Chasing the Shadow Warriors

Written by Paul Johnstone

An interview with the Bujinkan’s Shihan Robin Doenicke

Although Robin Doenicke had been training in martial arts nearly all his life, it was a letter to Japan’s famous Bujinkan ninjutsu grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi in 1995 that would ultimately change the course of his life. He travelled to Japan to immerse himself in the ancient combat craft of the ‘shadow warrior’ and in doing so, found his future. Here, fellow ninjutsu instructor and Blitz writer Paul Johnstone interviews Shihan Doenicke, 15th Dan, about training with Grandmaster Hatsumi in Japan, the early days of ninjutsu in Australia, and the Bujinkan’s unique Dan-grade system.


Sensei Robin, can you tell us about your beginnings in martial arts?
I originally started training in the martial arts when I was about six years old. At that time my family was living in Liverpool, England. In the late '70s Liverpool was going through a very tough economic time and as such there was a fair dose of crime going on. I'd had my share of being chased by gangs as well as the odd beating or two! So it was around that time I enrolled in the local Kyokushin karate dojo. I studied karate there for about two years. In 1980, when I was eight years old, my family moved to Australia. Shortly after settling in, I joined the Jin Wu Koon Double Dragon Kung Fu Academy headed by renowned teacher and kickboxing champion Sifu Chan Cheuk Fai. I studied both traditional kung fu as well as kickboxing. I left that school after several years of training and was actually the youngest Green-sash the school had ever had. I think I was around 15 at the time. I then trained for a short time in Wing Chun kung fu under the Jim Fung lineage. I really enjoyed Wing Chun and was impressed by the efficiency and no-nonsense approach that it emphasised. I then entered Year 12 at school and my training came to an abrupt halt for the year while I focused on studying for the HSC exams.

What originally influenced your decision to learn martial arts?
Like many people of my generation, I was a huge fan of Bruce Lee. He was a real hero of mine and the epitome of what I took a martial artist to be. To a somewhat lesser degree I also wanted to get stronger and gain confidence. I recall being bullied by this kid in school when I was very young. I was really afraid of him and would find myself running away from him whenever he approached me. I would feel terrible afterwards that I didn't have the courage to stand there and face him. Well, I got tired of running and things changed for the better very quickly from there on.

When did you first start training in ninjutsu and what drew you to that?
I was really keen to get back into training after finishing high school and came across an advertisement for ninjutsu as taught by Wayne Roy. I enrolled in the Surrey Hills dojo and really immersed myself in the training. I think I was 19 years old at the time. I met Wayne Roy for the first time when I was about 12 or 13 years old while he was staying as a guest in the motel where my mother worked. If I recall correctly, he had just returned from his year of living in Japan. I still have some photos of me and Wayne outside the motel. He was gracious enough to let me grab his hair and throw a roundhouse-kick at him while my mother took the photos! I recall him being a very friendly and charismatic person. After about a year of training at the Wayne Roy dojo, I read an article in a martial arts magazine that featured an interview with a person called Ed Lomax in Adelaide. In the interview, Ed talked about his time living in Japan and studying Bujinkan under Hatsumi Sensei and various Japanese shihan. I was impressed and intrigued by what I read, as I had no idea about any other Australian teachers of ninjutsu and had little idea as to what the Bujinkan was. I promptly made contact with Ed and asked him if he knew of any Bujinkan teachers in Sydney. He put me in touch with a person called Andrew MacDonald. Andrew had a small group of dedicated students that trained three times a week in Wentworth Park. He invited me to come and train in a class. I went there the next day and as they say, the rest is history. I was immediately hooked. This was something completely different from what I had been doing for the past year. It was what I'd been searching for my entire life. I recall thinking to myself, ‘This is it. This is real budo.'

Which of your teachers had the greatest influence on you as a student?
The teacher who has had, and continues to have, the greatest influence on me and my training is one of my current teachers, Toshiro Nagato. Nagato Sensei is one of the four most senior Japanese shihan in the Bujinkan. I began training with Nagato Sensei when I first visited Japan in 1995. Since moving there to live in 1996, I have trained with him almost every week for the past 15 years. He is the person who I try to emulate in terms of my taijutsu (body technique), footwork and approach to combat. In addition to Nagato Sensei, the other teacher who has had a profound impact on my life and training is, of course, our art's grandmaster, Dr Masaaki Hatsumi. Hatsumi Sensei is an enigma. Through his actions, words and movement not only does he personify the highest ideals of the martial arts but also of the art of living.

