Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Martial arts’ Category

All you have to do is look (139)

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 16, 2012

Martial arts performance offered as thanks for a bountiful harvest every summer in Ishigaki, Okinawa. The Senkaku islets are part of Ishigaki.

Posted in Festivals, Martial arts, Photographs and videos | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Who do you believe?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, November 24, 2012

THE BBC website offers a text version of a piece Mariko Oi did for the BBC World Service called Japan’s ninjas heading for extinction. It’s a reasonable overview of who the practitioners of the martial art of ninjutsu actually were and what they actually did.

The article concludes, however, with the statements from modern-day ninja masters that they will not appoint successors.

Both Kawakami and Hatsumi are united on one point. Neither will appoint anyone to take over as the next ninja grandmaster.

“In the age of civil wars or during the Edo period, ninjas’ abilities to spy and kill, or mix medicine may have been useful,” Kawakami says.

“But we now have guns, the internet and much better medicines, so the art of ninjutsu has no place in the modern age.”

As a result, he has decided not to take a protégé. He simply teaches ninja history part-time at Mie University.

Despite having so many pupils, Mr. Hatsumi, too, has decided not to select an heir.

“My students will continue to practice some of the techniques that were used by ninjas, but [a person] must be destined to succeed the clan.”

There is no such person, he says.


Note that Mr. Kawakami says there is no place for ninja in the modern age because of guns, the Internet, and better medicines. But there were guns, telecommunications, and better medicines when both men started practicing the discipline. That explanation seems a bit inadequate.

One of the first posts I presented at this site was a profile of Hatsumi Masaaki. It contains more detail on the man and the practices at his dojo than the Oi piece, and has an overview of one of the lesser-known aspects of the art of ninjutsu.

That post also contains quotes from Glenn Morris, a university professor and business consultant who trained for many years in Japan with Mr. Hatsumi and wrote three books about his experiences. (I read the first two; the third seems to have been slapped together to fulfill a publishing contract.)

In one of those books — written about 15 years ago — Morris specifically addresses the succession issue at Mr. Hatsumi’s dojo. He said succession to the role of grandmaster leapfrogs generations, and he thought he had an idea of who the next designated successor would be. He even discussed the matter with other foreigners at the dojo whom he respected and thought were perceptive people.

But why then would both of these men publicly announce that a secretive tradition several centuries old was coming to an end?

This will make sense to people who have been in Japan for a while (and of course to Japanese), but Morris thought the reason Mr. Hatsumi became interested in recruiting foreigners to his dojo to begin with was to save the art from extinction. Contemporary Japanese youth weren’t interested in ninja tricks — old fuddy-duddy stuff. But it would intrigue those younger Japanese inclined to ignore ninjutsu in favor of other martial arts if foreigners came from around the world to his dojo to practice. (Remember that the films of Kurosawa Akira became well-known among the Japanese public only after he received overseas acclaim.)

In other words, Mr. Hatsumi used foreigners as a recruiting tool to attract Japanese practitioners.

Perhaps he thinks he has accomplished that mission and intends to enshroud the whole business in secrecy again. The public comments to the BBC would be meant to discourage new foreigners from coming.

Does anyone really think that a Japanese man who has spent his whole life in this tradition would so casually let it die? (Without hunting down the precise number in one of the Morris books, I think Hatsumi Masaaki is the grandmaster in about nine different lineages.) Now consider that the essence of this martial art is secrecy and deception.

Here’s another thought: Perhaps the reason for going underground again is that this is a traditional Japanese martial arts version of going John Galt.

In my first post, I quote the Japanese proverb, Uso mo hoben, or circumstances may justify a falsehood. This seems to be an excellent opportunity to quote it again.

Can the BBC story be taken at face value, or was Mariko Oi used as a messenger girl who brought two men together to say the same thing at the same time? Purely by coincidence, of course.

I know which one of those two options I choose.

Posted in Martial arts, Traditions | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Japan’s cultural kaleidoscope (4)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

JUST because the warts of the overseas media and the commentator-bloggers who rely on them think their folderol is insight doesn’t mean you have to fall for it. The national decline of Japan, if it exists at all, is greatly exaggerated. Here are a few short snorts testifying to the national vitality. The first is a translation of a brief article, while the rest are summaries.

