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Damion Ellis – Bujinkan Poser

Generally, Bujinkan practitioners who have been around for a while say that rank is meaningless. Unfortunately, there are people who make it even more meaningless than that. One such person is Damion Ellis, who has gamed the system and slipped through the cracks, and thus gotten himself a Dai-Shihan rank in the Bujinkan.

Below is the text of the Facebook Note from Dale Seago, the man keeping track of the matter. For a commentary on such behavior, check out this blog post from Don Roley.

The Facebook Note itself:

______

The Judan who wasn’t there

On Sunday I was informed of this thread:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/168565660012520/permalink/593873344148414/

I sent the link via PM to Damion Ellis, as I thought he might want to say something about it, and according to Facebook he saw it about an hour later. But he never responded. In fact, three days later he still is not responding to messages from me, his instructor Chris Cowan, or Michael Simien (even though he was on Facebook again this morning), and Chris’s phone calls to him just go to voicemail and are unanswered.

To summarize things, I did not meet Damion to the best of my recollection until he moved up here from Southern California. However, back around the end of the ‘80s he was teaching what he was advertising as Bujinkan classes down there, claiming a black belt rank – godan, if memory serves – from Stephen K. Hayes. Some folks down there for whom I was doing occasional seminars told me about it and I had them go check out his classes. When it was apparent that he had no connection with the Bujinkan and was doing something different, I sent him a “cease and desist” letter indicating there could be legal action if he did not comply, which apparently he did.

After that he got into legitimate Bujinkan training with Ron Blackwood in July of 2007, and held a 7th kyu rank at the point where he moved north to the San Francisco Bay Area. He began training with Chris Cowan, who was promoted to Jugodan last year. In 2014 he went to Japan with Chris, and passed the godan test. In 2015 he went back, and (in light of the years he’d allegedly been training) Chris offered to recommend him for a more suitable rank. He actually gave him a signed letter for 10th dan as an option, but according to Chris they talked about it and settled on 8th dan as the most appropriate.

It now appears that Ellis took that Judan recommendation letter and turned it in, and also forged recommendation letters from Michael Simien (who was originally my student and was Chris’s teacher, and who never recommended Ellis) and David Fetterman (who does not even know Ellis). It *IS* conclusive that the letters from Simien and Fetterman are forged.

I’m not sure why this is coming to light now, a year and a half later, but it seems likely the promotion paperwork was misplaced and just recently found, and Mark Lithgow and Phil Legare were asked by Soke to check things out. If that’s the case then Ellis probably was not actually promoted to judan at all – though he claimed to have been. There’s a photo posted on Chris Cowan’s page showing Chris and a couple of others with their shiny new menkyo, and Ellis is standing there with them. The caption also congratulates Ellis (who is the only one not holding a menkyo) on his Judan promotion. According to Chris, Ellis said he received his package from Japan before everyone else’s arrived. . .and apparently no one has actually seen the Judan menkyo.

I would love to later be able to tell everyone “Oops, sorry, Ellis has an explanation for everything and we were mistaken”. But right now – especially since he has totally “gone dark” and isn’t communicating with anyone about this – that doesn’t seem likely.

EDIT/UPDATE, THU, 03 NOV 16:

Not looking good. He has submitted an explanation to a Dai-shihan in Japan, which basically boils down to meeting a mysterious Fairy Godfather with no last name at the Hub pub in Kashiwa, who granted his wish for recommendation letters.

Yes, really.

(EDIT: The individual has been identified and has confirmed that Damion Ellis did ask him for a promotion recommendation letter, but he says he refused because he had only met Ellis, not trained with him, so could not evaluate him.)

I can now confirm from that same Dai-shihan that, as I speculated in my original note above, no judan menkyo has actually been issued to Ellis by Hombu, he only claimed to Chris Cowan that he’d received it.

EDIT/UPDATE TUE, 25 APR 17: I checked in January of this year to see what the status was and was told, “The Admin put a big red X on his recommendation letter with a note regarding fraud and taped it on his record in the book he is in. Bottom line he is not getting promoted. If he tries to again later the admin will see the note in his record and again question it.”

