Japan's Ninja Shortage : The Indicator from Planet Money Japan's population is shrinking. It's harder and harder to find qualified people to fill a lot of jobs. Including ninjas.
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Japan's Ninja Shortage

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Japan's Ninja Shortage

Japan's Ninja Shortage

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SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: I just got back from Japan. And the country is having this problem, depopulation.


Which is first and foremost a population problem. But, you know, depopulation is also an economic problem. For an economy to run, you need two things - number one, things for people to buy, and number two, people to buy those things.

HERSHIPS: And a smaller population means less of both of those. The problem is especially bad in Japan's countryside in places like Iga. Iga is a small city in central Japan, and it's losing 1,000 people a year. But it does have one thing going for it. It is the birthplace of the ninja.


HERSHIPS: I'm Sally Herships.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. And today on THE INDICATOR, fighting depopulation with ninjas.


VANEK SMITH: So - OK. Most of what I know about ninjas - probably all I know about ninjas I know from the movies, like "American Ninja" or "Ninja Assassin," "Revenge Of The Ninja..."

HERSHIPS: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: ..."Revenge Of The Ninja II: This Time, It's Personal." But, of course, ninjas were a real thing. This was a real job. And it dates back to medieval Japan.

HERSHIPS: Yeah. And I spoke to a ninja master in Iga, Japan, a sensei, and a ninja scholar. And they were both kind of annoyed because there are all these misconceptions about ninjas that come from all these Hollywood movies, like some of the ones you just mentioned, like that fighting is the biggest part of their job. It wasn't. Ninjas were mercenaries, but they were also spies. Their job was to try to blend in to collect information and scout out the enemy. So they would often appear in disguise, maybe dressed like a farmer or a low-key Buddhist priest. They also used psychology and supposedly magic.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, I like this.

HERSHIPS: Yeah. That is what Sakae Okamoto is counting on, that level of interest. Okamoto is the mayor of Iga City.

SAKAE OKAMOTO: (Through interpreter) I think people around the world adore ninjas. And they want to become a ninja or want to see ninja.

VANEK SMITH: A few years ago, the population of Mayor Okamoto's city, Iga, was about 100,000. But like lots of areas in Japan, Iga is suffering from depopulation. It's facing a shortage of those two key things that you need to keep an economy humming - stuff to sell and people to buy the stuff. And in cities like Iga, a lot of young people want out. They want life in the big city, like Tokyo or Yokohama.

So Mayor Okamoto knew he had to do something to develop his local economy to create jobs and economic security so that Iga would feel like this great place to stay, a great place to live and a great place to raise kids. The city had in its past promoted its ninja heritage to attract tourists. So this was kind of a natural go-to. And so, Sally, you went to Iga, and you went to talk to Mayor Okamoto about this ninja tourism plan that he had.

HERSHIPS: And can you tell me what you're wearing? Because we can't see it on the radio.

OKAMOTO: (Through interpreter) Now I am wearing costume that is available only to the highest-ranking ninja, so the only other person who can wear this currently was the mayor.

VANEK SMITH: OK. So you have to describe this outfit.

HERSHIPS: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: What does the highest-ranking ninja wear?

HERSHIPS: So Mayor Okamoto showed up. He was wearing full ninja gear. He - his sleeves were made of black fishnet. He had on this long, red robe and a black headband kind of like Sylvester Stallone in "Rambo."

VANEK SMITH: Is that what ninjas wore?

HERSHIPS: Well, it's the highest-ranking ninja, Stacey (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: I've been watching all the wrong movies. And apparently this outfit is more than just a fashion choice. So right now, Japan is having a major tourist boom. Last year, the country saw just under 29 million tourists. That is almost a 20 percent increase from the year before. But Iga wasn't really getting a piece of that. And Mayor Okamoto wanted to bring these tourists and their dollars to Iga.

HERSHIPS: And one of the prime destinations the mayor wants them to visit is Iga's Ninja Museum. That's...

VANEK SMITH: Who isn't going to visit Iga's Ninja Museum?

HERSHIPS: I visited the museum. There's a lot to see. Everything is behind glass. There are a lot of scary-looking weapons like poison darts, shuriken, the throwing stars you see in the movies...

VANEK SMITH: What's a shuriken?

HERSHIPS: It's - those are those throwing stars that you see ninjas whipping around in the movies.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, they did have those.

HERSHIPS: They did.

VANEK SMITH: OK. I feel so much better.

HERSHIPS: (Laughter) There were a lot of informational ninja videos, so you can learn about shurikens.



HERSHIPS: So it was pretty quiet. But at 11 o'clock, the first ninja show of the day takes place. It's outdoors...

VANEK SMITH: There's a ninja show?

HERSHIPS: Oh, yes.


