In 1957, Yoshiaki Hatsumi was a young martial artist working as a bone doctor in Chiba Prefecture, roughly two hours outside Tokyo, the capital of Japan. Since childhood, martial arts had held his fascination leading him to study various styles under several teachers. But he was dissatisfied, finding himself drawn to an ideal that continually eluded him. What he wanted was to train true martial art – the art of war – ancestor of classical systems and modern sport versions.
Hatsumi soon learned of an aging master named Toshitsugu Takamatsu. The scant details of Takamatsu’s life sounded like an adventure novel – he had spent 12 years as a young man inside a chaotic China soon after the turn of the 20th century. He travelled, instructed martial arts, and eventually became a personal bodyguard of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. His prowess as a master of Budo, the martial way, led him to be known as “Moko no Tora,” or the “Mongolian Tiger.” At the height of his notoriety in China, he was said to have thousands of students. Enthralled, Hatsumi immediately journeyed the half-day train ride south to the ancient city of Kashihara, in Nara Prefecture, to meet this remarkable man.
Little did Hatsumi realize just who he was seeking out. Takamatsu was, by all accounts, the world’s last “combat ninja,” trained since childhood in the ancient teachings of the legendary ninja warrior tradition. Incredibly, many of Takamatsu’s exploits are still secret to this day, lest they challenge the accepted version of history.
Upon first meeting Takamatsu, Hatsumi was challenged to a match. Takamatsu, by then in his 70s, was the owner of a small, unassuming tea house, but tossed young Hatsumi around like a child. Later, Hatsumi would say he experienced “hot pain,” a feeling like he would explode. Takamatsu, who at the time was not accepting any students, agreed to begin teaching Hatsumi personally. Thus began a 15-year odyssey between master and disciple.
Each weekend, Hatsumi made the journey from his home to study with Takamatsu, who would initiate him into the traditions of Ninpo Taijutsu, ninja techniques and strategies that have been passed down for generations. After many years under Takamatsu’s tutelage, Hatsumi was becoming a strong Budoka, a student of Budo.
One weekend, years into their training, Hatsumi sat sipping tea with Takamatsu, and the old master quietly left the room without explanation. Hatsumi waited patiently for his return – his back to the doorway. Then, inexplicably, Hatsumi violently ducked. As he fell to his side, a live sword blade passed through the space his body had occupied only a moment before. Takamatsu had approached unnoticed and given his student one final test. Shortly after, Takamatsu granted Hatsumi the title of 34th generational Soke, “head of the family,” of Togakure Ryu Ninpo Taijutsu, one of the last surviving schools of Ninjutsu dating back nearly 900 years. Eventually, Hatsumi would inherit eight more ancient traditions, comprising all of Takamatsu’s collective knowledge:
Togakure Ryu Ninpo
Kumogakure Ryu Ninpo
Gyokushin Ryu Ninpo
Gyokko Ryu Kosshijutsu
Koto Ryu Koppojutsu
Gikan Ryu Koppojutsu
Shinden Fudo Ryu Dakentaijutsu
Takagi Yoshin Ryu Jutaijutsu
Kukishinden Ryu Happo Hiken
On April 2nd, 1972, Takamatsu, the Mongolian Tiger, died. Hatsumi, who by then had changed his name to Masaaki on Takamatsu’s advice, founded the Bujinkan Dojo, or “warrior god training hall,” to honor his wonderful teacher. Hatsumi would then spend the next 10 years studying the teachings of his master, with a small group of dedicated Japanese and foreign students.
In 1982, he traveled to America for a series of seminars where his skills, energy, and message reached thousands of people and helped fuel the “ninja boom.” This explosion of popularity consisting of television, movies, and magazines was a double-edged sword, granting Hatsumi a media platform for his wisdom and experience, but also gave opportunists – inexperienced or unlicensed instructors as well as outright frauds – bait to lure eager students into negative, costly, or dangerous training. In time, these charlatans and false teachings succumbed to the legitimate skills and dedication of serious practitioners, who had quietly kept training around the world, maintaining ties with Hatsumi and his Shihan, top instructors. Slowly, they formed strong groups and eventually their own schools.
Today, the Bujinkan flourishes, having matured around the world with hundreds of thousands of students, who have come to realize the ethics, tactics, and techniques, of this once secret and enigmatic art are not simply for self-defense, but personal growth. The physical lessons of Taijutsu forge the heart, mind, and spirit into tools to live a sincere and just life.