That was regarding the 10th dan Ellis had claimed to have received, and the red X was in his godan book as that was the last legitimate rank he had held. Since then he has returned this month to Japan and been promoted to 15th dan. Soke may have done that without checking; in any case, I am informed that he has now been made aware of this.

EDIT/UPDATE SAT, 03 JUN 17: Well, well, something else for Soke to consider. Amazing what can sometimes still be found from the pre-internet age: Some documents from December 1990, back when Ellis was 23 and claiming to be a Bujinkan godan (as well as falsely claiming to be a California peace officer) have just turned up. They include the “cease and desist” stuff I mentioned above, along with a signed and notarized statement essentially saying he would go, and sin no more.

EDIT/UPDATE WED, 06 DEC 17:

On the recommendation of a Dai-Shihan in Japan, I was going to summarize everything to date and send it in a letter to Soke with pertinent supplemental documentation in a letter so that he would have everything in a single file. I was told that it was unlikely Soke would revoke his rank as he basically “just doesn’t do that”; but he would essentially be “persona non grata”: Not welcome in Japan training, and his students if any would be non-promotable. However, that may have just become unnecessary due to the new direction in the Bujinkan’s administrative procedures which were announced a few days ago:

http://takaseigi.com/falling-leaves/

This is about administrative communication flow, but once fully implemented Ellis may need to develop a relationship with a Dai-Shihan. Since the instructors in the areas where he has trained are now aware of his history and he’s burned his bridges with them, he’s going to have to look elsewhere. So I want to be sure all this remains on record in case he does find someone, so that informed decisions can be made by any Dai-Shihan dealing with him.

EDIT/UPDATE, 09 DEC 17 Here is a copy of the pertinent correspondence from 1990:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1OHfX0M77FfTE5TLXBhdHVvVVU/view?usp=sharing

EDIT/UPDATE, 20 MAR 18

Well, no need to develop a relationship (as I mentioned above) with a Dai Shihan if you can get the piece of paper saying you ARE one. Ellis showed up in Japan, at Soke’s class Friday night, and got Darren Horvath to recommend him for Dai Shihan. After I apprised him of Ellis’ background, Darren asked Soke on Sunday to please talk to Phillip Legare before going ahead with the award; but apparently he told Darren not to worry, that the title is really useless to Ellis because everyone knows his reputation. He went ahead and gave him the certificate at the beginning of today’s class. I know I shouldn’t speculate, but the idea may have been something like “You want it that badly? Here, have one, and see if it makes anyone take you more seriously”. Or perhaps it’s more to benefit everyone else: Asgard wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a place if Loki weren’t there. At any rate, it’s done.

 

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Training in Japan – Getting Ready

I just came across this blog post recently

https://kumablog.org/2016/07/23/teach-them-correctly-please/

A couple of thoughts I found interesting

1) ready to train in Japan

As I wrote before in another blog post, training at the Honbu Dojo in Japan isn’t necessary or suitable for everyone. I said:

“No point going all the way to Japan to seek out instruction in Gikan Ryu or Kumogakure Ryu, or trying to go beyond the densho kata, when you haven’t even mastered the shoden kata from Gyokko, Koto and Shinden Fudo Ryu yet.”

It looks like Arnaud and I have some agreement in our ideas. He said:

“Because there were so few students, I trained with a young Shōdan. He was totally lost because he’s didn’t know the basic waza from the Gyokko Ryû. Even though I think that anyone should come here to train with Sōke and the Shihan, if you don’t know your basic forms, maybe it would be better to not come to Japan!”

This brings up the question: at what point is a student ready to fully benefit from a trip to Japan? I’ll get back to that in a moment.

2) What are basics?

Arnaud wrote about training with a black belt who was out of his depth at the Hombu Dojo. He said:

“I asked him why his level was so bad? He answered: “we do only basics”.

If it were true, he would have been good enough to train with, but that wasn’t the case. He didn’t know the Bujinkan basics at all. I don’t blame him, but his teacher. know that his teacher is Jûgodan, but I don’t know who he trained with, but he has to reconsider his teaching abilities. He let him go to Japan without the fundamental keys to survive here.”

