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Japan Trends

Japan faces shortages of samurai, ninja

Foreign tourists eager to be sneaked up on, assassinated

The Hattori Hanzo and the Ninjas troupe at Nagoya Castle in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, is popular among foreign travelers.

TOKYO -- Japan is facing unexpected shortages of samurai, ninja and rickshaw drivers. As things stand now, employers hoping to meet demand for exhibitions and rides from foreign tourists cannot find enough workers with centuries' old skills -- or with the necessary biceps and quads.

Yumenoya Entertainment, based in Kanazawa, central Japan, offers cultural experiences to foreign tourists in Asakusa, Harajuku and other favorite tourist spots. Its 10 samurai performers provide casual lessons and on-site shows. Thanks to a surge in demand from foreigners over the past year, the 10 warriors are sometimes so busy they have to take taxis to their next assignment.

Yumenoya Entertainment's samurai often take taxis from one Tokyo assignment to the next.

"We are very happy about [increased demand]," President Tomohiro Tsunoda said, "but we need at least five more samurai."

Samurai need certain skills, and recruiting new ones is not easy in the 21st century. So the company has decided to train samurai on its own. It has added more sword fighting and sword dancing classes for professionals. "There is a growing interest [among Japanese people] to learn Japanese cultural practices, which is good news for us," Tsunoda said. The company plans to ask these trainees to work as paid samurai once they have completed their training.

Quick Samurai, a tate, or Japanese sword fighting school, is also struggling with a shortage of performers. "When a lesson with a large group of tourists coincides with a show, it is extremely difficult to arrange for the necessary performers," according to the Japan Tatedo Association, the school's operator. The school, in Osaka, western Japan, is popular among foreign tourists. Last year, 1,500 people took lessons. This year, by the end of July, some 1,000 tourists, mostly foreigners, had already passed through the tate.

The lessons are taught by seven to eight part-time instructors who are in their 40s and 50s. They all have regular jobs. With more shows to perform, the instructors are increasingly busy. "If possible," said Tetsuo Yagi, head of the association, "we would welcome a few young samurai. But they must be entertainers who can show hospitality. It is not a job for everyone."

No ninja techniques

The ninja shortage is even worse than samurai.

On a July weekend, a group of ninja strutted around Nagoya Castle, saying "welcome" in Japanese in a rather antiquated fashion. The group was set up by Aichi Prefecture to promote the area's tourist attractions. A 16-year-old American girl looked quite thrilled after surviving her first ninja encounter.

In the spring of 2016, the prefecture sought new members for the group, dubbed Hattori Hanzo and the Ninjas. The news that a local government in Japan was looking to hire ninja went viral. The prefecture received 235 applications. This year, however, the number dropped to 22. The prefectural government partially blames the fall on the growing number of new ninja-themed attractions springing up across Japan.

Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura, a ninja theme park in Hokkaido, is famous for its shows. Given a rise in the number of foreign tourists, the park in April increased the number of shows from four a day to six. But its eight ninja are now spread thin, and one is currently unavailable because of an injury, park worker Keiji Yamada said.

In Saga Prefecture, on the southern most main island, the "original" ninja town of Hizen Yume Kaido (Hizen Dream Road), in the Ureshino hot springs area, is running out of ninja. It has only two, and they are responsible for performing, sound management, lighting and so on. "Ninja is not recognized as a profession," said representative Shinya Kawano. "And some families oppose their children becoming one."

But the ninja town is doing everything it can to attract tourists, such as having its ninja make surprise morning visits to nearby inns to promote Hizen Yume Kaido.

Although there are no ninjutsu, or ninja techniques, to solve the manpower shortage, there are ways of getting around it.

Just take a look in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, where something called the Ninja Trick House can be found. On a 99-sq.-meter floor, visitors can throw shuriken, or ninja stars, and experience sword fighting. One session lasts about 40 minutes.

Pay to pull

Japan also has a shortage of rickshaw drivers. Pulled rickshaws were used in Japan from the late 19th century until the early 20th century. On Aug. 24, a 44-year-old tourist from Barcelona visited Kaminarimon Gate in Tokyo's Asakusa district. He was excited to see a pulled rickshaw for the first time. It is very Japanese, he said with a smile before getting in one.

There is plenty of demand for rickshaw rides in Japan but not enough drivers, like this one in Tokyo's Taito Ward.

According to Ebisuya, which operates rickshaw businesses across Japan, the number of foreign customers in the Asakusa area doubled during the past five years. The company is chronically short of drivers. There are nearly 300 registered drivers, but Ebisuya wants to add another 50.

The company has hired foreign drivers before. But there is another solution.

In Hakata, southern Japan, Hakata Jinrikiya, another rickshaw business, allows customers to be drivers. A group of four tourists, for instance, would need two rickshaws and two drivers. If one of the customers volunteers to pull the rickshaw, the company only needs one driver. Some customers have already experienced rickshaw driving, according to the company.

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