Island hopping

Japan Air Commuter, a small Kagoshima-based airline serving the prefecture’s outlying islands, has hired its first female pilot, Hamada Eri (29). Her maiden flight was as co-pilot on two round-trip flights between Kagoshima Airport and the islands of Amami and Tokunoshima. After returning in one piece, Hamada said, “It was different from training. I sensed the weight of the responsibility for carrying passengers. I was very nervous, but it was a lot of fun and I was relieved when it was over.”

Hamada Eri

Her ambition to become an aviatrix originated when she was a student at Ryukyu University (Okinawa). While flying on commercial airlines to her home in Sendai (the northeast part of the country), “I discovered I liked the scenery from the cabin window and wanted to see the view from the front.” She enrolled at a flight school in Miyazaki City after graduation. She chose to work at JAC because she enjoyed her many flights over Kyushu during training, and because she wanted to repay the many people in the industry in Kyushu for their help.

The flights to the outlying islands are a lifeline for the people living there. “I was spurred by a desire to be of service on these flights, which are so important for their daily life.”

The Tohoku earthquake struck while she was still in training. The family home was washed away by the tsunami. While her parents were safe, a grandmother living in an institution died in the wave. She wanted to be near her family, but her parents encouraged her by saying, “We’re fine. You work hard in flight school.”

“I’m far from the stricken area (about 740 miles), but I decided to put forth my best effort along with all the people who suffered as they head toward recovery.”

Ms. Hamada is the 13th female pilot in the JAL group. “I intend to gain experience and become a full pilot, not only for my benefit, but also for the women who follow.”

A Japanese sentiment permeates every sentence of that article. For contrast, imagine how much self-importance it would have contained had the story originated in the Anglosphere instead of Kagoshima.

Tokushima seaweed comes home

Last year’s Tohoku disaster was also a disaster for Sanriku wakame, a noted product of Miyagi. To help rebuild the industry, a Tokushima Prefecture maritime research institute in Naruto sent local fishing co-ops some wakame spores last October that the Miyagians raised in Kessennuma Bay. The first harvest was last week.

It was a homecoming in a sense for the wakame because the folks in Miyagi shipped the Tokushima institute some of theirs in 2004 for cross breeding. The spawn from that mating is what Tokushima sent back. The spores grew to a length of two meters, though the water temperature this winter was lower than ideal. The quality, color, and thickness of the seaweed is good enough for it to appear on your dinner table soon. Local watermen harvested 400 kilograms on the first day. The harvests will continue until the beginning of April, when they expect to have hauled in a total of 3,400 tons.

Off to see the Iyoboya

The big maritime product in Niigata is salmon. The Niigatans like it so much, in fact, they established the nation’s first salmon museum in Murakami called the Iyoboya Museum.

Niigata was the Murakami domain during the Edo period, and it was there that salmon were first successfully bred in Japan. Since then, salmon has been an important part of local culture. Iyoboya is the name for the fish in the local dialect.

Iyoboya fanciers say the best part of the museum is the mini-hatchery. Starting at the end of October, the museum recovers salmon eggs and fertilizes them. The eggs hatch two months later. Visitors get to see the fingerlings, and if they’re lucky, the hatching itself. The museum is now raising 50,000 fish, give or take a few, which it plans to release in the Miomote River at the beginning of next month. The museum also offers views of the river through glass windows.

There’s a restaurant on the museum premises. Guess what’s on the menu!

Snow fun in Kamakura

The Kamakura winter festival has been underway since 21 January at the Yunishikawa Spa in Nikko, Tochigi. The event is held in small snow huts in a gorge along the banks of the Yunishi River, which sounds like just the ticket for those who get off on nose-rubbing. This is a hot spring town, so visitors can enjoy both the hot and the cold of it, dipping in the spa waters for relaxation after all the fun with snowmen, snow slides, snow hut barbecues (reservations required) and musical performances. If you’re in no hurry for spring to start, the festival will last until 20 March.

Let 100 dragons soar

There’s a lot of snow in Hokkaido, too — probably more than in Nikko — but that didn’t stop Sapporo kiters from holding their 35th annual kite-flying contest in the city’s Fushiko Park. The winner this year was Tanaka Mitsuo, whose design featured a 100-meter-long chain of 100 linked kites.