So what are basics? Some people think the basics only refer to the Sanshin no Kata and the Kihon Happo. This is a very Chinese way of thinking, that by training a few simple movements and techniques one is ready for pretty much anything. In the old days it was embodied by people like Guo YunShen (郭云深) who was known for 半步崩拳打天下 (“using the half-step crushing fist on everything under the skies”). In the modern context, Bruce Lee expressed this mindset most clearly when he said, “I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times”.

The problem with that mindset? When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The core teaching of Bujinkan Taijutsu is henka, the ability to adapt and change based on the situation and our goals. The very talented people can do that easily; they learn one or two versions of a technique and are able to from there extrapolate many workable variations. But such people are extremely rare. I know for sure I am not one of them, and amongst my students I haven’t seen any yet. Most people get the ability by training in many variations of a technique and looking out for what remains the same in the midst of change (i.e. principles).

And instead of hunting all over the place for variations on the basics or trying to create our own, we should try to hunt for the henka in the kata from the Bujinkan ryuha. Just looking at the various ways Omote Gyaku comes out in Gyokko Ryu and Koto Ryu is enough to keep me busy for a while.

Ready for Japan Training

Actually, the easiest way to look at the matter is this: What do the Shihan teach at the Hombu Dojo anyway? Hombu lessons, depending on the choice of the teaching Shihan, usually are on:

1) principles – distancing, angles and such, expressed in basic techniques (Kihon Happo, Osoto Gake, and such)

2) Ryuha Kata – material from the 9 (or 6) schools of the Bujinkan I know that there are many, many kata from the Bujinkan ryuha, and it can take a long time to get your students good at them. A good guide we can use to prepare a student for training at Hombu is Jin Ryaku No Maki. The kata there are arranged by theme instead of by the ryuha they originate from. This helps reduce the amount of overlap a student would have to sort through if they were taught the kata directly from the ryuha.

3) Weapons – katana, bo, naginata and the like. I also include Muto Dori in this category too. The student doesn’t need to know all the muto dori kata of Gyokko, Koto, Takagi Yoshin and Togakure Ryu, but at least some. My preference is to teach the muto dori kata from the third level of Gyokko Ryu. That is a good enough primer to the topic if you really have to cut a few corners here and there.

When a student has had enough exposure to these three main areas of study, he or she is able to make sense of what is going on in the Hombu lessons.

Conclusion:

Training at Hombu Dojo is the expression of this truth: the Bujinkan is a huge community. Being part of this community has its benefits and responsibilities also. When we prepare our students properly for training in Japan, we prepare them to take up their roles and responsibilities in this international community also. As the sensei of our respective dojo, it’s our responsibility to prepare them for that rite of passage. If we won’t do it, who will?

 

Junjie 俊傑
(Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu
Singapore

Haibu Yori – Teaching

You can teach martial arts for a variety of reasons. You can teach them as personal development, for sports and competition, for historical and cultural study (art for art’s sake) or for self-defense. I generally teach Bujinkan Taijutsu as art for art’s sake, not self-defense. When people grasp the universal principles of good movement, they can, with a few hints here and there, apply those principles in many situations, including self-defense. As long as there is no urgency to develop ability within a short time frame, that is my preferred way to teach.

But once you teach Haibu Yori (背部より), things are different. This group of kata are more oriented towards self-defense than battlefield combat or use in a sports-type competition. Since that is the case, there are more considerations to look into when teaching these kata. I just taught these kata a few Thursdays back.

Sakketsu (殺締)

Teiken (蹄拳)

Yubi Kudaki (指砕)

During the lesson, yes, I gave a lot of pointers about getting the techniques correct. Off the top of my head: bear-hugs can be for either holding you in place for other opponents to attack, or they can be used to wrestle you to the ground for a group stomping. The Full Nelson is a neck crank attack, usually from people strong enough to make it count. I taught you the best angle I know to position your elbows to release the pressure on your neck, but it is so much easier to escape if you start moving before the crank is fully locked on. The rear collar grab in a self-defense situation means you need to check who is grabbing you first. The last thing you want to do is go ballistic on your future mother-in-law when she is just trying to pull you back from stepping on the family cat, for example.

