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“”Picture a mugger, emerging from the darkness. What would you do? If you're like most Americans, you've already played out this fantasy hundreds of times with each of your handguns and tactical knives. You'd attack secret weak points of his face, known only to you. Your strength, speed, and stamina would be made limitless by adrenaline. The mugger's ladies would switch sides, flinging their bikini bottoms toward your spinning kicks. In fact, it's almost stupid to still be talking about this mugger since he's dead at your feet. "That's the way of the streets" you might growl at his pieces before bringing your saxophone to your lips. "Fwrrff!!! Hrmmm fmfffhheeeeeeeee!!"
A mall ninja is a type of weapons and combat enthusiast that is characterized by being so ungrounded in reality as to make even the most hardcore gun nuts shake their heads. Equal parts naïveté, delusion, and obnoxiousness, the mall ninja contributes to countless ill-informed online debates concerning arms, armor, and warfare, and is a common consumer of assorted paramilitary woo, broscience, and shared misconceptions about history and the world.
The term "mall ninja" is pejorative; no one self-identifies as such. More often, they self-identify as weapon "experts," martial arts aficionados, and otherwise Really Cool Guys. The first widely-known use of the term came from the gun enthusiast forum GlockTalk, where a clown asking for tactical advice claimed to be the sergeant of a special security team in one of the nation's largest malls, as well as a master of ninjutsu; his claims only got more ridiculous from there. Hence the "mall ninja". However, the concept is quite old; starting in the 1970s, for instance, magazines like Soldier of Fortune and Black Belt Magazine catered to this demographic, often to the point of earning mockery from real active-duty servicemen, veterans, and martial artists.
There are many different varieties of mall ninjas, with wide-ranging fixations, but all of them idolize combat while having very little first-hand experience of it. It is entirely possible to be very interested in warfare and weapons whilst knowing their complete reality (viz., if you point a gun/sword/knife/deadly object at a person, you should expect to kill them, and face the moral, psychological, and legal consequences of killing them; also, one can often expect one's opponents in battle to carry weapons), but mall ninjas focus on the honor and glory of warfare, and are characterized with seeing the "glorious" aspect of fighting without acknowledging that they would probably find it terrifying or repugnant if they were dropped in the middle of a real war zone.
Common foci of idolatry among the mall ninjas include:
Japan and Japanese weapons
Often fueled by depictions in anime and otaku culture, the idea that Japanese items and weapons are "just better" is a very common meme among mall ninjas (indeed, it is what gives them their name) and is mostly fueled by fascination with the exotic. In a way, it is a kind of folklore: because of the intense pride that Japanese culture has in its history and symbols, media produced in Japan often has the same spin. When consumed by someone with no idea of what's realistic, that kind of cultural pride can be mistaken for reality.
Among the most common assertions is that the Japanese katana is the sharpest, best performing, or otherwise coolest sword ever designed. There exist hundreds of videos on YouTube of katanas pitted against various substances and objects, as well as hundreds of forum arguments about if a katana or other Japanese sword could really cut through a person in one stroke, etc. However, while the katana can cut through various objects, so can any other reasonably well-made sword. In fact, it's not even the only type of sword that has such a reputation; for centuries swords made from "Damascus steel" were said to be able to cut a piece of silk in half down the middle as it fell, and cut straight through gun barrels. Moreover, it can only do so in the hands of a skilled user, and merely holding one does not make a person anywhere close to that. This is yet one more example of where real life diverges from movies.
A brief history of the Japanese sword
The reputation of the katana and other traditional Japanese swords and edged weapons is due to the forging techniques developed in Imperial and Shogunate era Japan, which emerged out of necessity due to the poor quality of the iron available in Japan. These techniques involved concentrating the hardest but most delicate steel in the blade edge and layering softer and stronger steel around it to create a powerful combination of sharpness and strength. However, you can trust mall ninjas to buy terrible, overpriced replica blades over the internet and then act like they're carrying an actual tool of war. Most of these swords are made of 420 or 440A stainless steel, and are about as far removed from authentic swords as a bottle rocket is from a ballistic missile. Others are made of a zinc-aluminum blend that, while more expensive, is even less effective as a weapon. Stainless steel is far too brittle for swordmaking, and dulls easily.
