Like a true ninja, he remains a complex and intriguing enigma to most of the world, even to Doron Navon and other who know him personally. While many of his students bathe openly in the limelight, Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi, 34th Grandmaster of Togakureryu ninjutsu, stays quietly in the shadows. It is his choice. He is a man of subtle, yet great substance who frequently prefers to observe from a distance.
When asked to describe Hatsumi Sensei, his students, his friends, even his wife all give differing versions of this multi-faceted diamonds There is, however, one aspect on which they all agree: They all call – him “Sensei” . And he is called that with much love and reverence.
Very few people have been fortunate enough to spend much personal time with Hatsumi Sensei; and of those, even fewer are able to really get to know him. But one who did manage a deeper glimpse into the man is Doron Navon, Hatsumi’s first Israeli student, who trained with him for six years and became more like a son to him than just a student. Theirs is a very special relationship that has grown and flourished for nearly 20 years now. Doron Navon currently holds a 6th Dan ranking issued by Hatsumi Sensei, the highest ever achieved by a non-Japanese in the system. In 1974 Doron Navon returned home to found the Bujinkan Dojo of Israel. Said to be the only non-Japanese homonoshidoshi (true teacher), Navon speaks reverently of his own true teacher.
“Sensei is a very special person, ” he says. “He’s very harmonious, intricately engaged with the flow of Nature. Yet his infectious vitality dominates the big organization behind him.
“Usually he starts his day as a regular person,” Davon Navon smiles, “taking care of his patients as hone tzugi (orthopedic doctor), but the afternoons and evenings know him as the ultimate master of ninjutsu. It’s not a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Davon Navon asserts, “rather, a natural transformation from one phase to another, done with logical extension and in complete harmony with himself and his surroundings. ”
Even his neighbors in Noda City don’t really know who he is or what he does. They know he’s engaged to some extent with the ancient fighting arts, and they see many visitors come and go, but they’re never quite sure what these activities mean. They have become resigned to accept the fact that he is someone who will never be completely revealed to them. Hatsumi Sensei prefers it that way. He lives a very modest life, conducting himself in a quiet, conservative manner, choosing not to exhibit the enormous martial powers he possesses.
Hatsumi’s-orthopedic clinic is situated on the street-level front of his house. A small room at the back used to be his private dojo, but is now rarely used as such. It serves more as a room for martial arts memorabilia with its framed pictures, drawings and documents adorning the walls.
Hatsumi Sensei has an extensive collection of swords, many of which were actually used to kill-not by Sensei, however! Interestingly enough, many people turn their backs on swords that were instrumental in the deaths of others, fearing they might bring bad luck; so they give them to Hatsumi Sensei. . . “who is not touched by the evil spirit,” says Doron Navon.
Hatsumi Sensei is the kind of man to whom many people gravitate, bringing him all manner of gifts. Following a long-standing Japanese custom, he always has an ample amount of gifts to give in return to whomever happens to just “drop in”. Add to this assortment of friends and acquaintances a menagerie of pets-including an alligator, two iguanas, many Persian and Siamese cats, and two ol’ hound dogs he takes for a walk every night-and you get the picture of a very happy, stable homebody.
“There is usually at least one of his students around hoping to see to anything Sensei might need,” Navon says. “And then, there is always his very special student who seldom leaves his side-Marikosan, his wife, whom he affectionately calls oksan (which translates literally to “his wife”). As wife and loved one she helps him with his orthopedic patients; as student and teacher she is the ultimate kunoichi (woman ninja), practicing her art faithfully, determinedly. She holds the rank of shidoshi and has many times joined the senior students in demonstrations. The students are always the ‘victims’- and they have said many times with affection and admiration that they would much rather have any of the other women ninja participating since Mariko-san executes the techniques with all her heart and ability- which means that the students experience quite a few aches and pains as a result of her enthusiasm!
“She is an extremely lovable person,” says Doron Navon. “She is a major hone tzagi at Meiji University where, incidentally, she first met Hatsumi Sensei.” She recalls that in the beginning, Hatsumi did not show any outward interest in her; instead, he confided in her about all his romances with other women. But that may have been his ninja way of getting around the issue, for one day he straightforwardly asked her to marry him-and she did.
Mariko-san is very much into Japanese culture, and occasionally teaches Japanese dancing. Hatsumi himself becomes a student whenever she assumes the role of teacher. But for all her interest and activities in tradition, she is not like many Japanese women. For one thing, she is actively independent. In younger days she was anchorperson on a Japanese television station. Energetic and resourceful, her style is very much influenced by America and other western countries. She is also an excellent cook.
Hatsumi Sensei is especially careful when it comes to food, yet diplomatic. As a guest in someone’s house he’ll eat pretty much whatever is served, but in his own home he prefers whole rice, fruits and vegetables-in that order. He avoids foods that contain too much salt or sugar, and adheres to the philosophy that one should consume only about 70 percent of one’s capacity. He never leaves the table with a completely full stomach.