Mao Zedong once said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom”, but that’s got to be easier than getting 100 kites up in the air. Each of the hundred was 60 x 42 centimeters, made of bamboo and washi (traditional Japanese paper), and designed to look like a dragon. This is Dragon Year in the Chinese zodiac.

Rebuild it and they will come

They’ve been repairing the Izumo Shinto shrine in Shimane lately, the first major renovations in more than 60 years. The local carpenters know just how to go about it, too — the Izumo shrine has been rebuilt 25 times, the last in the 18th century, and also moved several times.

It’s the oldest shrine in the country, but ranks only number two in order of importance. (The enshrined deity is Okuninushi no Mikoto, the nephew of the Sun Goddess.) There’s still a fence around one part where mortals may not enter.

The repairs are being made in conformity with the original construction techniques. That includes softening thin sheets of Japanese cypress by soaking them in water, and then using them to thatch the 600-square-meter roof with bamboo nails. Preparations began in 2008 and the work won’t be finished until next year, though the current phase ended in February. Had I finished this post when I intended, readers nearby might have been able to glimpse the main hall. Alas, I was sidetracked by other work and projects, and now the hall won’t be on view for another 60 years. Attendance also required a dress code: t-shirts, sweatsuits, or sandals will not do for a visit to the abode of Okuninushi, even though the divinity was moved to a temporary site on the premises in 2008 for the duration.

Leg room

Naruse Masayuki of Tamana, Kumamoto, has presented a paper on the safety of his single pedal automobile system to the Society of Automotive Engineers in the United States. Mr. Naruse operates a company that makes industrial materials, one of which is One Pedal. That’s an all-in-one pedal for controlling the gas and the brake to prevent accidents caused when drivers step in it by stepping on the wrong one. There’s an attachment on the right side of the floor pedal for acceleration, which drivers hit with the right side of their foot to move forward. Stepping on the floor still brakes the car.

The pedal’s been around for awhile — the old Transport Ministry conducted trials that demonstrated its safety. Mr. Naruse has custom-fitted nearly 200 cars in Japan with the device, but the major automakers don’t seem interested. Said Toyota, “Technicians have studied it, but we have no plans to adopt it now.” One complaint is that it’s more difficult to keep one’s foot against the gas pedal to maintain a constant speed than it is to downpress a pedal. Nevertheless, SAE plans to hold trials in Tamana with 70 drivers of all ages and foot sizes.

Hokkii rice burger

Tomakomai in Hokkaido has the largest haul of the surf clam — that’s the spisula solidissima for you shellfish enthusiasts — in Japan. They’ve got to eat them all somehow, so they’ve begun promoting a clam rice burger made with what’s called a hokkii, which is also the city’s “image character“. (The name isn’t derived from the hockey puck shape.) It was created by college students who liked the clam and made it for their school festival, and used rice for the bun instead of bread. City officials must have stopped by for a taste, because they adopted the idea and sold 1,600 at a three-day event last year. They then conducted trial tastings and questionnaires to get the perfect recipe, and shops around town began selling it in mid-December. There are several varieties with different condiments, but most sell for around JPY 400 yen, which is not a bad price. The idea is to get more people to come to Tomakomai.

Goya senbei

They’ve got as many goya in Kagoshima’s Minamiosumi-cho as they have surf clams in Tomakomai, so a local hot spring resort developed a way to incorporate them in senbei rice crackers. They slice and dice them and knead them into the batter. Reports say they give the crackers a slight bitter taste. That makes sense — the goya is also called the nigauri, which means bitter melon. Several groups in the city, including the hot spring resort and the municipal planning agency, created the snack as a way to use non-standard goya and gobo (yeah, that’s a vegetable) that can’t be sold on the market. They’re cooked by Yamato-ya, a Kagoshima City senbei company, and 40-gram bags are sold for JPY 315 yen. That’s a bit steep, but some of the proceeds go to local welfare services. Give them a call at 0994-24-5300 to see if they have any left.

Strawberry sake

Instead of clams or goya, Shimanto in Kochi has a strawberry surplus. That was the inspiration for a sake brewer in the city to combine the berries with their sake and create a liqueur with two varieties, one dry and one sweet. The employees even filled the 500-milliliter bottles by hand, and you’ve got to wonder if they had the temptation to sample some. There were 1,000 bottles of the sweet stuff and 2,000 of the dry type going for JPY 1,600 apiece. The idea is to sell it to “people who normally don’t drink sake”, which is code for young women. They’re even selling it outside of the prefecture, so if the idea of strawberry sake appeals to you, input 0880-34-4131 into your hand-held terminal and ask for some.

