Training in Japan

Steve Needham is a 5th degree black belt practitioner in Brisbane. Here he interviews Sensei Roy about training in Japan, and about his experiences with his teacher, Sensei Toshiro Nagato.


Steve Needham : How would you describe your teacher Nagato Sensei ?


Sensei Roy : Sensei is probably best described as the strong and silent type.


Steve Needham : How did you first meet him ?


Sensei Roy : In the years before I first went to Japan I studied Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Praying Mantis Kung Fu, and an eclectic (modern) martial art that involved ninjutsu-style tactics. I had also read a number of Stephen Hayes books, as well as a book by Andrew Adams called "Ninja, the Invisible Assassins."  I think there was a contact address for Hatsumi Sensei in that book.


Consequently, I wrote a letter to Hatsumi Sensei, and received a reply from Nagato Sensei.  He had lived for a year or so in North America and had a fairly good grasp of English… and my enquiry about training in Japan had obviously been passed on to him.  Nine months and several letters later, I met him in the foyer of a small Tokyo hotel.


Steve Needham : What was the first thing he said to you ?


Sensei Roy : When he walked in I had an intuitive flash that this must be the man.  I stood up from my chair.  He realized that I must be the Australian… which wasn’t hard because I was the only westerner there.  He greeted me and shook my hand… and when he sat down he looked around and said "You’ll be happy living here.. very nice."


Steve Needham : What was your reaction ?


Sensei Roy : I was shocked.  I had quit my Job in Australia and had brought all my savings with me, but I certainly couldn’t afford to stay in a Tokyo hotel for any length of time.


I was rather naive back then.  I thought that, because I had travelled from Australia, one of the ninjutsu practitioners might be able to put me up for a while.  I didn't realise that over the years many foreigners had already travelled to Japan to study ninjutsu, and my situation warranted no special consideration.


Steve Needham : What did you do ?


Sensei Roy :  Well I felt that I had nothing to loose… so I simply asked Nagato Sensei if I could live with him for a while… if he had the spare room.  He looked at me for a moment then nodded and said, "Ok."  So I picked up my bag, and we walked out of the hotel to catch a subway train to class.


Steve Needham : You went straight to class ?


Sensei Roy : Yes, and he had very little to say along the way. I remember I asked him what I should call him.  He replied in a deep tone, "Sensei."


I had no idea where we were going… and we changed trains several times.  It amazed me how he would get off.  The train would pull into a station, the doors would open, people would get out, but Sensei wouldn’t move.  I would think to myself "Well, we obviously don't need to change trains here."  But sometimes, just before the doors would close, Sensei would casually stand and walk out of the train without saying a word.  And I would dash out after him, dragging my back-pack over my shoulder.


Back then I didn't properly understand the Japanese way of teaching. There is very little communication ..... just experiences that the student can perceive in many different ways.


Steve Needham : What was that first class with him like ?


Sensei Roy : Sheer culture shock.  Because of the books I had read, I expected some small out-of-the-way school that would have an outdoor training area with trees for rope and ladder techniques, and targets for shuriken throwing.


Instead we walked into a large Sports Centre.  You paid to get in… then for martial arts training you walked upstairs to an enormous matted area where several martial arts trained in the same space. In the left hand corner, about ten men in black martial art suits were stretching. That was my first image of modern-day ninjutsu training.


Steve Needham : What did the training consist of ?


Sensei Roy : After everyone paid Nagato Sensei for the class, we stretched a while.  Then suddenly Nagato Sensei called us to sit in ranks.  The group clapped their hands together a couple of times and chanted something in Japanese.  I had no idea what was said, or what was going on. 


As a warm-up, we then formed a circle and went through a series of five block-and-strike exercises.  There was no explanation, just a name for each exercise... and for me it was a matter of just watch-and-do. 


Then Sensei directed the group to do a few rolling techniques.  He turned to me and said "Watch".  He performed a no-hand forward roll, then told me to do it.  My first attempt resulted in me spearing my shoulder into the matt.. causing me considerable pain.  He simply looked at me and said "Not like that."



