空打ち Karauchi: Striking Emptiness

From Bujinkan Santa Monica by Michael

Michael Glenn Strikes Emptiness

Last night in my class one student said, “This is pretty basic.” I did a double take and said, “Really? You think so?” I told him that the kata was more advanced than it appeared.

We were studying 一文字 Ichimonji. This is a 無刀捕 mutōdori kata from 高木揚心流 Takagi Yoshin Ryū. And it does look simple. But mutōdori has so many levels.

One morning when Hatsumi Sensei taught this kata he said, 

You make him cut the air. This is mutōdori, like he’s practicing by himself and striking emptiness.

The question I posed to my students last night was, “How?” How do you get your opponent, ostensibly a competent swordsman, to just cut the air and miss you completely?

As an answer, I gave them three insights into advanced mutōdori that I received from Soke. If you are interested, I share these kind of tips for anyone who joins my mailing list, which you can do here: eepurl.com/d0w_r

First, give the enemy what he wants. He is seeking violence and destruction. Let him have it.

Offer him a target. If you try to evade, then you always take away the target. He will then try to reacquire a target. But it may not be one that you are prepared to defend. Give him what he wants, then let him strike emptiness.

In another class I had with Hatsumi Sensei, he did a mutōdori against Oguri Sensei. Soke asked Oguri to describe the feeling. He said he couldn’t get any clear focus on the target for his cut. He said he felt his own kamae collapse.

In response, Hatsumi Sensei said that this is not the movement of sport martial arts. It is a level above that. For Ninjutsu, Soke told us that techniques become “透明 tōmei,” or transparent.

Transparent technique means you have something that cannot be seen or countered. I suggested that my students not plan or decide on a technique before executing it. If you don’t know what technique you will do, your opponent cannot know either. It is difficult for your opponent to counter a technique that doesn’t yet exist.

He will strike blindly at emptiness...  At transparency...  At a Ninja who cannot be seen.

I finished our class with a third suggestion for mutōdori. It is related to 扞技扼 kangiyaku, a kiai which can be verbalized or expressed silently. This kiai calls the opponent to cut.

Hatsumi Sensei did it while holding a kodachi. His opponent tried to cut, but then he collapsed. Soke didn’t even need to hit him. He said,

Give the opponent the feeling to cut. Draw him in. Then your movement will disappear. Disappear from the opponent's perception.

We make him cut emptiness. 

When we finished class, the student who thought the kata looked simple now had a big smile. I could see that he was inspired by these ideas that I shared from my own experience with Hatsumi Sensei. I hope he can carry this forward in his own training and share it with future generations.

Don’t Rattle Your 忍者刀 Ninjatō

From Bujinkan Santa Monica by Michael

Mt Fuji all the way from Kashiwa, photo by Michael Glenn
Hatsumi Sensei surprises me with his teaching. The night before I left for Japan, we studied 忍者刀 Ninjatō in my own dojo. Then, on Friday night in Soke’s class at the Bujinkan Honbu Dojo, he taught one of the secrets of this weapon.

I try to prepare for these lessons, yet I am still surprised. I suppose the only way is to always be ready. This is the ukemi of being Hatsumi Sensei’s student.

I landed at Narita Airport around 5pm local time. My normal plan is to run through immigration and customs as fast as Japanese bureaucracy will allow. Then catch a two hour train ride straight to Hatsumi Sensei’s class.

One hour into the train ride I began to lose my motivation. Warm trains make me sleepy. That, and the 20 hours of travel that wasn’t over yet.

I stood up to shake off the tired. It was already dark out, and the train cabin was reflected back to us in the window. I leaned my head against the door to watch the lights pass outside.

It looked wet and miserable out. I already felt the cold when I transferred at the last station. But when my eyes adjusted to the dark I couldn’t believe what I saw between the railroad ties. Patches of snow flashed by like a flickering reel of film!

It was only November. Snow in Tokyo is extremely rare this time of year. I already had two shirts on, and now I pulled a hoodie over those.

The old Atago station was dark and quiet. My breath fogged. A patch of snow crunched under my boot. During my walk to the dojo I wondered if class was cancelled.

I came around the corner and I could see the lights were on. I marveled at the snow on the rooftop. I slid open the door… Konbanwa!

A warm crowd inside and many old friends greeted me. I changed quickly into my gi. Was I ready? I don’t know, at least I was there.

