Ninja (忍者) is one of the famous images that represent Japan. They are known to many as agents who specialized in espionage and infiltration during the olden days of Japan. So much so that it is even portrayed in popular culture in the West like in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the G.I. Joe series, and more. Recently, there is news about a ninja shortage in Japan. What is going on? Let’s learn more about the purpose of ninja in the olden days and today!
Those who practice Ninjutsu (忍術) or ninpo (忍法) are commonly known as shinobi or ninja, with the latter being a newer term. The term “ninja,” pronounced as “ninsha” at that time, was coined during the Taisho (大正) era. The 15th century was when the term “shinobi” appeared.
At that time, two villages began training ninja. They are from the Iga (伊賀) Province, which is now part of the modern Mie Prefecture (三重県), and the adjacent region of Koka (甲賀), which was later known as Koga, located in Shiga Prefecture (滋賀県). They later became the two most famous ninja clans known as the Iga Clan and the Koga Clan, respectively.
The villages, which were remote and inaccessible because of the surrounding mountains and nature, played a role in the ninja’s secretive development. Admired for their professionalism, many daimyo began hiring ninja actively between 1485 and 1581. Throughout the Sengoku Period (戦国時代), from 1467 to 1603, they were embroiled in many political battles of which they were hired for.
With the last mention of the ninja being that of the Shimabara Rebellion (島原の乱; 1637 to 1638), today, they are viewed as some sort of cultural gimmick and myth. But believe it or not, there are still ninja schools in Japan.
One of the earliest modern schools to be established was the Bujinkan Organization (武神館) in 1978 by martial artist Hatsumi Masaaki (初見良昭) from the Togakure-ryu (戸隠流), which was founded during the Oho (応保) period (1161 to 1162). Several other schools began to develop since then.
With that, the ninja legacy continues. However, today, the purpose of ninja lies heavily on tourism rather than martial arts. When interviewed about the ninja shortage in Japan, Aoki Takatsugu (青木孝嗣), manager for the Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hattori Hanzo Ninja Squad (徳川家康と服部半蔵忍者隊), told the Asahi Shimbun, “With the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan on the increase, the value of ninja as tourism content has increased.” With many ninja theme parks in Japan and its growing popularity among foreigners especially, experts are needed to perform “ninja shows.”
Many applicants who came to apply for the job have a lack of the basic skills needed, which include being trained in unarmed combat, acrobatics, concealment, and first aid, while also being able to use throwing stars and fight with swords.
According to Chris O’Neill, a 29-year-old American who joined the ninja squad which was employed by the government of Aichi (愛知) to promote tourism throughout the prefecture, successful applicants were required to work six days a week and received a monthly wage of roughly 22,000 yen.
The Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hattori Hanzo Ninja Squad has seen a major drop in applicants since 2016, from 230 applications (including foreigners) down to only 22 applications in 2017 despite the Japanese language no longer being required. Aoki Takatsugu believes that competition is to be blamed partially.
If you like ninja tricks, have what it takes, and would love to be a ninja, quick and send in your resume! Japan needs you. If you don’t have what it takes yet, then look for a ninja school and start your training now! (Though, this is not necessary as long as you fulfill the basic skills required by the ninja squad.) And fret not, for walking on water like Naruto isn’t part of the job description!