Shitennou no Shihou
“The four ways of the four heavenly kings”
The term Shitennou, in this instance, refers to the Bujinkan’s four top shihan: Oguri Sensei, Seno Sensei, Noguchi Sensei, and Nagato Sensei. These are the four senior teachers that Hatsumi sensei has admonished everyone to train with, calling them the “true Shitennou” and saying that everyone should train with all four of them, going so far as to say that “training with only one teacher, even Soke himself, is not sufficient to truly understand his martial art”.
Why would Soke place such emphasis on these four shihan? Besides the fact that they are the four people who have spent the most amount of time training with Soke, they also embody certain aspects of Hatsumi’s budo that are critical to master.
Over the years I have been fortunate to have trained quite a bit with the four top shihan and I still regularly train with all of them. I rotate the frequency with which I attend their classes, trying to immerse myself weekly with a couple of them for an extended period, while training every few weeks with the other two. I feel this has given me some unique insight into the development of our budo taijutsu, and it has certainly given me many tools with which to self-correct the direction of my own martial art journey. In this article I want to show some of the benefits of this “Shihou (4 ways) training” and maybe present a tool for organizing your own training in the future.
*I would like you to keep in mind that the points I choose to illustrate are not nearly everything these four have to teach, only some of the key elements that I have found important and chosen to illustrate here. Others may find different characteristics just as important and we should seek to understand and integrate those as well.
Perception – Contrast and Comparison:
We are always making judgments by comparing and contrasting the information that comes into our field of perception. We tend to see any new information through the lenses of the old information we already possess. It is sometimes very difficult to see what is actually there in front of us. How many times have you been shown a technique in training, thought to yourself “I know this one”, and then proceeded to be unable to do it until the teacher came over to you and showed you the “hidden” piece that makes it work? This is an example of the compare and contrast function of our minds and our ability (or inability) to see or perceive what is actually happening. It’s only through consistent and gradual exposure that we can develop the eyes to truly see what is there. (This is related to the concept of “peel back one layer of the onion and you will only discover more layers…”)
Now let’s talk about learning styles, which is the method each individual uses to organize information so that he can understand it. This is closely related to perception and is influenced by the teaching style being used.
Learning styles: How personal experience and our world-view shape our affinity for certain ways of teaching.
It is obvious to most of us that we like learning from certain teachers more than others. Why is this? Simply put, we develop preferences over the course of our lives based on our experiences. In martial arts, quite often people begin their training because they felt a need to be able to defend themselves from attack. With this as a motivator, we tend to look for the person that exemplifies our ideal of a warrior. Hollywood, books, and magazines have created several “archetypes” or figures that represent the common belief of what a warrior should be like. From the big, muscularly strong hero like Conan the Barbarian to Karate kid’s Mr. Miyagi, a quiet, non-threatening man who talks in riddles and hides the secret of deadly warrior skills. Other people are motivated to belong to a group or get in shape. Wherever your particular fascination lies, you will tend to gravitate toward the person or persons you feel best represent that ideal. This is natural and fine as far as it goes. But here is the danger: if you only expose yourself to the sources of information you are already comfortable with, you will never be able to grow beyond those sources. More to the point, if you don’t expose yourself to other sources, you will not be able to truly understand what is being taught by your ideal teacher! (Remember, we tend to see through the lenses of what we already know).
If you now understand the need for contrasting and comparing our learning sources, I will present my current observations on the shiho (4 ways) of the Shitennou.
A little bit about the four shihan.
* Let me say right here, that this is no definitive history of the Bujinkan; I have attempted to synopsize many conversations strung out over years. As is human nature, recollection is subject to alteration – both mine and the parties being talked about – so I will stick to the basic information as best I can for the purposes of this article.
