Ninja for tourists.  Photo: Asia Times/Daniel Hurst
Ninja for tourists. Photo: Asia Times/Daniel Hurst

Tokyo is set to open a ninja museum as tourism operators spy an opportunity to catch the attention of a growing number of visitors in the lead-up to the Olympics.

Japan’s ninja tourism push, based on the popular appeal of the class of feudal warrior typically associated with espionage and assassinations, is anything but secret.  It will include regional travel packages for visitors who have time to kill and want a more immersive experience in the ancient art of warfare.

The Japan Ninja Council, a network of public and private bodies set up to promote ninja, said it had been talking to Tokyo’s northeastern Sumida ward about creating a museum to showcase the history and tools of the trade. If executed without a hitch, the centre will open next year.

The council predicts strong demand for the facility because an existing museum in Iga city, east of Osaka, attracts more than 200,000 visitors a year.

Operators would also offer ninja-themed tours outside the capital, such as a two-day trip to several regions that have historical ties to the art, or the option of spending nearly a week in the one place “to deepen your knowledge of ninja in that particular area”.

“People in the world need the power of ninja,” said Hiroshi Mizohata, the vice-president of the council and the chair of the Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau.

“We hope to cooperate with organisations and municipalities all across the world to further transmit the sense of value that is inherent in ninja culture, taking full advantage of the 2019 Rugby World Cup which will be held here in Japan and also of course the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.”

The plans were announced on Wednesday when the council launched its “Ninja Nippon Project”, which also includes establishment of a new ninja academy and the accreditation of ninja-related products such as throwing-star-shaped origami.

Ninjas were previously known as shinobi, meaning someone trained in the art of stealth, and the skills were generally passed down from generation to generation, according to an English language guidebook that has been produced as part of the campaign.

The roots of the ninja most familiar to people today, such as the spies and assassins active in Japan’s Warring States period in the 15th and 16th centuries, can probably be traced back to groups and bands of criminals who rebelled against the shogunate and feudal lords in the upheaval of earlier times, the book says.

Ninja skills in secrecy, stealth and combat are known as ninjutsu and have gained international attention through popular culture – even if some of the depictions have been exaggerated.

Jinichi Kawakami, who is the honorary director of the popular Iga-ryu Ninja Museum and claims to be the last living modern ninja, said the original techniques were no longer taught.

“When you talk about learning ninjutsu, there are many things you can learn in terms of techniques and training and so on, but it’s incredibly difficult to learn the original actual traditional techniques,” he told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, where the campaign was launched.

Ninja for laymen.  Photo Asia Times/Daniel Hurst

“In that sense those are no longer accessible. Those are impossible to pass on, so what we hope to offer from here on is opportunities to gain partial understanding of the various elements that make up ninjutsu.”

Tourism data suggest the new push is well-timed. More than 24 million people visited Japan last year, which represents an increase of 22% from 2015, according to figures compiled by the Japan National Tourism Organization.

They included 6.37 million visitors from China (up 27.6%), 5 million from South Korea (up 27.2%), 4.2 million from Taiwan (up 13.3%) and 1.8 million from Hong Kong (up 20.7%).

The Japanese government aims to boost the annual number of overseas visitors to 40 million by 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

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