When he was young, like other Japanese youngsters – (indeed, like young people the world over) -he drank a lot. Now, however, he rarely touches alcoholic beverages. He stopped drinking after an incident in which he nearly killed four of his best friends. One night, after a losing battle with several bottles, and when he was very drunk, his friends brought him home. At the door, however, he refused to go in. They didn’t feel like staying out the whole night, and so decided to force him in. It was almost a fatal decision, for it undoubtedly awakened the ninja in him. In a blinding flash, Hatsumi Sensei lashed out with a continuous series of strikes and throws that eventually left them all sprawled on the ground, each with two broken ribs as a painful memento. When he sobered up the next morning and learned what fury he had wrought, Hatsumi vowed never again to drink to excess. Such a situation among friends, fraught with such potential danger was not to be taken lightly. He had learned a lesson, fortunately not a terribly expensive one, but he had learned it well-and it has not happened again
The incident is looked back on with some humor, however, by his friends. One, Moromachi-san, still recalls that night at the hospital, and is only too happy to remove his shirt and show off the broken rib that did not heal properly. Ribs may have been broken, but not the friendship. In fact, it was bonded permanently that night.
Hatsumi Sensei has many friends, some from his school days and some who studied with him under Takamatsu Sensei, 33rd soke. Though some dropped out of ninjutsu, perhaps because they could not cope with the rigid disciplines involved or because Takamatsu seemed to devote more time to his special student, Hatsumi, they nonetheless remain true brothers under the skin. Hatsumi Sensei evokes that kind of loyalty in people.
As a direct student of Takamatsu, Hatsumi is a specialist, not only in ninjutsu, but many other martial arts as well. Recently he was declared a “National Treasure” by the Japanese Cultural Agency; an honor that recognizes his intellectual and practical expertise as a master of his special craft and assures, through subsidization, his continuing efforts in the study and instruction of a historical way of life that should not die. And yet, Hat sumi Sensei stresses that he is not Japanese by nature. Rather, he says, “I am a man of no country. ” His nature and behavior is inter national. He does not regard a per son’s color or origin; he sees him, instead, as a human being.
When he broke the ninjutsu seal of secrecy in the mid-60’s, he welcomed all who were interested and accepted those who persevered, including non-Japanese. He taught the basics of stickfighting to Quintin Chambers of the United Kingdom and accepted two Israeli students in the early stages of his teaching. Many foreigners studied with him, some for only a few months and, unlike many other martial arts teachers in Japan then, they were all treated with the utmost respect-as were the Japanese students.
“Hatsumi Sensei is very dynamic when he teaches,” says Doron Navon, one of those two Israeli students. “He switches from one technique to another with lightning speed and, when asked to show it a second time, always comes up with an exciting variation. You never really see the same thing twice. His execution of a technique is virtually perfect- and uniquely appropriate to the situation. When he wants to be deadly, he’s deadly; when humor is called for, he laughs outright; and when theatricality is the required ingredient, he is without a doubt the best actor around. Hatsumi Sensei can be hard or soft at different times and hard and soft at the same time. He is supremely able and uncommonly flexible. In his expert hands a “victim” often feels like a helpless five-year-old trying to resist a stern parent. He attacks weak points and pain centers with deadly accuracy, and adjusts to change with amazing swiftness and variety. His moves just seem to get better as the years go by.”
Hatsumi rarely teaches now in his own dojo, preferring to visit the dojos of his senior students. He’s like a patient, supportive, approving father to them. “Teaching should come from the heart,” he says, quoting his own illustrious teacher, Takamatsu. Though his students differ in many ways from one another, that same ingenuous “openness” is evidenced in their attitude and behavior; yet each develops in his own way and at his own rate of speed.
His instruction always causes just a little consternation among his pupils because, although the techniques are demonstrated clearly, leaving no doubt about their efficacy in a given situation, the students experience difficulty when attempting to execute them the same way. Hatsumi Sensei makes it look so easy that they labor under the false impression that they can perform the techniques with equal ease, precision and skill. It becomes frustrating when they rudely discover they cannot . . . at least not yet. But the good ones stay with it, learning not only the beauty of the true art, but the true mastery of their own teacher.
After training sessions, Hatsumi likes to wax philosophical about the deeper aspects of the martial arts. Very much aware of what’s happening in the world today, he manages to live in accord, if not always approval. He looks at life with a view derived from an the power behind and within himself; the power of a master of many trades. His one true tie is his connection with God.
Hatsumi Sensei believes in one God; he calls it “The God of Budo”, but it’s the same God that most of us worship. His love of the martial arts is the center of his life, a life that provides him with all the energy and balance needed to deal with his many involvements. He has a quick, keen mind capable of switching from one subject to an other with in-depth association at high speeds. One has to really know him well to be able to keep up with him.
One thing you cannot do is take him for granted. Hatsumi Sensei’s appearance is dangerously misleading. His gentle smile, open face and medium build hide a veritable deathtrap for the unwary. His delicate hands are as strong as iron, his fingers as capable as claws, and his body compact and powerful. But even more incredible, he has an instinct for danger, an intuition that prepares him for what’s ahead, and an insight that practically enables him to ” read” the people he talks to. This may sound like fantasy, but to those who know him, it’s real.
They come to him to drink from the “well that never dries”, and he is always there to slake their thirst. It’s one reason why even those who do not study with him directly call him “Sensei”.