Iga, Japan, is currently facing a ninja shortage. The city, 280 miles from Tokyo, known as the birthplace of the ninja, is looking for ninjas in hopes of boosting its tourism.
Iga receives roughly 30,000 tourists each year for its ninja festival, but given that the city has been hit with decreasing population numbers, it’s getting harder to find locals up to the task of taking on ninja duties.
"It's facing a shortage of those two key things you need to keep an economy humming: stuff to sell and people to buy the stuff," NPR host Stacey Vanek Smith, who visited the city, says.
Many of Iga’s younger inhabitants are leaving for the big cities, which has taken a toll on the local economy. In an effort to improve Iga's financial outlook, Mayor Sakae Okamoto is banking on the city's ninja heritage to draw tourists.
"Right now in Iga, we are working very hard to promote ninja tourism and get the most economic outcome," Okamoto says. "For example, we hold this ninja festival between late April to around the beginning of May. During this period visitors and also local people come here. Everybody will be dressed like a ninja and walks around and enjoys themselves - but recently I feel that it's not enough."
Japan has experienced a boom in tourism recently. The United Nations World Tourism Organization reported that nearly 29 million tourists visited the country in 2017, an increase of 20% from the year before. Though many cities have welcomed the economic benefits of tourism, Iga is struggling to stay afloat.
So far, the city has relocated its city hall and built a second ninja museum on the site. Though the financial details are secret, the city has received funding from the government. The project has been complicated by the fact that Iga’s labor force is limited, not to mention its ninja population. The problem is not helped by the fact that Japan's unemployment rate is just 2.5%.
"Ninja is not an inheritable class. Without severe training, nobody could become a ninja. That's why they have silently disappeared in history," Sugako Nakagawa, the curator of the local ninja museum, told Reuters in 2008.
"But this job does have a lot to offer," Sally Herships, host of NPR’s Planet Money, says. "First of all, the pay is quite competitive. Today, ninjas can earn anything from $23,000 to about $85,000 - which is a really solid salary, and in fact, a lot more than real ninjas used to earn in medieval Japan."
Despite the financial benefits, Okamoto will have a tough time attracting new residents to Iga, which is located in the Mie Prefecture, on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Last year, only 43 people moved into the area, while Iga alone lost approximately 1,000 residents.