Recently my parents texted me that they had seen a carpet cleaning company’s truck that described itself as “the carpet ninja.”
It reminded them of how a facilitator in one of my orientation sessions here at Disney World referred to Custodial Cast Members as “park ninjas.” Them bringing it up to me reminded me of other times I have heard the word “ninja” used in obviously non-ninja contexts, such as “tech ninja” for stage crew members.
Obviously no one is trying to say that the carpet cleaner, custodial cast, or stage crew is a Japanese spy. (Yes, I said spy, not assassin – it took a very brief amount of Googling to learn that the “ninja-assassin” is a mostly-Western media trope, while actual ninjas were spies, gathering information more often than killing people.) So what’s up with the use of the term “ninja”?
When I first heard the term “tech ninja,” in reference to stage crew, the implication was that it was because we wore all black and our job was to get things done without being noticed by the audience. Interestingly, this ties in pretty well with historical theatrical portrayals of ninjas. Real ninjas usually did not wear black – it is not a practical outfit for daytime sneakiness, and if you really want to go unseen at night, dark blue is a better choice anyway. But in Edo-period Japanese theatre, sometimes actors sought to portray a ninja so competent that he was invisible to all the other characters. To show that a character was invisible, they dressed him like the other people that the audience was accustomed to treating as if they were invisible: the black-clad stagehands.
But not all slang-ninjas wear black and are intended to go unseen. My Custodial costume is white, and the “carpet ninja” clearly wants to be noticed. So why do people use the word “ninja” in these contexts?
I think it has to do with Western media portrayals of ninjas, beyond the black-clad warrior part of the portrayal. The ninja trope, as depicted in James Bond movies and the like, ascribes a certain amount of nigh-magical competence to the ninja. They are not just a warrior, they are an incredible, unstoppable warrior. They are fast, tantamount to invisible when they want to be, and they can go anywhere and not be held against their will. They are also very knowledgeable, competent and wise. Perhaps we use the term “ninja” to ascribe that kind of competence to other people. My orientation facilitator used the term “park ninja” while talking about how the Custodial Cast Member can go anywhere in the parks and give Guests all kinds of information. And the self-described “carpet ninja” is probably trying to make prospective customers perceive them as competent and quick-working.
It feels wrong to misuse the term, though. Ninja does not mean the Western media portrayal; it is a Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese word for “one who endures.” They were, and are, real people. I am not one of them, and neither, presumably, are the carpet cleaners.
What if we called them “carpet wizards” instead?
It would preserve the association with magic-level competence while discontinuing the propagation of inaccurate media portrayals.