Japanese swordsmithing itself also went through several periods of quality, refinement, and even decline. During the Kamakura period of Japanese history (1185-1333), the Japanese, while fighting off Mongol invasions, found that their long, slender tachi swords were fragile and unwieldy in combat, leading to the development of the shorter katana, uchigatana, wakizashi and tanto blades. Between the Mongol invasions and the civil wars that followed, the quality of swordsmithing climbed and ultimately reached its peak during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1603), the time of Oda Nobunaga's wars of unification. Swords made during this time were called shinto (literally "new sword"), and were highly ornate and decorated prestige items. However, as peace was established under the Tokugawa shogunate in the early 1600s, the samurai declined in political and economic power and became a caste of bureaucrats and administrators, their swords serving chiefly as status symbols rather than combat weapons now that they had no more wars to fight. The quality of Japanese swords declined with the status of their owners; while there were still some quality swords being made, others were little more than hunks of cheap iron. Eventually, swordsmithing came to a virtual halt in 1876, when blades were banned for carry and the samurai caste was abolished. There was a revival in pride and use after the Russo-Japanese War that reached its peak in World War II, wherein high demand for officer swords combined with mass production meant that quality reached its nadir. Production picked up again after World War II, with the Japanese government placing strict quality controls on swordsmithing in order to prevent the degradation of the art form; unfortunately, this didn't stop unscrupulous non-Japanese from making cheap knockoffs and doing precisely that.
Mall ninjas tend to know little of this and demand katanas anyway despite the history. It is extremely expensive to have one made (generally costing around three to five thousand USD for a "real" one), and equally so to buy a genuine antique katana of any value, and many "old" swords bought are just as likely to be from declining periods as resurgence periods. High quality antique katanas generally start around $10,000, and only get more expensive from there. The World War II officers' swords, called shin-gunto ("new army blades") are basically mass-produced blades made from cheap steel and intended for parades, drill and ceremonies in dress uniform, not in actual combat. They have value as war memorabilia only.
Related to the above, mall ninjas also consume various dubious forms of martial arts. In keeping with the aforementioned Japanophilia, learning "ninjitsu" is a frequent topic. While people have coined informal schools based on "ninja" techniques, for most of Japanese history, ninjas were hardly pajamas-wearing stealth assassins, but more like "that farmer who inconspicuously just stabbed that guy with his sickle and ran into the crowd." The only time ninja were anywhere close to the common western stereotype was during the "Sengoku Jidai" era, or warring states period, when being a ninja temporarily became an art. Even in this context, "ninjitsu" was far more than a fighting system, but more like a college curriculum where skills such as espionage, forming medicines and poisons from natural sources, explosives handling, and even acting are taught. It would be just like calling Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL class a martial art. Most serious martial arts instructors have nothing but contempt for ninja, self-proclaimed or historical.
When not obsessing over Japanese mysticism and pseudohistory, mall ninjas will usually instead turn to "real-world combat" arts. Of particularly interest are military close-quarters combat (CQC) systems like the IDF's Krav Maga and the US Marine Corps' Martial Arts Program (MCMAP), though non-military, combat-oriented systems like Systema, Pencak Silat (popularized by The Raid duology of action movies), mixed martial arts, and boxing are also popular. All of these were designed for getting into and surviving actual fights, and like any good martial art, they also double well as a physical fitness/coordination regimen; there are many good reasons to want to learn martial arts that don't involve "kicking someone's ass". The problem is that, in the hands of somebody who can't tell fiction and mythmaking from reality, working in a field where getting into actual fights is not part of the job description (e.g. military, law enforcement, security), martial arts knowledge can lead to fatal overconfidence, driving somebody to try and take on an armed assailant or somebody who they may or may not know is armed. Such was the case of world champion kickboxer Alex Gong, who decided to chase down a man who sideswiped his car and drove off, only to be shot dead immediately upon finding out the hard way that the other man had a gun. Beyond that, there are also a wide variety of phony martial arts forms, promoted by so-called "McDojos" that exist primarily to take advantage of mall ninjas. In real life, avoiding confrontation if you can, and getting a good can of pepper spray for when you can't, is usually the best strategy.
Guns and other militaria
Often a specialized type of gun nut, a mall ninja with a thing for guns and contemporary warfare will often have been familiarized with it through various video games such as Counter-Strike and Call of Duty, action movies, techno-thrillers (such as those by Tom Clancy), and gung-ho military fiction. This by no means is an indication of mall ninja status (they're legitimate inspirations), but it certainly does explain the level of realism they treat their passion with.
