Practicing the Art of Soke Hatsumi

Practicing the Art of Soke Hatsumi

Anyone who has trained with Hatsumi Sensei for an extended period of time will understand how difficult following Soke can be. There are many apparent contradictions in his teachings and these lead trainees down many paths in an attempt to capture the art that Soke is passing on…especially as there is no codified certification program that one can turn to for assurance.
As Hatsumi Sensei is a consummate artist, and teacher of art, and its application in real life, we need to look at the whole package of our training with him in the context of how things operate in nature, or in the real world. In our modern world, with the easy access to massive amounts of information, it has become more and more difficult to differentiate the useful from the wasteful. How do we learn what is good? This is the lesson of Hatsumi Sensei and in order to “get it” you have to be able to hold several competing ideas in your mind at the same time.
Many have talked about the way of Hatsumi as having no structure, but it really is the structure of no structure. In this article I want to give you a possible way of looking at training with Soke that, if you can open your mind enough, may give you a tool in your journey.

Do what he SAYS:
Starting with the simplest and most obvious you must actually DO the things he says to do. If you visit soke 2 or 3 times a year you will hear some of the same messages over and over. “I’m teaching to the 15dans”, “Let go of your power”, etc. Some of these things give little direct application or are open to interpretation. But many times Soke will often come right out and tell us what we need to work on to improve our taijutsu.
For instance, he is always talking about conditioning your body to be supple and fluid, developing the capacity to move each segment of your body by itself. He demonstrates this with his ability to wiggle his ears, as well as being able to sit on the floor and put his foot behind his head! Many of these things are almost self-evident, yet often people do not take them to heart and spend the time necessary to develop these abilities. So, at the most basic level, just do what he says!

DON’T do what he SAYS:
In Japanese society the ways of delivering information and teaching are often different than in western society. In the west, we expect our teachers to directly tell us what we need to work on, to “get to the point”, so to speak. But in Japanese culture, this doesn’t always happen, the teacher draws your attention to things that reflect the point he is trying to make, he does not directly state it.
It happens regularly in Hombu training that Soke will have someone show a technique that everyone can work on and to give Soke a starting point from which to teach. Normally, he has them show it a couple times then proceeds to illustrate important concepts or principles. But sometimes he has that person come back out and repeat the movement over and over. Saying things like “ pay attention to his feet, nobody is moving their feet the same way, or watch his distance, the distance is very important”.
Of course you would think that he is telling everyone how good or correct that person’s technique is, sometimes even saying how good that person is, but usually he is trying to let the demonstrator correct his own inefficient movement. This becomes clear when, after letting the attempts go on for several minutes, Soke finally teaches the movement, moving to the opposite side as the demonstrator or taking a completely different distance.
I have spoken to a few friends who have had this situation in the dojo with Hatsumi Sensei, and they all realized that he was teaching them indirectly, and training the rest of us to develop the eyes with which to see correctly.
So it is important to take everything Hatsumi Sensei says ‘with a grain of salt’, as the saying goes. Not necessarily because he is purposely trying to deceive you, but because of the deeper lesson that might lie behind his words. It is the principle of Kyojitsu Tenkan Ho.

DO what he DOES:
This sounds so simple. Of course it is natural to attempt to replicate what is being shown in a class, so go for it to the best of your ability. Try to replicate exactly what he is showing. It will not be possible, usually, but if you just automatically say “that is Soke and I can don’t that” or “that’s not realistic, I would do this”, you are missing out on the learning opportunity. Don’t do what you can already do well!
It is okay to accept that you won’t be able to exactly duplicate what Soke has done, he can’t even duplicate it! But it is in the striving to replicate that understanding can come.