Extra credit

The more serious drinkers in Aira, Kagoshima, don’t fool around with fruity beverages, and demonstrated it by starting shochu study sessions last month. Some stalls specializing in that particular grog have been set up near the Kagoshima Chuo station, and the people who will operate the stalls attended three training sessions. One of them included lessons in the local dialect for dealing with customers. (Kagoshima-ben requires listeners to pay close attention, and even then you’re not going to get all of it, sober or sloshed. That includes their Kyushu neighbors.) The scholars also examined the traditional process for distilling it, listened to lectures on the origins of satsumaimo (a sweet potato variety) and how it came to be used in the local shochu, and visited the Shirakane brewers. Now that’s dedication for being a liquor store clerk. There’ll be 50 of them working in 25 shops at the stall complex.

Really high

If the last story didn’t convince you that Kagoshimanians are serious about shochu, this one will. They’ve just marketed a new brand called Uchudayori, or Space Bulletin, made with malted rice and yeast carried aboard the international space station Endeavor last May for 16 days. It was developed by researchers at Kagoshima University and the Kagoshima Prefecture Brewers Association. (The university has a special shochu and fermenting research institute for students, and I sniff a party school subtext.) There are 12 different varieties because 12 companies used the base materials to distill their own well-known products, including those made with satsumaimo and brown sugar. Those interested in getting spaced out can buy a set of 12 900-milliliter bottles for JPY 24,000 yen, which is reasonable considering the transportation costs for some of the ingredients. Sameshima Yoshihiro, the head of the research institute, says it has a better aroma than normal. No, he didn’t say it was “out of this world”.

This'll beam you up.

Exotic booze

Did that space travel bring back an alien life form? The shochu kingdom of Kagoshima is about to get its first locally brewed sake in 40 years. Hamada Shuzo of Ichikikushikino (try saying that after a couple of hits of shochu) announced they have started brewing the beverage. They’re the only sake brewery in the prefecture, and the first to go into the business since the last one shut down in 1970.

That's where they make it, you know.

Hamada Shuzo remodeled their shochu plant last year by adding facilities for producing 60 kiloliters of sake annually. An affiliated company used to make sake in Aichi until 1998, so they’ll blow the dust off the old notebooks and apply those accumulated techniques and expertise. A Shinto ceremony was held to receive the blessing of the divinities before they began fermentation with 20 kilograms of rice from other parts of Kyushu. (Kagoshima rice doesn’t work so well.) The company hopes to cook up 800 liters by March.

The company says Kagoshima’s higher temperatures — it’s Down South — make sake brewing difficult, and the shochu culture took root several hundred years ago. I have first-hand experience that Kagoshimanians drink shochu in situations where other Japanese drink sake, and it took about a week to recover. Statistics from the Tax Bureau support that anecdote. They say 36,767 kiloliters of shochu were consumed in the prefecture in 2010 compared to 1,379 for sake.

The company’s idea is to use sake brewing techniques for shochu product development. They might begin full scale production later, but the sake is now being brewed primarily for research. Didn’t I tell you these guys were serious? They’ve also got a restaurant/brewpub on the premises, and they hope it attracts customers who’ll also take a shine to their shochu. Sales in the restaurant begin in May, and in shops after that.

Build it and they will come

The slender, the fat, and the shapeless

Former sumo grand champion and now slimmed down stablemaster Takanohana announced he was starting a program to build sumo rings throughout the country to promote the appeal of sumo. The first will be in Shiiba-son, Miyazaki Prefecture. (Takanohana’s wife, the former newscaster Hanada Keiko, is a Miyazaki girl.) Mr. T believes that sumo helps build character, and he wants to see the rings restored at primary schools and other sites around the country. The Shiiba-son municipal government will contribute funds to the project and manage the ring once it’s built. The construction will be handled by the local Itsukushima Shinto shrine under the guidance of the Japan Sumo Association.

