By Susan Brender ~ This is a personal account of how Susan Brender, completely inexperienced in the martial arts, undertakes the challenge of learning the Japanese battlefield martial art of Ninjutsu and her sometimes frightening, sometimes comedic journey to acquiring her black belt.
Up until five years ago, if anyone had told me that I would practice martial arts, I wouldn’t have believed it. In fact, I would have laughed my head off and said “no way!” I grew up in Canada as a sheltered “little Jewish girl” in an environment so safe that I never even witnessed a fight in the schoolyard, or anywhere else. Fighting, in any shape or form, whether for self-defense or for violent purposes, was completely and totally foreign to me.
At the age of 39, I found myself living in Florida, divorced, with two children aged 10 and 12. I was seeing a man who had been practicing a martial art called Ninjutsu for three or four years and he was absolutely enthralled with it. Up to that point in my life, the only exposure to martial arts that I had experienced was when, at a younger age, my kids had taken taekwondo. The atmosphere in the dojo where my kids trained was not particularly inspirational, nor was their instructor, and though they took class for several years, none of us was left with any lasting impression.
One day, I decided to stop by the dojo where my friend trained, purely because I was curious to see him doing what he loved so much. It had never entered my mind that I was going there to check it out as something I might be interested in doing myself.
The sensei came over and introduced himself and chatted with me for a few minutes and it was at this point that things started to become strange and unexpected. For some reason, unbeknownst to me, as I talked to the sensei I began to get this weird feeling that he had something that I wanted, though I had no idea what that something was. Bear in mind that I really knew nothing about martial arts and it was not a situation where I watched the class and suddenly got the urge to do what they were doing. I just knew that this sensei had some kind of knowledge that I wanted. I met with him a few days later and decided to start coming to class.
The first time I stepped out on the mat, I was petrified. I was so far out of my comfort zone that I couldn’t even see it from where I was standing on the mat!
Ninjutsu is a Japanese battlefield martial art that combines ninja and samurai arts and most of its practitioners are men. Though I do not know the actual reasons for this, my theory is that the use of weapons and the fact that there is a lot of physical contact and getting thrown down on the ground, makes it less appealing to women than other martial arts. It is not a sport and there are no tournaments or competitions. The use of a wide assortment of weapons – swords, knives, bos (6 foot sticks), jos (4 foot sticks), and hanbos (3 foot sticks) – to name a few, made it that much more intimidating for me, not to mention the unfortunate fact that when I joined the class it consisted of eight black belts and me!
In Ninjutsu, you are not split into groups based on your rank or the level of training you are at. Everyone trains together. This can be great for learning, but at the beginning of my training all could think of was that any black belt who was stuck practicing with me would not get good training since I hadn’t the faintest idea of what I was doing!
For the first few months that I attended class, I had to psych myself up just to get on the mat and I would continually apologize to my training partners for being inept and for giving them “bad” training. For the most part, everyone was very helpful and it was explained to me that part of the training is to help teach those of lesser rank and lesser experience. Of course, it took me a long time to believe that, so wrapped up was I in my own baggage. Only now, after four plus years of training do I understand that teaching others is an incredible learning tool for the one doing the teaching!
In Ninjutsu, though formal testing does indeed occur, rank is not always assigned by means of test taking. I have watched others in my class be formally tested in order to earn a higher rank, but purely due to circumstance, that has never been the case for me personally. There are only three belt colors in Ninjutsu – white, green and black. However, there are fifteen degrees of black belt, and it is said that though it may take several years to get your black belt, and several more to reach fifth degree, it is only when you achieve the rank of godan (5th degree black belt) that you even begin to take the first baby steps in your training.
I never even had a white belt. Our sensei wasn’t particularly conscientious when it came to practical details. He was always more concerned with the esoterics of the martial art and I loved that. The ego that can be so much a part of the whole “rank thing” did not interest me at all and I liked the fact that Ninjutsu seemed so unstructured. I also liked the fact that the sensei did not strut around demanding to be idolized as some might believe befitted an 8th degree black belt (hachidan). I’ve always had a problem with those who use their positions of authority to mistreat others in a condescending or overbearing fashion. (Unfortunately, I was to discover later that there are other, more covert and manipulative ways in which to abuse one’s authority, and our sensei turned out to be a master at those less obvious but more insidious ways. However, that is a story for another time…)
As I was saying, I never even had a white belt – I had been training for several months with no belt at all. One day, we were at a weekend seminar at our dojo and we were doing sword training. I needed some kind of belt in which to carry my sword so I approached my sensei and asked to borrow a belt to use for that purpose. He handed me a green belt from behind the counter and I returned to my training partner who proceeded to tell me that I had just been given the rank of green belt. I told him that he was crazy and that our sensei had just loaned me the belt to use while we were doing sword training. My friend however, said “trust me, you just got your green belt.” In complete shock, I went up to my sensei and told him what my friend had said and that if it were true, I wanted to thank him. His only reply was; “just train.”
This became a refrain that I would hear over and over throughout my training and still continue to hear regularly. It is the answer and the solution to everything. If you don’t understand a training point, or can’t get a particular technique – just train. If life is coming at you hard and fast and you don’t know what to do – just train. And so on and so forth. And that doesn’t mean just train in the physical sense but in the mental, emotional and psychological aspects as well. It means that all the answers are in the training because ultimately, martial arts is about self-exploration and self-discovery. “Just train” means keep going no matter what, and everything will eventually sort itself out.