Big Picture – To Teach Effectively

I am usually careful when teaching my material, but with haibu yori I am even more careful. These kata involve the element of surprise, and can therefore trigger overreactions. Sakketsu and Teiken involve head strikes to the rear, stomping on shins and feet of the grabber to set up the main escape move. If a student panics with those moves the training partner can be injured.

For kata to be usable, for the student to acquire skill in executing the ideal movement shown, the student needs to drill them enough reps, and with resistance, but at the correct pacing. First the student has to get the basic movement correct. For example, in Sakketsu the first move, moving the hips back to create space, has to be done with a firm snap, not muscling into position. If the student does not get this movement correct, there is not much point adding resistance. If you add resistance before the student is ready, he/she very quickly gets into the habit of using brute force to muscle out of a firm grab. When the student finds that he/she cannot muscle out of a firm grab, the student usually resorts to cheap shots (grabbing the groin, etc) and such to escape. In theory that sounds suitable for self-defense; but what if the student encounters a determined opponent and is caught by surprise? If the student’s first instinct is to try muscling out, then by the time the student realizes that it has failed the opponent could have already wrestled the student to ground, or the rest of the attackers have already moved into place. Kind of late for the cheap shots then.

Once the basic movement is in place, then more resistance has to be gradually added so that the student develops the habit of using correct movement, based on firm structure and coordinated limb usage, even under stress. The training partner has to carefully pace the resistance; too much at one shot and the student loses the presence of mind to use good taijutsu.

In other words, I need to strike a balance between:

  1. just enough stress to enable you to function under panic and the adrenaline dump; but
  2. not bringing a student into blind, frenzied thrashing because he/she was in fear for his/her life in training. I have to bring you to the edge, but not push you off the cliff. Once you open that can of worms too quickly, all kinds of problems come out.

What I fear is some instructor blindly copying ideas from reality-based self-defense training, without understanding ALL the elements that they put into place to keep things under control. It is easy to see only that the professionals add scenario role play, resistance and other elements to add pressure to the training, but miss other important details, such as the pacing and other safeguards they put in. Remember, the organizers and the facilitators are afraid of trainees going bonkers during the classes and bringing a lawsuit against them after that. We don’t want to discover the hard way that things can go horribly wrong when we add in stuff others do without fully understanding it.

Conclusion

My lessons have shifted away from solely getting techniques correct to dealing with problems and situations. That is when we start to discover that the real world is more complicated than we think.

The kata give us a framework to study. They are only a framework, but if you have taught Budo (or music, language or anything like that, for that matter), you will soon realize that it is pretty much impossible to teach any complicated topic without one. Hatsumi Soke has been talking a lot about moving beyond the kata; but to understand what he means you need to know who he is talking to. He is talking to the senior foreign practitioners who have been training with him for decades. They know the kata a lot better than most of us do. They are capable of moving beyond the kata, I am not, at least not yet. Check with me again on this in another decade or two. In the meantime, see you at training!

 

Junjie 俊傑
(Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu
Singapore

Togakure Ryu – Lessons from Kata

I was just teaching Kata Ude Tonso No Kata, from Togakure Ryu (demonstrated in the video at 0:24 onwards)

And the topic of the kata’s unusual beginning came up. Yes, the first three of the Tonso no Kata from Togakure Ryu start off with these three weird, dance-like, shuffle steps. Yes, it is weird. Yes, no one fights like that in real life. What then is the point of starting off the kata in that way?

Firstly, the people who train the kata in that way are not incorrect. This is how the kata is taught by Hatsumi Soke AND his Japanese Shihan. Any Bujinkan instructor who insinuates that this is incorrect is implying he understands Togakure Ryu more than Hatsumi does. Such people should just leave the Bujinkan and set up their own organizations. You cannot have it both ways; you cannot claim authority to teach Togakure Ryu from the Bujinkan organization and yet claim to know Togakure Ryu better than the head and founder of the organization. If Hatsumi thinks you understand Togakure Ryu at least as well as he does, he’d have issued you Menkyo Kaiden (License of Full Transmission) by now. If he hasn’t done so yet, maybe you still have some more learning to do. And if you disagree with that, you can just leave and set up your own group where you can do and claim whatever you wish.

