Curiosity

Even With $85K Salaries, This City In Japan Is Facing A Ninja Shortage

Ninjas are good for tourism—but it's hard work.

Where have all the ninjas gone? Iga, a small city in the Mie Prefecture, nearly 300 miles outside of Tokyo, claims to be the birthplace of the ninja. The Japanese city has a rich heritage and culture tied to the ninja profession, which could create a tourism boom for Iga. The problem is that it simply doesn’t have enough ninjas.

NPR’s “Planet Money” podcast host Sally Herships visited Iga to talk to Sakae Okamoto, the city’s mayor, about the shortage, which is part of a larger economic problem — depopulation. The rural town loses 1,000 residents a year to larger cities, according to Herships’ reporting. Okamoto told Herships he hopes to boost the town’s economy through ninja-centered tourism efforts, but it isn’t easy to find people who are willing to work as ninja performers.

The town has a ninja museum, and visitors can even rent ninja costumes to wear while they’re visiting, as the prefecture’s tourism board points out:

But visitors want to see performances of ninja skills, too.

Being a ninja is hard work. And similar to other highly specialized professions, such as sword making in Okayama prefecture’s Setouchi city, becoming a ninja isn’t easy.

“Without severe training, nobody could become a ninja,” Sugako Nakagawa, a curator of the local ninja museum, told Reuters in 2008. “That’s why they have silently disappeared in history.”

Japan’s low unemployment rate of just 2.5 percent isn’t helping the lack of ninja performers. It means people can be more particular about their jobs.

Still, visitors seem to love playing ninja. Even Yuumi Kato, who is Miss Universe Japan for 2018, posted this video of her visit to Iga and the ninja museum, which puts on ninja shows:

The good news for Japan as a whole is that tourism is flourishing. Last year, a record 28.7 million tourists visited Japan, and it’s on track to hit the government’s target of increasing the annual number of visitors to 40 million in 2020. That said, not all regions are reaping the economic benefits of an increase in tourism.

Each year the biggest draw for Iga is the ninja festival, which brings in around 30,000 tourists annually and features ninja competitions, ninja-inspired performances, chances to learn ninja skills and more.

“During this period, visitors and also local people come here,” Okamoto told Herships. “Everybody will be dressed like a ninja and walks around and enjoys themselves — but recently I feel that it’s not enough.”

Maybe more Iga ninja cats will do the trick:

To encourage tourists to explore Iga more, the city plans to make a few changes, including building a second ninja museum. Also, the Japanese government is funding ninjas, according to the “Planet Money” podcast. The city hopes to bring in labor to work and live in the city, as ninja tourism picks up in the coming years.

The plan could work — ninjas can make as much as $85,000 a year, according to “Planet Money.” In fact, it might be time to start training.

H/t: Business Insider