Today I Discovered The UK Government’s Irrational Fear Of Ninjas

Today I Discovered The UK Government’s Irrational Fear Of Ninjas
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Ninjas (AKA shinobi) were covert mercenaries in feudal Japan who were trained in the arts of espionage, sabotage and guerrilla warfare. In the 1980s and early ’90s they became a popular subject matter in Western entertainment, with countless masked assassins popping up in movies, TV shows and comics.

For some reason, this freaked the hell out of the UK goernment.

British MPs have a habit of overacting to fictional media. In the 1980s, they banned so-called “video nasties” from sale. This meant that any video store owner who displayed uncut copies of Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre or The Evil Dead – all critically acclaimed movies – could be tossed in jail.

Then there was the whole Mary Whitehouse movement, which frankly beggars belief. (Basically, some old ninny didn’t like smut on TV and almost succeeded in having the BBC censored with the aid of high-profile politicians who were sympathetic to her cause.)

But by far the weirdest instance of government-fueled moral panic was the crackdown on ninjas. To this day, certain ninja-related paraphernalia remain illegal in the UK – not just to sell or own, but to even see.

We can understand the reasoning behind some of these bans. For example, nunchaku, shuriken and katanas are controlled weapons in the UK for good reason – these things can kill people.

However, the widespread censoring of ninja-related entertainment is a lot harder to justify.

Until the late 1990s, it was essentially illegal to depict nunchaku (that is, two sticks connected with a chain or rope) in any form of entertainment – even when aimed at adults.

The government-run British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) would only grant a classification once the offending weapon had been removed. Consequently, thousands of British kung-fu fans never got to see Bruce Lee’s iconic nunchucku scene in Enter The Dragon.

This is also the reason why the PAL versions of ’90s video games always substitute nunchucku for weird bendy sticks. Namco’s Soul Blade is perhaps the most memorable example of this, with the character of Li Long trading in his arsenal of nunchaku for a highly unconvincing three-section staff.

Similarly, the film adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was forced to censor scenes of Michelangelo using his signature ‘nunchucks’ for the UK release. (On the animated TV show, he was given a grappling hook instead.)

You can see a full breakdown of all the cuts here.

This blanket ban was also imposed on the movie’s sequel; Secret Of The Ooze. Hilariously, the ordered cuts even extended to a scene where Michelangelo uses a sausage link as a makeshift nunchucku. (Apparently, even cured meats are prohibited weapons when used by a ninja.)

But this wasn’t the only ignominy suffered by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the hands on the UK government. Far from it. Throughout the 1990s, the brand name was forcibly changed to Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. We’re not making this up:

The British Broadcasting Corporation considered ninjas to be far too violent for a children’s TV show. Consequently, everything related to the franchise (including comic books, video games, clothing and toys) was renamed Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles specifically for the UK market. It really was as simple and as stupid as that.

Nowadays, the UK’s cold war on shinobi has slowly begun to thaw. You can finally call turtles ‘ninjas’ and watch Enter The Dragon uncut. But you still can’t buy a pair of sticks connected to a string. That’s ninja gear.

Today I Discovered is a daily dose of wisdom for Lifehacker readers – the weird, wonderful and sometimes worrying. Most of the time, it’s just mind-blowing. Let us know if you discovered anything that blew your mind in the comments!


  • That’s kind of absurd. then again here in victoria we have a lot of weapon bans that make no sense. I mean walking down the street what’s going alert you more? the guy carrying a sword half his size and impossible to conceal or the guy with a knife in his sleeve that you can’t see?

    For a lot of things we aren’t all that much better.

  • i always found it funny that mikey had his weapons censored and changed, but leo wielding 2 swords was fine

  • I remember visiting family in the UK when I was young, one of the things I brought back with me was a ceramic Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles mug. It was my favourite bit of trivia to throw out that no one else cared about.

  • Of all the awful things that happened during the 1980s, the Thatcher regime’s strong anti-ninja policies were the worst.

  • Should I feel old since this isn’t even remotely news to me? At least in Australia we didn’t have any of the censorship, but it was weird since we usually got the UK gaming mags, and seeing reviews of the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles NES game was a real headscratcher.

    As someone who grew up / lived the era, it wasn’t some hysterical nonsense, but a response to children injuring themselves with makeshift throwing stars and other ninja related paraphernalia.

    It doesn’t even involve a stretch in the imagination that an amateur playing with nunchaku can do serious injury to themselves and others, since you can find videos of people being dumb on youtube. Even in martial arts training, using weapons like that is restricted.

    So for a country that has such good working gun control laws, its not really a surprise that they’d put similar restrictions on the depictions of easy to make weapons.

    Growing up in Oz tho… TMNT showbags all the way, and broken light fittings from all the ninja mayhem I caused.

  • I remember reading a lot of British gaming mags in the 90s (ACE, CGV, EDGE) and reading about the Hero Turtles!!! Insane. But the nunchuk ban might even be stupider – I mean hell my 5yo has a set of plastic Michelangelo Nunchuks!

  • I knew about this back in the early 90s when I first discovered that the Ninja Turtles were renamed to the Hero Turtles.

    This also extended to their video games, and other games were also the target of the censorship. The Ninja Gaiden series is probably one of the most high profile ones – renamed to Shadow Warriors in the UK.

      • It’s funny because the US is the opposite. You can dry hump someone in a music video as long as you are wearing a bikini but the second a nipple is seen the entire country has a meltdown and the government stops to look into it.

        Then we have the UK with extreme close ups of every thing on that show, [something]* bodies where people are happy to broadcast their genital issues on national (and now international) TV.

        *Can’t for the life of me remember tha name

        • Yeah, pretty reflective of their cultures really. The English are prim and proper, but have no issue talking about their bodies, while the Bible Belt USA is the opposite.

          We sit somewhere in the middle, though leaning more towards the USA these days from what I can see.

          By the way, the show is Embarassing Bodies I think.

          • Yep, that’s the name of it. Watched it a handful of times years ago before we ditched FTA. We get some rubbish from over there. I remember something advertised like snog marry avoid. What a waste of time that looked like.

  • I’m currently watching Naruto.

    Believe it.

    Go ninja go ninja go. Wait thats the Turtles ;P

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