Next, we need to remember that the ryuha not only transmit actual techniques for combat, they also transmit how to teach lessons to the next generation. And that means, within the densho kata are embedded the necessary elements for the next generation of practitioners to grasp the combat paradigm Togakure Ryu wants to inculcate. Based on my low level of understanding, here are three of the lessons embedded within the three shuffle steps.

1) Rhythm of three

This is the most basic and simplistic mind hack ever. Do a movement twice to establish a rhythm in the opponent’s mind, and on your third move you break that rhythm. The opponent usually will have a brief mental lag, and that is when your third move has a better chance of success than if you were to do that move at the very beginning. Boxers use that mind hack with the elemental jab-jab-cross combo, and there are many other examples from the realm of combat sports.

And those who sneer at me talking about combat sports, such as boxing, are welcome to try their luck against a boxer who has trained at least half the time they have spent in Bujinkan training. If they have never experienced having the rhythm of three actively used against them, the only one laughing will be their dentist, raking in loads of money trying to fix their broken teeth.

The three shuffle steps allow the kicks or strikes the best chance to succeed. This rhythm of three is something I have yet to come across in the kata from the other Bujinkan ryuha, and so I was thrilled when I understood what this was for!

2) Basics of Taijutsu

There are two types of force most basic to grappling and wrestling: push and pull. When untrained people try to pull, they usually plant their feet in place and tug frantically with their arms. The dance-like shuffle steps of the Togakure Ryu Tonso no Kata teaches us to pull using our entire body in movement, not just the arms. In fact, when properly done, Uke does not move the arms at all, only the legs and feet.

3) Basics of Ukemi

In the kata, Tori shuffles along in rhythm with Uke. In real life, Tori is stumbling, staggering, frantically trying to regain balance while being dragged away. Normal human instinct when being pulled: to dig in one’s heels and pull back (with only arm strength). The better, more intelligent response is to step forward to dissipate some of the pulling force; but yet not too much (or else you would step into the opponent’s next attack and end up funding your dentist’s downpayment on his second condominium purchase). The three shuffle steps of Tori train us in how to regain our balance in such a situation.

And such a situation is VERY applicable even in this day and age. Women and children are still being kidnapped and abducted. When out of nowhere an arm appears, grabs, and starts dragging the intended victim towards a nearby van, that is when knowing how to react intelligently to a superior pulling force will make all the difference.

Foundational Truth

Normal human instinct does not serve us when under genuine danger. If totally untrained, we will struggle ineffectually against such threats. Hatsumi Soke recently redefined “Muto Dori” as “to capture without fighting”. It sounds too woo-hoo, but it isn’t, if you understand that to fight is to struggle, to match strength versus strength to determine which side is stronger. True martial arts is about going beyond the need for such struggle, to intelligently generate and apply force where the opponent is not able to receive, disperse or otherwise handle.

Yes, it is THAT simple. But it is not easy, in fact, very difficult, because we are fighting against our own instincts and impulses. For example, the sui no kata movement of moving offline at a 45 degree angle while blocking or deflecting the opponent’s attack requires years and years of training to inculcate. Moving with kamae and taijutsu (maintaining body structure and coordination) is so counter-intuitive that any martial art that does not emphasize those two elements can easily get their students to a basic level of fighting ability, fast. Of course, the trade off is that you replace using kamae and taijutsu with using, muscular strength, speed, aggression and cheap tricks.

Conclusion:

I can see three important lessons from the shuffle steps, and I am not even an expert on Togakure Ryu. How much more can we learn from those kata if they are taught by a good teacher? But the important point I want to make: I could figure out all this so far because I did not try to change the kata to fit my impressions of what proper training ought to be. Instead, I chose to preserve it and hope that eventually I or the students I have taught will figure out what the odd parts of the kata are for.

