Photo/Illutration Hanzo Ukita, right, gives Karin Atsumi instructions in May in the Ueno-Marunouchi district of Iga, Mie Prefecture. (Ryoji Koko)

IGA, Mie Prefecture--Modern ninja Karin Atsumi serves her disaster-hit hometown, but not in the trademark manner of the stealthy undercover agent.

Instead, Atsumi, 21, has gone public in pursuing her dream of “having the appeal of ninja understood widely in the Tohoku region.”

She made her debut as a “kunoichi,” or a female ninja, this summer at the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum in the Ueno-Marunouchi district here.

Atsumi, a native of Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, who saw her neighborhood devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami when she was a fifth-grade elementary school student, performed on a stage for the first time on July 3.

As a member of the Iga-style ninja performer group Ashura, Atsumi attacked an enemy with a sword hidden in an umbrella while she passed by her opponent, drawing applause from the audience. She also showed off her skill in hitting a target with a blowgun, which is designed to look like a Japanese traditional recorder.

“I paid attention in order not to look downward or swing my legs awkwardly,” Atsumi said after the show. “I was able to act just in the way I practiced.”

When the March 11, 2011, disaster struck her hometown, Atsumi was attending a class in her school’s comprehensive learning program. She felt the quake become stronger. The floor shook as if turning 180 degrees, forcing her to scramble under a desk for safety.

Atsumi later heard that a friend going to another school was swept away by the tsunami with the pupil’s mother. The friend and parent were found dead.

As her child care worker mother had to stay in her workplace to respond to the emergency, Atsumi was sent to the mother’s family home. Atsumi then evacuated to higher ground with her grandmother.

After spending a night at a nearby day care center on the snowy day, she lived at the grandmother’s residence for a month.

“The first night was cold and painful,” recalled Atsumi. “It was horrific that my mother became thinner every time I saw her. Going through all those difficulties, I believe I can endure anything to come in hard times.”

Atsumi finished her course at a vocational school this past spring and joined the ninja troupe.

She has been fascinated by the covert agent since her childhood and is enchanted by ninja’s physical movements and refined techniques that people can never emulate. 

Atsumi named Hikoshiro Sada, a legendary ninja said to have fought the troops of noted warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) during the Sengoku (Warring States) period (1467-1568), as especially impressive.

As no friends around her had an interest in ninja, Atsumi wanted “the increasing popularity of ninja to inspire more people to become interested in them.” Afterward, she had a growing desire to “learn and spread ninja culture.”

Seeing Ashura’s recruitment poster, Atsumi applied for the opportunity last year. According to Hanzo Ukita, 61, head of the performer group, it was then unclear when its show could be resumed amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I told her (Atsumi) to find a job in Miyagi Prefecture first of all and come again after customers start returning, but she replied she wanted to work with us as soon as possible,” Ukita said. “Her determination is admirable.”

While living with other members at the troupe’s dormitory, Atsumi honed her skills to throw “shuriken” stars and wield a sword so adeptly that she can now handle the “kunai” double-bladed ninja tool at a blinding speed.

While it is thought to take three years to nurture a ninja, Atsumi, who committed herself to playing soccer from her elementary school days, said she is confident about her physical ability.

Atsumi’s current dream is founding her own company to put on ninja performances in Tohoku after her training with Ashura finishes.

To achieve that goal, she is devoting herself to studying business management and sales promotion, believing all such efforts are part of the practice to be an excellent kunoichi.