TOKYO - The stealth ninja spies of Japan's past are making a very public comeback, with the country tapping on its rich tradition in a tourism push ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
The Ninja Nippon Project was launched on Wednesday (Feb 22), a date that is known colloquially as Ninja Day as it reads 'ni, ni, ni' in Japanese.
The project to promote feudal-era martial arts masters and assassins will include new initiatives such as a ninja academy, ninja museum, and tours to areas steeped in ninja history.
These sites include Ueda in Nagano prefecture, Koka in Shiga prefecture, Ureshino in Saga prefecture, Odawara in Kanagawa prefecture and Iga in Mie prefecture.
The project comes under the Japan Ninja Council (JNC), which is led by 11 prefectural governors, and has the support of the Japan National Tourism Organisation.
"The ninja embodied the traditional Japanese spirit, culture and sense of values such as peace, loyalty, technique, intelligence, diligence and endurance," the council's vice-chairman Hiroshi Mizohata told a news conference.
"This is known not only in Japan, but has spread all around the world through anime and films."
In the pipeline is a ninja museum to be launched in Tokyo next year, in collaboration with a ninja museum called Igaryu in Iga city that draws over 200,000 visitors a year - 15 per cent of them from overseas.
There will also be "circular tours" that go for breadth, allowing tourists to visit multiple regions over a week to experience the varying traditions in each prefecture, and 'stay tours' that promises depth, in which visitors stay in one area for one week.
A ninja academy will also be launched under the watchful eye of Mr Jinichi Kawakami, who is widely known as Japan's "last ninja" and the only heir to the ninjutsu school of martial arts techniques used for espionage.
Also on board the academy is Dr Yuji Yamada, who researches ninja traditions as a humanities don at Mie University.
The academy aims to nurture "ninja ambassadors" who can spread ninja culture around the world.
Mr Kawakami, who is the 21st head of the Ban clan of secret ninjas with a history of 500 years, said: "Ninjutsu is composed of various different elements; there's the fighting element and there're also survival techniques and so on. The many different aspects appeal to people all over the world."
The academy, however, faces limitations in passing down the full set of original ninjutsu skills.
"When you talk about learning ninjutsu, the original, actual traditional techniques can no longer be learnt. I myself have learnt them, but those are impossible to pass on," Mr Kawakami said. "What we hope to offer, from now on, are opportunities to gain a partial understanding of the various elements that make up ninjutsu."
He said "the original ninjas themselves were known as shinobi, and these original shinobi no longer exist."
"What we aim to do is to move from the traditional shinobi to the modern-day ninja," he added.
While Mr Kawakami did not elaborate on the reasons, he had said in prior interviews that he decided to let the art die with him because ninjas are anachronistic. He reportedly said: "We can't try out murder or poisons. Even if we can follow the instructions to make a poison, we can't try it out."
The Ninja Nippon Project will also tie up with private businesses to launch official merchandise that is certified with the JNC logo.
On Wednesday, the council also launched an origami set that is available for purchase online at https://ninja-official.com/?lang=en.