And that is what I urge upon any other Bujinkan instructors reading this post. Ask your sensei, ask your sensei’s sensei, check with people who train in Japan or ask the Shihan yourself if you ever train in Japan at Hombu Dojo. But don’t change the kata to fit your own limited understanding. As Someya-Sensei said during my Japan training trip, “These techniques have been passed down for a thousand years, it is not for YOU to change them…”

And if your students ask you about parts of the kata that you do not understand, it is perfectly fine to tell them honestly that you don’t really know. Don’t try making up some really funky tales for the sake of impressing your students. In the long run you’d be happier being real with those you train with!

 

Junjie 俊傑
(Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu
Singapore

Class Notes 21 Dec 2017

Onikudaki

Remember the line you want to form with your forearm or stick. That makes the directions of the force applied very much clearer. If you end up struggling to complete this lock, odds are that you did not get the line of force correct.

How do we get the line of force correct? One way is to keep doing the onikudaki stretch on yourself. That way you know how you want your recipient to feel when you are using onikudaki.

onikudaki stretch

Torite drill

From omote shuto – receive with jodan uke, and apply onikudaki as your partner draws his arm back to a doko no kamae. Follow his arm back to move away from his other arm. Maintain the line of force even while moving (now that’s onikudaki in the REAL world).

Against a modern knife stab/slash combo

When you know the second slash is coming, drop your weight down and maintain arm contact with the knife hand. Notice how this then hands you the onikudaki on a silver platter, nicely wrapped up as a Christmas present?

Onikudaki (Takagi Yoshin Ryu) – take note of the options available from stepping different angles. 1st step is back 45 degrees, then you step in to bring your back foot next to the front foot and capture the arm. From that point on, moving yourself 90 degrees to the line of his arm gives you different results from moving back 45 degrees the other way.

For more Hibari-like results, drop straight down. Just be careful on your way up. And try this in class only on experienced practitioners, they are better able to take ukemi for this.

Kata ho (Kukishin Ryu)

If all you know and train in is onikudaki in its basic form, you may not be able to recognize ideal opportunities to use it. Many students then end up hunting for the lock/capture. This means their minds are caught up with trying to do a technique rather than watching to see what the opponent is doing. That is when technique for technique’s sake can kill you.

The torite drill, the modern knife attack combo and this kata from Kukishin Ryu teaches us to recognize opportunities to use onikudaki. Our mind learns to recognize the context when onikudaki is an appropriate technique, instead of hunting all over the place for it.

Onikudaki escapes

When you draw a circle with Uke’s elbow, Uke may try to drastically turn his elbow the opposite direction. Follow that change and use either te makura or ganseki nage, depending on his arm position and your angle and distance to Uke.

If Uke uses the pat-twist escape or just squirms off your line of force, continue turning your hips in the direction of the onikudaki, and change the arm positions to do musha dori instead.

Onikudaki works by drawing a circle with the elbow while keeping the hand up high. If Uke moves his hand down, follow it down and use the arm bar of setsu yaki (from Shinden Fudo Ryu).

Conclusion

When you understand the hand & elbow positions for a successful onikudaki, you know how to escape onikudaki by intelligently changing your hand or elbow positions.

When uke levels up by knowing how tp escape onikudaki, tori likewise levels up by learning how to flow into other appropriate techniques. When you know how to go from onikudaki to other techniques & how other techniques can flow to onikudaki, that is the beginning of being able to transcend technique. That is the beginning of using kyojitsu tenkan ho.

It is one thing to talk about the theory in class or demo the movements, it is quite another to see pretty much everyone in the class get what I mean and show it in their movement. If we keep progressing at this rate we will soon be able to study the kata of the Bujinkan ryuha in and of themselves. Currently I use the kata to teach certain points, but when we study the kata the way they are meant to be learned, there is a different transmission that takes place, and you receive different insights and understanding. But all in good time.

See you at training!

Junjie 俊傑
(Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu
Singapore

Laws Forbidding Carrying of Arms

“False is the idea of utility that sacrifices a thousand real advantages for one imaginary or trifling inconvenience; that would take fire from men because it burns, and water because one may drown in it; that has no remedy for evils except destruction. The laws that forbid the carrying of arms are laws of such a nature. They disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes.