Five months into my training, I went to Japan with my boyfriend and our sensei to train with the grandmaster of Bujinkan Ninjutsu, Soke Maasaki Hatsumi, and the Japanese Shihan (master instructors) that have been training with him for somewhere around fifty years. Every year, around the Soke’s birthday at the beginning of December, there is a big seminar in Japan called the Daikomyosai and Ninjutsu practitioners come from all over the world to participate. After only five months of training, I still knew next to nothing and was hard-pressed to understand anything that was going on while training in Japan. I had consulted with my sensei before undertaking the trip to ensure that he didn’t think it was insane for me to be going to Japan so early in my training when I was as green as my belt. He encouraged me to go so I found myself in Japan meeting other Ninjutsu practitioners from numerous countries and having an incredible, though overwhelming time. Until the last day of the seminar…
My boyfriend and I tend to be very sociable so in spite of the fact that it was our first time at one of these international events, we got to know a lot of people rather quickly, or at least, they got to know us. So there we were, in the middle of a training session on the last morning of Daikomyosai, where various Shihan from around the world were calling people up to demonstrate techniques in front of the Grandmaster and the three hundred other attendees. I thought nothing of it when my boyfriend’s name and that of our sensei got called and they went up to do a technique, never suspecting that I would get called. After all, I was way too much of a newbie for anyone to expect me to demonstrate anything. Yet all of a sudden, I heard my name being called.
My shock and horror at that moment are difficult to describe. I sat there, stunned and terrified, refusing to get up. My boyfriend was whispering urgently in my ear; “Hatsumi is waiting for you!” Still, I didn’t budge and if it had been left up to me, I would have sat there until the moment passed and everyone realized that under no circumstances was I getting up in front of three hundred more experienced martial artists, to perform a technique. However, the decision was not left up to me. The Spanish Shihan that happened to be sitting on the floor directly behind me, bodily lifted me up and basically threw me out on to the floor. I confess that nothing else besides physical force would have gotten me out on that mat, but now, I had no choice. All the other martial artists were clapping and laughing at my discomfiture, rooting me on in a friendly fashion. Well, I managed to execute a decent technique on my boyfriend, one that we had just learned earlier that morning at the seminar, in which I actually took him down by his nose! This certainly made for comedic effect, but I was never so scared in my life and never so relieved as when the moment was over.
The Grandmaster smiled beneficently – I believe he was amused by the whole spectacle – but I realized that though it may have been funny once, I could not make another scene like that in the future, if I was ever called up again. The other practitioners were very encouraging, many of them approaching me in the course of the day to congratulate me on a good technique and laughing with me at my own embarrassment. I knew that my goal for the next year was to overcome my fear so that if I did get called up again, I would be able to stand up like everyone else and do what I had to do.
Another year of training went by and we again found ourselves in Japan at Daikomyosai. I had been training for a year and five months. As expected, I did indeed get called up to demonstrate a technique and this time there was no scene. I admit that immediately after executing my technique, and until this day, I have no recollection of which technique I actually did. I only knew that I had managed to do what I had mentally trained for all year. Though the fear was still there, I had conquered it enough to be able to stand up with no fuss and get out there and do something.
One evening, on that second trip to Japan, my boyfriend and I got into an argument. We were having a drink at the English pub near our hotel and we were discussing the fact that in Japan, though they do have regular toilets, they also have these porcelain troughs that you must squat over to do your business. He had already used them on several occasions and claimed to enjoy it, extolling the benefits of the squatting position! I, on the other hand, was maintaining my stand that I had no interest whatsoever in using these uncivilized “holes in the ground” and that I never would. Well, at this point in the conversation, my boyfriend says to me that if I never try anything new, if I don’t step outside of my proverbial box, I would never get my black belt. Needless to say, that pissed me off and I took his words as a challenge. At that moment, though I did not tell my boyfriend what I was thinking, I knew that I would have to prove to him (and to myself) that I could, in fact, do something like shitting in a hole. I knew that at the next opportunity, I would try out the “foreign facilities.”
The very next day, during our lunch break at the seminar, I did use the trough, though I did not enjoy it or find it comfortable and natural like my boyfriend did. Nonetheless, I tried it and I proudly reported this fact to my boyfriend. And now comes the crazy part – at the end of training that day, our sensei promoted me to black belt! The top Shihan from the US, with whom we had trained on several occasions, had apparently said to our sensei, “What are we going to do about Susan?” the implication being that he felt that it was time for me to receive my black belt.
My boyfriend had suspected that this might happen and had mentioned to me the possibility of me being promoted before we had left for Japan. I had not taken him seriously, having had no expectation whatsoever of being promoted and feeling completely unprepared to be a shodan. Indeed, there are certainly those that would say that without a formal test, I did not deserve to be promoted. However, I will attest to this; though I did not undergo an “official” rank test, having to get up and perform in front of the Grandmaster for two years in a row, so early in my training, and on top of that, going in a hole, sure felt to me like being tested!
Since taking up martial arts and growing to love it, I have been lucky enough to be able to start a business that allows me to surround myself with all things martial arts. The incredible thing is that I am entirely of the belief that the personal power and self-awareness that I have been able to cultivate since starting to train in the martial arts has been instrumental in helping me to find the courage to start my own business.
Susan Bender’s UniformsForMartialArts.com