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Sporting Nation

Japan’s Best-Known Ninja

Masaaki Hatsumi teaches the ways of the samurai and the art of ninjutsu to aspiring shadow warriors and law enforcement personnel from all over the world, receiving accolades from important figures and heads of state.

At first glance, the neighborhood around Atago Station in Chiba Prefecture’s Noda City appears nondescript—a typical suburb in the greater Tokyo area. Mere meters away from the tracks sits an inconspicuous, black-walled Japanese-style building. Stepping through its sliding doors, however, reveals a host of foreign faces, men and women alike, interspersed with a few Japanese. These are practitioners of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, a martial art that local Masaaki Hatsumi devised and is passing on.

The term budo generally encompasses Japan’s diverse array of martial arts and the character engendered among their practitioners. While their styles and purposes vary to some extent, these arts provided skills in feudal Japan that samurai and mercenaries alike needed to prevail in conflict. Some martial arts like kendo are oriented toward fighting with weapons; forms such as karate emphasize empty-handed combat. Others seek to quickly subdue the opponent and minimize actual fighting altogether, as in judo and aikido.

Hatsumi calls the form of budo he teaches at his dojo (training hall) taijutsu, to denote the skill (jutsu) of using one’s body (tai). Hatsumi founded Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu in 1970, yet the skills he imparts are ancient—he drew on samurai practices and ninjutsu (ninja tactics) to create this new form of modern combat.

Times may have changed, but the underlying goal has not. “There weren’t rules to this [art]. The question was whether you lived or died,” Hatsumi says, explaining that unlike the modern-day sporting element in many other types of budo, taijutsu is focused entirely on gaining the upper hand in battle.

Martial arts have been a lifelong practice for Hatsumi, starting from when he was a student. He taught judo while in university, and at age twenty-six began learning techniques from Toshitsugu Takamatsu, who is said to be one of the last leaders of a ninjutsu school. Hatsumi eventually inherited the position of soke (grandmaster) of nine ryu (schools of martial arts) from Takamatsu.

With hair dyed purple and a gleam in his eyes, the 84-year-old defies preconceptions. He nimbly sidesteps attacks from opponents as he demonstrates new techniques, deftly overpowering people much stronger and younger in a series of agile maneuvers. Hatsumi is quick to point out that “anyone can learn this. It’s not about being big or small, male or female,” he declares.

Such techniques have naturally attracted notice. In the past, Hatsumi traveled around the globe teaching his methods to FBI agents in the U.S. and the UK’s SAS, as well as to members of military and law enforcement agencies in other countries. The Bujinkan website lists letters of gratitude from numerous nations. “Now I have them come to me at the dojo,” he admits, citing the exhaustion of travel.

Having a majority of non-Japanese pupils at a session is not unusual, Hatsumi says. There are Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu schools all over the world, and practitioners of his art now number more than a hundred thousand. Some pupils are involved in security work and need these skills for their jobs, but numerous others study for the skills of concentration, awareness and self-control his system hones. “It’s a way to deal with anything in life,” says Don, visiting from the U.S. Stephane, from Canada, found the intellectual stimulation appealing. “It adds something different to your day job,” he observes. “It puts you into a difficult situation where you have to find a solution.”

Few would ever doubt Hatsumi’s martial skill. Another aspect, however, reveals why Hatsumi—also an accomplished calligrapher and writer—is a true artist: every training session he leads is different. “In forty-two years, I’ve never taught the exact same thing,” he notes. Leading his students through an affinity for both combat and literary arts, Hatsumi passes on not only the essence of martial arts, but the essence of Japan.

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