Can it be supposed that those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, the most important of the code, will respect the less important and arbitrary ones, which can be violated with ease and impunity, and which, if strictly obeyed, would put an end to personal liberty… and subject innocent persons to all the vexations that the guilty alone ought to suffer?

Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man. They ought to be designated as laws not preventive but fearful of crimes, produced by the tumultuous impression of a few isolated facts, and not by thoughtful consideration of the inconveniences and advantages of a universal decree.” (Cesare Beccaria, *On Crimes And Punishments*, 1764)

Shared on Facebook by Dale Seago of Bujinkan San Francisco Dojo.

Training in Japan – Points to Ponder

I got these questions via Whatsapp.

“Actually, I never understood something. Why all the glamour about going to Japan? It’s the same martial art, right? What’s with all the hype? I mean, it can’t be that Bujinkan becomes a different art everyday or something, down in Japan.”

So should you train in Japan in the first place?

It depends. We are all different. Hatsumi Soke’s Budo means different things for each of us. What do we want out of Bujinkan training?

1) To be an instructor?

If the warrior disciplines and teachings of the Bujinkan resonate that much with you that you want to become an instructor, then you SHOULD go to Japan. Practically, Japan is now the only place you can go to in order to be tested as a Shidoshi, to qualify as a full instructor of this martial art. But practicalities aside, there is a transmission, an intangible vibe you get from training with Hatsumi Soke and his senior Shihan.

I personally believe that you can never be certain that you want to take on the responsibility of being a Bujinkan instructor until you have met Hatsumi Soke. That is truly the moment you can clearly decide if that is what you want. Why teach Hatsumi’s Budo, and in the name of his organization, if you discover that you cannot stand the man himself?

Besides, when you are in Japan, then you will know if your instructor has accurately represented the art to you. If you go to Japan and realize that your instructor has been teaching stuff that is 180 degrees different from what you see being done in Japan, then you will have to decide if Bujinkan Budo is truly the art you wish to represent. There are many good and respectable martial arts available, you don’t necessarily have to teach Bujinkan unless you are totally sure, correct?

2) To be a student? From a student’s point of view, one can argue that the pros and cons of training in Japan are quite subjective. So let me lay out some objective facts here, so we know what we are discussing.

Hombu Lessons

First, the Hombu Dojo (our headquarters) holds training sessions 7 days a week, 2-3 times a day.

Next, those sessions are led/taught by either the Japanese Shihan (senior teachers) most of the time, or Hatsumi Soke himself a few times a week.

Also, the people attending those sessions are NOT divided up into groups and taught according to their skill levels or rank. Everyone there, from the newbie white belt on his/her second lesson to the black belt completing his/her second decade of training, works on the same material in class.

Finally, the session contents are quite independent. In other words, the Shihan teaching on a Monday night session is not going to be build on top of whatever has been taught on Monday afternoon by another Shihan. For those Shihan who teach more than once a week, even they may not have any continuity in the material they cover. This means the teaching at the Hombu is often not progressive or systematic.

Cost of the Trip

Generally, if you fly economy and stay economy over in Japan, a 7-day trip will cost you around $3000 in Singapore currency. This includes airfare, lodging, food, transport and training fees. There are ways to save costs here and there, but $3000 is a good working estimate we can use for now. So assuming you train twice a day for 6 days during the trip, that means you are paying $250 per session. Hold that thought, we will come back to it later.

Time and Attention

We all know that the Shihan are NOT going to spend their time watching you train a particular technique, point out everything you are getting wrong, and watch over you trying it out until you get things correct. But for the sake of discussion, let us assume that they do.

So if you turn up at Hombu with another 14 other people for a two hour session (120 minutes) each person will get at best 8 minutes of such attention from the Shihan teaching the class. If there are a total of 10 students at the dojo for that session, each will get at best 12 minutes of such attention from the Shihan.

So a training trip to Japan means paying $250 for 8-12 minutes of individualized, personal attention from the teaching Shihan.

Let’s say you get that 8-12 minutes of teaching, and after the session you return to the hotel and immediately work on the points and details the Shihan brought up . You know what you need next, right? You need follow up, the teacher saying “Now you got the hang of ABC, you should carry on with DEF next. ” Go ask people who have trained in Japan, how much of that do they actually get.