Two of the four shihan are original students of Hatsumi Sensei, Oguri and Seno. They have been training for over 45 years with Hatsumi sensei. The other two, Nagato and Noguchi, started some 10 plus years later. According to the first two shihan, those first years with Hatsumi were quite different. As Soke was not yet the master he would later become, he spent the bulk of time directly teaching kihon as he was shown from Takamatsu Sensei. Apparently in those days they worked on strictly adhering to the pieces of the techniques found in the densho (kamae, distance, timing, etc), only practicing the henka that were written in the scrolls. They went systematically through each ryuha (school), from shoden to chuden and then okuden. After several years of this, Hatsumi began to explore more within the densho, choosing an idea or concept to focus on and flesh out, pushing his own understanding farther all the time. So Hatsumi was in a completely different phase when Noguchi and Nagato Shihan began their training. In Nagato Sensei’s words, they had to “steal” the information they needed (on the foundational pieces that made up the techniques of the bujinkan), since Hatsumi was no longer directly teaching them. Although they had sempai (senior students) who would teach them their understanding of the basics at that time, without the direct teaching of Hatsumi Sensei for their foundational movements, both Noguchi and Nagato Shihan would develop along different lines. Along with this 10 plus year gap in training time, is an age difference from when they began training. Seno and Oguri Shihan were teenagers, while Noguchi and Nagato Shihan were around 30 years of age. Looking at these timelines, and being aware of the difference in perspective those years would give someone, is a good place to start comparing and contrasting these 4 excellent representatives of Hatsumi Soke’s art.
The 4 Distances
As anyone in the Bujinkan will know, understanding and controlling the distance between yourself and your opponent is an essential aspect of our art, and the 4 Shitennou, while all strive to be at the paper-thin distance espoused by Hatsumi Sensei (kami hitoe), tend to favor a particular angle and position over the others.
If we can imagine someone striking at us (whether it be a punch, knife attack, or cut from a sword) we have 4 basic options to avoid being hit:
Move back – just outside the range of the strike.
Move forward – inside the range of the strike.
Move to the side – “slipping” the strike.
Move down – “dropping” under the strike.
*Of course, depending on the angle and direction of the strike, one or more of these options may not be viable.
Let’s look at the first distance; outside.
Nagato Sensei consistently takes this distance, moving back (and off the line) just far enough that the strike can barely touch him, yet he is able to deliver considerable force to counterstrike the opponent. This, in my opinion, is the first distance we should learn to control as it offers us the most consistently safe position to be in and is the easiest of the 4 distances to learn to control.
At the other extreme is the second distance; inside.
Oguri Sensei is well known for being able to get right inside your space. From the moment the attack is launched he seems to be able to magically move from several feet away to right up in your face. Again, to a place where you are unable to generate any force against him, but he is free to do whatever he wants to you!
The third distance we can see is: moving to the side.
Noguchi Sensei, using the dynamic movement ingrained from his years of dance, likes to slip along side of the attack. Due to his height relative to most of the people training, this creates distance for him to deliver strikes or kicks as well as grab the opponent.
The fourth distance is: dropping below the attack.
Seno Sensei often illustrates his ability to actually get hit while dropping under the attack. From here he causes his opponent to shift their weight partially onto him, so he is in effect, supporting them. He then moves his body (the support) out of the way, causing his opponent to fall unexpectedly. Seno Sensei also uses this position to launch strikes that are unseen as they come from underneath the opponent’s field of view, causing them to have an exaggerated effect on the attacker’s structure.
Next, let’s look at “points-of-control”.
Points-of-control are locations on the uke’s body that are either being checked (guarded against) or being used to guide the uke to his next position (often unknowingly).
We will discuss how many points-of-control and which parts of the body each of the Shihan tend to use.
Oguri – Knees, elbows, feet, and heel of the hand- followed by fingers.
Many people have felt the “trash compactor” feeling that Oguri Sensei generates by using his knees and elbows to break his opponents structure in multiple places throughout their body. Quite often Oguri Sensei ends up with one hand free (usually on his hip!) while he suppresses his uke with the other arm and his legs.
Nagato – palm of the hand, elbows, wrapping both of ukes arms, hips and butt.
Nagato Sensei nearly always “catches” the lead attack with his hand, grabbing hold (lightly) and then trapping the other arm, from there he proceeds to wrap the uke up, changing hands frequently, while pushing or pulling in various ways on the attacker’s body in order to break the structure.
Noguchi – fingertips, strikes, kicks (indirect control by moving through space).
