Before the death of his teacher in 1972, Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi, Soke of the Bujinkan Dojo, inherited nine martial lineages, dating back thousands of years. These schools constitute a vast array of information, much of it esoteric even to those with years of martial arts experience. In the days of feudal Japan, these very techniques and strategies were only understandable to those with inside or “secret” knowledge of their underlying principles. This granted them the proper perspective to explore an inexhaustible database that served them not only in times of war, but could also strengthen the spirit to endure adversity.
To anyone who may have seen or even stolen the “densho,” scroll, of a particular style, the information contained could only be viewed superficially, providing at best insignificant examples of the flavor of the school, at worst, a deadly invitation to attempt techniques in life-or-death combat without proper training.
Today, students are not expected to master all the techniques of each school. This would be a vain attempt to answer real-life threats in a stylized manner. In fact, the philosophy of the Bujinkan dictates just the opposite, training the “knack” of each school creates an all-encompassing art of universal truths for which each practitioner provides ownership, allowing them to eventually direct and shape their own personal approach. From the beginning, Bujinkan training emphasizes relaxation in moments of high-stress, allowing fear to be recognized as a gift that should not incapacitate, allowing one’s personal ethics to reflexively dictate proper and distinctive responses.
Individually, each school is prized for its idiosyncratic approach and breadth of knowledge, which is why Hatsumi sensei focuses training on a particular school or concept each year. In the past, training has focused upon, Juppo Sessho no jutsu, the “Ten Ways of Living and Killing,” Roppo Kuji no Biken, the “Six Methods of the Divine Secret Sword,” and Sanjigen, or movement in the “third-dimension.” Each of these concepts may sound exotic, but are in fact steadfast ideals and examples of the enigmatic method with which ancient warriors coded their language and writing so as to be deciphered only by those formerly initiated.
Gyokko Ryu · Koto Ryu · Gikan Ryu
These first three schools represent some of the oldest teachings in the Bujinkan as well as some of the most sophisticated. The school’s strategies are based on Kosshi and Koppo, nerve and bone-breaking attacks, respectively. Much more than simply striking pressure points or hitting hard enough to break bones, these two concepts represent separate combat strategies yet share a distinctive yin and yang reciprocal synergy.
In Japanese, one of the meanings of the “ko” of Koppo is “bone” and “po,” method. This “method of bone” teaches how to align one’s own skeleton and misalign your opponent’s, similar to destroying the supports of a building, allowing gravity to pull the structure down.
Kosshi can be described as “spirit point,” and works in the opposite manner by attacking from a single point and spreading throughout the body’s “lifeforce” or “spirit” – the blood, nerves, and tissue – like a virus, much the way fire engulfs a building.
These two ancient methods were both inherited from Chinese Kenpo, a form of martial boxing, and perfected by feudal-age ninja not simply as a means of attack and defense, but as powerful tactics in both warfare, espionage, and spiritual guidance.
Shinden Fudo Ryu · Kukishinden Ryu · Takagi Yoshin Ryu
These schools of samurai decent contain the teachings of Dakentaijutsu, a form of striking, Jutaijutsu, ancestor of modern Jujutsu, weapons usage, as well as fighting in armor.
Shinden Fudo Ryu, an iaijutsu, or method of sword drawing, bases its strategy on the natural use of the body to deliver dynamic techniques to pin opponents thus granting more time to utilize a sword or one of the school’s oversized weapons including war axes, battle hammers, and naginata, or halberd.
Takagi Yoshin Ryu, known as a school of bodyguarding, concentrates on capturing or covering several points on an opponent’s body and moving in as little space as possible to apply its techniques.
Much of the Bujinkan’s knowledge of weapons comes from the Kukishinden Ryu. A branch of the historic Kukishin Ryu, it concentrates on Rokushaku bojutsu, long staff, sword, sojutsu, spear, jutte, truncheon, and hanbo, or three-foot staff.
Togakure Ryu · Kumogakure Ryu · Gyokushin Ryu
These final schools represent what are generally recognized as the only surviving schools of Ninpo, the art of the oft-misunderstood ninja. “Nin” of Ninpo, ninja, and Ninjutsu, can be translated several ways such as patience, perseverance, or even concealment. Thus ninja could be translated as a “patient person,” or someone who “perseveres under adversity.” The Japanese ideogram for “nin” is made up of the characters for “heart” and “blade,” which in advanced levels of study is viewed as channeling the heart for the effectiveness of the blade.
Ancient schools of Ninjutsu were generally founded by families or village elders and were composed of personal combat techniques, spycraft, and guerrilla warfare tactics, necessitated by the harsh reality of feudal Japan, a time of near constant war. Some of these schools were more complete than others and often contained distinct areas of study. The Togakure Ryu has 18 of these areas such as fighting techniques, horsemanship, and disguise. The Kumogakure Ryu focused part of their training upon weather prediction and the Gyokushin Ryu was very adept at using the nagenawa, or lasso.
Schools were often renowned for inventing unique technology as solutions to problems faced on the battlefield or in tradecraft. For example, the Kumogakure Ryu is credited with developing the kamayari, a spear with two protruding hooks off the tip that could be used not only in combat, but also to aid climbing.
The history of ninja is a turbulent one. As practitioners of political, religious, and military ideologies that sometimes contradicted the ruling samurai elite, Ninpo eventually developed into an illegal counter-culture. This was no more true than in 1581, when then shogun Oda Nobunaga invaded the province of Iga, a bastion of ninja activity, with more than 70,000 troops and a simple strategy – complete and utter annihilation. But even outnumbering ninja nearly 20 to 1 was not enough to eradicate them completely and they later reemerged as guardians of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan’s last shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose ascendancy ushered in nearly two and a half centuries of peace until Japan’s modern era.
The ninja’s arts advanced their ideology through war and the body politic, so they might protect their way of life and survive the ever-spreading chaos that hundreds of years of war had wrought to their country. As history marched on and Ninpo’s physical methods became more refined, so too did its ability of divination and spiritual refinement, guiding the thoughts and actions of practitioners along the path of sincerity, justice, and righteousness, eventually advancing an embattled Japan toward peace.