When did you first travel to Japan to train with Hatsumi Sensei?
It was for the Daikomyousai event in 1995. This is an annual three-day event held in celebration of Hatsumi Sensei's birthday. Bujinkan students from all over the world come together for the event. It's really wonderful to see the friendships that are fostered here between people from all walks of life. This connection between martial friends is something of great value. Some of the deepest friendships in the Bujinkan are between people who don't speak the same language or share the same religion. There are even friendships between people whose respective countries are at war with each other. It's fascinating to see how through studying the arts of war, you can actually foster friendship and peace.

How would you describe your teacher, Hatsumi Sensei?
I think there are many superlatives I could use about him but all would fall short of accurately describing who he is. He truly is an enigma and in many ways difficult to pin down with words, which by their very nature are limiting and defined. If I can say anything about him I would say that he personifies natural living, thinking and movement. I used to think that he was a genius at creating the space in which to manipulate his opponent, however, I now think that he doesn't actually try to ‘create' anything. There is no volition or intention behind his actions. That is why he is able to respond in any situation so effortlessly and appropriately. He works with the space that is there and simply moves to a point that is not beneficial for his attacker. From here the attacker ends up defeating himself. Only recently have I begun to realise the profundity of this art and how Hatsumi Sensei is teaching us to survive in the broadest sense of the word and not just how to skilfully avoid punches and kicks. I have only just scratched the surface of this art and I have a long, long way to go.

How did you first meet him?
I wrote him a letter in early 1995 asking for permission to come and train with him. He wrote back saying I was most welcome to come and suggested I visit during the Daikomyousai event later that year. It was while I was in Japan that first time that I visited Sensei's home one day before training. He was a very gracious host and told me to sit down and make myself comfortable as he prepared a nice cup of Japanese green tea and some biscuits. He then put on a video that contained old footage of him training as a 26-year-old with his teacher, Toshitsugu Takamatsu Sensei. I had heard stories about Takamatsu Sensei but had never seen him on film. I remember sitting there glued to the screen, not wanting to miss a second of what I was watching. There was a moment on the film where Hatsumi Sensei was having a bit of trouble with a staff technique. As I was watching that part of the film, Sensei tapped me on the shoulder and said with a laugh, "Even I had trouble doing some of those techniques well back then!" I asked him how he was able to improve to such an amazing degree. His reply has stuck with me throughout all these years and it is something I keep in mind whenever things get tough or feel uncertain. He said, "Keep Going."

What was that first class with him like?
While I can't remember what I did in my first class with Hatsumi Sensei, I do recall being very excited at the fact I was standing just a few feet away from Japan's last living ninja grandmaster. It was a very humbling feeling while at the same time quite exciting in that I knew I was about to embark on a great adventure.

What did the training consist of at the beginning?
Training back in 1996 when I moved to Japan followed pretty much the same format as it does today. Hatsumi Sensei will generally ask someone to demonstrate a technique that sets the theme for the class. We then practise that technique with our partner for a few minutes. Sensei will then demonstrate countless variations and ways of moving in the space that is present. All sorts of weapons are incorporated into the movement. Often multiple attackers are added too. Of course, by the end of the night we are moving in ways that look nothing like the original technique of the class! That's the beauty of Hatsumi Sensei's movement. He moves spontaneously and responds appropriately to the situation as required. There is no thought or preconceived ideas as to how he will move. He simply moves in the space provided just like the way water flows naturally down a hillside, around any rocks in its path and into any openings that are present. Pure efficiency of movement with no wasted effort.

What do you think are the differences between your training back in those days and your training today?
I'm not so sure if the training was different or if simply I was different. I think there is a common perception in Bujinkan circles that ‘back in the day' training was very hard and painful. We hear this all the time from senior students and teachers everywhere. But I think it is more a reflection of the level of proficiency and understanding that we have of this art today, compared to what we knew 20 years ago. When one begins training in a martial art, the focus is usually on becoming strong. As such, there is generally an over-reliance on ‘making things work' and thus the urge to apply strength and brute force when applying techniques. As one progresses in their training they begin to heed the advice of the masters and slowly move away from the ‘speed and power' approach that could only take them so far. One then begins to embrace the concept of removing strength from the techniques and generating an awareness of the space around you and your position within it. Living in Japan and being close to the Grandmaster and his top students is obviously helpful in this regard. Training with Hatsumi Sensei and the top Japanese shihan allows you to immerse yourself in the feeling of the art. I don't know how it works or why, but there is a transmission of energy that happens when you train with them. If you can allow yourself to resonate with, and be receptive to, this feeling, it will manifest itself in beneficial ways in your training and life. That being said, I am continually impressed by the high level abilities of Bujinkan students from around the world who have never had the opportunity to live in Japan. I find it truly inspiring.