Don’t do what he DOES:
After you have worked on replicating to the best of your ability, you will begin to find the limits in that method. So next, try to capture the essence of what he does. Discover the key point or “kaname” and attempt to integrate that into your particular situation, working with your partner. Then take that key point and see how often it is applicable in the rest of your training, outside of Hombu. If Soke is demonstrating 力を抜く (the principle of suddenly dropping out the muscular tension) by lifting his elbow under his uke’s armpit, holding him aloft for a moment then rapidly dropping down, but you can’t seem to get into that position with your uke, then you must find an alternate location to employ the same principle. Thus, NOT doing what he is doing…

DO what he USED TO DO:
“That’s not how soke got to where he is today; you have to go through the same training he did to get to where he is now”. I’ve heard this a million times, and to a certain extent, it is true. There is a process of skill development that is necessary in order to even understand progressively higher, more difficult concepts. Our progression goes from simple to complex, hard training to softer training, obvious to subtle. If you try to take these things out of sequence, you will have gaps in your ability and you will be forced to go back to the beginning and relearn, forcing the process to take much more time than it originally would have.
So learning the process he went through (he and his top students will tell you), then making sure to cover the same areas he did, will help you on your path to capability in Hatsumi Sensei’s art.

DON’T do what he USED TO DO:
When Hatsumi first started his ninja training, there was no training manual. We’ve all seen the scrolls and their translations, as well as having the Japanese teachers explain them to us, there is no clear and concise pedagogy written in the scrolls. It is clear that Hatsumi had to” figure it out” (he has said this exact thing on multiple occasions).
In any process of discovery like he did, it is inevitable that there will be ideas or training methods that are effective and some that are not so effective. Everything we study evolves, so the methods of 40 years ago may not be the most efficient. There are many beliefs and opinions about how this is best achieved. You should take the time to find out what the best training approaches are by studying the people who embody the results you want to achieve. Thereby skipping some of the dead ends involved in figuring out a system virtually from scratch.

DO what his top students DO:
Some years ago Hatsumi Sensei made it clear to the world just who his top students were by designating them the 四天王 “shitenno”, and calling them the “true shihans”. Some people were not happy with the four names he chose, believing that their teacher should really be in that list. But it is Soke’s list. And he has admonished us on many occasions that we all need to train with all 4 of them in order to more fully understand his art. They each reflect a deep, sometimes unique understanding of Hatsumi’s art, and can clearly demonstrate their capability of this understanding! This is not to say that everyone will be able to train with all 4 of them all the time, but making sure to spend as much time as you need to be able to demonstrate your understanding of what they teach. Obviously as time passes we will have less and less chance to actually train with these four teachers…

DON’T do what his top students DO:
As with the admonition above to not hold too seriously to what Soke says, you also need to train with people who don’t necessarily follow Soke too closely. An interesting thing happened a couple years ago while several of us were in Hombu talking after a class in which Soke was repeatedly pointing out the bad habits of a particular instructor who was there that day. Not in the oblique, subtle way mentioned above. This time Soke was talking directly, saying things like this person has many bad habits in their taijutsu and they were passing these bad habits along to the students who trained with him. This is unusual and represents a considerable amount of agitation on the part of Soke.
So there we were after class talking, when one of the Japanese students states that he will ask Hatsumi Sensei why he allows this person to teach at Hombu if he feels so strongly that he is passing along dangerous information. I thought he was joking and promptly forgot about it. The next week when I saw my Japanese friend he said to me, “I asked Hatsumi that question from last week”. It took me a moment to remember what he was talking about, and then it dawned on me. “You’re kidding”, I said, ”What did he say?” (Now the answer to this question really sums up the difficulty in trying to learn Hatsumi Sensei’s art) “He said, he wants there to be bad teachers, so that everyone has to figure out on their own how to tell good taijutsu from bad…!”
With these differing perspectives hopefully you will have a little bit easier time trying to follow the seemingly capricious actions of our grandmaster.
Good luck in your journey.

Rob Renner

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2 comments on “Practicing the Art of Soke Hatsumi
  1. Robert Lytle (Student of the Bujinkan) says:

    I f ound the information to be most enlightening and express my deepest gratitude to you for such great information. Again THANK YOU

  2. Andrew Netes says:

    Good points you raise here mate having spent time in Japan and training with you as well your points are valid and clear, look forward to returning home soon to Japan and training with you at Zero Point ps your Video are good mate well done talk soon
    Andrew Netes Australia.

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