Fact from Fiction: Shinobi vs Ninja

At signings, I’m often asked why I refer to my ninja detective, Hattori Hiro (or Hiro Hattori to those who put surnames last), as a “shinobi” instead of a “ninja.”

The answer is simple: the two are one and the same.

Many Japanese words are written using Kanji, or characters, originally borrowed from Chinese. In Japanese, the word many English speakers pronounce as “ninja” looks like this:

13H02 Ninja

The Chinese pronunciation of those characters is “nin sha” – from which the English language derives the word “ninja.”

That pronunciation is used in Japan, but more often, the Japanese pronounce those characters “shinobi” – meaning that shinobi  is the Japanese word for “ninja.”

(Give it a minute. I bet that makes you smile.)

CLAWS OF THE CAT was originally titled SHINOBI–a reference to Hiro Hattori, the ninja detective sleuth who features in all the Shinobi Mysteries (along with his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo). My editor at Minotaur decided that we should change the title, in part because we wanted “Shinobi” to name the series rather than just a single book. We also renamed the novel because we wanted to ensure that readers wouldn’t pass it over because the name was unfamiliar. To Western ears, “Shinobi” sounds very foreign, whereas “ninja detective” makes sense to everyone.

I made the decision  to opt for “shinobi” in the books for several reasons.

First, even though the word is less familiar to Western ears, it’s more authentic to the period when the Shinobi Mysteries are set. The 16th century marked the high water mark of Japan’s shinobi clans.  Foreigners had just begun arriving in Japan, and tensions ran high. The country remained politically fractured, though unification was just around the corner. Shinobi–professional assassins and spies–flourished in this environment, and since my ninja detective, Hiro, is based on real shinobi assassins (as opposed to the smoke and mirrors we often see in modern film) I wanted to use an authentic word to describe him.

Second, the use of “shinobi” makes it clear the book is not a kids’ adventure or a pop-culture take on the subject of ninja detectives. Although I’ve heard that many teens like the books, the Shinobi Mysteries are definitely written for an adult audience.

Finally, the series will send both Hiro and Father Mateo on a murder-based journey through the multi-faceted spectrum of Japanese life in the 16th century. The first book, CLAWS OF THE CAT, is set in the geisha houses of the “floating world.” Hiro’s second adventure, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, moves the action to the shogun’s palace, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, sends the ninja into the world of brewers and moneylenders. The word “Shinobi” gives an exotic first impression, and the novels will deliver on that promise.


Have you ever read–or written–a book that used a less-familiar word in place of a popular one? Did it add to or detract from your reading experience?

One thought on “Fact from Fiction: Shinobi vs Ninja

  • August 2, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    Yes, I’ve read books that used less familiar words than the popular one. For me it’s never been a big deal. I don’t mind learning from the books I read.

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