Everyone in this country knows ninjas – at least those of us who like to play with small and colorful bricks made of plastic. Ninjas play a huge role in Western popular culture. They can be seen in action movies and in TV shows made for the entire family. But who were the ninjas really, and when were they around? One episode of the “His2Go” podcast takes a closer look at the history of these Japanese warriors. The podcast was started by two history students from the University of Freiburg, David Jokerst and Victor Söll, in January 2020. Episodes of the podcast come out every ten days and focus on a different historical figure or event.
“We got to know each other in Latin class when we started studying,” says Victor Söll. The two friends then began meeting over a cup of coffee or “another nice beverage” and often ended up listening to history podcasts. “And at some point,” says David Jokerst, “we thought maybe we can do this too.” Since then, they’ve been taking turns choosing a historical topic and turning it into a podcast. Ideally, the topic is something that the other doesn’t know much, if anything, about (they alternate). This person then goes into the podcast unprepared. The episode begins with the one who prepared the podcast asking the other, who doesn’t know much about the topic, a few questions about the chosen historical time or figure. “This is an element that only we have,” says Söll. “It makes it more exciting for the audience,” he says, and it gives listeners the chance to think about how they would answer the questions themselves.
Entertaining and Scholarly
The podcast unfolds in a conversation between the two. “We think that the idea of a dialogue is important, because it’s entertaining,” says Jokerst. Recurring elements also lend the conversation structure. For example, they begin every podcast by talking about what they’re drinking that episode. The interesting choice of topics and their lively, well-structured design has made their podcasts popular, with Söll and Jokerst reaching an average of about 6,000 listeners. They are especially happy that their audience consists of all age groups because “for the most part, podcasts are a medium for younger people,” says Söll.
The podcasts strike a balance between entertainment and serious research. For example, the podcasters make sure to cite the sources they use for the podcast. “We have a reading list online for every podcast. I believe we’re one of the first history podcasts to do that,” says Jokerst. The two students also like to respond to feedback and requests from their audience. “For example, one listener asked if we could provide more context for our topics, which was very helpful input,” says Söll.
Legend and Reality
That’s why, for the ninja podcast, for example, they not only looked at 16th century Japan, the period when these warriors were active; they also compared Japan to the situation in Europe at the same time to give it more context. “Interestingly enough, both geographical areas were characterized by many territorial conflicts at the time,” says Söll. In Japan, warfare was already very modern, and there were professional armies that could be compared to standing armies. However, this kind of army did not evolve in the European national states until later. Furthermore, a type of solitary warrior called “shinobi” also emerged around then. The word can be roughly translated as “hidden.”
“The task of these warriors could be described today as secret service work,” says Jokerst, as “espionage and reconnaissance behind enemy lines.” This fueled the Western imagination, and the image of ninjas became increasingly wilder in popular culture after World War II. The James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice” from 1967 especially made ninjas popular. “This resulted in them becoming hugely mythicized,” says Jokerst, adding that “the historical ninjas have very little to do with the ninjas that have super powers in today’s pop culture.”
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