I received an interesting comment on an earlier article I wrote about Bujinkan Ninjutsu becoming a registered religious organisation and have decided that since it raised many interesting issues it deserved a proper reply. So here goes:
Firstly I would like to ask who the critics of the Bujinkan are and the sources that you have for their arguments against the Bujinkan? Not because I don’t believe you, it seems totally plausible criticism but I would like to know the source of this reference as you do not specify.
I have been involved with martial arts for about 10 years first practicing Wing Chun Kung Fu then Muay Thai and currently I’m training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Judo. I also served as the president for the Thai boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu sports societies at university so I have quite a bit of personal experience with martial arts communities and criticisms and discussions of other arts are common in such communities.
However, my main source for the arguments against the Bujinkan I presented is the large martial arts discussion forum ‘Martial Arts Planet’. I have been a member there for over 5 years and over the past year or so I have also become involved with moderating the site. At first I moderated the religion and the Thai boxing forums but for the past few months I have also took over moderating the Ninjutsu forum. As a result, I have read more discussions about Ninjutsu than probably most practitioners have and many of those discussions have revolved around criticisms. So that is the source from where I draw the criticisms from.
I would like to point out as well that not every Bujinkan club is the same. All martial arts coaches, trainers sensei etc. have very different ways of teaching and aims in mind for their students. All Bujinkan dojos operate under Hatsumi ultimately but many have very different feels to the training and a different atmosphere. You could compare this to a government funded high school or secondary school. Just because they all run to the national curriculum it does not meant that every school has the same set of ideals and ethos. Bujinkan dojos, just like most other established martial art dojos, are similar to school in this this way.
I appreciate that there is much variation amongst Bujinkan clubs and this is a point that people responding to criticisms often raise. I think it is a valid point but at the same time I also think that it is still possible to talk about general trends in training.
For instance, a point that many critics raise is that almost all Ninjutsu videos available online display techniques or training being performed in a choreographed non-resistant manner. There may be schools were strong resistance is the practiced but I think it is fair to comment that this does not seem to be the norm. I am however by no means attempting to deny that Bujinkan schools differ widely as it’s quite clear they do.
I think your comment that it’s a ‘crazy world’ because there is a martial art of the Ninja reveals that you have a bias against a martial art of the Ninja (as opposed to other arts). Jiu jutsu is the martial art of the samurai (the Japanese army), karate was a martial art practised by Japanese peasants, epee sword fencing is the martial art that was practised by middle class Western men when they wanted to solve a dispute or defend themselves.
I think you took my comments too seriously. I’m actually not particularly surprised there is a martial art that claims to be based on the techniques of the ninja as I am well aware of the huge diversity in martial arts and that there are many arts claiming to preserve ‘ancient’ fighting systems.
I am aware however that, outside the enclosed world of martial arts, many would consider it odd that there are people in the modern world who actually train in a martial art system based on the ‘ninja’. I would also add that what makes Ninjutsu particularly odd to non-martial artists and even to some other martial arts practitioners is that ninja’s have a particularly mythical image and a deep association with fantasy both in the West and in Japan. Telling someone from Japan that you practice Ninjutsu would more often than not lead to a bemused smile but if you told them you practiced karate or Jiu Jitsu they’re unlikely to bat an eyelid… Ninjutsu is not common and it is considered by most to be more the stuff of anime than the stuff of martial arts schools.
All these arts and more are practised today and I have never encountered any criticism against them (interested to hear from those who have). What is so unrealisitic about a martial art derived from the practises of Japanese assassins (often used by the Japanese army) and guerilla fighters?
Well, the first point I think critics would raise is that there is not very strong evidence that what is taught in Bujinkan has any connection with what the historical ninjas trained in. The second would be that if you are not training the system realistically i.e. with realistic resistance then the legitimacy of the source material would not matter because you will be unable to apply what you have learnt effectively if someone resists. Thirdly what was suitable for medieval Japan might not be at all suitable or appropriate to apply in modern societies i.e. using swords for self defence.
