Ninja Training

Charles Daniel is a high ranking ninjutsu practitioner and author who lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  He met Sensei Roy in Japan in the 1980’s, and over the years they’ve had many interesting discussions about the martial arts.  In this conversation, Sensei Roy talks to Sensei Charles about the training of Japan's feudal ninja.

Sensei Roy : Charles, have you ever had any discussions with Hatsumi Sensei about training in the old days, or about training with his teacher, Takamatsu Sensei?

Charles Daniel : Sure. Hatsumi Sensei has said that training with Takamatsu Sensei was often scary.  But what you've got to remember about Takamatsu was that he was preparing Hatsumi to be the next Soke (Grandmaster).  He often used real weapons when teaching, and the training was much harder. 

The thing to remember about Takamatsu was that, even as an old man, he had a very powerful presence.  Hatsumi Sensei has written about the fact that his spirit alone was enough to get through a bad situation.

Sensei Roy : Apparently there is an old 8mm. film showing Takamatsu teaching Hatsumi Sensei and a few others. Have you ever seen that film?

Charles Daniel : Yes I've seen it. It's an old black and white film. Hatsumi was a very young man. Takamatsu was throwing people around like they were rag-dolls.

Sensei Roy : So the training back then was actually quite severe.

Charles Daniel : Yes, until about the late 1970's.

Sensei Roy : When I first started in 1980, the training in Japan was still quite rough... especially if you studied under my teacher, Nagato Sensei.

Charles Daniel : It was rougher back then than it is today. Of course you know how I train... I stuck to the old ways, which is why I only ever had a few students.

Sensei Roy : I remember when I first started, I was taught long deep postures.

Charles Daniel : Well you know what Funokoshi (the founder of Karate) said: "Low stances are for beginners." It was the same in Ninjutsu.  I'd known Hatsumi Sensei for 10 years before I saw him use a low stance.

The thing about low stances is that they develop your legs. They're part of the training process, they're not meant to be practical. You can't effectively defend yourself from down there.

Sensei Roy : I know that now, but it certainly wasn't explained to me at the time.  It amazes me that some western practitioners still continue to use low postures.  They seem to think that low postures are the old way of fighting, the real ninjutsu.

Charles Daniel : If you're wearing armour you might get away with using low stances... because things move much slower when you wear armour.  But for the most part, low stances were just used to teach beginners the proper form and balance.  It made their legs stronger.

Sensei Roy : Did Hatsumi Sensei ever talk to you about the very old ninjutsu training... back in the hey-day of the ninja?

Charles Daniel : Yeah sure… but you have to understand that in the old days it was a different ball-game... they started training much younger.

The children were initially taught games : balance games, throwing games, jumping games.  They were taught how to swim as a game.  A lot of the stuff that was necessary for their survival, they learnt before they knew they were learning martial art skills.

According to Takamatsu Sensei, they would start by teaching stretching, body-conditioning exercises, and walking techniques.  Then they would go off to the mountains to go on an awareness retreat.  They would learn to be with nature, and how to read animal-signs.  The whole experience was very different in the old days.

Sensei Roy : Takamatsu went off on an awareness retreat for a year or so, didn't he ?

Charles Daniel : Yes he did.

Sensei Roy : Didn’t another ninjutsu tradition do that sort of thing too… the Koga Ryu?

Charles Daniel : Yes, they were very famous for it.  But they're gone now.  The lineage of Grandmasters died out in the 60's.

You've got to remember that until the last half of the twentieth century, Ninjutsu was mostly an oral tradition… taught by the spoken word.  Nothing of any significance was ever written down. Certainly nothing that could be understood by outsiders.

Sensei Roy : The ninjutsu training scrolls were certainly written in vague descriptions.

Charles Daniel : Traditionally, those training scrolls were never meant to be read by the anyone outside the tradition.  They were written to be understood only by people who had already been trained.  And another thing about the scrolls, they don't include information about walking techniques, reading animal-signs, and that sort of thing. Those subjects were taught orally.

Sensei Roy : On one of trips to Japan - in Noda - I was out walking with Hatsumi Sensei and a few other westerners who were there at the time.  As you know, he walks his dogs for an hour every day.  Anyway, as we walking, he started to teach us about the ninja's walking traditional techniques.  I found the technique to be quite difficult... mainly because I was carrying his oldest dog at the time.  Hatsumi Sensei felt that the walk was too long for him, so asked me to carry him.

Charles Daniel : (laughs) Those techniques, and the ability to read signs, were a big part of ninjutsu training.  It was a matter of survival.  So much of the technology and equipment we use today just didn't exist back then.  Plus, they weren't in any hurry to train people.

You have to understand that if you were born into a functioning ninja clan, they already had people who were trained... they were your parents and your extended family.  So they took their time.  They could afford to send someone into the mountains for 6 months.  And when they came back, they would start to teach them taijutsu (unarmed combat) techniques, and weaponry.

Now it's interesting to note that back then, training with weapons was more common than it is today in most ninjutsu schools... for the simple reason that those weapons were much more prevalent than they are today.  Back then everyone at access to an edged weapon of some kind.

Sensei Roy : I ensure that weapons training is a major part of my teaching program.  It compliments the taijutsu, and I think that every weapon has something to teach you about balance, distance, and timing.  Co-ordination is also improved through weapons training.

Charles Daniel : Oh I agree with you.  And from a practical point of view, it's a lot easier to improvise with something (on the street) if you're familiar with a range of different weapons.