If you are really loaded, and money is not really an issue to you, great! It is your time and money, you have the freedom to decide how you want to spend it. But if money is an issue, then you will need to ask yourself if spending $250 for 8-12 minutes of teaching is the best use of your money.

For normal people looking at those figures, you realize that you really NEED to travel to Japan for training when:

a) you are so skilled that you only need that 8-12 minutes of personalized attention to improve

b) there is no one else left around who can help you improve within that 8-12 minutes

Improvement comes from a good mix of working on new material and eliminating the mistakes you make doing what you think you already know. And frankly, most of the time people live in denial about their own mistakes. It is much more entertaining to learn new kata and think that means improvement, when you haven’t even learned how to coordinate your hips and legs properly.

It really all depends on what point are you at in your journey. Are your foundations of basic coordination in place? Do you understand the kihon happo well enough to make them work consistently? Do you know the common kata from the more accessible ryu? No point going all the way to Japan to seek out instruction in Gikan Ryu or Kumogakure Ryu, or trying to go beyond the densho kata, when you haven’t even mastered the shoden kata from Gyokko, Koto and Shinden Fudo Ryu yet.

In other words, if there is a decently competent sensei anywhere around your geographical region, you will probably learn and grow more from paying that sensei $250/session than spending that to travel to Hombu.

On the Other Hand

That said, training in Japan is a test of your teacher. First, you get to see if what your teacher says they do in Japan really IS what he claims it is. Early in the history of the Bujinkan, a well-known foreigner returned to his home country teaching his own material in the name of Hatsumi Soke and the Bujinkan. Because he wanted to present himself as an authority before he was actually ready, all his books and teaching seminars left many in a haze about the true nature of Hatsumi’s art. if not for people from his own country bypassing him to seek training with Hatsumi, the confusion and misinformation would be much, much worse by now.

Sometimes it is necessary to clear the haze, right?

Second, you get to see how well you have been taught the basics. How well you can pick up the material you are shown is a reflection of your teacher’s ability. If your teacher has promoted you to 4th dan and you move worse than a green belt with only one year of Bujinkan training, you ought to ask yourself if you need a better teacher. Even if you manage to pass the 5th dan test while in Japan (by trying over and over again), it is shameful if you move worse than the above mentioned green belt.

TLDR version – if you want to be an instructor, you ought to go train in Japan. If not, it’s really up to your whims and budget.

As for me…

Do I want to go Japan for training again? Of course I do. but I am very aware that there are limits to how much I can learn, even from the trip. That means coming back from Japan, even if the Shihan at Hombu insist on promoting me, is no valid reason for me to be arrogant or to think I know more than another instructor who hasn’t made the trip any time recently.

Some people use the trip for boasting rights. They will tell you “this is the latest, greatest stuff they are working on in Japan.” Use your own discernment. If a visiting 7th dan shows something as Japan material (maybe movement as weird as taiji but without taiji’s power) and a 14th dan standing nearby rolls his eyes or looks horrified, that means it is time to dig a little deeper.

In the end, if you train in my class, what you want is skill, reliable skill, dependable ability. One of my students just came back from training at the Hombu Dojo, and when we were chatting about the trip he said, “After I have been to Hombu, don’t talk to me about dan ranks.” Then he quoted from The Grandmaster, a recent movie based on Ip Man: “功夫, 两个字, 一横一竖; 错的, 倒下; 对的, 站着。”

Translated, it says “Kung Fu (Chinese expression for skill) , just two words: one is “down”, the other is “standing”. The person who is wrong, goes down; the person who is correct, stays standing.” Things are actually not that complicated.

If you train with me, if you see me as your sensei, then my job is to teach you, the best I can, how to be the one who still stands. Don’t get caught up by the trappings, the ranks, the talk. We train Budo Taijutsu, (Warrior Path Body skills). It is the taijutsu, the movement, that really matters. Keep your eyes on that, and skills will eventually follow.

See you at training!

Junjie 俊傑
(Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu
Singapore