What Happened to Ninjutsu?
Commentary By Shihan John Ang

An interesting article from a Martial Arts Magazine that I have kept over the last few years becomes the topic of my 'thoughts and reflections'. It may be best that I reproduced this article from the IMPACT Magazine (May 1993). The article is entitled "What happened to Ninjutsu?" and is written by Wayne L Roy the Head of Hatsumi's Togakure Ryu Ninjutsu in Australia. I want you to read through this article first and thereafter you can follow that up by reading my views.

WHAT HAPPENED TO NINJUTSU?

By Wayne L Roy, Founder of Togakure Ryu Ninjutsu in Australia. Article re-produced by courtesy of Impact Martial Arts Magazine PO box 80 Hawthorn 3122

Last year in London an 18 year old teenager was graded to the level of 5th degree Black Belt. Surprised? Well, there's more. A 5th Degree from Sweden recently paid for his grading and, along with his certificate, was a note informing him he should write to Japan in 12 months for his 6th degree! In Australia a 1st Degree Black Belt wrote a letter of thanks for his promotion on his official business letterhead, and in return, received a certificate for 3rd degree - simply because he was a professional architect. Should a Black Belt organise an annual tai kai (weekend seminar) for the grandmaster, he is just about guaranteed a promotion, of at least one, if not two, Black Belt degrees. It seems that these days, Black Belt rankings in ninjutsu are as easy to get as a hamburger at McDonalds.

Over the past few years, ninjutsu's "early promotion" policy has triggered a frantic race for high grades amongst black belts in Western countries. Sweden, Australia and New Zealand included. It is not uncommon for a young Black Belt in his 20's to receive two or three promotions in rank in as many years - especially if they go to the trouble of visiting the masters in Japan. Apparently it is now possible to obtain a Black Belt ranking as high as your ego will allow.

To the rest of the Martial Arts community, these events are so preposterous they are unbelievable! But, unfortunately they are true. And although a number of high ranking instructors around the world (Japan included) politely protest to the grandmaster about the effects of this policy, events like the ones I have mentioned continue to occur - leaving disappointed instructors saying " What happened to Ninjutsu?"

So why did all this happened? Why is the average ninjutsu 5th degree only a young man in his 20's, while in most other martial arts a 5th degree is usually in his late 30's? And why can most ninjutsu Black Belts currently expect a promotion in rank almost every year, regardless of how good they are or whether they have the strength of character people expect from high ranking martial artists? Well, it all started some time ago when Grandmaster Hatsumi introduced a policy of early promotion. The essence of this policy is to promote a person above the grade they are actually worth in the hope the responsibility of the new rank will encourage them to try harder and improve.

Such a policy is not unique to Ninjutsu. Several Japanese martial art traditions have utilised it from time to time. However ninjutsu differs in as much as it has extended the application of this policy to Western practitioners. Most Japanese martial arts traditionally limit such a practice to Japanese Black Belt who understand the responsibility of such a promotion, and can be trusted to act accordingly.

What must be realised at this point is that Japanese martial artists are in no way philosophically superior to Western martial artists, and vice versa. It has been my experience over the 22 years I have been involved with martial arts that Japanese practitioners are simply different than Westerners. In fact they seem to be opposite side of the same coin.

Because the Japanese culture is based primarily on "shame", their personal honour is of vital importance to them. Direct confrontation between individuals is usually avoided at all costs, as one or both persons may lose their sense of honour and be shamed. The cost of this avoidance is usually 'truth'. Not telling the truth can often avoid the risk of shame. That's why experienced Westerners will tell you that when dealing with a Japanese person, "Yes means no, and no means maybe". It is the same in the Chinese culture.

On top of this, the Japanese culture socially conditions its people to always regard themselves as just one part of a larger group or, to put it another way, one organ that is just a small part of a whole body. They are taught from birth to give up their sense of individuality, and in doing so, are often relieved of personal responsibility. This is generally passed on to a superior in a management or leadership position, and if the group fails in some way the superior will often resign on behalf of the group.

Because of these social factors, a Japanese person will do whatever they have to in order to preserve their sense of honour - even lie. There is no guilt as we know it, but if they are caught thinking or doing something their society deems to be wrong, there is great shame, and they will often go to extremes to rectify the situation.

Westerners, on the other hand, are brought up quite differently. We don't have such a strong sense of honour. Our culture worships individuality, and we are taught to take responsibility. In one way or another every little boy is taught that the strongest man is the one who stands alone, the kingpin, the lone wolf. And, rather than our culture being based on shame, we are conditioned to have a sense of 'guilt'. It keeps us in line. and acting the way society wants us to act. If we are caught thinking or doing something our society deems to be wrong , we are made to feel guilty about it, and our conscience bothers us until we apologise or make good.