After that we moved on some traditional unarmed combat scenarios… all of which seemed very odd to me.  Variation after variation was presented… with very little explanation.  When something was occasionally explained, it was always in Japanese.


Next we did some Hanbo (half-staff) techniques against traditional grabs and strikes... and again, these were followed by variations. 


Then finally we were directed to sit in ranks, and Sensei spoke to the group for a while (in Japanese of course).


Later on, as we walked out, I asked him if he would please explain what he had said in English.  In response he asked if I had brought any books on Ninjutsu with me... I said I did... and he said "Just read those."


It was at that point I realised that my leaving Australia to study this art meant very little to this man.  I was not the first foreigner to come to Japan to learn about Ninjutsu, and I wouldn’t be the last.


Steve Needham : Did you live with Nagato Sensei for long?


Sensei Roy : Yes... about six weeks I think.  At the time he was living outside of Tokyo, in Saitama Prefecture.  He was renting a small house and living by himself.  And it just so happened that he wanted to rent out the spare room… which is why he agreed to let me stay with him. 


At the time he was studying for a medical exam in bone-setting.  It's a degree that specialises just on setting broken bones.  Hatsumi Sensei has the same degree, and Nagato Sensei had decided to follow his teacher and work to establish his own business. 


The house that Sensei was renting consisted of a living room, a small kitchen, a very small bathroom, and two bedrooms.  At that time it was winter, and very cold.  I slept on tatami mats in my sleeping bag, and every day we played chess and went for a walk.


One of the first things Nagato Sensei taught me was how to make a nutritious vegetable soup.... which I still make sometimes.


Steve Needham : Was there a daily training routine?


Sensei Roy :  That was the surprising bit.  Naturally I expected that there would be a daily training routine… but there wasn't.  Sensei would simply study for his upcoming exams for a few hours every day.  All we did for the six or seven weeks I lived with him was train twice a week at the dojo… go for a walk every day… play chess… go shopping for groceries… and occasionally visit a couple of his friends at night, so they could practice their English conversation with me.


I spent my free time reading my way through a stack of Soldier Of Fortune magazines that Sensei had collected. That was it.  We didn’t talk very much.  Well, at least he didn’t talk very much. I talked a lot… I wanted to know everything about Ninjutsu.


One thing that Sensei did like to talk about from time to time was a mercenary by the name of Michael Echanis, who was featured in one of the Soldier of Fortune Magazines.  Sensei had met him when he was living in America, and regarded Echanis as a modern-day ninja.  Echanis thought that Nagato Sensei would make a good mercenary, and invited him to undergo training in modern weapons, then join him on a mission. Nagato Sensei thought about it, but politely declined.  A few months later Echanis died in a helicopter crash during that mission.  


Steve Needham : Did you enjoy living with Sensei Nagato ?


Sensei Roy : I am very grateful for the experience… it certainly woke me up to the realities of martial arts training in modern-day Japan.  Looking back, it was probably a little uncomfortable for both of us really.


When I think about it, although Sensei had spent a year or so living in America, he suddenly found himself having to tolerate a gai-jin (a foreigner devil) living in his home.  I'm sure I breached Japanese etiquette many times.  In fact I remember being reprimanded more than once for asking him too many questions.


Eventually though, I got a job in Tokyo with a Japanese steel cutting company, and they helped me find my own accommodation… a small apartment that was just a few train stops away from the office.


Steve Needham : Were there any other foreigners studying under Nagato Sensei at the time?


Sensei Roy : Just one guy from South America.  He was trying to study several martial art traditions at the same time.  And he was doing it ‘on the cheap’, and hoping to stay in Japan for a couple of years.


I didn’t know it back then, but most of the foreigners who came to Japan to learn Ninjutsu actually lived and trained in Noda city, which is about three hours outside of Tokyo.  Hatsumi Sensei lives there.  I found out later that Noda was renowned for 3 things: the Kikoman soy-sauce factory, the Yakuza (Japanese mafia), and Ninjutsu.


But I was put under the guidance of Nagato Sensei (such as it was).  Maybe it was because I had written in my original letter that I intended to stay for at least a year… and it was more likely that I would get a job in Tokyo… probably as an English Language Teacher.


