GODAN TEST: THE TEST OF TRUTH
by Ilan Gattegno
A narrow path
leads from the main road to the house of
Tanemura Shihan, one of the master teachers
of the ancient art of ninjutsu. Rice fields, cut not long ago, surround
the house in Matsubushi Mura, a village only two hours away from
In the dojo, at the house, all are silent. The
Grandmaster, Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi, takes a sword that hangs on the
wall. "Doron-kun, " he
orders his Israeli student. "Sit
in front of me."
Everyone knew what was going to happen. Doron Navon,
the first non Japanese to learn Togakure Ryu ninjutsu, was about
to go through the "Test of Truth". About 10 of Hatsumi
Sensei's top students were at the dojo; some of the most prestigious
names in modern ninjutsu. All of them had at one time or another
been through the same test.
The Test of Truth, that whoever passes
it receives the 5th dan (godan) rank
in ninjutsu, differs from tests of
similar rank in most other martial arts. The student sits in seiza
with his back to the grandmaster. The grandmaster raises his sword
above his own head, and then, all of a sudden, without warning,
strikes swiftly at the head of his student. Only a split second
separates the student and the deadly blow. In ancient days, it is
alleged, a real sword was used. If the student could sense the sword
coming and elude it, he made godan. If not . . .
Today a bokken (wooden sword) is used, but the blow is horribly painful
nonetheless; and the student's head is
uncovered. Until this particular evening,
only five of Hatsumi Sensei's
had passed the test on their first attempt.
The others, also few, have felt the sword once, twice, some even three
times before gaining acceptance onto that hallowed level of achievement.
The senior students were alert, hushed. This was the first time in
which a non Japanese would be tested. The five shihan (master teachers)
knew Doron well; he had been their training companion nine years before.
At that time, after eight years in Japan, six with Hatsumi Sensei,
Doron returned to his hometown in Israel and opened his own dojo.
He still continued to study and practice, however, to reflect and
absorb the immense wealth of knowledge Hatsumi Senses had bestowed
on him. There was an awful lot to remember.
And then one day in October 1983, the urge to return became stronger,
almost unbearable. Doron and I were soon on our way back to his
ninjutsu roots. He had not told Hatsumi Sensei we were coming. We
simply arrived one day at his house. It was evening time in Noda
city, Chiba prefecture, Japan. People were on their way home after
a day's work. Doron and I went to Hatsumi Sensei's house, only a
10 minute walk from the train station, just off the main street.
It looked as if nothing had changed for nine years. The bicycles
were parked outside. The sliding door was open. A few pairs of slippers
on the right. A few pairs of shoes.
"Sensei?" The question barely touched the air and Hatsumi
Masaaki was already at the door. "Hai. " (Yes.) He looked
at his visitors. "Oksan, " he called to his wife Mariko-san, "Doron-san
has arrived." Like a storm she came from their living quarters
on the second floor. "Doron-san, " she cried, unable to
hold back her tears of joy. She came to
embrace him, but a bit shy, she just shook his hands continuously,
looking at him, as if to make sure it really was Doron. Hatsumi Sensei
smiled at the scene. He was very happy. A lost son had come back.
For Hatsumi Sensei it was not as if nine years had passed, but only
one day. He looked at his Israeli student, who had just arrived from
the other side of the globe, as if it was natural for him to come
like that. With no further small talk, he went straight ahead leading
a conversation that was cut years ago. For him nothing was really
strange about a son returning home after years of absence.
recalled for me his first meeting with
Hatsumi Sensei in the early `60s. "We heard about him," he
said, "while we attended the Kodokan for judo training. One
day my friend Danny told me he had seen
this master who used vicious techniques. He showed me some; and
they were so different from anything I'd seen before. I urged him
to take me there the same evening."
Danny and Doron went straight to Noda city and arrived at the house. "The
door was open but we knocked anyway. `Hello', he said to us, seeing
two gai-jin (non-Japanese, foreigners). We already spoke Japanese,
after two years in Japan, and asked him whether we could get in
and join the training session. He didn't say yes or no, but showed
us the way in. I remember every minute from that moment on. Each
minute for each pain. There were five senior students at the dojo,
all wearing black belts on black gis. He gave a sign and two of
them stopped what they were doing and came to welcome us.