In their own way, both the Japanese and the Western approaches are striving to achieve the same thing - a strong fabric of society. In regard to Ninjutsu , I personally believe the introduction of Hatsumi Sensei's early promotion policy was a sincere attempt at encouraging the growth of ninjutsu throughout the Western world. Unfortunately it has not created the outcome that was first envisaged. Why? Because the mind-set of Westerners is very different from that of the Japanese. We are not inferior to them, and they are not inferior to us. We just see things differently; sometime very differently.

In my travels over the years I have visited I have visited ninjutsu dojo's in America , Canada, Sweden, England and Ireland, and met instructors from many other countries as well. Most of them had made intelligent attempts at presenting the art in a way their countrymen would best respond to. Although not many of them had been successful in attracting large numbers , a small number of them had hit on a formula that worked. Like myself, these individuals believed in retaining high standards of performance and integrity , especially amongst their black belt students. And all of these gentlemen were concerned about the effects of the early promotion policy.

In general, the Western response to this policy has been a rush to get as high a rank as possible in as short a time as possible. Mostly this has come from impatient young men who crave the power of rank, but it is in no way limited to that age group. Many supposedly mature adults have hurried to Japan in order to gain instant promotions. Obviously these people think a high rank will make them important, and no doubt when they return home they will manage to fool the public for a short period of time. But truth will always be revealed eventually. A high grade that is not truly deserved will not withstand the pressure of performance. And the public judges by performance.

Any experienced martial artist will no doubt question how these people can live with themselves when it is obvious to everyone that they do not have the skill of life-experience to uphold such a high position. And that's the funny thing. Even though these people witnessed other inexperienced Black Belts being awarded a higher rank, then invariably gossip about it, for some reason when they themselves are promoted they act as though the grandmaster has acknowledged some 'seed of divinity' in their character.

This attitude is demonstrated most frequently at the testings for 5th degree Black belts. This is a test of intuition that is unique to ninjutsu. The grandmaster stands behind a kneeling Black Belt with a weapon and, at some stage, suddenly strikes down at the head. Traditionally, to pass the test , the Black Belt must spontaneously evade the strike by rolling away in harmony with the attack. In the past the grandmaster's strike would go all the way to the ground, with the tip of his weapon touching where the Black Belt was sitting. This was a reasonable test of feeling and avoiding the deadly intention of the attacker. However recent testings have involved a strike that goes no further than the nape of the neck. And all a Black belt has to do in order to pass the test is duck or dodge the strike in some way. I have seen a number of Australian Black Belts simply fall forward onto their hands and knees , and still be awarded their 5th degrees!!

But this sort of problem is not unique to ninjutsu. It happens to every martial art at one time or another. And no doubt the people who want the quick and easy path will regard my words as an attack on their 'right' to do what they want to do. But, telling the truth is hardly an attack. I am simply trying to make a point. And that point is that the standard of ninjutsu here in the West is dropping at an alarming rate. The art's reputation is now built more on myth than reality. And more and more there is a growing contempt for ninjutsu amongst the martial art community. And all of this is so unnecessary because ninjutsu is a dynamic martial art , when it is taught properly. If the true spirit of the art is to survive at all, we need more ninjutsu schools and fewer ninjutsu social clubs. I am sure the ninja of past generations would not approve of the way some people present such an enlightened warrior tradition.

Many people would argue that Japan should take the responsibility for this dramatic but questionable expansion of ninjutsu but I think that we as Westerners must take responsibility for our own actions. I am sure that Hatsumi has only the best intentions in his expansion of ninjutsu around the world. But I think that Hatsumi has been far too generous in continuing the early promotion policy over the years. But due to the large numbers of Westerners who travel to Japan to seek promotion, I imagine Hatsumi thinks this is typical of Westerners , and so continues to give candy to the children who crave it.

It is unfortunate that the early promotion policy triggers such a weakness in the Western character. Hatsumi calls it the "Big Man Syndrome". Everybody wants to be a big-shot and it seems the quickest way to achieve the illusion is through the prestige of a high rank.

.......and what are my 'thoughts and reflections' on the above article?