Towards the end of my stay I did meet an American… a very talented guy by the name of Robert Bussey.  It was his second trip to Japan, and we hit it off straight away.


Bob (as his friends called him) ran a successful Martial Arts Academy in Nebraska.  He was a black belt in three styles, and had achieved his Shodan ranking in Ninjutsu during his first visit.  


At the time I first met him, Bob was in Japan on his honeymoon.  His wife was a Shodan as well, and they took the opportunity to attend some of Nagato Sensei’s classes in Tokyo.


On Bob’s last night Nagato Sensei took us apart from the rest of the group and gave us both a talk on the importance of expanding Hatsumi Sensei’s organization (the Bujinkan).  Bob was then awarded his Nidan (second degree black belt), and so was I.


At the time I thought I had been graded so quickly because of my past martial art experience, and because I had made it clear (to Nagato Sensei) that I intended to establish Ninjutsu in Australia.  It wasn’t until years later that I came to realise that black belt rankings were handed out like lollies in the Bujinkan.  Hatsumi Sensei liked to feed the ego of westerners by grading them quickly… thereby ensuring their loyalty to him and his organisation.   


Steve Needham : Did you train with Dr. Hatsumi during that first visit to Japan?


Sensei Roy : I only got to see Hatsumi Sensei once in the whole year of my first visit… but it wasn’t at a training session… it was at a gathering in Noda City to celebrate Hatsumi Sensei's birthday.


As I remember, Nagato Sensei and I travelled by train to Noda City and were driven to an apartment that I assumed was Hatsumi Sensei’s.  I met several other gai-jin there that day.


At one point Hatsumi Sensei sat all the students down together in a room and spoke about the Bujinkan in Japanese.  We (westerners) had no idea of what was being said. 


Although this was the first time I had been in the presence of the Grandmaster, I was very short of money at the time, and consequently I became very interested in the food that was put in front of us.  Hunger makes for poor listeners… especially if they don’t understand what’s being said!


Later in the day, Nagato Sensei walked with me to a martial art supply shop so I could by a new uniform.  Sensei did several favours like that for me… but they are not the favours that you would expect from a western point of view.  I learnt to become grateful for even the smallest act of kindness or generosity.  It was no surprise to me that most westerners didn't stay in Japan for more than a few weeks.


Steve Needham : Did you study any traditional weaponry or survival techniques while you were training in Tokyo?


Sensei Roy : No, never.  And to my knowledge, neither did the westerners who lived in Noda City.  I realise that that will surprise many people, but we did very little training other than what I described from my first lesson.


The most common weapons were hanbo (half-staff) and tanto (knife).  Some practitioners owned a shinai (bamboo sword), but most of the time we just used our sticks when we were practicing sword defence techniques.


I remember towards the end of that year, special aluminium short-swords were made available to all practitioners.  But they were very expensive, and the people who bought them only used them to practice sword-drawing.  No one dared to practice blocking or deflective techniques with them.


There were two nights when we were taught how to practice throwing shuriken (throwing-stars)… but not in the way you’d expect… it was done by using business cards.  It may sound strange but it's actually a good way to learn the proper wrist-action.


I know that the Japanese Masters received some training in the more exotic Ninjutsu weapons… especially if Hatsumi Sensei was going to produce a training video or a book.   


My training in traditional ninjutsu weaponry and survival techniques was actually done in America a few years later, when I visited Robert Bussey. 


I didn't realise it at the time, but if you’re interested in a particular aspect of Ninjutsu, you're supposed to research the subject yourself.  And if you have any questions, then you ask your teacher and he will add any knowledge that he may have on the subject. 


Steve Needham : What weapons did you study while you were visiting Robert Bussey?


Sensei Roy : Actually there were more traditional ninjutsu weapons available in America than there were in Japan.  Bob introduced me to various kinds of shuriken (throwing stars), the tekagi (hand-claws), blow-gun, kyoketsu shoge (hooked-knife and ring), kusari gama (sickle with weighted-chain), and net-throwing.