Hatsumi Sensei taught at an intense pace. He started off class at the highest levels of training. It was all about letting go and 空間利用 kukan riyō, using the kukan.

The train passed by and shook the building.

"Hai, OK!" Soke called out. Then he started with the 忍者刀 Ninjatō and I paid close attention. Someya Sensei cut in at him...

Hatsumi Sensei was in 棟水之構 Tōsui no Kamae. He lifted his blade softly as if to shield against the katana. Someya tried to cut again. Soke let his sword slip and then smacked it into Someya’s neck without cutting.

He told us one of the themes this year was 一刀万方 Ittō Banpō, which is one sword, many possibilities. It may also be written 一刀万宝 Ittō Banpō which means one sword, many treasures.

There are many treasures in the study of the Ninja-tō.  Hatsumi Sensei wrote
This can be read many ways. One interpretation is that “the sword of the ninja doesn’t rattle in the dark of the night”. In other words, avoid rattling your sword.

What does that mean beyond being stealthy? Lucky for us Hatsumi Sensei has also shared this gokui in relation to the Ninja-to:
Win without drawing the sword
if you draw it, don’t cut
Simply persevere
Know the significance
Of taking a life.
When Hatsumi Sensei smacked the blade against Someya’s neck he was demonstrating this principle. He even told us that night that we were all too quick to use the sword. He said that when we tried to use the sword, we missed the kyojitsu.

I hold onto these memories and lessons from Soke like treasures. During the first hour of my train ride (which you can watch part of here: Ninja True: How to get to the Bujinkan Honbu Dojo) I caught a glimpse of Mt Fuji in the distance. The slope of Fuji Sama seemed to hold the burnt sunset for every last bit of warmth.

A Secret 九字 Kuji for Defeating 100 Enemies

From Bujinkan Santa Monica by Michael

Hidden Alcove at 戸定邸 Tojō-tei. photo by Michael Glenn
Within the 九法の力 Kyū-hō no chikara, or the power of the 9 methods, there is a kuji that holds the 秘技 higi or secret technique to overcoming a hundred enemies:


This kuji, or gokui, repels any method of capture or defeat. You protect yourself by changing the attack itself with an immovable spirit. This is the time to do or die. You are prepared for death, but you’d rather do the enemy in.

How do you do instead of die? In that single moment of life and death you remain unmoved in the middle. That middle place is the key to ninjutsu.

On a very hot day in June, I learned about this. The air was loud with the harmonic drone of 蝉 semi (cicadas). But we were training anyway. Hatsumi Sensei told us to train in accordance with the temperature.

Two opponents attacked and Soke slipped behind the first attacker. He did this while trapping the second guy in his own attack. Then Hatsumi asked the uke to give his impression of what just happened. The confused student described his inability to get a fix on Hatsumi Sensei as a target.

Soke replied that this is not the movement of sports or the “so called” martial arts. This is something far above that.  This is true ninjutsu. Make your techniques transparent. Make them see through.

Hatsumi Sensei told us not to just punch on the surface, but to strike through the body. He said when your arm goes through their spine it makes the sign of the cross.

Soke gave us a warning
「九字を許すも十字を許すな」kuji are permitted but not juji.
If you go beyond kuji and allow juji then you have “crossed the line.” Maybe you cross the line of life and death. You could end up facing 十王 Jū-ō  the ten judges of the dead.

In Buddhism, there are nine states from Hell to Bodhisattva. The highest level, the tenth level, is becoming Buddha. But the 仏 hotoke (Boddhisatvas) are the souls of the dead, to be commemorated by their descendants.

I toweled the sweat away and scribbled my notes after training. What did I learn that day?
  • Make yourself and your technique transparent;
  • Go to the line but don’t cross it;
  • Remain unmoved by life or death in that spot. 
This is the secret to 心中を突く也 Shinjū o tsuku nari,  piercing the heart of the enemy.

The Hidden Kūkan for Bujinkan 無刀捕 Mutōdori

From Bujinkan Santa Monica by Michael

山田 記央 photo by Michael Glenn
It was the normal chaos at the Bujinkan Honbu dojo. The training had just ended, and everyone rushed to get their photos with Hatsumi Sensei. I rushed to my notebook.

I did this because Soke finished the class with a huge surprise for his teaching of 無刀捕 mutōdori. He showed us 空間を作る kūkan o tsukuru, or how to create space. So I scribbled a note about the hidden location for this opening before that secret disappeared into the night.

