These nine schools trace their roots back well over a thousand years to various regions of Japan. Unconventional skills of scouting, spying and commando assault were used by many political leaders and generals in the struggle to unify Japan over years ago. Hatsumi Sensei inherited these schools from his teacher, the late Takamatsu Toshitsugu in He traveled across Honshu island on weekends for fifteen years to study with his teacher.
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When the sun starts going down, a stream of foreign visitors begin getting off the train in this drowsy commuter town. When we ask a station attendant for directions to our destination, he describes the route with practiced ease. On the day we visit Bujinkan to speak with its famed master, the tatami-mat practice hall is packed to overflowing with nearly of his deshi, or students.
Deshi from around the world practice techniques at Bujinkan. Since receiving deep lessons in ninjutsu from Hatsumi, Petroccella has organized more than seminars on Japanese martial arts all around the world. To me, Hatsumi-sensei is both a brilliant instructor and my master in the art of living.
The sensei is always able to bring out the best in me. You feel his attack. It is not a question of strength or speed. It is all about control. The flattened deshi lets out a low groan. Then they burst into admiring laughter. Hatsumi easily throws a towering student.
Baffled at how easily he has been defeated, the student can only join in the laughter. Hatsumi applies what seems the lightest of touches, but it leaves his opponent grimacing in pain. Of course, the kata [the formalized set of stances and movements associated with a martial art] are the foundation of all we do here.
Yet no matter how skillful you may become at kata, by themselves they are not enough. Ninjutsu is a skillset for staying alive. There is no rule to ninjutsu. Not a single one. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that, rather than defeating his opponents, he leads them into defeating themselves. When you recall that this martial arts master is already in his mid-eighties, you can only be amazed by the nimble way he carries himself.
Even more baffling is that at no time does Hatsumi seem to be using much physical strength. The flow of his body is smooth and precise. How did the sensei acquire such technique? His explanation is philosophical and profound. My movements are the result of long training to achieve that skill. This level of control is something that cannot be completely explained by logic alone, nor is it something you can comprehend just by watching it once.
My deshi are all accomplished martial artists who have been training for decades. The reason they continue to practice here is because they know that perfection is not so easily achieved.
What first led him to walk the path of the martial artist and to pursue it to this level of achievement? That was where I saw with my own eyes Japanese black belt holders being taken out time after time by completely novice foreign fighters.
I realized then that all the martial arts I had studied so far were useless in the face of such physically powerful opponents. I thought to myself that here, at last, was the real thing. I became his deshi, and over the course of long years of training and discipline, my own martial arts slowly transformed into something real. I am only here today because of my sensei.
Almost every week Hatsumi would take the overnight train from Noda to Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, to practice. Instructed in the inner arts of nine schools of ninjutsu, including the Togakure school, by his master, Hatsumi resolved in his late thirties to establish the Bujinkan and begin training the next generation. In his fifties, he started taking his training abroad. Over the next 25 years he travelled to more than 50 countries around the world, from the United States and Europe to the Middle East, Africa, and South America.
In fact, you could say that ninjutsu is a forte of the human race as a whole. Nowadays many of the students who come to Bujinkan are second-generation pupils of masters who first studied under me.
My daishihan train deshi of their own, and then their students go on to train their own deshi in turn. The circle of Bujinkan followers just keeps on growing. Many were muscle-bound men, but there were also ordinary-sized male participants, as well as many women students.
One of my women deshi is a doctor. She tells me that she wants to learn the skills to manage and subdue out-of-control patients. What do the deshi themselves say about their Bujinkan experience? Other martial arts traditions hold lots of competitions, and the desire to win drives you to rely on your physical strength.
That means lots of injuries. I feel like my life has been heading in a better direction ever since I started coming here to practice. Everyone seems in great humor. Once all are ready, Hatsumi speaks to each of them in turn as he writes calligraphy on their proffered scrolls and shikishi autograph boards in a smooth, practiced hand. The fifteenth dan is the highest rank one can attain at Bujinkan. On the day that we visit, Hatsumi is conducting proficiency tests for promotion to fifth dan.
If they can, they pass. The faces of the qualifying students beam with delight and satisfaction. The test for promotion to fifth dan. All I want now is for my deshi around the world to continue to learn and grow into outstanding people who can earn the respect of all.
Photos by Yokoyama Takeshi.
Hatsumi Masaaki, the World’s Most Famous Ninja, and His Essence of Martial Arts