Last week my martial arts teacher Masaaki Hatsumi mailed me birthday greetings for my 60th. In his letter, he enclosed a photo of himself at his own 60th birthday bash in 1991. In his kanreki red suit – a western tuxedo no less – he salutes his past and future.
His red tux is significant, I believe. More than a mere eccentricity, it is a reminder of his own creative nature as an icon-busting teacher. Many of his students today fail to understand his real message, I strongly believe. “Think originally,” he might be paraphrased as offering.
One of my biggest surprises was his urging over the decades to bring what he taught me into full relevance for my culture, my world, my friends. In those 1970s days when I trained in the little dojo in his house, he goaded me to go beyond the mechanics and details of his ancestors’ kata forms whenever I would express exasperation with not getting all the details exactly right, just the way Daisuke Togakure might have performed a combat maneuver back in the 1100s. In later years in the 1980s and 1990s as well he kept pushing me to bring the lessons to life.
Big new world, he implied, with big new problems that need big new answers. The classics are timeless in their applicability of course, and yes every advanced Black Belt in our To-Shin Do ninja martial art will own every one of the classical exercises as he or she progresses through a lifetime of study. No one is advocating changing the principles. But memorization of the class lessons was not the point he wanted me to get. Go beyond, he admonished. Where does that lesson take you?
Another thing he seemed to not want was for me to transform him into some sort of icon or fantasy master in my mind. He did not want a personality cult built up around him (though I often lament that is precisely what some of his current students seem determined to do). He never failed to break apart any training aspect that became too sacrosanct or too inviolable in his students’ minds. He continues to do that today even as he moves into his 80s.
If I really got my teacher’s lessons, would I faithfully imitate his body’s movements, his speech, his purposes, and his daily operations of his hombu dojo? I think you know my answer.
He wore a red tux to make a statement in a country and culture and age with firm stereotypes as to how an inheritor of an historical martial tradition should behave. I got my own 60th birthday red suit as my own statement in response to what is most popular and seductive and yes off-base in the pay-per-view televised culture of martial arts in my country and times.
Lesson offered. Thank you, Sensei.