Ninja training - what to expect
Updated: Mar 6, 2022
So what will you find when you go to train at a typical Bujinkan class? Well one thing you won’t find is a scene from Ninja Assassin, or Batman Begins (black clad, hooded and masked figures with a cranky sadist as a teacher) Well maybe the cranky bit’s true...however the dressing up isn’t. If you went to a fencing class would you expect the members to be dressed like characters out of the Three Musketeers? No they wear padded jackets, face protection, and a fencing glove. When you go to a Bujinkan Dojo the members wear black gi (either karate or jujutsu style); indoor tabi or are barefoot; some wear kyahan (leg-wraps or gaiters); and a belt. When you start (as with many Japanese martial arts) you have a white belt, once you grade it’s a green belt (sometimes a red belt for women), all the way up to your 1st Dan where it becomes a black belt. The actual grade is reflected by the wappen or badge that is worn on the left chest area of the gi. The different wappen are below:
The training itself starts with a formal bowing in, and then goes onto rolling, a dynamic warm up. This plays a key part of the training. Where other arts concentrate a lot on break-falls, the emphasis within the Bujinkan is on rolling or taihenjutsu. Also known as ukemi, or receiving, the ability to roll away from throws, knockdown strikes, and diving to avoid threats all while keeping the opponent in sight is a key skill – and a lot better than break-falls on concrete! Students learn forward, backwards, sideways, diving and twisting rolls. They move on to cartwheels, handsprings and somersaults as an advanced practice. There is also shoten which is the Bujinkan version of free running or parkour. The main difference between the two being shoten has a more utilitarian approach. The emphasis is on overcoming obstacles quickly and with the least amount of effort, as opposed to spinning and tricking over and around obstacles.
After taihenjutsu (rolling) the practice for the lesson begins. This can be anything from taijutsu (unarmed practice) to unarmed defence against weapons, to specific weapons. The taijutsu includes strikes (which include many different hand forms), joint locks, throws, chokes, restraints, kicks, escapes and ground work. Ah yes, ground work. With the huge popularity of MMA and BJJ, ground work is usually viewed from these sporting one-on-one perspectives. However in the Bujinkan ground work revolves around the premise that there is always more than one opponent, and that your objective is to escape and get away.
This goes against the premise in competitive martial arts of forcing either a submission, knocking an opponent out, or holding them down for a set amount of time against one opponent. In comparison the Bujinkan ground work is reflected in body posture, the ability to observe surroundings and ground pinning techniques that don’t leave the student vulnerable. The unarmed techniques emphasises using natural posture and relaxed movement. The idea being if you are faced with multiple opponents you don’t exhaust yourself on the first one or two and so leave yourself vulnerable to others.
The weapons practice can take many forms, from formal kata to variations on a common theme. There are a huge variety of weapons within the Bujinkan repertoire. There are of course the standard Japanese budo weapons of staff, sword, and tanto. However after that it gets interesting. Within the Bujinkan we don’t use the Okinawan weapons of tonfa, nunchuck, or sai. Instead there is the Kunai, a heavy blunt edged entrenching tool used in the manner of a blunt, hammering, levering tool. There is the kusarifundo or manrikigusari, a chain with iron weights on each end. There is the kyoketsu shoge a knife with a side hook and a long rope attaching it to an iron ring. This was said to be the precursor to the kusarigama, a scythe (kama) with a weighted chain attached. Hand claws or shuko are also found within the Bujinkan, used primarily as climbing aids in trees, they are also used against swords and other attacks. Kaginawa – a rope and grapple is one of the rope-binding (hojojutsu) tools, along with ropes of varying lengths.
The Tessen is an iron bar that takes the form of a folded fan, and fans themselves. Yari and naginata are also taught as part of the battlefield side of weapons. There is also metsubishi the blinding powders thrown on the face of an attacking adversary to enable escape. Of course the most well know ninjutsu weapon is the shuriken, both the flat pointed iron plate, and the needle-like bo shuriken. These are taught not only as thrown weapons but also as handheld grappling weapons.
Training will cover a common principle, or be about that year’s theme. Since 1993 Soke Hatsumi has a theme for the years training. This was usually centred either on a particular weapon type (1993 to 1997), a particular ryu (1998 to 2002), or a certain concept (2003 to 2007). Recently the themes have included Togakure ryu (the ninjutsu school that was first associated with the Bujinkan) and various concepts revolving around a high level of introspection on how we train and what we do.
So are practitioners within the Bujinkan training to be cold hearted assassins? Invisible warriors that stalk the rain slicked roof tops in search of prey...er, no not really. The ninjas in Japan had a primary role in intelligence gathering, and misinformation, not the assassins of Hollywood fame. As such they did everything they could to avoid being noticed. So the associated martial arts side of their training was geared to escape and evasion as being caught would nullify their effectiveness.
The arts that the Bujinkan are based on, the nine schools, are all about survival. This is what makes these arts ideally suited for self defence and not competitive sport. The student of Budo taijutsu and ninjutsu is taught to avoid confrontation by body language skills, negotiating skills and evasion skills. If someone wants to fight don’t give them what they want, unless you really have no other choice. There will of course be situations where you don’t have the opportunity to go unnoticed, to negotiate, or to evade a confrontation; this is where appropriate application of taijutsu comes into play.