But what I found most interesting were the firearms.  Bob owned a range of firearms that all his black belts could use.  They included : semi-automatic hand-guns, pump-action combat shotgun, M16 assault rifle, and an Uzi sub-machine gun.  It was quite an amazing experience to be exposed to that sort of modern weaponry.


On a trip after that one I visited Bob in Nebraska again, then travelled down to Georgia to train with Charles Daniel.  He taught me the basic of Hojo-jutsu (restraining cord), and gave me several Koga Ryu training scrolls.


Steve Needham : When did you go back to Japan ?


Sensei Roy : A few years later.  After training with Bob that first time I was in no hurry to return to Japan  everything I expected to learn I ended up learning in America.  I did eventually go back though. 


When I wrote to Nagato Sensei to tell him that I was coming, he wrote back with instructions to call him as soon as I arrived at Narita airport.  I was pleasantly surprised at this courtesy.  I had worked hard to spread Ninjutsu in Australia, and by then I had appeared on the cover of a few Martial Arts Magazines.  I assumed that my efforts were now being acknowledged.


However, when I called him from Narita Airport, he simply told me to catch a train to Noda City railway station.  He said he would meet me there.


So off I went.  Even though I was initially disappointed because I had assumed that my teacher had planned to meet me at the airport, I was grateful that he was going to meet me at the train station. About three hours later, I walked out of Noda railway station and into my teacher’s car.  He took me straight to where foreigners usually stay.  I got quite a shock.


It was a two-story timber building that the other westerners called "Heartbreak Hotel."  It consisted of six small rooms that were hot in summer, and cold in winter.  The cooking facilities were very basic (one gas hotplate), and the toilet had maggots in it.  There was no hot water, and no bath or shower. You had to wash yourself from a cold-water tap in the backyard.


It was there that I met an American by the name of Charles Daniel.  He turned out to be quite an historian, and at the time his first book on Ninjutsu basics had just been published.


There were a few other foreigners living in Heartbreak Hotel as well. They were all Swedish. They told me there was another set of apartments nearby which had just two rooms. The building was about the size of a double-garage, and the foreigners called it "The Hilton" because it had a hot shower and a western toilet.


Straight away I asked if we could go there and ask about using the shower.  However the others quickly informed me that I wasn’t the first person to think of that.  In fact, the people renting the Hilton were already getting a little annoyed at the constant visits from other foreigners.  “So much for brotherhood” I thought to myself.


Steve Needham : What did you do each day?... were there daytime classes?.


No, there were no daytime classes… all the Japanese Masters had jobs. Hatsumi Sensei didn’t have his own dojo back then… he simply did the rounds of the nearby schools.  


During my time at Heartbreak we (foreigners) spent our mornings sitting around and talking... and we often went walking around Noda City in the afternoon.  Of an evening we would walk to one of the schools in-and-around NodaWe would often start walking at sunset because a couple of the dojos were over an hour’s walk away.  To get to one of the dojos just outside of the Noda area we would have to travel by train, and still walk for a considerable distance.


At each school the training structure was the same. The only difference was the instructor’s personal expression (variations) of the traditional techniques. The basic format was (and still is) :


1)       stretch before class

2)       basic block-and-strike exercises as a warm-up

3)       rolling and breakfalling techniques

4)       a few traditional combat scenarios (followed by variations)

5)       and a few traditional weapon scenarios (followed by variations).


Steve Needham : How do you see ninjutsu training today?


Sensei Roy : Practitioners today are very lucky… they have it easy to say the least.  There is so much more information available these days… and you can get tuition in your own language. Practitioners are now able to learn skills that used to take ages to research and understand.


Ninjutsu has certainly expanded since I started training in 1980.  Now there are two other Japanese organizations that are off-shoots of the Bujinkan.  You've got : the Genbukan, which is headed by Tanemura Sensei ; and the Jinenkan, which is headed by Manaka Sensei.  All three of these organizations teach from the same Scrolls, but have a slightly different approach to training… ranging from a very casual attitude, to quite strict. 


There are also a number of western organizations.  Some offer a traditional approach, and some offer a combination of traditional and reality-based training It's a good time to study Ninjutsu.  



Copyright 1981-2008 © Wayne L. Roy.
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