It was an unforgettable welcome. The two Israeli
guests received a personal treatmen
which left marks on them for many days later. The two senior students
played with them as if they were dolls, and each time they tried
to resist, there was a countermove ready for them to hurt even more.
On their way back home later that evening, they licked their wounds;
but the next day they came again. They understood it was a world
they never knew before, the real Budo. They came, were persistent,
and Hatsumi Masaaki admitted them to his school.
At first they were carefully looked
at. True knowledge was not given away
easily. Only when Hatsumi saw they were
serious students did he begin to reveal
the real art to them. They were the first
non Japanese to become regular students
in the Bujin Kan Dojo. A few westerners
had visited Hatsumi before them, but
none of those had become real ninjutsu
In classes they worked on the basic
movements, the kihon happo: Drills of
kicks and blocks and punches, arm locks,
arm breaks, body breaks. Only a few advanced
techniques were used. Most were kept
secret and taught only on a person to
person level. The ominous swords just
hung there on the wall, ready to be used
on the third level.
But this was not play.
Hatsumi Sensei was at the saki period
of his training, using killing techniques
more than anything else. A student at
that time had to know before he entered
the class that training might also mean
death. Nobody died, but still there was
this commitment in the air and the techniques
were executed almost to the full.
were very common. "One
day I broke my tailbone," recalls
Doron. "But I didn't stop training;
and I kept coming to class, with a pillow
tied to my behind. Everybody thought
it was so funny.
"But Hatsumi thought my injury
was a good opportunity. He called me
up front to test me for my nidan. It
was always like this. He always tested
us the moment we were not ready for it.
Once, I had a high temperature; a second
time with my tailbone broken; a third
time when I had a cast on my left hand
after I broke my arm the previous lesson.
But we had to do our best fighting, demonstrating
our abilities with all the inconveniences.
"I was really crazy at the time," says Doron. "I
was training for six to eight hours a
day. After each lesson I went to train
with one of the shihans, each of them
teaching me something
different. To sum
it all up, Hatsumi Sensei was teaching
me as much as I could absorb. One day
I felt I'd had enough. My body was a
wreck from all those unavoidable injuries
and my mind was full of so many techniques
that I had to stop." In 1974, after eight years in
Japan, Doron received his yondan rank and
a teaching permit. He then returned to Israel and started his own
dojo. The art was all in his head but he needed more practice to refine
the movements and the ideas. The first Israeli students that joined
Doron's dojo were not the most lucky. They had to cope with training
in a very similar way to the saki time Doron had been through in Japan.
But soon enough a group of devoted students became a nucleus of the
Israeli Ninja school. Some of them eventually went to Japan to train
with Hatsumi Sensei and the shihan master teachers of Togakure Ryu.
"The most important thing for me is to keep on learning, practicing
and teaching," says Doron. "Life is a continuous and changing
thing and I must keep on going, moving with the rhythm of life,
not pretending to be something I'm not. A real martial artist must
know himself in order to see life in a clear way."
The way for Doron, now that he was back with Hatsumi Sensei, seemed
clear enough. Hatsumi, however, had a surprise in store for him.
He quickly arranged a "small gathering . . . just for old times'
sake" with Doron's companions of years ago. Perhaps they would "practice
a little. . . " Hatsumi smiled. Moments later we were on our
way to Tanemura Shihan's house.
Once there, there was much greeting and handshaking all around,
and the recalling of many wonderful memories. And then Hatsumi Sensei
suddenly turned to Doron and asked, "Do you want to take your
Doron was momentarily flustered, so totally unexpected was the
question. But then he composed himself, shrugged and smiled, "Why
Ordinarily a non-student would not be allowed to witness this very
private ceremonious event; but since I was Doron's student and had
traveled with him all the way from Israel, Hatsumi Sensei made the
exception. I sat quietly down in a corner, excited, yet restrained,
perhaps a little nervous. It seemed that history of a sort was in
the making. Hatsumi softly instructed Doron to sit in seiza, then
stepped behind him. In an instant Doron jumped up, still a little
flustered, perhaps just a little nervous himself. Hatsumi laughed
and said, "But I haven't even started yet." And then Doron
sat down again and relaxed, his body slowly unwinding, untensing,
letting go . . . .
