Rather than bother with a long winded philosophical ramble about my motivations or an indepth exploration of the deep personality flaws that undoubtedly underly my entrance to the blogging world I thought I would jump in at the deep end and kick things off with a discussion of the topic at the heart of almost all religious debates… ninjas!
Lest the infamous ability of the internet to eat sarcasm comes into effect I feel I should duly acknowledge that ninjas, although featuring prominently across the internet, are by and large absent from debates surrounding religion. However, this could all be about to change due to a recent announcement from Masaaki Hatsumi, the current head of the largest Ninjutsu organisation around today; the Bujinkan.
(Ninjutsu, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is the name for the martial arts systems purpoted to have been used and developed by ninjas in the past, and yes there are large Ninjutsu organisations around today, crazy world, eh?).
A few weeks ago, Hatsumi announced to his students in Japan that he would be seeking to register the Bujinkan as a ‘religious organisation’ (or shukyo houjin 宗教法人) and that he would be asking for donations to pay for the construction of new headquarters which would include a Shinto shrine which would theoretically allow donations to be made ‘tax-free’. Ostensibly Hatsumi explained that he was making all these change for tax purposes and in order to make preserving the organisation after his death easier.
This explanation however did not go over well with many Bujinkan members and certainly did nothing to prevent internet discussion forums becoming ablaze with debate, criticism and a good deal of insults over what these actions represented.The Bujinkan since its inception as an organisation has attracted an impressive array of critics who along with a number of disgruntled members contended that Hatsumi’s plan amounted to tax evasion- on the rather straightforward grounds that the Bujinkan is a martial art system and not anything to do with religion.
Before going further it would probably be a good idea to clue in those who are not already aware (i.e. probably everyone reading) about how Ninjutsu, and by extension the Bujinkan, are regarded in the wider martial arts community. Ninjutsu is, to put it simply, widely derided. It’s viewed by many, especially those in more modern or competition focused arts, to be essentially a form of live action roleplaying for Westerners who grew up watching too many America Ninja films. This may be a rather unfair characterisation of many involved in studying Ninjutsu however it remains an opinion which is widespread. Such a negative image is also not helped by both the defensive and rather devotional attitude of many Ninjutsu practitioners and the very unrealistic claims about martial arts that are often found in the books that they write (especially the older ones). On top of this the Bujinkan specifically is frequently on the receiving end of criticism for:
- Encouraging an insular mentality among it’s members.
- Promoting an unrealistic and esoteric image of Japan and the Japanese.
- Promoting an unquestioning devotion to ‘soke’ Hatsumi- the head of the organisation.
- Placing too much emphasis on mystical sounding philosophies and too little emphasis on realistic martial arts techniques.
- Presenting an invented history at odds with mainstream historical research.
- Being based in Japan and having a predominately Western membership.
Such critiques ultimately tend to end with the conclusion that the Bujinkan is an essence a cult with the critics often drawing parallels between the Bujinkan and notorious religious cults. Now my personal opinion is that such critiques often go too far and overstretch the cult parallels which, with a little creativity, can be made to apply to almost all martial arts systems. However, it is impossible to deny that, on a basic level, many of the criticisms, such as the examples highlighted above, are in essence… correct.
In light of this it should be no suprise that many Bujinkan members would offer explanations to justify Hatsumi’s actions and indeed this is what many of them did. The explanations offered varied from vaguely plausible (‘it’s the only legal option to an organisation to bypass Japanese inheritance laws’) to the outlandishly wacky (‘such events are common in Japan, in fact, people in the country regularly build shrines in their gardens and become religious organisations to get tax breaks!’). There were also attempts made to argue that the Bujinkan had in fact always been a religious organisation (‘we’ve been bowing to Shinto altars at the start of training for years’) and that this wasn’t an unprecedented step for a Japanese martial art to take since Shorinji kempo had become registered as a shukyo houjin a number of years previously.
Some of the arguments have more merit than others but the unavoidable fact for anyone familiar with Japanese martial arts and religions is that this is not a common affair. Shorinji kempo is an exceptional case due to having a central and unambiguous religious aspect to it’s organisation since it’s inception. In contrast to this Ninjutsu has never had such clear affliations or religious aspects to it’s training as clearly illustrated by these statements taken from various Bujinkan websites (see for instance the Bujinkan Kocho Dojo website):
*UPDATE 25/06/09: An individual associated with the Bujinkan Kocho Dojo has disagreed with my interpretation of their comments and my general conclusions. I recommend anyone interested take a look at the site and judge if I’m representing what it said fairly themselves and also read their arguments and my response in the comments section below*
“The Bujinkan Kocho Dojo does not teach religion. It is not part of the body of knowledge that makes up the Bujinkan organization. We do have a rich philosophy and training methods for strengthening the spirit, but these have nothing to do with religion. Religions are focused on worshipping a deity and the correct manner of living to gain a better existence in the after life
Do not mistake the spiritual aspects of training in the Bujinkan with religion. Religion is something separate, although often times there may be some common goals. Both religion and the Bujinkan are trying to develop high quality people who walk a just path in life. But religion will be left entirely up to the student to pursue outside of the dojo.”
“NINJUTSU IS NOT RELIGION. Spiritual Yes. Religion NO. You can train in our art no matter what your religious path is or is not. Please do not confuse this or let anyone else tell you otherwise.”
Odd statements if Ninjutsu has always been a religious organisation as some are now arguing.
Anyway, this is certainly an interesting situation and the discussions surrounding it actually managed to raise many issues which are central to cross cultural religious comparisons such as how ‘religion’ is defined in various cultures, what connotations are carried by the term and what the difference is betwen ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ teachings. Will be interesting to see how things develop over the next few months… with ninja’s it really is hard to predict!