Master One To Master All

At the end of the class, Nagato sensei said, “if you master one thing, you can master anything”.

It reminded me of how Musashi became a fantastic painter after mastering the art of the sword. (1) In his famous book “Gorin no Sho”, he writes, “When I apply the principle of strategy to the ways of different arts and crafts, I no longer require a teacher in any domain.” (2)

This universal mastery is visible when you train here in Japan. The Japanese Dai Shihan are so good that whatever new field they begin to study, it turns out to be great. I often hear students being amazed by how the Dai Shihan play with the many weapons we use in the Bujinkan, and I keep reminding them that the Japanese discovered the weapons at the same time we did. As a result, many students dislike me for being critical. Many don’t get that the Bujinkan does taijutsu with weapons, but many teachers do taijutsu on one side and study weapons on the other. We are not studying Karate and Kobudō; we are studying Budō Taijutsu!

The Japanese Dai Shihan are so good and master taijutsu so well that it looks like they are very proficient with weapons without having spent hours learning the forms. In 1993 Quest released the Bō jutsu video. Everyone was amazed at the movements and the waza on the video. After a few years of training bō jutsu, I began to see some weaknesses in the forms performed by the Japanese. I spoke to Noguchi sensei about it and was startled by his answer. He said, “you know how playful Hatsumi sensei is; we discovered bō jutsu the day of the shooting in that temple. That was our first time using it.”

Mastering one to mastering all is not some lovely philosophical saying; it is a reality. And you can see that at every training. Yesterday, Stephane (Dai Shihan of the Kuma dōjō) began with a basic Musō dori.  Every beginner knows Musō dori as it is part of the basics of the Tenchijin. When Nagato sensei did his first variation, he linked it (again) to the Shinden Fudō ryū and the wing of a bird. (3)

For my friend Stephane, it was a long class. Stephane is very good at attacking. He loves rugby and can be as devastating as a rugby pack pushing forward to get to the trial line. In Paris, when he is my uke, I must move correctly not to be hit, and I have to do it right because there will be no second chance. We have a WhatsApp group for the dōjō. His avatar is a gorilla which says a lot.

Yesterday, facing Nagato sensei, the gorilla was like a little bug. Whatever speed and power he used, Nagato sensei was ahead of him, controlling the situation and moving naturally. His mastery of footwork gives him an innate understanding of the whole encounter, and he reacts naturally to anything that comes to him. There is no force, only an endless flow of moves that trap uke in a world of wonder. That is what mastering the Bujinkan basics is.

So when after the final bowing, he said, “if you master one thing, you can master everything”, it made perfect sense to me. 

Master taijutsu today so you can master your life tomorrow.  


2. Gorin no sho: Hundreds of versions of the book exist. I prefer the one by Kenji Tokitsu (, but if you didn’t read it, here is a pdf version (that I didn’t study):
3. Note for beginners: in the Shinden Fudō ryū, many waza refer to birds. As you cannot grab with a wing, the idea is to use your elbows as a wing to redirect the attacks and trap the opponent’s fist or weapon. The use of elbows is Nagato sensei’s favourite gimmick.  

Encounter With A Polisher

The Japanese Dai Shihan show how to polish our movements; I call them “polishers” for that reason.

My younger son Amaury is 27 years old, and this is his first Japan trip. Entering Nagato sensei’s class, he had the time of his life as he was his uke for the course. Being the son of the polar bear, it was obvious that Nagato sensei would use him as uke. I should have told him in advance, but somehow I forgot (am I a bad father?). This trip was supposed to be in 2019, but I had to go to Lebanon for a few months, and then the confinement hit us all.

Amaury opened the training with Stephane and Sui no kata. Stephane is a Dai Shihan from the Kuma dōjō, so he felt confident. When Nagato sensei began to unfold his “Nagato ryū” style of Budō, stress replaced his initial confidence.

One point that many students ask me concerning the new group of Sōke. Please make no mistake; they received Sōkeship, but they all still teach Bujinkan Budō like before, and they do not limit their teaching to the only ryū they received.

Watching how Amaury understood the specificity of Nagato sensei’s taijutsu was interesting. I’m not speaking about the pain, which is part of Nagato’s taijutsu.

From his perspective as a newcomer to the Nagato world, three things caught his attention the most: mastery of distance, use of elbows, and natural movement.