Hatsumi stood ready, his sword upraised, his eyes closed. Doron
sat at his feet, his back to him, motionless, waiting. Suddenly
Hatsumi stroked. The sword sped down toward Doron's head. In the
same instant, it was as if someone had pulled Doron aside. He rolled
to his right and the sword sliced past, reaching the point where
Doron's stomach had been only a moment before. Hatsumi's eyes were
still closed. He affirmed his hold on the sword and opened his eyes. "Hai!" (Yes!),
he said. "Godan. " (Fifth dan) .
I was sitting in the corner not believing my
own eyes. Hatsumi Sensei turned to me, pointed
at Doron, and said: "Mites!" (You
saw that!). "Now tell everybody."
Doron's Japanese friends could not contain their joy. They rushed
to him, shook his hand warmly, excitedly, laughing and shouting.
There was no denying how happy they were for him.
Doron himself hadn't yet realized what
he'd just been through. Only a few days later did he understand
the significance of his personal achievement. Hatsumi Sensei presented
him with a gold medal he had prepared many years ago to award the
first non Japanese student who could pass the test on his first
attempt. It had taken more than five years to give the medal away.
"Homono Shidoshi," Hatsumi Sensei called him. A true
teacher; a title that accompanies the test and the new rank outside
Japan. Doron Navon is the first, and so far, the only non Japanese
to hold it. He has since earned his rokudan, the highest rank in
the West and, as he puts it, "this is only the beginning." Even
in Japan there are only a few Homono Shidoshi. Since the late 1960s,
when the art of ninjutsu came out of the shadows, there have not
been that many who came to study the art with total commitment and
full dedication. The study of ninjutsu requires many, many years
of hard work; training and more training, over and over again. Grandmaster
Hatsumi says it took him some 40 years to acquire the ability he
has now; and he still keeps going.
At 56, Hatsumi Sensei doesn't rely on strength and muscles to get
the job done. "If your technique is based on strength, some
day a young bull will come and beat you with fresh muscles," he
The art that Hatsumi Sensei practices has a character of "no
power". The nagare (flow) of his movement has no resistance
whatever. "If you feel you use strength against your opponent," Hatsumi
says, "it means you are not exercising the real art."
This does not mean that Hatsumi Sensei is powerless; on the contrary:
He masters the art in a way that has no rival, not even among the
younger students who have practiced under him for more than 20 years.
Says one ninjutsu shihan who knows Hatsumi well: "He always
has another rabbit in his hat. And he also has many hats . . .
(Editor's Note:) Recently, Doron Navon stopped
by our New York offices on his way to Toronto, Canada to attend
a seminar. We talked about his years with Hatsumi, specifically
about his "Test of Truth." Doron
explained that godan is a very special
stage of ninjutsu training. It is highly advanced. The first four
belt levels are a significant part of the process, but they mainly
emphasize the physical aspects: taijutsu, the techniques, the weapons
etc. From the beginning, however, the student is evolving, always
experiencing a higher level of understanding, until the senses become
acute. When the instructor sees that the student is becoming more
aware of himself, his senses, his instincts, his intuition, he knows
then that he is ready. Everything then culminates in the exam for
godan . . . the Test of Truth."
As for his own exam, Doron Navon recalled: "After I jumped
up the first time, I got myself together, then sat down again in
seizes. Before, I was tense, tight. This time I just let myself
go, finally achieving jibun o sutera (letting go of one's self,
one's ego). But the really strange thing is, I could not remember
anything that happened from that moment on until I felt myself off
to one side, looking at Hatsumi Sensei and seeing the sword passing
within an inch of my body. It was as though it was all in slow motion.
Of course I was told later what really had happened: that the sword
was not coming down in slow motion at all; that it had looked as
though I had been jerked aside by some force... But all I remember
is seeing the sword passing slowly by. "What was even more
interesting to me," Doron smiled, "was that Hatsumi Sensei
had told the others, without my hearing it, that he `knew' I would
pass the test. Even then, they all gasped in astonishment. It pleases
me to know Hatsumi Sensei had that much confidence in me." Apparently
it was a Test of Truth for both student and master. And both passed
with flying colors.