HERSHIPS: By that point, the museum, which had been empty, it was now packed. There were all these parents and kids, a lot of teenage boys. The stage fills with smoke. And then ninjas show up.


VANEK SMITH: I mean, so in a lot of ways, this is working. This is proving to be a tourist draw. And of course, this has not gone unnoticed. A lot of other places are kind of looking at the ninja phenomenon too and hoping to attract these dollars and these bodies. For instance, you can now be trained as a ninja apprentice in the city of Nagoya. Tokyo is building a new ninja museum. And Koga, another city about an hour and a half north of Iga, also claims to be the original home of the ninja. And this means that Mayor Okamoto, despite his innovation to bring people in via the ninja, is experiencing some serious competition.

OKAMOTO: (Through interpreter) Right now in Iga, we are working very hard to promote ninja tourism and try to get the most of economic outcome. For example, we hold this ninja festival between late April to around the beginning of mid-May until the end, what's called the Golden Week in Japan, a whole day for about one month. During this period, visitors and also local people come here. Everybody will be dressed like a ninja and walks around and enjoy themselves. But recently, I feel that it's not enough.

VANEK SMITH: Mayor Okamoto wants people to do more than just spend one day at the festival. He wants tourists to stay overnight in Iga. So the city is planning to relocate its city hall. And in its place, it's going to build a second ninja museum.

HERSHIPS: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: It will have two.


VANEK SMITH: This time, it's personal.

HERSHIPS: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: The new one is going to incorporate a lot of virtual experiences. The mayor's office did not disclose the budget, but Mayor Okamoto did say that Iga has backing from the central government to help build the second ninja museum. Japan's government is funding ninjas. This is the Japanese tax dollar - or yen - at work.

HERSHIPS: But in order to do that, it needs more people to live and work in the city. And that part is harder, which means a problem for the mayor because how are you supposed to build and staff a new museum with fewer workers? And that labor shortage, which is what it is, it's not just construction workers and architects. It also extends to, Stacey, ninjas.

VANEK SMITH: There's a ninja shortage?

HERSHIPS: There's a ninja shortage - or, to be accurate, a ninja performer shortage (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: I'm calling it a ninja shortage.

HERSHIPS: I'll let you have that (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Could there be too many ninjas?

HERSHIPS: Never (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: I think we need more ninjas...

HERSHIPS: (Laughter) More ninjas.

VANEK SMITH: ...In the world right now.

HERSHIPS: The unemployment rate in Japan right now is 2.5 percent. And that is super low. It is hard to find workers. Now imagine trying to find someone who knows how to shoot a poison dart through a blowpipe and is really good at it - like, really good.

VANEK SMITH: And also, Mayor Okamoto needs to find people who will be happy working in the countryside. I mean, Iga is hours away from Tokyo. But this job does have a lot to offer. First of all, the pay is quite competitive. Today, ninja performers can earn anywhere from about $23,000 to about $85,000, which is a really solid salary...

HERSHIPS: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: ...And, in fact, a lot more than real ninjas used to earn in medieval Japan. According to the International Ninja Research Center, home of data about ninjas, in Iga, the - your typical ninja earned between 8,000 and $17,000 a year. Those salaries were adjusted for inflation. So that's - I mean, I hope they got tips.

HERSHIPS: So far (laughter), Okamoto is hopeful. Japan is divided into 47 prefectures, kind of like states. And Mie Prefecture - which is where Iga is - last year, the prefecture attracted 43 new young residents.

VANEK SMITH: Like, 43, period?

HERSHIPS: Like, 43. And...

VANEK SMITH: That seems low.

HERSHIPS: It is because at the same time, Iga, his city, it keeps losing 1,000 people a year.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, so really, the 43 people - like, this isn't - it's still losing people.

HERSHIPS: (Laughter) It's still losing people.

VANEK SMITH: Still, 43 is a start. And Iga is hoping the ninja draw will gain momentum and maybe turn things around for Iga and maybe even bring some wannabe ninjas in from other parts of the world to train and study in Japan.

HERSHIPS: So maybe ninjas will help save Japan, Stacey.

VANEK SMITH: Hey, if ninjas save Japan...

HERSHIPS: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: ...That would be the best story of all time.

HERSHIPS: What would the title for that movie be?

VANEK SMITH: "The Way Of The Ninja?" No.

HERSHIPS: "The Ninja" - "Ninja Redemption?"

VANEK SMITH: "The Ninja Strikes Back."

HERSHIPS: Oh, yeah. "The Ninja" - "Ninja Comeback."

VANEK SMITH: What was the last "Star Wars?" "Return Of The Jedi."



VANEK SMITH: Special thanks to our translator, Keiko Siyema (ph).


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