New Millennium Ninja: An Interview with Masaaki Hatsumi Sensei

Interview with Masaaki Hatsumi SenseiThe ninja were so successful at keeping their arts, methods and activities in the background of history that they almost wiped themselves out of it. To find myths, folklore, ancient texts and even cartoons related to the ninja and their art is easy in modern Japan. Finding something that still has a basis in reality is next to impossible. Ancient texts are written in codes or flowery language that to this day historians cannot understand. This reinforces the popular, present day, mistaken stereotype of what the ninja really were and what they really did. Through time people tend to forget that history, folklore and legends all have a basis in reality. These super humans were human beings.

Entering the 34th Grandmaster’s training hall is an experience. The eyes are greeted by paintings, pictures, green tatami, and a huge assortment of exotic weapons. Near the ceiling on the far wall, shrines are dedicated to the ancestors of the nine martial lineages the grandmaster inherited from his teacher. He is a ninja. His name is Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi.

A medical doctor in the science of bone setting, and a master in the art of Koppojutsu . . . the warrior science of smashing the bones and attacking the sensitive points of the human body. He is a living paradox.

The Grandmaster acts in a relaxed and carefree manner, not like a wizard casting spells or a drill sergeant training his men to die for a cause. He is light, quick, and smooth with conversation, at times even a comedian.

Our meeting seemed destined to take place as Hatsumi Sensei spontaneously hands us a recent photograph of himself posing with his awards from the Imperial Family. An honor that has been bestowed upon less than one hundred people since the close of WWII. The royalty of Japan not only recognized Dr. Hatsumi as a true grandmaster of a ninja tradition but as the only living one left in the world.

But to him it is more important to lead a simple life than to be overly concerned with history and tradition. He stresses the essence of the art of the ninja, a way of life with rules like any other. The rules of the ninja are simple:

* The ninja’s primary goal is to use the art to gain entry into enemy territory, gather as much information as possible to prepare a strategy and return without ever being detected.

It is a natural instinct to deceive to survive. It can be seen everywhere in biological life.

* The ninja should always strive for righteousness through acts of justice and reflect on the betterment of his soul for his teacher and parents.

* Ninjutsu emphasizes deception. It is best to confuse your enemy by spying, stealth and investigation when planning an effective strategy.

* Secrecy was a matter of life and death. Anyone who betrayed the group to which he belonged was killed, along with close relatives.

* A ninja must not kill others, hurt innocent people or steal for personal profit or pleasure.

* Fitness must be maintained at an optimal level.

* Arts such as music, painting, poetry, singing and dancing should be enthusiastically pursued.

* The ninja is expected to train intensively in a myriad of areas: weapon skills, unarmed fighting methods, strategic analysis, covert building entry methods, swimming, improvisation, escape and evasion, disguise, chemistry, meteorology and geography to name just a few.

These are the rules the ninja must live by, 900 years ago and today. Of course pupils do not train as intensively today as their predecessors in the Iga and Koga areas of Japan during the long periods of civil war, but the essence of the teachings from the many masters is readily applicable to today, nearly a thousand years later. To master the art of Ninjutsu and remain healthy (physically and mentally) all pupils must abide by these rules. Those who break them will surely lead themselves to the grave or go insane. The grandmaster often compares his art to the sciences. Just as drugs can be used to hurt or heal and technology can create or destroy, so too can the ninja’s art be misused for personal gain or a desire for adventure.

During our break for tea, Hatsumi Sensei sat with the Tokyo Journal for an interview. No prepared speeches or preplanned thoughts. Relaxed with a microphone in front of him the master smiles away full of confidence. He is used to this by now with tens of thousands of practitioners worldwide. Being interviewed and photographed is a regular part of life.

Toyko Journal: Sensei is it true that you are the last true Ninjutsu grandmaster in the world?

Masaaki Hatsumi: No I am not the last, I have all of my students (laughter)! The Bujinkan is here and alive. This is important for everyone to understand.

