A Reporter Experiences a Day of Ninjutsu
THE KIND NINJA OF THE HEISEI ERA (modern era)
"Suiton no jutsu", "Bunshin no jutsu," etc. The mysterious ninja fascinate us to the present day. What kind of people are ninja, who have such extraordinary mind control, stamina and intelligence?
NINJA IN EMBRYO
When I came to the office, I found a business card on my desk. Unfamiliar titles were listed on it. The 34th Master of Togakure Ryu, the 28th Master of Kukishinden Happo Hiken.
"Don't start thinking of yourself. Go and get some Ninjutsu training." That was the order from my editor. Maybe he thinks I, who am slightly built, need the exercise.
Soke Masaaki Hatsumi, 65, is well known as an expert in ancient martial arts among those who practice. He is a Ninja of the Heisei Era who has inherited nine schools of Ninpo, including Togakure Ryu. I am filled with awe when I think that I am about to ask such a great master to teach me.
Speaking of the Ninja, a TV cartoon called "Nintama Rantaro" has become popular recently. In the past, "Ninja Hattori-kun" and "Aka-kage" have won high audience ratings. However, is it really possible that one walks on water with "mizu-gumo", or disappears into a cloud of smoke? The true nature of the ninja is not really known.
The day came with my fear when I set out to become the pupil of Hatsumi Sensei. I arrived in Noda City, in Chiba, where old buildings still stand. All I had to say was "To Hatsumi Sensei's house," and the taxi driver understood.
"Tanomo (is anybody here?)" I wanted to open the door with this brave phrase, but all that popped out of my mouth was a feeble "Excuse me..." Hatsumi Sensei in his black training attire looks so powerful and dignified. His bearing convinces me that he is indeed the premier living ninja. At 1 PM his pupils began entering, each with a cheerful greeting to Sensei. A half of the thirty or more students in the dojo were surprisingly foreigners.
"In foreign countries, you are always exposed to danger. Accordingly, true budo is required. I am very impressed that they come to Japan even when the yen is so strong," he said. He is master not only of Japan but also of the world.
ONLY ONE WAZA IN LIFE
Everyone arrives at the dojo. Today, fortunately (or unfortunately, for me), a demonstration is scheduled at the banquet hall of the Noda Chamber of Commerce and Industry after the class.
We began training, surrounding Hatsumi Sensei. Each of the pupils demonstrate their own "waza". I am fascinated by their powerful and agile waza. Hatsumi Sensei watches them, sitting down right on the floor.
"Don't watch only your enemies. When fighting, watch well all around you. Prepare to fight according to the circumstances."
It is necessary to watch every inch of the dojo. Training is starting to get exciting. All of a sudden, I am called forward. My partners are Andrew and Mark. Mark, whose chest looks twice as big as mine, told me by gesture to punch his stomach. I struck his stomach, wondering if he will be O.K. Another one. Both rebound.
"Punch as hard as you can," Sensei scolds me. I strike the stomach of Mark, who is smiling, as hard as I can. Nevertheless, his controlled and disciplined body won't move even an inch. Quite the opposite, his muscles push back my fist. "Strike as you like."
O.K., I aim a kick at his neck with my right leg. Oh-oh, he instantly catches my leg, holds my body, and turns me around to throw me onto the floor.
Not wanting to give up, I face Andrew this time. I kick at this 6 foot, 3 inch body helplessly. Again my leg is caught by big arms. I am now riding piggyback, with my right leg hanging on his shoulder. In the end, my body is handed over to Mark, who settles on a waza that involves strangling from behind. A series of waza are finished so smoothly that it makes even me feel good.
Then I am challenged by "Bo-nuke". While sitting, I am surrounded by four persons, each of whom put a 6 foot staff on my shoulders, trapping my neck on all four sides. While I am wondering what they are going to do to me, they pick me up by my head with the staffs. I am suspended in the air with my legs off the floor. By instinct, I twist my neck in one move and manage to escape danger. From this, my performance at the demonstration later is designed.
SAVED BY A CELESTIAL VOICE
At the party hall, the demonstration finally begins. Veteran students perform a variety of waza with many kinds of tools: shuriken, nyoibo, yari, naginata. Other interesting examples were a rope made of rubber, and umbrella, and disguises. The kinds are varied. Ninjutsu with humor is more like art than martial art techniques.