Being adept at slipping punches and kicks, Noguchi Sensei likes to let his uke’s arms slide along his neck or shoulders causing uke to be overextended, he then applies a lock or throw with his arms which are still free.
Seno – whole body wrapping, taking the shape of locks without grabbing.
Much as Hatsumi Sensei does, Seno Sensei likes to make contact in an uncommon manner, like using the back of his hand to “pull” his uke. If he is applying omote gyakku, for instance, he may lightly trap uke’s hand between his forearm and body, then turn, which causes the body to torque in the shape most people associate with the wrist lock…
Reactive and Proactive:
Although we tend to practice responses to specific attacks which necessarily appear to be reactive in nature, but, as Hatsumi Soke regularly shows, the line between attack and defense is a very blurry one. After you have become accustomed to training with these teachers you will begin to notice there is a tendency for each to choose a particular timing they feel is important to control.
From the moment you think the technique is beginning Oguri Sensei has already begun! Whether it’s with a slight pressure against your hand as you grab, or a subtle shift in position creating an angle from which you can’t actually reach him, he has become the leader. This “pre-action” is a hallmark of Oguri Sensei’s taijutsu.
As an example of reactive timing, Seno Sensei prefers to stand there and wait for the last possible moment to move. This creates a feeling that you’ve actually hit him (and some times you will but not cleanly), he then uses this moment when you are feeling success to capture your structure and balance.
He is always creating a target for you to chase after while he quietly prepares the trap for you to fall into.
Again we return to a ‘proactive’ way of controlling the opponent. Even as the attacker is preparing his first attack, Nagato Sensei is manipulating the distance, using his footwork to pull his body out of range, while his hand and arms become like ropes in the space the attacker needs to move through in order to get at Nagato Sensei. These “ropes” end up looped around the attacker’s arms as he tries to continue his attack.
Once again, with his dance background Noguchi Sensei is comfortable letting his uke take the lead, then matching the timing and rhythm, he slips into the lead, taking his uke farther in his movement than uke intended to go, leading to his downfall.
Anyone who has been uke for Hatsumi Sensei knows that he is the master at letting you feel free to attack at will sometimes, and completely controlled at others. It is these two feelings of being free and being “enveloped” that we will look at last.
Both Nagato Sensei and Oguri Sensei give the feeling of taking away all your options while you are attacking them. Of course you see or feel openings, but in the moment you se them you instinctively realize that these two shihan are way ahead of you and should you choose to exploit that opening it will be futile! This “wrapping up” is a skill that Hatsumi Sensei often talks about when he tells the lesson of catching a bee in your hand, then lightly but completely holding it so that it does not want to sting you. So it is with Nagato and Oguri Sensei’s, you end up feeling like you just want to stop because you sense you cannot win.
On the other hand is the trick of letting your opponent feel free to attack you as he pleases in order to trap him. This is difficult to do and while you are practicing this you should go more slowly as the potential for uke to actually inflict some damage is much higher!
Both Seno and Noguchi Senseis try to cultivate this kind of freedom in their taijutsu. Often as you attack one of them you feel as if you can hit them (indeed, since they are training as well, sometimes they DO get hit!). But battle is not so precise and clean as to allow us to always be at the perfect distance with the perfect timing, therefor we need to practice this lack of controlling movement. Giving the uke more and more freedom to attack as he wishes while training our ability to successfully recover from less than optimal distance and timing. As Seno and Noguchi show, this will lead to a greater ability to fool you opponent into thinking there is an opening, when in reality there is not…
In closing I want to reiterate that this is by no means a definitive account of the four top shihan and even where I draw attention to certain aspects, this does not mean that the shihan ONLY trains in this particular way. For I have seen all four of them do the exact opposite of their characteristic movements. This is important to remember as they are not bound to one way, neither should we be.
And it should go without saying that we are all (shitenno included) trying to follow Hatsumi Sensei’s budo, therefor we need ALL of the skills, not just the ones we like, those that look cool, what we think “fits our body type”.
So, get to Japan and spend some time with these “four heavenly kings” and do your own contrasting and comparing!