Photo/IllutrationThe English version of a web page for recruiting new members of the Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hattori Hanzo Ninja Squad (Provided by the squad’s executive office)

NAGOYA--The supply of ninja here seems to be feast or famine, as a troupe formed to boost tourism found itself struggling to recruit new members, in sharp contrast to last year.

The Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hattori Hanzo Ninja Squad came into the international spotlight after 200 ninja fanatics from around the world applied to join the squad in 2016.

But the number of applicants dropped significantly this year, with the troupe’s executive office attributing the abrupt change in part to a manpower shortage caused by the increasing popularity of the feudal-era undercover agents.

According to Sankosha Co., a Nagoya-based advertising company responsible for the troupe’s management, only a total of 22 hopefuls, including five overseas fans from Greece, Portugal and elsewhere, applied during the recruitment period held from early February to March 21. The number was the lowest of the past three recruitment rounds.

Clad in black ninja garb, the squad members are mainly tasked with entertaining visitors. The troupe was formed in the summer of 2015 by the prefectural government to promote tourism.

Led by Hattori Hanzo, who is modeled after the famed Iga ninja active between the medieval Sengoku Period (Warring states period) and the early Edo Period (1603-1867), the seven-member ninja team has gained popularity as they perform acrobatic shows, teach how to throw “shuriken” stars and offer other attractions.

Last spring, a total of 235 ninja-lovers applied to join the squad after foreign media outlets reported about a local government recruiting ninja for a monthly salary. The number of applications from overseas far exceeded that from Japan, with 200 hopefuls making entries from about 40 countries and regions as opposed to only 35 Japanese wannabes. It was a fresh reminder that ninja are widely popular outside Japan.

This year, the executive office set up an English-language version of the recruitment website.

However, the number of foreign applicants drastically decreased as a consequence of more stringent requirements for the job implemented this year, which included being able to communicate in Japanese.

But Takatsugu Aoki, who is in charge of managing the ninja squad at Sankosha, thinks there are other reasons for the recruitment struggle.

“With the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan on the increase, the value of ninja as tourism content has increased. And there are more employment choices while ninja shows held across the country have become popular, not to mention other attractions.” Aoki said. “I feel there is a ninja shortage.”

Many ninja-related facilities have opened in recent years, including Fuji Kyuko Co.’s Oshino Shinobi no Sato ninja theme village launched in Yamanashi Prefecture in 2015 and the Ninja Trick House in Tokyo, which opened in 2016. Ninja-themed restaurants have also been thriving.

“The domestic ninja market is definitely expanding,” said Kunihiro Tateishi, secretary-general of the Japan Ninja Council comprising local governments associated with ninja culture and other organizations.

Another factor that may have led to the manpower shortage is the public image of ninja as those who have supernatural abilities and perform acrobatic moves.

The ninja squad has since drafted five new members and is set to continue with its mission of promoting Aichi Prefecture at Nagoya Castle and other tourism-boosting events.