However, while mall ninjas may be able to rattle off firearm models seemingly on full automatic, they may not know specifics such as the cost of maintaining, the actual difficulty of using, or the legal status of owning said firearm models. They may also profess military training without offering evidence, or claim to know as much as someone who has military training. Idolization of the militia movement and mercenaries is also common. They are common prey to paramilitary woo, unrealistic depictions of military activities and movements, and ill-informed, stereotype-driven arguments about the best types of guns (e.g. .45 vs. 9mm, AK-47 vs. M-16). A particularly popular choice is the Israeli Desert Eagle, considered by many to be the "ultimate gun" despite being heavy and impractical to an untrained user; perhaps the most well-known mall ninja of this sort is Jace "ParkourDude91" Connors, whose YouTube vlogs and livestreams ranting about guns, the Marines, and wingnut issues generated a cult following of people watching largely out of bile fascination. They also tend to buy accessories for their guns that, more often than not, do nothing to improve weapon effectiveness, sometimes make the guns less effective, and would most likely make them the laughing stocks at their local shooting ranges; such mods are often disparagingly known as "tacticool". It's safe to say that anyone who claims that the US Navy Seals are just like Spartans (from the Peloponnese or from Halo, take your pick), or anyone who simultaneously claims to be sixteen yet was able to purchase hundreds and hundreds of dollars of expensive weapons that they likely have no access to, is probably not very familiar with reality. It's also safe to say that anyone who blusters about having been a Seal is full of shit. Actual Seals, active or retired (excluding certain elected officials), tend to be discreet about it.
A subset of this group are people who take seriously ad copy for knives that uses phrases like "covert deanimation activities". The companies that create these things use hilariously "manly" names like "Cold Steel" and "Dark Ops", and often shamelessly throw in references to events like 9/11. Symptoms include a fondness for elaborate "survival knives" inspired by those used by (among others) Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo character. In reality, knives like this (including the US Marines KA-BAR knife) are mostly used as utility knives and, less commonly, as bayonets, and can be easily replaced for everyday use by a multitool or Swiss Army knife. The closest to combat any of these knives are really intended to come is hunters field-dressing their catch, but don't tell the mall ninjas that. (Incidentally, a "tactical" knife with a bottle opener in the back of the blade is probably a dead giveaway that it is marketed towards mall ninjas, and that its owner probably is one.)
Mall ninjas usually tend to be despised by fellow shooters at the gun range, mainly due to their ignorance of basic range etiquette and often flagrant disregard for proper firearms safety. They will sometimes try to impress actual seasoned operators with their woefully flawed knowledge of weapons and military/police procedures and tactics, which they most likely learned from video games, action movies, or from other mall ninjas instead of actual field experience. They will also constantly offer unsolicited, and often wrong, advice to people they think are inexperienced.
The idea of "Everyday Carry" (EDC) are the items you carry on your person on a daily basis. A majority of people usually only carry the essentials, such as a wallet with ID, keys, and a cell phone. Some may add smoking materials and a lighter. Others, depending on their jobs or hobby, may add a low-power flashlight and a utility knife or Multi-tool/Leatherman. Drug dealers, criminals, plainclothes security, law enforcement, or the hyper-vigilant may pack a sidearm.
Mall ninjas and other proponents of EDC, however, insist on carrying items that can be used in a survival situation. Such items commonly include a "tactical" flashlight (with super high candlepower output), a medkit, a kubotan, a CCW sidearm, two or more "tactical" pocket knives (typically something made by either M-Tech or Gerber), a G-Shock brand watch, a Leatherman, a windproof lighter (even if they don't smoke), waterproof matches (ditto), and a passport. For reference, check the videos on the Nutnfancy YouTube channel, where he talks about the stuff that he carries (he even has a special pair of pants for carrying all of it).
Mall ninjas are generally fascinated with anything that vaguely resembles Eastern philosophy. Some come away with spiritual snippets they've culled from the following:
- Badly translated Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto texts
- Meditation practices
- New Age claptrap
- Classic TV series Kung Fu
- Star Wars
- Dune (film and books)
- Monkey Magic, and various other films from the far east. (Check out Hong Kong's Once A Ninja - classic)
- Tibetan and Native American stuff
- Sun Tzu's Art of War
These are usually lifted out of context by people who don't understand the ideas or cultures of the material.
Some mall ninjas may borrow their spiritual philosophy from Abrahamic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. They may embrace awkward doctrines that even the religious right would consider crazy. Christian variants particularly like to twist Revelation or promote outright made up fantasies of Armageddon. Although they may reject established congregations (both modernist and fundamentalist), some mall ninjas will sometimes claim nonexistent religious qualifications to compliment their nonexistent military or police experience, such as:
- A Doctorate of Theology obtained from a diploma mill
- "Expert" status in the Bible conferred by a non-theology-related degree from a legitimate religious school
- Alleged attendance at an institution they actually know very little about (usually accompanied by bragging about being a proud "Pensacola Bruin", "Liberty Fighting Irish", or "BYU Flame", etc.)
- A made-up blood relation to gods or famous spiritual leaders
- Prophetic, psychic, or otherwise supernatural powers
Some may even claim that God talks to them, and object to taking medications recommended by their doctors because it causes God to stop talking to them.
