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The Weight of the Black Belt

June 17, 2018

So we now have yet another Singaporean black belt in the Bujinkan. As one of the first handful of Singaporean black belts in the Bujinkan (shodan at the earlier part of 2004), and the only one of that group who has continued training up till now, I have the duty of making sure you understand the honour and responsibility that you have been given.

Generally, people start off black belt at shodan (初段). The majority of us Singaporeans can decipher the kanji; we know it means “beginning degree”. You have achieved a milestone understanding of the art, in the eyes of your sensei. And that means you are a representative and a reflection of:

1) your sensei, who decided you have achieved that level of ability; and

2) the Bujinkan, the organization in whose name your sensei has awarded you the black belt.

In other words, your skills and ability is a reflection of your sensei’s teaching ability and judgment. As I said before in another blog post

“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.”

My sensei’s grading criteria were simple; would he be embarrassed to present Student X as a Nth dan to Soke and the Japanese Shihan? If you move poorly (for example, you move with the left limb when taught to move with the right, or you regularly smash your knees into the mat when doing a backroll), your teacher has either:

1) crappy skills – therefore unable to show a good example;

2) lousy teaching ability – therefore unable to transmit proper movement to you;

3) poor judgment – thinking you are good when you aren’t; OR

4) all of the above

You also represent the Bujinkan to the community at large. People from other arts will look at you and make up their minds on the value of Hatsumi Soke’s art based on YOUR skill level. They might cut you some slack if you are just a white belt or green belt, but once you get to black belt, that’s a different matter.

The survival & flourishing of this art rests on the quality of our black belts.

In the early days of the art many people from other arts joined the Bujinkan because the black belts we had then showed that we had something superior to or more complete than whatever they had. We had long-time practitioners and instructors of well-established arts switching over. We had military professionals and combat veterans galore. People will real life combat experience, or whose lives depended on martial ability, saw value in what was taught.

You can impress noobs easily, skilled practitioners of other arts are not so gullible. Once they see you move or their arms contact yours they know if you have ability or only just talk. Any art can be praised to the high heavens through books and writing, people who can talk up a storm are a dime a dozen. The talented and the serious students know to look beyond the claims of the art and will not bother with ninjutsu if our black belts represent this art poorly.

In what ways can the art be represented poorly?

1) the black belts lack honour

In the guidelines of participation in the Bujinkan, Hatsumi Soke said “Only those able to exercise true patience, self-control, and dedication shall be allowed to participate.” That does not mean we all have to be perfect. We all have our own personality quirks and flaws. I am a saint only in my own eyes; my colleagues and family may tell you a different story. But a black belt means this person’s sensei is willing to stake the reputation of the Bujinkan on him or her being a person of honour.

As I said before

Because the main training system we use in the Bujinkan is the Tori-Uke system, which means we train in scripted situations and responses, honour is very important. It is essential that all the people involved have good reason to trust each other to follow the script. Anyone who significantly deviates from the script might seriously injure the other. And when the scripted technique is inherently dangerous (neck cranks or instantly damaging versions of onikudaki or mushadori) the person being demo-ed on needs to know that he/she is safe because it won’t be done at full speed or force.

2) the black belts have little ability in the basic techniques of the art.

We cannot accept boxers who cannot do jab-cross-hook; we cannot accept judoka who do not know osoto gake and seoi nage; likewise we cannot accept our black belts being lousy at sanshin no kata and the kihon happo. A Bujinkan black belt should be as good at kihon happo as a boxer is at jab-cross-hook or a judoka at osoto gake and seoi nage.

3) the black belts do not follow the principles of the art.

There are martial arts around that are built solely on the core principles of being stronger, faster and harder. If that is your cup of tea, good for you. Hatsumi Soke’s art, however, is meant to be even more than that.

The ninja’s taijutsu engages the motion of the entire body to generate the power of the strike. By combining the natural release of the breath with the expansive movement of the body from a base at the natural centre of gravity, power is a product of the entire body in relaxed yet vibrant motion. – Masaaki Hatsumi, Ninjutsu – History and Tradition, Unique Publications Inc., 1981

The entire body is used in a coordinated fashion, and the movement is relaxed but set upon a firm, balanced, base. In other words, if stronger, faster and harder is the only way you can make your techniques work, you are NOT following the principles of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu. And therefore not a good reflection of the Bujinkan.

Consequences

So if our black belts are poor, people with discernment will not bother to learn from the Bujinkan. They know that if a black belt is lousy, they will not get good instruction from either that black belt or from that black belt’s sensei, no matter how high the sensei’s dan rank is or how skilled the sensei is. They know how important a good teacher is, and will rather learn other martial arts instead of learning from a lousy teacher.

The Bujinkan will then be left with noobs, cosplayers or LARPers, people for whom it is just a pastime, not a worthwhile lifetime pursuit. The quality of the next generation of practitioners will go down, because not everyone in those groups of people want actual, genuine, real Budo. Eventually this art will be reduced to a social club of people with delusions of grandeur happily holding hands with each other, & good at little else other than talking about how deadly they really are.

Hatsumi Soke’s art deserves better than that.

But if you represent the Bujinkan well, you will win the respect of the martial arts community at large. You don’t have to be an expert in everything, or to be stronger, faster and harder than everyone else. You just have to be good enough at what you are supposed to be good at, and don’t talk crap about things you don’t really know or understand.

In Singapore, I had instant credibility in the eyes of skilled martial artists once they knew I was a Bujinkan black belt. People respected my black belt simply because there weren’t enough incompetent black belts around in Singapore to ruin the reputation of the Bujinkan here yet.

As far as I know, I have done my best to not bring shame to the Bujinkan, both as a practitioner and as a teacher. You hold a black belt now? Then I now pass to you both the gift of a good reputation and the responsibility of upholding it for the sake of the Bujinkan. Show by your behavior how much you think this art deserves,


Junjie
俊傑
(Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu
Singapore
Black Belt since 2004

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