Regarding religion in Japan: I have read (source The Rough Guide to Japan, context section) that until quite recently in history shinto was not regarded as a religion by the Japanese. As they were isolated from the rest of the world, they did not need to distinguish their religion from anyone else’s and so they just saw it as something they did as natural as eating with chopsticks and most people having black hair and dark eyes in that country.
The problem with this is that Japan was not as isolated as it is often believed. For instance, it had extensive trade and cultural interaction with its Asian neighbours particularly China and Korea. As such, the Japanese were well aware of other religions from an early stage and it is almost certain Buddhism was known of prior to its official recorded introduction in 552CE. Its image as a closed country is largely due to the policies enacted by the Tokugawa shogunate to isolate the country which began in 1639 and lasted roughly 200 hundred years. However, even this event contradicts the suggestion that Japan was oblivious to other religious traditions as in large part the isolation policies were enacted to prevent Christianity from spreading across Japan.
Therefore religion does not have the same context and connotations in Japan as it does in Britain today. The distinction between religion and ninjutsu has been made for western practitioners of the art not for the Japanese in my opinion.
Western people observe diversity in their country in a different way to Japanese people who have less diveristy and absorb difference in religion rather than emphasise it (by which I mean they may have buddhist regalia alongside shinto etc. without observing any conflict.)
You are right that religion does not carry the same connotations in Japan as it does in Britain (or in the rest of the Western world for that matter) and indeed the Japanese religious system is often noted for its non-exclusive nature. So for example, it would not be unusual for an individual to have a celebration held shortly after their birth at a Shinto Shrine, get married in a Christian wedding and be cremated in a Buddhist funeral when they die.
However, I would be careful about over emphasising this point as many Japanese religions actually DO stress that they should be followed exclusively. Their practitioners generally do not heed such instructions but still it does somewhat contradict the image of totally cohesive religious systems. The effects of the Meiji period’s enforced distinction between Shinto and Buddhism also has had some long lasting effects.
Regardless of all that though an important point I feel that needs to be recognised is that Japanese people are also, by and large, indifferent to religion and most polls put levels of non-belief at around ninety per cent despite continued high levels of participation in religious ceremonies. In fact I would even suggest that most Japanese people tend to regard religions, especially new ones, with suspicion. This is in part due to the legacy left by the Tokyo subway gas attack perpetrated by the new religion Aum Shinrikyo and also partly due to the levels of corruption within the traditional religions which are widely reported in the media.
So the overall point is that converting a martial arts organisation into a religious organisation would not be considered normal by most Japanese.
I think this goes some way to explaining Hatsumi’s decision but in my personal opinion, it does not bother me either way.
You’re entitled to your opinion and I welcome the feedback, but I do not believe that Hatsumi’s actions are adequately explained by reference to the Japanese religious system. Making a martial art a religious organisation does happen but it really is not that common.
What has influenced me to reply in this vein is my hatred of ignorance and my desire to give those reading your blog the fullest possible picture of your subject matter. I hope that this doesn’t offend or upset any readers or the author but only serves to give people all the facts they need to find more information if they are interested or just to be aware that there are other factors in play in this situation.
I’m glad that you offered your reply and I hope this more detailed response clarifies my positions a bit better.
If you are interested in getting more information about Japanese religions I strongly recommend the following books:
(1991) Ian Reader: Religion in Contemporary Japan.
(1998) Ian Reader & George Tanabe: Practically Religious- Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan.
Both offer excellent introductions, are written in an engaging style and also contain first rate scholarship.
The Japanese Journal of Religious Studies also has a huge range of interesting articles stretching back to 1974 that can all be read online.
P.S. You may also be interested in reading this post wherein I touched on the issue of whether it is justified to say that ‘religion’ is a western category that doesn’t apply to Japan. I think this is a topic I might address in more detail shortly.