Lethal weapon: Hanging with the world's last living ninja

Lethal weapon: Hanging with the world's last living ninja

Grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi shares the secrets of a dying breed from his dojo near Tokyo
Grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi
Grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi (left) in full battle gear shows a pupil "the way."

The last living ninja is not hard to find. He lives and works in Noda City, a shabby satellite of Tokyo, dispensing wisdom from the Hombu dojo, a cramped training hall under the railway tracks.

The interior is cool and dark, lined with portraits, candles and racks of arcane edged weapons -- a shrine, within a gallery, within an armory.

In the middle of this room on a Sunday afternoon, Grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi will teach anyone who wants to learn.

The art of the ninja is not necessarily a secret, though the lessons are often painful. And today is my first.

“If you do this correctly, you are breaking the cheek,” says Hatsumi via a translator, demonstrating a casual, almost offhand chop to the face of a young, fit and muscular Australian student, who must be roughly quarter his age.

Practice makes deadly

At his next birthday, Hatsumi will be 80 years old, but he claims to be a student himself, even after more than half a century of practice.

In that time, he has become instructor and spiritual leader to more than 100,000 followers of his combat system, Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu. Most of these are not Japanese, but many make the pilgrimage to train with Hatsumi in Noda City.

My training partner for the day, German policeman and veteran martial artist Dirk Rummel, describes his own visit to the Hombu dojo as a “musha shugyou,” or “warrior’s journey.”

“I think it is important to get to the roots of the Bujinkan,” says Rummel, politely knocking me to the floor.

Grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi Another one bites the dust -- Hatsumi's effortless technique appears almost mysterious at first.

The Bujinkan is in fact a modern amalgam of nine traditional schools of Japanese martial arts, three of which have been historically linked to the teaching of ninja-related techniques, now collectively known as “ninjutsu.” This is good enough for me.

Ninja boom

I came to honor my own childhood masters, having grown up in Ireland at the height of the so-called “ninja boom” -- that period of the early 1980s when Japanese shadow warriors infiltrated the West by way of cheap, violent B movies, cartoons and comic books.

I spent a large part of my youth in thrall to these super-sneaks and death merchants. I thought I saw them in the bright green bushes of suburban Dublin, and resented my parents for their failure to train me from birth in the use of poisons, disguises, and wicked-pointed throwing-stars.

    Today, I am told that actual, historical ninjas of feudal Japan had nothing to do with the acrobat assassins of folk tales and pop culture.

    According to Hatsumi, who has written several books on the subject, the originators of his art were a hardy rural underclass of paramilitary mountain clans, possessed of esoteric skills and philosophies passed down from the exiled generals and mystics of Tang dynasty China.

    Unbroken line

    His own authority is inherited from the 33 grandmasters who preceded him, in a lineage which supposedly traces back to Daisuke Nishina, the 12th-century founder of the Togakure Ryu school.

    He also admits that there is not much documentary evidence for any of this, besides the surviving scrolls that outline the basic techniques.

    Grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi Approaching 80, Hatsumi is still in vibrant good health.

    The ninja tradition is kept alive by word of mouth, and by physical application. Knowledge is all very well, says Hatsumi.

    “It gives us law, and culture and science. But knowledge is not enough. It must be balanced out with Budo, which can never be explained. It can only be understood by doing.”

    His zen-like aphorisms sound all the more persuasive when emphasized with gentle and masterful violence.

    “You must become a fleck of dust, or snow or garbage in the air,” says Hatsumi of another technique, stepping breezily to the side of an onrushing wooden staff and nudging it back against his assailant, who ends up prone on the floor with the stick pressed hard into the hinge of his jaw, like a lever for prying his head off.

    Satisfying smackdown

    The nuances of these movements are difficult for a beginner to follow, and I prove no more adroit than Winnie the Pooh in trying to emulate the Grandmaster’s effortless strikes, blocks and dodges.

    “We are all beginners,” he assures me, and I start to understand the faith that he inspires in so many others.

    “Hai, okay, play,” says Hatsumi with each demonstration, as if we are children. But when I suddenly get it right, and my new friend Dirk goes down like he’s supposed to, I do feel more like a little kid than a lethal weapon -- ecstatic and mystified.

    The Bujinkan welcomes new members. Anyone interested in joining or attending a class at the Hombu dojo should contact the office directly. Beginners can attend only certain classes, including the Sunday afternoon session. Check the website for further details.

    Bujinkan Dojo Hombu Office, 636 Noda, Noda City, Chiba, 278-8691, +81 (0) 4 7122 2020.