By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
The ninja warriors were fierce, focused, and fun-driven. Kids between ages 6 and 18 leapt, scampered, swung, climbed, and grappled their way to the finish line on a 130-foot, indoor, inflatable obstacle course. The youngsters competed in Washington’s first ever Kids Ninja Warrior Challenge held in Renton on April 22 and 23. Birthday Dreams, a nonprofit organization providing birthday parties for homeless and underprivileged children in the Puget Sound region, hosted the event. About 340 tickets at $30 apiece were sold, and at least 12 homeless children participated, thanks to generous donors. All proceeds went to Birthday Dreams.
Chris Spahn, executive director of Birthday Dreams, was thrilled about hosting the fundraiser. Birthday Dreams provides birthday parties for about 900 youth at 60 homeless shelters located between Tacoma and Everett. When Spahn heard about a fundraiser involving the obstacle course used in Kids Ninja Warrior, she jumped at the chance to host it.
“If there’s one word I’d use, it’s focus,” said Chris Hadlock, creator of Kids Ninja Warrior, about coaching kids to be “ninja warriors.” Hadlock approached Spahn about the fundraiser when he heard about Birthday Dreams, and donated his time coaching the kids, discounted the course, and got busy.
The obstacle course “gives kids an avenue to learn about what real focus is,” said Hadlock. To ace the course, “Kids need to [concentrate] on what’s in front of them, and also on what’s ahead.” Hadlock also created Kids Ninja Warrior to teach kids how to eat healthy, and respect others while having fun on an obstacle course.
“Ninja kids help children see who they really are, and who they’d like to be. There’s a lifelong commitment to train and an ultimate goal. Being a ninja warrior would be the ultimate goal of the self,” Hadlock said in a recent interview. Hadlock began studying American Kenpo 20 years ago, along with jujitsu, kickboxing, and tai chi.
After seeing the Japanese TV show, “Sasuke” (Ninja Warrior), and then the American Ninja Warrior TV show, Hadlock began training on obstacle courses. The evolution of ninjas and obstacle courses makes sense to Hadlock.
“The iconic logo of a ninja crouching — they’re quiet, they’re [stealthy], and can move in and out of places without being seen or heard. That takes breathing, control, balance. That’s the connection between a ninja warrior and the original ninja.”
America’s love of everything ninja
Today, being a ninja in America means doing anything fantastically well, whether it’s a ninja mom juggling her career and family, or a code ninja developing software programs. Call someone a ninja and it’s usually meant as a compliment. And thanks to reality TV, we now have “ninja warriors” conquering obstacle courses designed to slay the average person.
“There’s ninja everything, for sure!” agrees Hadlock, as we ticked off blenders, mountain bikes, hot sauce, video games, moms, social media, and an endless array of “ninja” products and services touting their fabulousness. When asked about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Hadlock chuckled, but said he believes they have the values he believes in — focus and respect.
A quick look into how and when Japanese ninja first appealed to Americans finds oft repeated references to Ian Fleming’s 1964 James Bond novel, “You Only Live Twice.” Apparently, Fleming’s depiction of ninjas as masters of stealth and superior fighting techniques captured America’s imagination. As ninjas evolved in American culture, their mystique grew and they became associated with superhuman abilities.
The elusive ninja
It’s not surprising how much information and misinformation can be found about ninjas because of their covert nature. This deepens the allure and mystique of the invisible, superhuman ninja. There are some interesting artifacts, writings, and weapons displayed in Iga and Koka, Japan, where ninjas originated. However, not everything is authentic, according to some scholars. Some of these scholars have studied and written about ninjas for decades.
Scholars do agree ninjas were not solely assassins, and there’s no record of actual assassinations by ninjas. Ninjas were typically cultivated from rural communities to spy on others, and were masters of local terrain and could travel without being seen. They wore farming clothes to blend in with everyone else. Hardly the dashing, black-clad “invisible” ninja outfit Americans have known and grown to love.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines ninjas as “someone trained in ancient Japanese martial arts and employed especially for espionage and assassinations.” Other dictionaries define ninjas as persons who excel in “ninjutsu.” Some say ninjutsu is not a martial art, but a skill of stealth and endurance.
Ninjas had nothing to do with running obstacle courses or “warrior-ing.” Ninjas rarely, if ever, carried swords, nor were they warriors, despite what some have written about them.
The Daily Mail featured an engineer, Jinichi Kawakami, in a 2013 article about “Japan’s Last Ninja.” Author Matt Blake interviewed Kawakami, who said the ninja’s strength lied in the art of surprise, exploiting an opponent’s weakness, and distraction. Brute force was not the ninja’s weapon of choice. Blake writes that Kawakami’s training included “climbing walls, jumping from great heights, mixing chemicals for explosions and smoke screens, and withstanding extreme heat, cold, thirst, and hunger. Kawakami told Blake, “The ability to hide in the most unlikely of places is the ninja’s greatest weapon. We also have a saying that it is possible to escape death by perching on your enemy’s eyelashes; it means you are so close that he cannot see you.”
Now that sounds like a real ninja.
Arlene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.