But when you look at the traditional running and walking techniques, you're got to remember that they didn't have sports like we do.  These days you can condition your body by playing football, basketball, or doing aerobics.  Or you could ride a bike, or swim.  All these things will develop your aerobic fitness and muscle-tone.

The ninja didn't have any of that.  They trekked up mountains, swam in rivers… things like that.  A lot of the stuff we do today as a leisure activity was a big deal to them… very specialized training.

Sensei Roy : I think that movies and television has programmed people to believe that all the ancient martial art training is the best training.  But that's not always the case.  Modern medicine and research into sport has provided insights into the body that go far beyond the science of ancient Japan.

Charles Daniel : When I was going to University we had a course called "drown-proofing".  What they did at the end of the course was tie your hands and feet together, and throw you in the deep end of the pool.  We had to try and stay afloat for an extended period of time… that's how you passed the course.

In the old days in Japan, they did that sort of thing in the schools that taught swimming techniques.  That's what you had to do to eventually receive your Menkyo (teaching licence).  Well we did that as a course in college !

A lot of the ninja body-conditioning can be achieved today, just by being physically active... by playing a sport or going to the gym.

As far as weapons training was concerned, the ninja were generally poor people. I don't think they did a lot of sword, spear or halberd.  Those were expensive weapons.  I think they trained a lot with sticks, and with weapons they could make themselves : kyoketsu shoge (hooked-knife and ring) ; kusari gama (sickle with weighted-chain) ; shuriken (throwing stars and spikes)… things like that.  Even a bow and arrow is fairly easy to make.

I personally think the weapons that the historic ninja used were very simple and practical.  It's not that they didn't use spears and halberds - they did - but those weapons were simply too expensive to make.  The ninja were very good at using refuse from the battlefield. They would take a broken sword and make a short-sword or a knife.

Sensei Roy : Some books on ninjutsu indicate that original ninja sword had a straight blade that was shorter and wider than the standard sword... sort of like a bush-knife.  What do you think of that theory?

Charles Daniel : Well I doubt that there were many straight ninja swords.  I think that if there were any at all, it was a long time ago, and had to do more with the straight Chinese swords that were around back then.  Straight swords don't cut as well as curved blades.

Sensei Roy : And they're harder to draw from a scabbard too!

Charles Daniel : Yes. They're made more for thrusting and hacking.  As I said, I think the short ninja sword was probably made from broken swords from the battlefield.

Sensei Roy : As I understand it, the curve of a Japanese sword is designed to allow for strength in the blade, and a cutting-edge that will hold its sharpness.  If the entire blade was straight, it would be more brittle .

Charles Daniel : Yes that's right.  The curved sword is far superior to the straight sword.  In a combat situation, there are many techniques that just can't be done as effectively with a straight blade.

The reason the hand-guards on a ninja sword were so big, was to jam the opponent's blade and get in close.  That was a very important tactic if your sword was a foot or so shorter than your opponent’s.

Sensei Roy : Charles, do you know much about the Koga Ryu ?

Charles Daniel : Well as you know, Koga was a province of old Japan.  Just like Iga was a province. They were basically next-door neighbours… and there were ninja clans (ryu) in both areas.  Sometimes these groups were allied with each other, and sometimes they fought each other.

Sensei Roy : It all depended on the political situation at the time!

Charles Daniel : That's right.  And the Koga Ryu had a living tradition right through until 1968, when the last Grandmaster died.  Unfortunately he died without naming anyone as his successor… so that was the end of the Koga Ryu !

However he did leave behind 4 training scrolls. They covered techniques of :

1)  Kyusho-jutsu (pressure-point striking)

2)  Hojo-jutsu (restraining cord)

3)  Shuriken-jutsu (throwing stars and spikes)

4)  and Jo-jutsu (five-foot staff).

That's basically all that's left of the Koga Ryu.

Sensei Roy : Didn’t the Koga Ryu training involved quite lot of body-conditioning?

Charles Daniel : Well that's what the stories say.  They would do the usual stretching, running, climbing and jumping.  But keep in mind that those people didn't have the understanding of physiology that we do today.

If you go to your local gym or sports club, the coaches will put you in better shape than those guys could have done in three years. The only thing that those old training practices did was put you in touch with your nature… by training up in the mountains!

I think you have to understand the mind-set of the feudal ninja clans.  The concept of "Let's do something today better than we did yesterday" was not part of their thinking.

Sensei RoyThey had a completely different system of values... and a strong sense of family (clan) tradition.

Charles Daniel : Yes.  The concept of ‘progress’ was only embraced by certain cultures... predominantly the western cultures.  The idea of improving on a tradition is a fairly new idea for some people, even today.

Sensei Roy : Getting back to Takamatsu Sensei ..... do you know if he taught any of the traditional ninjutsu survival skills, like rope techniques or swimming techniques ?

Charles Daniel : Well certainly rope techniques, but I don't know about swimming techniques.  I know that at least one Japanese master, Manaka Sensei, used to teach fighting in the water.

Sensei Roy : Compared to other martial arts, how would you personally describe Ninjutsu's combat tactics?

Charles Daniel : Well ninjutsu has a very different approach to most other arts… a survivalist approach.   We're not limited by the usual rules of martial arts combat.  If a situation starts up, I'm going to pick up a stool and hit the guy.  I'm not interested in rules... I'm not interested in proving anything to anyone… I'm interested in getting out alive.  As far as I’m concerned, that's what Ninjutsu is about… that's why we're different from the other Japanese traditions.


Copyright 1981-2008 © Wayne L. Roy.
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