Masaaki Hatsumi Visit
Rumiko and I rode the trains to Noda City for training at Masaaki Hatsumi’s Bujinkan Hombu dojo on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It was a nostalgic feeling to walk the streets of Noda once again, and I was amazed at how much the small industrial city has not changed in the 30 years I have been coming here. Elsewhere in Japan, everything seems to be modernizing at a faster than rapid pace, the old and worn being replaced with new and modern in a way that outclasses even America.
On the other hand, the training hall experience was something totally different from what I had known in the 1970s and 1980s when I was training as an apprentice with Hatsumi Sensei. When I left Japan to return to American residency in the early 1980s, a typical training class was about 12 people, with 18 at most. Once my books and magazine articles about Hatsumi Sensei’s art had captivated the martial arts world’s imagination by the mid-1980s, foreign students began pouring into Japan seeking the experience I had found.
On this rainy Sunday in April, the small Hombu Dojo building of Masaaki Hatsumi was more than packed with easily 60 to 70 people from all over the globe. Of course this kind of crowd makes real training impossible for the students who work to imitate Hatsumi Sensei in the shoulder-to-shoulder and butt-to-butt crowd, but amazingly enough, no one seems to complain. Indeed, the real focus and seemingly the whole point of the 2 hours in the Hombu seems to be watching Hatsumi Sensei perform.
Instruction consisted of Masaaki Hatsumi creating technique after technique on the fly, with the crowd of students looking on from tightly packed rings around the center of the dojo. Sometimes Hatsumi Sensei would explain what he was doing, as though the students would be able to discern the details after only one quick demonstration. Other times, Hatsumi Sensei would clearly avoid the real key to what he had done, and explain at great detail some minor point that may or may not have had any real effect on the technique’s outcome. I watched carefully to see if the students could tell which was the key advice and which was the decoy tossed out to confuse or distract them. After several minutes of creative demonstration, Hatsumi Sensei would call out the command, “Play”, and the students would dutifully try to imitate what the headmaster had done.
I used to think that this form of tricky teaching was something unique to Hatsumi Sensei, something only he did as a way of seeing which students were the sharp ones and which were the dull. Actually, it turns out to be very much a Japanese cultural norm in closely-held traditional technique systems handed down from master to student. Isshisoden – transmission from one master to one true student – is an undeniable Japanese cultural artifact, wherein one student sharp enough to perceive and steal away the master’s secrets gets the goods, and all of the rest are relegated to getting whatever small benefit they might while serving as training dummies and bill-payers to facilitate the exclusive transmission process. It is obviously up to Masaaki Hatsumi as the headmaster of his nine ryu-ha to pick the most appropriate way of handing on his legacy. It is important to note, however, why I needed to change the teaching method I experienced in Japan if our To-Shin Do were to become a useful endeavor in the lives of our Western students.
A few Japanese students were in attendance, but the vast majority of people training in the Bujinkan Hombu these days are foreigners in Japan. I asked my friend Toshiro Nagato, with whom I used to co-teach ninja taijutsu at the Minato-ku Sports Center in Tokyo in the late 1970s, where all the Japanese were. He smiled and said that the plan was to have more Japanese from now on, now that the huge number of foreigners had made the training look more attractive or valuable to the Japanese. I smiled back in response to this same line that I have heard for so many years, and commented that with Hatsumi Sensei’s emphasis on free creative movement and seeming disdain for rigid formal technique with clearly defined forms, many (most?) Japanese would be uncomfortable in such a training environment. Nagato-san agreed unhesitatingly, acknowledging the key reason why so few Japanese can identify with Hatsumi Sensei’s approach.
Masaaki Hatsumi’s techniques for the day were based on working with skillful timing and body placement in a confusing relationship with what an attacker might expect. Effortless, even seemingly moving in slow motion, Hatsumi Sensei more allowed his attackers to find themselves in ineffectual positions than made them fail. As always, he constantly smiled and laughed all through his instruction demonstrations, and seemed to be enjoying what he was doing. He would call out a person to be his uke, throw them around and tie them up, and then command the audience to give it a try for a minute or two before taking center stage again. He did not interact or work with students at all during the momentary “play” sessions. It was up to the students to get it themselves. Standing at the edge of the crowd as the students struggled to duplicate his unique movements, Hatsumi Sensei reminded Rumiko and me of how he has never claimed to enjoy teaching, and much prefers performing. Like a rock star on stage before a crowd of adoring fans, he seems very much in his element now.
At the end of the class, several participants were given the sword test for 5th Degree Bujinkan rank. The Bujinkan is so big now that of course Sensei himself does not know the students who now come to Japan for their 5th Degree, so the test is no longer a matter of verifying connection with Hatsumi Sensei as it once was explained to me in the 1970s. Nonetheless, I was a bit surprised (well, OK, I’d heard the rumors…) to see that Hatsumi Sensei no longer administers the test himself, and instead has senior students – Japanese and foreigners alike – swing the sword down at the waiting heads where he once was the sole administrator. To me, this was a major significant change in program and procedure, but after all the years and all the changes, I have become more and more used to the admonition, Ban-pen Fu-kyo – “After ten thousand changes, no surprise.”
After training, Hatsumi Sensei invited Rumiko and me to lunch with him and Toshiro Nagato and Isamu Shiraishi. Hatsumi Sensei spoke of his vision of where he is now in his life of 75 years so far. Sensei gave Rumiko and me some suggestions for our own training and teaching work in the West, to be put into motion and slowly allowed to become evident over time. Stay tuned to our programs, DVDs, and new books to see Hatsumi Sensei’s advice in action.