Earlier that day, I had gone into Tokyo to visit Norio Yamada-san. He makes 江戸手描提灯 Edo Tegaki Chōchin, Edo style hand painted paper lanterns. He called to say my order was ready to pick up.

It never occurred to me that there could be a connection to Soke’s teaching later that night. Hatsumi Sensei said,
“You’re not evading, 空間  浮かす Kūkan ukasu, you’re floating the opponent in the space.”
If you’ve ever held one of these paper lanterns, they feel like you’ve caught light and air itself as it glows softly in the night.

Hatsumi Sensei catches swords like that. My training partner, Tezuka-san, swung a metal blade at Soke. And this is when my surprise arrived. Soke told us,
“Don’t do this with 刀意識 Tō ishiki.”
This means don’t put your mind or consciousness with the sword. Remember this is 無刀 mutō and the sword is nothingness. Instead create or open up the kūkan and float your opponent in it.

But where is this kūkan? It's the space in the opponent’s mind or consciousness. The physical space is only so big, but the kūkan in the mind is infinite. Control that space and you have already won. Tezuka-san said it feels like Hatsumi Sensei catches him in between thoughts.

Soke nodded and said,
“You have to know those spaces, those openings, those little cracks…”
When Hatsumi Sensei creates kūkan between your own thoughts and floats you in that empty space, you are very exposed. Anyone who has attacked Hatsumi Sensei might relate to that blanked out feeling. Whenever he asks me to describe it to the other students in the Honbu dojo, I fold up like a paper lantern.

Don’t Xerox The Master!

From Shiro Kuma by kumafr

img_20170502_211510.jpgEach class, Hatsumi sensei speaks about moving “Yukkuri”, slow. This is different from training slowly. (1)

Training slowly: Study level/acquisition/Dōjō
Moving slowly: high-level/reaction/fight

Training slowly is part of the learning process, reacting slowly deals with actual fighting. When you train slow, you create new mental/body patterns that will be useful in a real fight. When you move slowly in the encounter, you stop emitting intention. Therefore it is easier for you to read the opponent and to adjust your reactions naturally to Uke’s attacks. Many practitioners, high ranks included, misunderstand this difference. We end up mimicking Sensei’s slow movements. And as we don’t have his many years of practice, if we only copy his slow moves, it will get us killed.

For years now he has been saying that he is teaching for the Jūgodan not for beginners. What he shows is Ura, if you copy his movements, you stay at the Omote level. Buying a black belt in a Budo shop doesn’t make you a black belt. What Hatsumi sensei shows in class is a result, not a process. Do not mistake the end result for the path. Stop copying, you don’t have the level for that! Moving slowly comes after many years of moving fast. The “no-waza” state he has reached is beyond our grasp. We are heading towards it, but we are not there yet. It comes after years of repeating the forms of the waza. There’s no shortcut. As I said many times here, in order to forget the techniques, you have to learn them in the first place.

Yesterday, Hatsumi sensei insisted on moving slowly. This is the secret of high-level taijutsu, he was insisting on the “yukkuri”, but he added that to be successful, one has to keep moving. We did several sword attacks from behind similar to train the Sakki feeling. Each time, the sword could not touch him because he never stopped. Turning his back to Uke, Sensei didn’t wait, he kept walking, and the blade was avoiding him like by magic. Hatsumi sensei insisted that if you stop, then you give a fixed point in space that the attacker can use against you. What we do is effective taijutsu, even if we are moving slowly. Senō sensei often asks us to move out too late and to be hit. Then to move a little earlier, then again and again until we can move slowly enough, and at the right distance, and with the perfect timing to avoid the attack. If you never get hit during training how can you possibly know how to fight for real? The truth is that you cannot.

Instead of repeating Sensei’s movements, you should listen to what he says, and build a training progression that will teach you how to do it. If you are a Bujinkan high rank, hopefully, you have studied all the Waza. You come to Japan, not to learn Waza but to bring back home new insights and new feelings, that you will train in your Dōjō until your next trip to Tōkyō. You come to Japan to bring back homework.

If you want to improve your knowledge of Taijutsu, stop copying and begin to listen.
Don’t copy the Omote, the visible, it’s a dead-end.
Listen to him, it will teach you the Ura of things, and help you improve your movements.


  1. ゆっくり, Yukkuri: slow, at ease, restful