In my classes, I keep insisting that footwork is the key, that power resides in the legs, and that walking is like dancing with a partner. But this is different when you discover the subtlety of a Japanese Dai Shihan’s taijutsu. I’ve been uke of Hatsumi Sensei and the Japanese Shi Tennō for many years, but I don’t recall how I felt the first time I was uke. Amaury said that if the pain surprised him, Nagato’s mastery of distance was impressive.

Nagato sensei spoke about Shinden Fudō ryū referring to the wings of a bird, but those of you who have trained with him know perfectly that this is a common gimmick of his taijutsu movements. He used his elbows, as usual, to redirect or trap uke’s attacks. He is dealing with the attacker like a spider deals with a fly. The more intent by uke, the faster he is trapped, locked, and destroyed.

The last thing he noticed was how natural Nagato sensei’s movements were. For a 75-year-old man (in perfect shape), his movements are so natural that Amaury was not feeling any danger before it was too late. When tori shows intent, there is a way uke can see what is coming, but if there is no intent, it is impossible to see it. As Hatsumi Sensei said, “if I don’t know what I’m going to do next, how do you want uke to read my next move?.”

This ability to hide your moves is typical of the Japanese Dai Shihan, and I only know a few foreigners able to do that. The only way to learn that is not by collecting waza but by coming here and training with the high ranks. A total of 12 people attended the class, and half of them have repeatedly been coming to Japan for over thirty years. During the break, Nagato sensei asked Amaury his age, to which my friend Ed Lomax said, “you’re 27? That was my age when I moved to Japan back in 82′.”

The Bujinkan can survive this pandemic crisis only if people come and train here. The teachers at Honbu are amongst the best in the world. Before COVID, nearly half a million people claimed to be Bujinkan members. Where are they today? In all my classes here, there were at most 14 students. And I have met Ed, Andrew, Jasper, Alex, Mark, Stephane and a few others here for the last three decades. Where are you?

Please wake up, my friends and come here to give yourself a chance to excel one day. Japan is where you should come to better your taijutsu. The secret of body movement doesn’t rely solely on biomechanics. Biomechanics is very important, but you must know that waza is only an excuse to apply proper distancing. This is why it is called “Budō Taijutsu, ” emphasising taijutsu. To develop a natural movement like Nagato sensei and the other Dai Shihan, you have to meet the “polishers”. And the only place on earth where you can polish is here in Atago with the Japanese Dai Shihan.

I hope to see you soon on the mats at honbu. One thing I know for sure is that Amaury will be back shortly.

Kannin: Keep Going!

With my brother-in-arms Pedro, and a few others, we had the chance to share lunch with Sensei. During this time, he said, “this year, the important is Kannin, keep going.” (1)

There are several meanings to Kannin. Kannin refers to a period in Japanese history at the beginning of the 11th century (1017-1021). (2) 

Then during the Heian Jidai, it became a generic term referring to the officials of the imperial government. (3) 

When Kannin is read Kanjin, it refers to some missionary work done by the monks. (4)

When Sensei says “keep going”, he might use these various meanings simultaneously. 

Like governments in times of crisis (pandemic, war), we must adapt and keep going. Our ancestors did this in the 11th century and continue to carry on their actions until this day. As Dai Shihan, we are the ”officials” of the Bujinkan. Our role is to convey the knowledge we receive from Sensei to the next generations. This is also similar to the Buddhist missionaries.

Therefore, “Keep going” is accepting that these times are challenging for everyone and that we shouldn’t give up because of the hardship in our lives. As educators, we must continue spreading the taijutsu we have received. As students, we have to be even more committed to improving ourselves. This is because times are difficult that we have to recenter our priorities.

Because of COVID, we could not come to Japan for nearly four years. I usually come here every four months. I wrote recently about the changes I noticed here due to the pandemic. Since my last trip in May 2019, Sensei’s body has become frail. And this is normal and to be expected. Sensei is a 91 years old man, his body is letting him down gradually, but his mind is as sharp as it was. 

And that’s the way I understand Kannin, “keep going”. Pedro and I spent a few hours together yesterday and agreed that Sensei was happy to see us both together. It was like going back some 33 years ago when the younger us would spend the days in Sensei’s home listening and discussing with him. This lunch had this kind of flavour, and we felt it was the same for him, and it was visible on his face.

Our training halls have suffered a lot from the pandemic. We lost many students who, maybe, were not strong enough to “keep going”. Seminars are challenging to organise and attend. 

