Japan from the inside out

Martial arts or mysticism? The difference is paper thin

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 5, 2007

Skeptics suggest the ninja and the techniques they practice are more myth and mutant turtle than martial arts, dismissing it as Oriental dirty fighting taught by frauds. But the skeptics might be surprised to know that ninjutsu is still alive and kicking at the Bujinkan Dojo near Tokyo in Noda, Chiba Prefecture, taught by 76-year-old Hatsumi Masaaki. This 34th linear grandmaster of the Togakure Ryu, who is also the keeper of eight other martial arts traditions, calls himself the world’s last ninja.

Hatsumi is more than just muscle and guile—he’s an accomplished man by anyone’s standards. After graduating from Meiji University, where he studied theater and osteopathic medicine, he opened an osteopathic clinic in Noda and practiced until 1990 when other commitments began taking up too much time.

The soke, to use his title within the art, has written more than a dozen books, some of which have been translated into English, and countless magazine and newspaper articles. In addition to more than 40 training videos, he wrote, directed and acted in 50 episodes of Jiraya, the most popular children’s television program of its time in Japan. He was the martial arts advisor for the James Bond movie, “You Only Live Twice”, appearing in an uncredited cameo as Tanaka’s assistant on the train, and the American miniseries Shogun.

He has conducted training seminars for the FBI, CIA, and Mossad, and for police in Britain, France and Germany. And while you’re catching your breath, I’ll add that he is a past President of the Writers Guild of Japan, a singer and performer on the guitar and ukulele (in night clubs with a Hawaiian band), and an accomplished painter and calligrapher.

At this point, you may well be wondering if he also walks on water, but some people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. In martial arts circles, legend has it that Hatsumi has the ability to control the weather, heal broken bones at his dojo by touch, and correct deficient eyesight without lifting a finger.

From one perspective, mythomania seems to be a character flaw endemic to martial artists, who delight in relating incredulous stories of strength or skills. But the more one peels back the layers of this particular onion, the more mysteries are revealed.

One clue comes in this straightforward newspaper feature that appeared on Hatsumi last year. (The report of his age as 76 may be incorrect; the biographical blurb in one of his books published in Japanese says he was born in 1931).

The article describes Hatsumi’s test for students wishing to attain the fifth dan, or ranking. Dan are a more important indicator of one’s martial arts proficiency than belts. The belt system is primarily for children and adult beginners, and black belts are often bestowed on boys and girls of middle school age. They signify simply that the student has learned the rudimentary skills, shows up to practice regularly and on time, and listens to the teacher without goofing off. Training in a martial art begins in earnest after one has received a black belt.

Here’s what happens at the test for fifth dan at Bujinkan:

Going for his fifth-level ranking is Phil White of England, who kneels on the floor with his eyes closed. Behind him stands Hatsumi, clutching a padded wooden sword [the shinai used in kendo] that he plans to bring down on White’s head. If White – with his eyes still closed – manages to dodge the sword, he passes; if not, he takes home some bumps. Twice the staff cracks on his head before he slumps out of the way on his third try – enough to satisfy the master. “I’m still shaking,” White says afterward, while being barraged by congratulatory slaps on the back. “I didn’t feel like I was moving. You feel like you’re being blown by the wind.”

That last sentence is the key. It is almost identical to the description given by the late Glenn Morris, an American college professor and martial arts enthusiast who passed the same test.

What the author of this article fails to mention, but Morris explains in detail, is that the martial arts in East Asia are not just the province of people looking for exercise by training in a traditional sport, but a vehicle to enlightenment for those who combine them with the esoteric practices of chi kung and kundalini. In his book Path Notes of an American Ninja Master, Morris defines chi as bioelectrical or subtle energy:

As you study the literature left by the great martial artists of the East, there is always reference to the a number of concepts that may seem strange to Western eyes, particularly when after what seem to be stupendous physical exploits, someone says something like, “and then I learned about chi kung and really began to learn and understand what I was doing.”

He continues:

The opening to (bioelectrical) energy and being able to move your center out into the fields often results in experiences that could be considered “psychic”, such as sharing another person’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.

This suggests Hatsumi’s fifth dan test may be about something more than mere martial arts skills. Might it not be about verifying esoteric energy skills that have generated spiritual development? The people who practice these techniques believe that enlightenment, or satori in Japanese, is an actual biological process.

