We’re sitting here with none other than Chris O’Neill, the one and so far only professional foreign Ninja in Japan. As some of you might remember, there was a rather unusual job advertisement from the Aichi Tourism Board a while ago, looking for anyone who would be up for the challenge of becoming a Ninja. Soon after that announcement, many able-bodied Warriors jumped at the opportunity, and the applications flooded in from all over the world. It was a tough battle, but in the end only one person was left standing – US National Chris O’Neill.
JD: Thank you very much for taking time out of your training and show schedule to sit down and share your experience with us.
Chris: My pleasure! It is an honour to be doing an interview with you!
JD: First of all, let’s start by getting to know the person behind the mask, so to speak. How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Chris: Adventurous, free-spirited, and passionate.
My life would not be complete without the rush of adventure! I love to travel. I love to explore and learn new things about the world; to connect with new people and to develop my own personal worldview. My life’s goal is to visit every country on Earth and spread as much kindness as possible in each country.
Free-spirited in the sense that I love to be free! I love that I can get up and move anytime to anyplace. I take a positive approach to life, and truly believe there is a good side to everything.
Passion is also very important to me. The world needs passionate people! People who love getting up in the morning to make a difference. People who love what they do and have a strong desire to cultivate their talents and abilities. I am passionate about growing physically, mentally, and spiritually as well. The martial arts have been with me since before I can remember. I’m really passionate about them.
JD: Thank you for that honest and thought-provoking reply! You’ll certainly have many opportunities to be adventurous, free-spirited and display a lot of passion for your art in your new role. Speaking of which; “interesting” would be the understatement of the century to describe your new job. Since I was a kid, I wanted to be a Ninja. You’re actually doing it! How did you prepare for the initial interview? Did you watch the training montage from Batman Begins (or any of Michael Dudikoff’s American Ninja movies) over and over again?
Chris: (laughs). Thank you! That is one of my biggest goals with this job. I also wanted to be a Ninja since I was a kid. Of course people laughed at me and told me to get serious, but I kept that desire in my heart. I hope this job will motivate others to pursue their dreams. Not just ninja stuff, but anything! It doesn’t matter where you are from, how old you are, your gender, the color of your skin, or even the style of your hair ^^ …Anything is possible! If you want to be a doctor, engineer, astrophysicist, you can do it! Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot. If you believe in yourself and work hard, I believe it’s possible.
Normally, I never get nervous for auditions. I have done so many, I lost the nervous feeling a long time ago. At least in terms of physical performance. However, for this audition they had an interview session for about half-an-hour before the performance session. My Japanese is soooooooo bad. I was really nervous to try to understand what they said and speak in Japanese for them. During that section they asked me to tell a story in Japanese!!! That was harder than any acrobatic routine I have ever performed…haha….But the acrobatic section and questions section were fun!! I actually really enjoy going to interviews and auditions. I think that may be a little odd…haha
I have seen all the American Ninja movies and of course Batman Begins (about 1,000 times). HUGE Batman fan ^_^
JD: Hehe, another thing we have in common.
So tell us more about your background. How did this impressive and unusual journey start for you, and where did you receive your training?
Chris: When I was around 3 years old, I watched many cartoons about ninja. They inspired me to start training in the Martial Arts. I really enjoyed those shows. Every weekend I would wait in anticipation for my favorite cartoon to come on! It lit the fire of passion I have for Japan.
Around 7 or 8, I started to get really serious about the Martial Arts. Instead of just watching cartoons and anime, I started reading about the historical aspects of samurai and ninja. I found the reality of ninja even more fascinating than the fictional ninja I watched on television and in the movies.
Ninja constantly aim to attain 正心. The literal meaning of these two kanji is ‘right’ and ‘heart’ To have a right heart or right way of thinking. It was very important to the ninja of the past, and it is very important to me today. Whenever I feel conflicted about something, I try to focus on doing what is right, and living the best way of life that I can. This is the most important thing for me.
There are 2 sides to the ninja today: the fictional ninja most people know from tv shows like Naruto and the historically accurate ninja, that are a bit more secretive. I believe both of these interpretations of ninja are very important, and I hope that with this job I will be able to combine the two aspects of ninja together in order to create a Neo ninja that inspires others to believe that anything is possible!
JD: Well said! I actually had a very similar childhood. Started training in Martial Arts because of TV shows and comics. The intense single-minded focus to achieve your objectives and to have the “right heart”, as you just mentioned, was something I’ve always revered about the Ninja as well.
You’re the first professional non-Japanese Ninja in Japan. What has the overall reaction been from people and your Team (Clan? :p ) so far?
Chris: They have been amazing. In fact, all the Japanese people I have met have been really supportive of my new role. I will often be walking down the street and kids will call to me: “Ninja Ninja!”. I love it! I love playing with them, and talking to anyone who is interested.
If you ever meet me on the street or would like to chat, please feel free!! I am more than happy to talk with you : )
I think this is an awesome opportunity to show how Japan is opening up to the idea that gaikokujin can play bigger and bigger roles in their future. So many of us love Japan with all our hearts, and are passionate about this place. I feel lucky to be a part of this. Truly grateful.
JD: You’re absolutely right! There are many talented non-Japanese people here, who really have a deep passion for Japan and hopefully will play much bigger roles in Japan’s future.
One question I have often heard from people both Japanese and foreign alike is that AICHI is usually associated with Samurai, whereas Mie (Igaryu) is associated with Ninja. Many people in Aichi actually don’t quite get why the new “icons” here are Ninja rather than Samurai. What’s your take on this?
