TOSHIRO NAGATO: THE GENTLE GIANT
By Ilan Gattegno
|"He is like the shadow of Soke Hatsumi
and many see him as the one who will eventually take
the helm of Bujinkan" The Bio of Nagato-Shihan
as published in Ninja Magazine in 1987
He's a newcomer to ninjutsu, relatively speaking,
but he is already ranked as a ninth dan in Togakure ryu. Every
time master Masaaki Hatsumi leaves Japan to teach a seminar, he
is at his side, like a bodyguard. He looks the part. A giant, well
muscled, the type of person you would hire as a bouncer if you
owned a night club.
His muscle makes you fear him, but when he's moving, it seems that he does
not use his strength at all. He moves so gently and smoothly that it becomes
unclear whether he is fighting or dancing.
Shihan Toshiro Nagato does not share the enthusiasm
that others have about his rank. To them he occupies a lofty perch.
but he still considers himself a beginner, still learning all the
time. To him. ten years of ninjutsu is nothing to write home about.
The 40-year-old ninjutsu master teacher started
his life as a martial artist When he was eight. Like most Japanese
school children. he took part in the compulsory judo lessons that
are as much a part of the educational system there as gym is to
American children. The young Nagato enjoyed his judo training and
his unusual size and strength helped him win third place in the
Kodokan tournament for junior high school students.
As far as Nagato was concerned, this was to be
the end of his career as a judoka, but the Kodokan masters thought
differently. They decided to send Toshiro to the U.S. to teach
judo at the University of Ontario in Oregon. While teaching there
he was also studying, all the while dreaming of something else.
He had heard the name of the Judo master, Hatsumi Masaaki and,
while in the states, had read Andrew Adams' book Ninja. The Invisible
Assassins. Nagato wanted to be a true martial artist, not just
a judoka, and ninjutsu seemed the way to go. He decided then and
there that when he returned to Japan, he would seek out this art.
Things didn't quite work out the way Nagato had
planned as circumstances led him into the professional kickboxing
ring. He began entering competitions in Tokyo to earn badly needed
Where size had always been his ally, it now became
his adversary. A giant at 90 kg (about 195 pounds), he was far
heavier than any established division in Japan. He then undertook
a strict diet that would eventually drop him to 72.5 kg- still
the heaviest division for competition. In three major events in
Korakuen Halls, he won all his fights - all by knock-out. These
victories made him champion of the Shin Jin - the newcomers.
Despite his victories, kickboxing was no fun for
Nagato. "Too much beating up, too bad for the health, bad
for my face and also, it was not a martial art."
Before he began to explore ninjutsu, Nagato felt
that he had to get out of Japan. Having been in Oregon, he knew
that there were places in the world that offered less stress than
Japan. Kickboxing had been a way for Nagato to release some of
that stress, but now that he was through with that sport, he felt
he needed a change of atmosphere.
A friend in America, Michael Echanis, a former
Green Beret, invited him over and he accepted. Echanis, a professional
soldier and Vietnam veteran, wanted to learn the martial arts from
Nagato. Echanis said there was a job waiting for him at the Special
Forces camp in North Carolina.
"They wanted me to be a Green Beret and when
there was a mission for everybody in South America, they asked
me to join them. I felt wrong about it and I told them that I wasn't
interested. Something in me said, 'Danger.' Unfortunately, Nagato's
feelings about the mission were well-founded. While in South America,
the plane crashed and all aboard were lost. "There was a feeling
inside me that told me not to go," said Nagato. "It convinced
me that it was time to go back and find the true martial arts teacher."
Nagato found Hatsumi in Noda City. Ninjutsu was
completely different from anything he had yet experienced in the
martial arts. "It wasn't a sport, but I was glad because I
didn't want to fight any more. I didn't go there to fight. Lately,
though, I feel that I miss the fighting a little bit, but it's
Hatsumi immediately saw talent when Nagato came
to him. He saw the man's fighting spirit right away. There is no
wonder in this, however, as street-fighting was common in the neighborhood
that Nagato grew up in. His background in judo and kickboxing was
a big asset as well. Nagato rose through the ranks like a rocket.
He put a lot into his training and, before he knew it, he was a
Nagato teaches a handful of students in a small,
family-like dojo (and today also holds classes at the Hombu
dojo in Noda - IG). Most of his people are Japanese, but he
does have a few foreigners under his tutorage. Robert Bussey of
Nebraska was his student for a while and was graded a fourth dan
by the time he returned to the States. "I don't discriminate
against non-Japanese," says Nagato. "I teach them the
same as I teach the Japanese. In all, six of my students have passed
the goden (fifth dan) test from Hatsumi Sensei."
Nagato earns his living as a hone-tzugi (bone
setter), just like Hatsumi, and lives happily in Saitiama ken with
his wife Mamiko and two sons Yoshiki and Yuhe.
Nagato doesn't feel very special being graded
as a ninth dan. "I have to feel the responsibility, but there's
nothing. Maybe some responsibility, but I still have so much to
learn. I must stick to Hatsumi Sensei and hold onto him to learn
all that I can learn. Okay, so I have a little feeling of what
it means to be a martial artist, not much more."
Nagato wasn't happy when his fellow student Tsunehisha
(now Shoto) Tanemura left the school of Bujinkan to form his own
Genbukan system. "I was sad, but he had a different way of
thinking,different ethics. Hatsumi Sensei thought differently."
Nagato does not foresee a big change in ninjutsu
in the future. "We don't consider ninjutsu to be the ultimate
art," says Nagato. "Budo, the martial arts world, is
the essence of everything. It's all still alive and we want to
keep it alive. We look for understanding, for peaceful life and
happiness. Budo is good for the country, and for the whole universe.