords. Silent but deadly, with catlike agility and reflexes, the ninja is there when you least expect him and gone before you know it. The proliferation of ninja movies, comic books, and other iconography suggests ninjas, as we know them, have always been a thing. Sure, Americans have put their own spin on ninjas, working them into Chuck Norris movies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Beverly Hills Ninja, and naming everything from kitchen knives to coffee makers after them, but that's what happens -- old traditions are reinterpreted, remixed, and ripped off in the circle of life. 

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vintage ninja

The basics of ninjadom -- the look and the purpose and the fighting prowess -- surely those have some authenticity, right? Not as much as you might think. Keep reading and we'll get into it.

The Ninjas Of The '60s Are The Ninjas We Know Today

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Tetsuro Tanba and Mie Hama in 'You Only Live Twice,' 1967. Source: IMDB

Ninjas were present in Japanese entertainment at least as far back as the 1950s, but they didn't become the deadly, stealthy, morally ambiguous assassins we know until the early '60s. According to, the movie that set the template for modern ninjas was 1962's Shinobi No Mono. The narrative pitted scrappy subversive anti-heroes in black pajamas against moneyed, aristocratic samurai. This romantic ideal of the ninja was immediately appealing, and the movie spawned many sequels and imitators -- in Japan. Ninjas were still nearly unknown in the western world.

Ian Fleming had some sense of the burgeoning ninja mystique, and he wrote them into his 1964 James Bond novel You Only Live Twice. When the book hit the screen in 1967, audiences were fascinated with the ninja culture presented in the form of Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tanba) and his ninja army.