Chris: Aichi-ken is blessed to have a rich history in both Samurai AND Ninja. Hattori Hanzo, arguably the most famous ninja of all time was born in the eastern part of Aichi-ken.
Beyond that, Ninja have become a cultural icon for people around the world. Part of our job is to represent Japan to overseas visitors. I think it’s great that we are showing the world, anyone can accomplish their dreams if they set their mind to it!
JD: Exactly! What has been your best and worst experience in this job so far?
Chris: BEST: Like many kids across the world, it was my dream to become a ninja in Japan. I couldn’t imagine a better job here. When I was younger, people always laughed at my desire to become a superhero, samurai, and ninja. They told me to give it up and find a normal job. I never lost the hope that one day I could do something like this. One of the best feelings I had was when my application passed the first stage and I was asked to come for an audition. I knew if I could just audition, then they would be able to see my heart. To feel the passion I have for this country, these people, and this position. I knew I could do it, as long as I had the chance. That was one of the highlights so far for me.
WORST: I have yet to experience something unbelievably terrible with this job. Some things are tough for me, as it is my first time working in Japan. I do not speak Japanese very well. It is hard to communicate deeply with my teammates. I want to get to know them better. I want to be able to speak to all the Japanese visitors we have. To perform my very best, I need to improve my Japanese ability. This is a major challenge for me. However, one of the things I love most about ninja is their dedication to succeed at whatever they set their mind on. Accomplishing a mission often meant the difference between life or death. There was no room for error. They had to train their mind, body, and spirit to be indomitable. I really admire this mindset, and I hope to emulate it throughout my life, and especially in the challenges this job provides.
JD: Japanese is a rather difficult language to master, but given that indomitable spirit, anything is possible, and from what it sounds like, you’re a very driven individual, so I think it’s just a matter of time before you’ve mastered that as well.
Is there anything you want to tell Japanese people (tips, information, concerns, etc…)?
Chris: Japan is an amazing country, and the people are vibrant, compassionate, and truly beautiful both inside and out. I fear however, too many people in Japan are scared to follow their dreams. The world needs more dreamers; More people who are passionate about what they do! I would like to highly recommend that Japanese people think about what they truly want in life. Regardless of any obstacles in their way! What is it that you want to accomplish during your life? If you could do ANYthing, have ANY job, go to ANY place, where would you go, and what would you do?
I am a firm believer that nothing is impossible! Talk to people about your dreams. Think about what you really want to do in life, and start working towards that goal. Step-by-step, moment-by- moment, everything leading towards your aspirations. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t accomplish your dreams! You can do it!!
JD: I couldnt agree more! Having dreams and following through, step-by-step is very important in life, and I too wish more Japanese people would realise that and follow their own dreams and passions.
Speaking of dreams… if you could have dinner with Hattori Hanzo (most feared/respected Ninja, and leader of the Iga Ninja Clan in 16th Century Japan), what would you ask him?
Chris: I would like to know what he thought of the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. If he were to face him head-to-head, how would he win. Musashi was only 12 when Hattori Hanzo died, but if they were both to face off at their peaks, what would his strategies be to defeat the master swordsman.
I would like to know Hattori Hanzo’s definition of Ninja. I’d ask if he considered Ninjutsu a martial art. Why he choose to support Tokugawa Ieyasu. What his life’s purpose was, and what is his favorite Japanese Kanji (I think a lot can be said about a person based off their answer to this particular question ^_^).
Most of all, I would be excited to eat a nice dinner…haha
JD: Very interesting! Ok, final question… what tips do you have for others who want to come to Japan and become successful here?
Chris: I came to Japan with nothing but hope. No job, No money, No friends, No language ability. It’s the hardest, scariest thing to do, but I just want to say: the first steps are always the toughest. Don’t give up. You will face many challenges, but please remember: there is a good side to everything.
When things get hard, when they don’t make sense, or feel confusing, try to remember the good things. Think about the kindness of the people. The phenomenal customer service. How everything is so clean and safe. Remember the compassion and love inside the hearts of the citizens here.
Stay positive, stay cool, and enjoy the experience.
JD: (gets a message from a staff member): We have one bonus question from our staff at the office for you, Chris.
With all the dangerous weapons and gear you wield during your show, have you ever had an equipment-related mishap (accidentally cutting off someone’s finger, a missing nose here or there, ….)?
Chris: Not yet!! haha…I hope never. Safety is pretty high on our priority list, however, I did break a sword in half during one of our shows. I was doing a round off back-flip, and when I planted my hands on the ground, the force snapped the blade in half. It was a little off-setting, but it was funny to watch the performance go on with half a blade.
Mostly we all just get by with bumps and bruises.
JD: Well, as the famous Queen song once insisted… The Show Must Go On!
Speaking of which, Chris, it’s been an honour! Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your unique experience with us and our readers. All the best in your new career!
Professional Ninja, humanitarian, and optimistic dreamer, Chris really breaks the mold and is a great example that anything and everything is possible if you just put your mind and heart to it. I, for one, am looking forward to see this newest star in Japan break through the cultural barrier and keep up with his unusual career. I’m sure you’ll see a lot more of Chris all over Japan (and perhaps the world) in the near future! If you’d like to see him perform, head over to Nagoya Castle on weekends and holidays to get a first-hand experience of Japan’s first modern foreign professional Ninja. If you can’t head over to the castle, here’s just a quick glimpse into what you’re missing.