"Because they have the capacity to, they can perform comical waza. Having flexibility is always an indication of having reserve power." Hatsumi Sensei explains the quintessence of ninjutsu. "Even if you show an enemy that you are off guard, you should not show your real strength. In a natural way, you have to manage tools as if you have perfect command."
I wait for my turn to come, hoping I don't make any mistakes in front of the two hundred people that made up the audience. After Sensei plugs "Light of Home", the magazine I am working for, my turn has finally arrived.
I feel tense as they trap my neck with the four staffs. My body is held up off the floor. Oh-no, they squeeze me much tighter this time. I cannot escape easily. I am getting upset. Just then, I hear a celestial voice. "Get out of here!" it booms. Suddenly, I can see a secret way out. In fact, someone made a little room between the staffs for me to escape.
Although one of the lessons at the dojo is "Know first that patience is only a short time," I felt the time was very long.
Afterwards, I said to one of them that is was much tighter than at rehearsal. "Oh, I'm sorry. In front of audiences, I exert more force than at practice, in spite of myself." He said this as if he didn't care much, which made me forget the feeling that my neck had gotten longer.
The last waza was "Shinken (real sword) shiraha-dori" performed by Hatsumi Sensei. Sensei positioned himself with calmness and dignity. His eyes, watching his opponents, are sharp and even overwhelming. He never meets his sword wielding enemies from the front. Avoiding and outwitting them, each in turn, he grabs each sword, reverses it, and cuts them down.
The children who were watching in the front row clap cheerfully, as if they are watching a costume play. But this is far from child's play. When we exit, shouting a voice of victory, even I, who performed poorly, felt somehow brave.
KIND AND STRONG
After the demonstration, we headed for the dojo. We drink a toast with beer. Everyone sits on the floor in a circle. I find all the students frank and kind. Their occupations are various: Japan Airlines, translator, U.S. servicemen, marketing people, etc. Each of them has a different feeling towards budo.
Andrew is interested in Japanese history, especially in the age of wars when ninja played an active role. This was the start of his interest in ninjutsu. He said he had to overcome asthma and become healthier. Now he is an eighth dan. I thought the question might be impolite, but I asked him if he ever feels like using the skills he has learned in real life.
"It never happens to me because first I think how I can avoid fighting. Fighting is only the lowest level. I am seeking the next level." The next level means winning without fighting. This is a primary law of ninjutsu.
There is a kunoichi (female ninja) who moved to Noda City to be able to attend the dojo. Her name is Ms. Nobuko Kubo.
"Just like breathing, I want to be able to do techniques without consciousness. Through ninjutsu, I want to learn how to overcome difficulties, whatever may happen, without losing my inner balance. I wish I could live as peacefully, cheerfully and happily as I am right now."
I saw Ms. Kubo perform with a naginata. Just seeing it makes me a bit fearful of ninjutsu. I must feel that way because I have no talent for it. I told this thought to Hatsumi Sensei.
"Everyone feels afraid. Even if you practice a lot, that doesn't change much. Feeling fear, in a natural way, leads you to natural self protection. This is an important part of ninjutsu."
Ninja, as a group, seem difficult to approach if you see them only on the surface of physical martial arts. After listening to Sensei, however, I came to think that ninja are those people who can practice the methods of ninjutsu in ordinary life, in a natural way, and who can carry them out honestly. This is not what I expected.
After I realized this, I came to see Hatsumi Sensei as a very kind person. I still can see the expression that he sometimes shows his pupils; an expression which is very mild and gentle.
When Sensei talks in his cheerful voice and laughs gently, I sense that there is a deep relationship of trust between him and his pupils.
Although my experience lasted only one day, I know I could enjoy the world of the ninja. However, more than that, I became interested in the ninja of the Heisei Era, who still to this day observe the teachings of ninpo and practice it faithfully. Their kindness and pureness is fresh to me. Recalling today's experience will be, more than anything else, the most valuable training.
The above is a faithful translation of a Japanese magazine article about Hatsumi Sensei.
This article originally appeared in the magazine "Light of Home" on page 160.