Mr. and Mrs. T sometimes visit a local juku that seems to be more of a character training institute than an academic enhancer. When they were in town to make the announcement about the sumo ring, they attended a lecture by the head of the juku on the Yamato spirit. (Yamato is the older name for the original ethnic group of Japan.) The lecture included this message:

Live as the cherry blossom, blooming vividly with full force and quickly falling from the branch.
We cannot see the color, shape, or size of the spirit, but a person’s spirit manifests in his way of life, deeds, and words.
There are three important things in the way of the
rikishi and the way of sumo: form, greetings, and etiquette.

That old time religion is still good enough for plenty of Japanese, and not just old guys who drink shochu and watch sumo. This month, a team from Saga Kita High School in Saga City was one of two selected for the grand prize in an annual calligraphic arts competition in Nagano conducted for high schools nationwide. It was the 17th year the sponsoring organization held the event, and the 17th straight year Kita High School won the grand prize. Kita students also won 11 of the 65 awards in the individual division. Teams from 273 schools participated and submitted 15,420 works.

The Kita girls have been getting ready since October. They practiced every day after school until 7:30, and voluntarily give up their free Saturdays. Said second-year student Koga Misaki, the calligraphy club leader, “We encouraged each other while being aware of the heavy pressure of tradition, and I’m happy we achieved our goal.”

And don’t forget Okinawa!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Food, Martial arts, New products, Popular culture, Science and technology, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Tokyo sword exhibit

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 26, 2008

THOSE READERS living in Tokyo have a chance to see a remarkable exhibit of the Japanese swordsmith’s art at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum until July 27. Those who live elsewhere can read about the exhibit in this well-done and informative article in The Japan Times.

The museum is showing 30 swords from its collection of 120. The oldest in the exhibit dates from the 10th century. And the entry fee is cheap!

The cultural articles in the Japan Times, by the way, are usually superb–in marked contrast to what passes for political reporting on their pages.

Posted in History, Martial arts, Traditions | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Iaido: Cutting to the quick

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 18, 2007

MANY PEOPLE OUTSIDE JAPAN have become aware of the martial art of kendo, in which the participants use bamboo sticks as sword substitutes in a competition that resembles a fencing match.

Yet few people even in Japan know of the martial art of iaido, which uses real swords. Even the most basic acts can be dangerous:

Intense scrutiny is also paid to the drawing and sheathing of the swords — “it’s easy to lose a thumb if you do that wrong” — and to the spiritual aspects of the samurai code.

This article in the English-language Mainichi profiles iaido master Yuta Kurosawa. Here’s the English website for his dojo, Butokuin. I’ve added the link to the column at right.

UPDATE: Reader Tomojiro passed along a link in English for koryu, or the older martial arts. Read more about them here; I recommend the Ryu Guide page. I’ve also added this link to the right sidebar.

Posted in Martial arts, Traditions, Websites | 3 Comments »

San Francisco’s Shaolin Controversy

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 3, 2007

AFTER STUDYING BUDDHISM in Hong Kong for 40 years, Stephen Ho immigrated to San Francisco and decided he wanted to open an American branch of the famed Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of both Zen and Kung Fu.

The temple’s abbot in China gave Ho his permission and dispatched a monk who had trained at the temple for more than 20 years to help.

But Ho—who never trained at the Shaolin Temple himself–thinks the monks from China don’t perform enough sitting meditation or hold enough “philosophical discussion”. He plans to cut them off and find some priests more to his liking.

For their part, the Shaolin monks live in a rundown former rooming house in Oakland, and are presenting some astonishing demonstrations of the effectiveness of Qigong practice, such as withstanding sledgehammer blows to the arm while steel bars beneath are broken.

An aide to the San Francisco mayor says the Shaolin monks don’t know much about Buddhism, but others retort that neither the political aide nor Ho, a retired IBM engineer, know much about Shaolin. The monk’s defenders say Shaolin kung fu is indeed a form of meditation.

Here’s the full report from the San Francisco Chronicle.

For more on the connection between mysticism, the martial arts, and Qigong, here’s a previous Ampontan post about the Japanese ninja master, Masaaki Hatsumi.

And this is apparently the website for the Shaolin Temple in China, complete with photos of a Vladimir Putin visit. They don’t seem to be averse to a little commercialism, but as an article on the site explains, they can’t even use the term Shaolin Temple in Japan because someone else holds the trademark.

Posted in China, Martial arts, Religion, Traditions | Leave a Comment »

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.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Martial arts | Tagged: | 7 Comments »