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Japan Is Getting a Ninja Museum

Officials hope the iconic warriors can sneak more tourism into the country

Woodblock print on paper by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. (Public Domain)
smithsonian.com

Ninjas are undeniably cool—and not necessarily because they always wear black. Though pop culture ninjas have a monochrome look, historically speaking ninjas or shinobi are thought to have worn navy blue. The profession came about during Japan’s feudal period. They were mercenaries who did their work without the unwieldy, attention-getting uniforms of the samurai—hired by feudal lords to get covert information and carry out various raids. Now, reports Yuri Kageyama for the Associated Press, a group of Japanese ninja experts are building a museum devoted to the iconic spies.

The museum will launch next year in Tokyo alongside a Ninja Academy that will teach what has become a dying art. The people behind the project are members of the Japan Ninja Council, a group of municipalities, scholars and other organizations that banded together in 2015 to try to increase enthusiasm about the ninja around the world. Now, with the museum and academy, the council is hoping that one of the country's most recognizable exports will give Japan a tourism boost.

Their work, reports Kageyama, folds into a bigger Japan-wide initiative called “Cool Japan,” which is devoted to spreading the word about the country’s creative industries and letting the world know that Japan is, well, cool. Since its launch, however, the program has been criticized for its large budget and vague aims.

As the Ninja Council notes, ninjas often did their work not by executing insane flips and perching on rooftops, but by making friends and working their social connections. The art of the ninja includes things like “social skills, conversation techniques, mnemonics, transmission techniques, sorcerous, medicine, pharmaceutical, food, astronomy, weather, divination, gunpowder”—that is, gathering information and using the intellect to survive.

Such a crafty group of warriors was destined to become legend, and in the United States ninjas are nothing if not beloved. As io9’s Annalee Newitz notes, they gained a following in the United States around the 1960s. But the pop culturalization of the ninja has turned them into a kind of shorthand for shrewd scheming and swift moves.

For the Ninja Council, writes Kageyama, what makes the stealthy warriors impressive is that they accept anonymity and persevere no matter what.

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