Let’s regroup and build everything better. I have no worries about the old guards; they are here and as committed as before. This past week on the mats, there has been a majority of grey hair: Mark, Elias, Alex, Jasper, Ed, Andrew, Stephane, and others I don’t remember. They are all Dai Shihan, and it is logical to see them here. But we must speak to those lost in the pandemic and return them to training. This is Kannin.

You have received your orders for 2023 from the General-in-chief, and it is Kannin: keep going! Spread the news worldwide during seminars and in your dōjō. It won’t be easy, but your mission is to make 2023 a year of progress to rebuild a better Bujinkan.



1. 堪忍, Kannin: patience; forbearance; endurance; tolerance​; forgiveness; pardon.
2. Kannin. In Wikipedia
Kannin (寛仁) was a Japanese era name (年号,, nengō,, lit. “year name”) after Chōwa and before Jian. This period spanned the years from April 1017 through February 1021. [1] The reigning emperor was Go-Ichijō-tennō (後一条天皇).
3. 官人, Kannin means an official and a civil servant. In the ritsuryo system, Kannin represented officials at the rank of Sakan of Tsukasa (also known as Shi) or above and the court rank of Sixth Rank or below. In the Heian period, it meant officials at the position of Jo or below, specifically lieutenant of Konoefu (the Headquarters of the Inner Palace Guards) or under. In a narrow sense, Kannin means the officials of Shitokan and the officials at the government posts of Honkan, both of which had corresponding court ranks. In a broad sense, Kannin collectively means the officials, including Gunji and officials without corresponding court ranks.
4. 官人, Kanjin: Kanjin was work done by Buddhist monks in connection with missionary activities intended to bring relief to people.

Change Is A Chance

Before the pandemic, I used to go and train in Japan every four months. It has been four years since my last trip in May 2019! Needless to say that I was dying to come back.

COVID has changed a lot of things in many aspects all over the world, in Europe and the Americas. So I was expecting to see the same here in Japan. And it is the case; change is everywhere in Japan. It might be a detail, but the price of drinks in the vending machines has gone from 120 yen to 150 yen. Many places I knew, like the Ulala cafe in the Kashiwa Plaza Annex, are now closed. Many new ones that are more “COVID-friendly” have replaced them. Kashiwa is now full of coffee places turned into co-working spaces.
I’m writing this post in one of these new places. That is the Excelsior Cafe on Kashiwa’s main street by the station.
Other changes are that shops open later than before; masks are mandatory in shops and shopping malls and also in the streets, the trains and the stations. The good news is that I heard yesterday on TV that masks will not be necessary after mid-March.

If change is everywhere, it is not the case in training. Everything has stayed the same on the mats except for the number of attendees. We were only 12 at the first Noguchi sensei class I attended! You must return to the 90s or the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster to have a course with so few students. That was amazing.

As I wrote above, the 77-year-old Noguchi sensei constantly moves, creating hundreds of variations based on the same old waza. His creativity in class opens your eyes to what the Bujinkan can become when you get to his level. The beauty lies in his ability to turn any waza from any ryū (here, Shinden Fudō ryū) into something new. After training with him for 33 years, I know many of his gimmicks. Yet I’m often surprised by his interpretation of the same denshō.

One of the words for change in Japanese is “henka” (1). Noguchi sensei transforms the technique from the densho into something new. He always starts from the original form of the densho (2), and iteration after iteration creates a different movement while respecting the essence of the actual waza. Too often, young teachers do not understand the depth of the word henka. They think that anything goes, and that is so wrong. A true henka is an evolution, a metamorphosis of a waza you have mastered. And when you confront them, they keep repeating that ninpō is about forgetting the form. But you have to learn something first before you can forget it. There is no interpretation based on a poor understanding of the primary forms.

Sōke said that “henka” is made of two kanji “, hen” and “ka”, both meaning change. The difference between the two words is that “hen” is the “beginning of change”, whereas “ka” is the end of change. Therefore henka can be seen as another word for inyō (yinyang). (3)

The world has changed as everything changes. Change is a chance to mutate into something better. Japan has changed, and it is for the better. The honbu has not changed, the waza either, but the interpretation in class has constantly been changing.

Change is good and a chance for the world and your taijutsu. Remember that only change is permanent; we must adapt and embrace it.

1 変化, henka: change; variation; alteration; mutation; transition; transformation; transfiguration; metamorphosis
2 伝書, henka: book or scroll that has been handed down through generations; a book of secrets​
3 陰陽, inyō: cosmic dual force; yin-yang

%d bloggers like this: