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Hatsumi Masaaki, the World’s Most Famous Ninja, and His Essence of Martial Arts

The Bujinkan martial arts dōjō in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, is at first glance an unassuming training facility. But men and women from around the planet gather at this martial arts Mecca north of Tokyo in the hope of receiving direct transmission in the skills of Japan’s most famous secret agents from its sōke master, Hatsumi Masaaki, the 86-year-old head of the Togakure school of ninjutsu, the fighting arts of the ninja. Bujinkan offers something far more profound than what you might imagine from the dashing ninja warriors of film and anime.

Where the World’s Warriors Gather

An hour’s train ride from central Tokyo, muscular martial artists from around the world appear in the streets near Noda’s Atago Station on the Tōbu Urban Park Line. This is the home of the Bujinkan martial arts dōjō. 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. Then he adds, with a nod toward the foreign visitors, “Just follow them.”

Bujinkan is the dōjō of Hatsumi Masaaki, the thirty-fourth sōke head of the 900-year-old Togakure school of ninpō, the fighting arts of the ninja. Building on the foundations of Togakure ninpō, Hatsumi instructs his students in his own Hatsumi school of ninjutsu fighting, incorporating techniques drawn from both ninjutsu and many other ancient martial arts tracing their origins hundreds of years back in Japan’s past. On the day we visit Bujinkan to speak with its famed master, the 50-tatami-mat practice hall is packed to overflowing with nearly 100 of his deshi, or students.

Deshi from around the world practice techniques at Bujinkan.

One of these disciples is 47-year-old Christian Petroccella, who spent nearly 30 hours on a series of airplanes and trains to reach the dōjō from his native Argentina. Since receiving deep lessons in ninjutsu from Hatsumi, Petroccella has organized more than 500 seminars on Japanese martial arts all around the world.

“I’ve been a deshi at Bujinkan for thirty-two years,” Petrocella tells us, “and this is my fiftieth visit to Japan. 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. It doesn’t matter how far I have to travel to get here. Why wouldn’t I keep coming back year after year?”

The Soul of Ninjutsu

“Hai! OK!”

Hatsumi’s powerful voice seems to reverberate from the pit of his stomach. Instantly the talking, laughing deshi fall silent and follow their teacher’s every movement with hungry eyes. Hatsumi speaks almost like a lecturer presenting a theory as he explains, “You do not try block your opponent’s attack. You feel his attack. It is not a question of strength or speed. It is all about control.”

At a signal, a deshi nearly twice Hatsumi’s size charges the sensei. No sooner has the 86-year old seized his attackers arm than in an almost instantaneous, flowing movement, he has laid him flat out on the dōjō floor. The flattened deshi lets out a low groan. His face says it all: “I’m whipped.”

Perhaps because Hatsumi’s performance was so brilliantly smooth, both the flattened deshi and all his watching colleagues for a moment seem completely baffled as to what has happened. 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’s deshi concentrate on his demonstration of the technique.

Hatsumi applies what seems the lightest of touches, but it leaves his opponent grimacing in pain.

Hai! Play!”

At Hatsumi’s snapped command, his deshi now all break out into pairs and try to replicate the sensei’s demonstration themselves. “Here I do not teach,” Hatsumi explains to us afterward. “That is because I believe that instead of simply educating, it is far more effective to demonstrate how I myself move, and have the students incorporate that into their own movement themselves. 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.”

Hatsumi pauses, then declares about the skills of the ninja: “Ninjutsu is not a sport. Ninjutsu is a skillset for staying alive. There is no rule to ninjutsu. Not a single one.”

Yet Hatsumi’s movements are in fact almost unbelievably complex. He seems able to block an opponent’s movements with a single finger, and then with consummate ease bring him to the floor with just two or three deft hand movements. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that, rather than defeating his opponents, he leads them into defeating themselves. One of his deshi explains it this way after he has faced the treatment himself: “I was frozen. I couldn’t lift a finger.” And indeed, an inexperienced watcher can watch Hatsumi’s demonstrations time and again and still barely begin to comprehend what has happened. 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. “In the same way that we human beings naturally keep our balance as we go about our daily lives, we need to be able to quickly re-find that balance under every circumstance. 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.”

Hatsumi wears a sweatshirt he says was a gift from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. On the back, matching letters spell out “SOKE,” transliterated from the Japanese term sōke, the head of a school. When asked why he dyes his hair an electric purple, he beams: “Because my wife thought I should give it a try!”

  • [2018.06.27]
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