Bad idea distributors
Individual mall ninjas are not notable, and are easily dismissed as "just losers on the Internet." In large groups, however, they mobilize entire forums dedicated to supporting each other and each other's machismo. Such places form a substantial chunk of the clogosphere and are responsible for not only propagating but also forming an astounding amount of bad and potentially dangerous woo and broscience. They prolong the "life" of various scams and misinformation by providing an audience of consumers.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is in full force here, especially when mall ninjas encounter people with actual experience with/knowledge of firearms, martial arts, the military, law enforcement, history, or common sense. Websites devoted to internet memes are frequently plagued with ads geared towards mall ninjas, generally in the form of websites selling cheap swords, Airsoft guns, and hilariously bad "self defense" classes.
Thankfully, it is possible to grow out of being a mall ninja. Most of those described are young (under 30) and can later learn that knowing ninja-fu or being able to wave around a big manly weapon of gun is not actually something that validates a person. The ones that don't grow out of it are almost certainly stupid.
In popular culture
The 2009 comedy Observe and Report is a pitch-black parody of mall ninjas, with Seth Rogen's character, the power-tripping head of security at a shopping mall, spending the entire film wrapped up in delusions of authority and machismo. He obsesses over guns and martial arts, expects women to throw themselves at his feet in appreciation of the hard work he does, and thinks that his job as a rent-a-cop puts him on the same level as Ray Liotta's police detective, all while silently wishing he could be an actual police officer. It is simultaneously hilarious and depressing to watch.
Five years earlier, the South Park episode "Good Times with Weapons"  mocked the phenomenon when the boys get their hands on Japanese weapons from a flea market and subsequently start playing as anime ninjas, to the point where much of the episode is animated to resemble anime instead of the show's usual style of felt cutouts. Like Observe and Report, the plot is built on dark humour, focusing on the kids' shockingly callous attempts to cover up that they hit their friend in the eye with a shuriken.
- Black Belt Magazine
- Deadliest Warrior
- Internet tough guy
- Militia movement
- Chuck Norris
- Soldier of Fortune
- An archived, annotated copy of the original "mall ninja" thread that coined the name. Warning: Do not read if you don't want your keyboard covered in the iced tea that you blasted out your nose in hysterical laughter. Also, the blog hosting the thread is run by a right-wing/libertarian gun nut, so tread carefully around the links.
- Cracked, "4 Everyday Items You Didn't Know Were Weapons"
- They are pretty entertaining, admittedly.
- Brown, Parker. "A Layman's Understanding of Damascus Steel." The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts.
- Inman, Mason. "Legendary Swords' Sharpness, Strength From Nanotubes, Study Says." National Geographic News, 16 November 2006.
- This (admittedly sensationalized) video compares an authentic modern katana, made using the traditional techniques outlined above, with a store-bought decorative katana made from punched steel. The store-bought sword fails to even cut through a soda bottle, and warps and almost breaks when they try to do so.
- These swords are called Iaitō, and in terms of weight, balance, etc. are actually more similar to genuine swords than the stainless steel crap you buy at Exotic Imports.
- Morimoto, Michael. "The Forging of a Japanese Katana." Colorado School of Mines, 14 June 2004.
- A WEALTH of Yahoo Answers results...
- Fender-bender hit-run turns fatal in S.F. / Kickbox champ chases down driver, winds up shot to death." San Francisco Gate, 2 August 2003 (recovered 1 February 2018).
- Bullshido.net is just one site devoted to debunking martial arts woo.
- Evans, Robert. "6 Things You Need To Know About Self-Defense, From An Expert." Cracked.com, 31 January 2018 (recovered 1 February 2018). (Choice quote: "You've all probably met at least one martial arts guy full of tales of fights he's won and jerks he's beaten down. (And if you haven't met that guy in person, scroll down to the comments of this article. He'll be there.)"
- At least, before he was exposed as a troll, a character created by a sketch comic named Jan Rankowski in order to parody mall ninjas, gamer culture, and later Gamergate, the last one being how he was exposed. (Short version: a fake feud with a female game developer got way too real.) You can learn more about the whole saga here.
- "Friends Don't Let Friends Be Tacticool." The Road Less Traveled By, 4 May 2013.
- "Tacticool." Urban Dictionary.
- Statistics on concealed carry by state can be found here. Rates are typically around 1-3% of the population, give or take, in states where concealed carry permits are easily accessible, and much lower in states with more stringent gun control laws (such as California and Hawaii).
- The Nutnfancy Project
- ‘Real heroes don’t die, they just reload’: Stallone announces ‘Rambo 5’ title Fox21news.com
- And Cracked, for that matter.
- IMDb: Observe and Report (2009)
- IMDb: South Park Good Times with Weapons (TV Episode 2004)