Morris’s description of his own kundalini awakening is one of the highlights of his book. He quotes J.C. Cooper for a definition of kundalini:

“…the serpent that lies coiled at the base of the spine in the chakra known as the muladhara and which lies dormant until awakened by yogic and spiritual practices when it begins to ascend through the chakras, bringing increasing powers into play, until it reaches the highest point in total awareness and realization. It is latent energy; unawakened being; the sleeping serpent power; the primordial shakti in man. To awaken it is to break the ontological plane and attain the sacred Center: Enlightenment. The symbolism of the kundalini is associated with that of the serpent, or dragon, or spine, the world axis.”

Morris points out that in the ancient world, secrecy was a wise policy for those using the techniques for the combined development of bioenergy and enlightenment.

By now, you’ve connected the dots and realize that Hatsumi may not be just an old geezer running around in black pajamas and flinging shuriken. It seems likely that he has mastered these techniques as a way to master his art, and ultimately, himself. Morris mentions that he heard Hatsumi mention chi only once during a seminar, when he said, “To make this (technique) work, you must move your chi down to your feet”. Typical of ninja secrecy, the statement was edited out of the video that was later issued.

Morris also discussed kundalini awakening with Hatsumi. The grandmaster told him it was such an intense experience that he had to live on yogurt for 18 months.

But in his own book, Ima Ninja (roughly, A Ninja Today), published only in Japanese, Hatsumi tells a different story. He says that he had to spend 18 months eating yogurt because of a duodenal ulcer caused by overwork.

Where does the truth lie? As the Japanese proverb has it, Uso mo hoben, or circumstances may justify a falsehood. Was Hatsumi playing the ninja and keeping the real story from Morris, or from his Japanese audience? And was Morris engaging in his own mythomania when he claimed that after Hatsumi’s silent intervention, his eyesight improved so dramatically he no longer needed glasses?

Or is Hatsumi really just an entertainer? In one of his stories from Ima Ninja, he says that he once had a contest with a pupil to see who could move his bowels more quickly. (He claims this also was a martial art in the old days.) They enter the restroom together and start the contest. The student is fast, but Hatsumi is a split-second faster. When asked by his student for his secret, the grandmaster plays off another Japanese proverb that says the difference between genius and madness is paper thin. He tells his student that they are equals in speed, but that he claimed victory because he purposely neglected to wipe his butt after he finished. The lesson for his pupil? The difference between victory and defeat is paper thin.

I’ll leave an assessment of Hatsumi up to you. One thing is certain, however: Few men his age are physically fit enough for the behavior shown in this YouTube video clip. All that energy has to come from somewhere, and it ain’t pushups.

For those interested in Chi Kung, a good introduction is The Way of Energy by Lam Kam Chuen, easily available from the usual merchants on the Web. And if you want to try some kundalini techniques, this website has a lot of information.

Just remember to keep your tongue up.

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7 Responses to “Martial arts or mysticism? The difference is paper thin”

  1. […] Go here […]

  2. Bob said

    Ok so this has to be one of the worst ever written articles about Hatsumi Sensei. This article’s worth is “paper thin”!

  3. Paul said

    That paper thin story sounds like it came from Real Ultimate Power.

  4. I know about Dr. Hatsumi from BBC tv series – Mind, Body and Kick Ass moves. He seems a guy full of charisma, and he show some ninja moves in the series. I truly believe chi does exist, only known by different name throughout the world culture.

  5. black dragon said

    For those who truly study martials science ,the key to this article is ovious.
    Only a true master or one whom seeks to become one will understand .
    The highest form of skill is just breaking a brick or getting a belt.
    It comes when the body,mind ,and spirit or energy are combined and focused

  6. KanpekiJan said

    I’m a member of Bujinkan and I can say, from what I’ve tried — I’ve trained for a year and some 8 months — it works pretty well. As you say, strengh does not matter a lot, generally we’re encouraged to use as little strengh and energy as possible. Most important seems to be timing, distance and angle. Now, I can’t call myself an expert on this, but this is what I’ve learned and experienced as of now. I can’t say much about the godan test — which I’ve heard about a lot — but I don’t see a lot of mysticism in what I’ve trained until now. I see rather simple physics, using balance and knowledge of the human body.

    That’s my two cents on this.

  7. As a meditation student of Morris who got Kundalini from his methods, I think he was spot on concerning Hatsumi’s real nature.
    JW: Thanks for the note. I agree. What did you think of Morris?

    I got kundalini from doing the practices at this site, BTW.


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