I am not the last, actually my master was the last active ninja and he has passed away.

tj: Why did this come to be? Why did many samurai styles survive while Ninjutsu almost died out forever? Was it all the wars in Japanese history?

mh: No, it was not the wars. It was the long period of peace commonly called the Edo period. It fell into disuse and was no longer needed. Ninjutsu is a true combat orientated martial art that takes a whole lifetime to master. I guess that there became fewer and fewer people who liked this type of thing.

tj: How did the three ninja schools of the nine martial art lineages you head now survive this period of peace?

mh: People who really loved and cared for the martial arts, who cared for the art of the ninja, not people making a living from it are responsible. You raise and take care of the things that you love right? It’s natural right? That is why I worked as a bonesetter. I didn’t make the martial arts my living. I really love Ninjutsu and the martial arts. This is why I have cared for it and kept it alive. It is important to keep this aspect of our culture alive for future generations and for the good of all humanity. For many generations spanning over 900 years, ninja have passed on their experiences and lessons of life and death, of how to survive and endure. I would like to protect these treasures for future generations, let people understand these lessons and if they can be of any use or value to them in their own lives I will be happy.

tj: So it is important not to teach the martial arts or Ninjutsu as one’s living or profession?

mh: No, no, you can! That is fine with me. I don’t mind either way! What is important is the caring for what you are teaching. A kind of respect for what you are teaching. It is important to protect important things, for humanity’s sake. Nowadays people who have the desire to look after such important cultural treasures are becoming fewer and fewer. One of the most beautiful things about human beings is the ability to care and love, to want to protect and the ability to protect. In Japanese this is called ningensei. So I believe, to really care for the art and protect it is what matters the most. It was the same in any other period of time, not just today. This is what has always been the essence of our art.

tj: How is your Bujinkan Dojo different from the other martial arts out there today?

mh: It has not been changed from its traditional form or turned into a sport. Also the concept of change and variation; in old days flint and steel were scraped together to make a fire and now a lighter gives the same result. This is what has kept my art alive and why I am able to use pistols, rifles or any other modern weapon. This type of thinking is also what makes my art different.

tj: Did you study many other martial arts before you met your grandmaster, Takamatsu Sensei?

mh: Yes, it was in this way that I came to meet him.

tj: Was Takamatsu Sensei famous?

mh: He was famous within the professional martial arts community. There were many strong and famous fighters at the time but none of them could even be compared to him. You could say he was the master of all masters.

tj: Did Takamatsu Sensei fight in World War II?

mh: No, he was in China for ten years and had many fight-to-the-death battles. He even received the death penalty three times while he was there, obviously escaping every time. The reason he did not go to war was he had injured one eye during a fight in his youth and could not hear in one ear. These injuries prevented him from becoming a soldier.

tj: Was his intention to go to China to make money?

mh: He held many jobs there including construction.

tj: Some say he was a spy?

mh: Well, a spy? Hmmm? What would you call it, let me see . . . he did do those types of things, yes. He was friends with the last emperor, and protected him.

tj: Now you have many students across the world, what do you see for the future of your tradition?

mh: Ahh! They have all become great people! Many of them have really started to come to understand my art. That is why I traveled the world for many years teaching. I wanted people to understand this art, I did not go to spread the martial arts. It was enough to let them see what real Ninjutsu is and along the way I met some truly beautiful people. The art’s future is in good hands. They have become a strong group.

tj: Congratulations on your awards from the Imperial Family!

mh: Thank you very much. I feel grateful because I was honored with the Kokusai Eiyosho (International Achievement Award) and the Shakai Bunka Korosho (Society & Culture Distinguished Service Award). In over fifty years since the end of the war only ninety-two people have received this.

tj: Are non-Japanese pupils allowed to study your art even to the deepest levels?

mh: No problem! All are the same! I have no borderline! But pupils must be pure of heart or they just disappear. Isn’t Ninjutsu an amazing thing? People with a bad heart eventually go away. My art can only come to live in those who have a good heart.

tj: The last question is not directly concerned with the martial arts, but what do you think about the future of mankind? Will mankind be able to endure and survive the next 1000 years? Nuclear War? Chemical Weapons? Pollution of the planet?

mh: What mankind must do to survive is to observe and correct each other! Help each other educationally, scientifically, in physics and even in the arts of war. That’s why I often say that my training hall is a place for correction and reflection. It is important for us to correct each other! To tell each other “hey that’s not right!” when it is valid to do so. Mankind must also learn balance. Balance with the planet. Nature’s balance. And to do this we need to help each other, we really need patience and endurance. This is the martial arts!

The martial arts provide a method for self-defense, fitness and spiritual growth. All animals in nature have their own way of defending themselves. Human beings were blessed by a superior intellect and dominated the animal kingdom with the arts of war. To protect our community, family and self from danger needs no justification. Human beings are the only animals that can choose to be passive or aggressive, but the determining factors should always be righteousness and love. To break the law of nature and use the martial arts for personal desire of power, fame, or money can only lead to the destruction of the self.

By Sean Askew for Tokyo Journal