I am deeply touched by this very frank and honest assessment of Ninjutsu by a man who brought the art to Australia. To be fair, this problem is not unique to Ninjutsu. The last 50 years has seen the slow but gradual commercialisation of Martial art. The almighty 'dollar' has once again taken over the industry, as it has done to many other industries. But one must not forget that Martial art is just not' any other industry'. It has a long and rich tradition - something that has evolved over more than a thousand years. I accept the fact that the world today is a materialistic one - and the advent of the global economy only serves to reinforce this. If in the US and many other countries you can buy a Ph.D for a few thousand dollars, what is 3rd degree , 4th degree or even a 5th degree Black Belt? Again it is not uncommon these days for many martial arts masters to add the title of Dr. or Professor before their names to give them more credibility and perhaps an added enhancement to their claims of superiority and wisdom. And Martial Arts Magazines are more than happy to give you a cover story if you take up two full page advertisements with them. The 'going-ons' in the martial art industry today , to say the least, is pathetic. It is certainly not doing any justice to a tradition that symbolises man as an integral and natural part of the universe. In the martial art tradition man is seen as 'nature' - he learns to train his mind body and soul to blend with the greater whole (which is the universe itself). The martial artist distinguishes the 'natural' from the 'synthetic'. He must be able to see the futility of chasing glory or money and not get overwhelmed by today's material culture.

To start off, Ninjukai Taijutsu is NOT Ninjutsu. Sadly some people mistook us for another style of Ninjutsu. This is certainly not the case. The art makes no promises of fame or glory. There are no competitions or tournaments organised to determine the "champion". Because the Art is NOT about discovering the champion. It is about discovering yourself. The Australian Ninjukai Association (ANKA) is a non-profit organisation. We do not believe in big memberships by spreading our wings all round the world. Nor do we lure you to join us by promising you a Black Belt in twelve months. We do not do all that because it runs contrary to what BUDO is all about. Even the word BU-DO is not correctly translated. The word 'martial art' is supposed to be a translation of the word BUDO. I beg to disagree. With due respect the original translator probably thought that the phrase 'martial art', although a wrong translation probably sounded more macho. BU-DO consists of two words. The word DO in Japanese is TAO in Mandarin. The word DO or TAO stands for the' infinite' or 'nature'. It can even mean the universe (refer to Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching for an explanation of the word TAO). And the other word BU really means reaction or responses. Taken as a whole the word BUDO really means the 'human reponses to nature or the universe. Surely you will agree with me that the accepted translation of 'martial art' is way out.

Ninjukai Taijutsu training is essentially Budo training. Budo training starts with the discovery of the 'self' and the eventual transcendence of the very ego which constitutes the self (the process of Mu-Shin or Wu-Tao). Budo is about spontaneity of the mind - and the understanding that spontaneity can only be attained when one learns to 'free' the mind of its rigidity and structured thought pattern The modern-day man has lost his spontaneity. He has to be told and guided before he can even start to do anything. This is the inevitable result of a world that has become specialised. You do what you are trained for and leave others to do what they are in turn trained for. This works alright when you are talking of 'set situations' . If you train as a carpenter you will be able to make chairs and tables - because there are standard ways to do this . Likewise if you train as a car mechanic you will be able to repair cars because there are standard parts in a car and you are in turn equipped with standard tools to effect your repairs. You cannot go very far wrong! But can one train to fight? Here you are no longer dealing with the FINITE but the INFINITE. Martial Arts Schools will jump up and proclaim that you can. Each school will tell you how good their techniques are - and in no time you can become an invincible fighting machine. So what do you do in these schools? You go through a regimented training routine. It may be in the form of KATAS (a Japanese word that means fixed patterns or movements). Here you are taught routine steps, sometimes resembling dancing patterns. Or it may take the form of a Ring Sport where two combatants take on each other under strict rules and guidelines. Or perhaps you learn to defend yourself under set situations in the dojo, like getting out of a strangulation, a bear hug etc. With due respect this is excellent physical training, but to be able to look after yourself under 'random' situations and NOT 'set' situations certainly requires more than just regimented training in a dojo. The simple truth is techniques alone are of no use by themselves. All techniques are relative. They become relevant only when you can relate them to a situation. And again try to remember that situations in real life are INFINITE. For example there is no way you can predict how ,when or where someone is going to attack you. In other words you can never 'prepare' yourself for an attack the same way you can prepare yourself to, say, make a table or chair.

In Ninjukai Taijutsu, therefore, members learn that techniques are mere manifestations of the mind. The source of these techniques is the MIND. To equip yourself to face random situations in the world and not set situations in a dojo, you must acquire a level of spontaneity that allow your responses to blend with the environment. In other words the mind must allow the techniques to blend with the situation. In Budo the training of the mind is just as important as the training of the body. A mind that is in a state of 'turmoil' cannot possibly manifest spontaneity. Spontaneity is the natural outcome of a mind that is uncluttered - it flow from a mind that experiences calmness. Unfortunately calmness of the mind is quite a rare phenomena in the modern world where 'stress' rather than calmness seems to be the norm. Meditation is therefore a very important aspect of Budo training. It is unfortunate that this 'yin' aspect of martial training is almost completely left out in today's martial styles where the emphasis is just on the 'yang' or physical side.

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