There are likely very few people alive today who can lay claim to being a professional ninja, but John Patrick Jandernoa is one of them.
While it’s not the kind of profession you’d stumble upon while job hunting in Japan, it was on a whim that the 26-year-old American decided to give it a shot.
Lying in a Kyoto hostel one afternoon while on vacation in 2017, the Michigan-born dancer came to the realization his brief encounter with Japan was quickly drawing to an end.
After multiple attempts to find auditions for trained dancers here on the internet, his mind turned to thoughts of the country’s popular ninja-themed cafes and restaurants, where masked performers — clad head-to-toe in black — amuse patrons with acts of trickery and acrobatics.
Among the top search results was an article about another American, Chris O’Neill, who had joined Hattori Hanzo and the Ninjas, a group of trained performers and acrobats who assume the roles of ninjas to promote tourism in Aichi Prefecture. Making their debut in 2015, the troupe holds weekend performances at Nagoya Castle, drawing crowds of local visitors and overseas tourists with gravity-defying stunts, martial arts and swordsmanship.
But the only catch was, auditions to join the troupe for the next year had already closed.
“At that time, I couldn’t really speak Japanese that well,” Jandernoa says. “So it (was) probably for the best, but I waited. But ever since that time, I’ve just been studying Japanese and continuing to practice my performance and acrobatics.”
When auditions rolled around at the end of last year, Jandernoa successfully battled it out against 20 international applicants for a spot as one of the five ninjas in the Hattori Hanzo troupe. (The original Hanzo was a famous samurai who lived from 1542 to 1596 and who is referred to in many forms of pop culture.)
“I’m still the new member, and I still have a lot to learn,” Jandernoa says. “I think what has really been helpful is my background in dance, having the ability to pick up and learn new choreography. We have a little bit of dance choreography in our show, but also a lot of stage combat.”
When Jandernoa dons his shinobi shōzoku (traditional ninja clothing) for a performance, he leaves behind his identity and assumes the character of Satori, who, like Jandernoa, was born in the United States, but around the 16th century during Japan’s Warring States period, widely heralded as the height of ninja activity. Satori flees his home after experiencing a betrayal and makes his way to Japan where he is trained in the art of ninjutsu, the traditional discipline of ninja warfare.
Local governments and tourism organizations have been riding the wave of endless fascination with the stealthy feudal warriors, which still resonates with visitors both at home and abroad. In a promotional stunt at the end of last year, petitioners dressed in ninja costumes “sneaked” into the office of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to request his support in promoting ninja culture to tourists during the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Tourism boards and local companies across the country have already found, however, there is no shortage of creative ways to tap into the ninja legend.
In May, an Osaka shopping complex launched VR Ninja Yasuke, a game where tourists can dress up like a ninja and complete a mission to protect Osaka Castle from demons. The attraction was set up in response to the growing number of tourists visiting the 16th-century landmark.
Earlier this year, flight personnel and cleaning crew at Chubu airport in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, dressed up in ninja attire as part of a local promotional campaign for National Ninja Day on Feb. 22.
Last year, a Yokohama taxi company launched Ninja de Taxi, a service where drivers, clad in black and sporting origami shuriken (star-shaped throwing daggers), chauffeur their passengers to their destinations.
For many people overseas, the ninja remains defined by pop culture and Hollywood myth — an image sometimes supported by Japanese tourism campaigns — rather than historical accuracy. While such stereotypes can spark initial interest in the culture, Jandernoa is hoping he can help separate fact from fiction. Like most American teens growing up in the 1990’s, his first encounter with ninja culture as a child was via “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Suffice to say, his understanding has changed substantially since then.
“I’ve been studying about actual ninjas, and learning the difference between what my prior image of a ninja was versus what a real ninja is,” he says. What he hopes to channel most in his performances, though, is the ninja mindset: “It’s the attitude of doing whatever it takes to succeed in a mission, never giving up, and always having that fiery determination to keep moving forward and be disciplined.”
Since landing the role, Jandernoa has adopted a training ritual that, from a layperson’s point of view, looks nearly as rigorous and physically demanding as that of the historical ninjas he depicts on stage. Initially, he trained for hours every day to be able to execute his swordsmanship and acrobatic stunts in a way that is historically faithful.
“It was pretty intense, especially the first few weeks,” he recalls. “Now that I’ve actually had my debut, it’s a little bit more hectic.”
More than his training, what keeps Jandernoa constantly on his toes, however, is the lifestyle of a modern ninja who needs to be far more media-savvy than their counterparts from the past. That means lots of travel, the occasional TV appearance and interaction with fans.
Arguably, however, some of Jandernoa’s biggest fans aren’t in Japan but back home in Michigan.
“All of my friends and family were very supportive and happy to hear that I was adventuring to Japan to pursue my dreams,” he says. “They all had faith in me and told me that I would succeed.”
While his friends and family have yet to see Jandernoa in action as Satori, they’re hoping to make the visit to watch him kick his career goals, as well as a few ninja enemies along the way.
For more information on Hattori Hanzo and the Ninjas, visit www.ninja-japan.com.