What difficulties and obstacles have you encountered so far with regards to teaching martial arts, and how did you overcome them?
I've been very fortunate in that I haven't really had any difficulties or obstacles teaching martial arts. I think a key reason for this is that I don't consider myself a teacher. You'd be amazed at how many obstacles and challenges simply disappear when you let go of the concept of being a teacher who has something to teach. When there is a teacher, there is a student and immediately you have two separate entities. That is a recipe for conflict. If you remove the concept of teacher and student you are left with reality as it is - a group of enthusiastic people all on the same martial path. Yes, of course you might be in a position where you are the person sharing knowledge and advice, but the key here is in the attitude you maintain. Hatsumi Sensei had made it very clear to us all these years that he is not a teacher and that he is not teaching us. And this from the art's grandmaster! It's unfortunate that more people don't see the great example that he is showing us about how to approach our training. Too many people approach their martial arts as a business. What comes with a business mentality is a need to enhance one's name and reputation, together with a great deal of self-promotion. Like any business, you need to appear the best in your field. You need to secure territory and market share. You need to outwit and defeat your competitors. This kind of thinking should never make its way into your martial arts training. I always encourage people to remember why they began training in the first place.

What are your thoughts pertaining to the higher ranks now available in the Bujinkan, i.e., 11th to 15th Dan?
I believe Hatsumi Sensei began issuing these higher ranks in order to emphasise the need for continual improvement and training when on the martial path, even when one has reached a level that is traditionally seen in most martial arts as having become a master. It should be noted, however, that officially our art only has 10 Dan ranks. What we refer to as 11th to 15th dan is actually just a convenient way of identifying the five levels within the 10th Dan rank. These levels are based on the five elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Void. The famous Japanese warrior Miyamoto Musashi wrote about these elemental principles in his work The Book of Five Rings. This distinction at the highest levels is important and helps us understand that there are ‘levels within levels'.

The whole matter of ranks is something I really don't pay much attention to. So many people get caught up in their ranks and don't realise that being graded is also a part of training. How you respond to the grade; how you rise up to the new level. Ranks in the Bujinkan have always followed the principle of awarding a person in advance of their current ability so that they will rise to the challenge. That's actually the reason behind having ranks and belts in any martial art. It is a means of motivating people along the path. It is also recognition of a person's effort and commitment. That is why in the Bujinkan not everyone at the same rank is the same in terms of ability or years of experience. Why? Because this art is about what you personally make of it. It isn't about trying to fit everyone into some predetermined mould. It isn't about knowing a set number of techniques that everyone else at your level knows. That is why Hatsumi Sensei has often said his instruction is "person to person", even if it appears as though he is teaching hundreds of people at the same time. There is no spoon-fed instruction here. You have to take responsibility for yourself and your progress. Ultimately, it is you who is responsible for the rank you hold, not the teacher who gave it to you. This is a very different approach to many other martial arts and requires a high degree of maturity, self-reflection and self-responsibility. Some people don't like the idea of that. People typically don't like to look in the mirror as they are afraid of what they might see. The martial path is not for the faint-hearted. Martial arts are a reflection of life. There is no separation. For a martial art to be natural and reflect reality as it is, it can't be defined by ranks and techniques. Don't get me wrong, our art has hundreds of official ‘techniques' but we are encouraged not to be bound by them or limited by them in any way. There are some who are quick to criticise why a certain person has the rank he or she does. These people miss the point. The dojo should be an inside mirror for the reality outside. Just take a look at any area of society. Take the business world, for example. Sometimes the lazy person gets ahead. Sometimes the person who works diligently is ignored. Sometimes the bad guy gets the promotion. And of course, sometimes those who do work hard do get rewarded. All of these variables and countless others are always present wherever we look. That's the way things are. It's the yin and yang of existence. Wishing your martial art to function according to your idea of perfection is, in effect, wanting to escape from reality. That is why I feel the Bujinkan is such a wonderful vehicle not only for instruction in true, combative technique and philosophy, but also as a vehicle to deepen one's understanding of reality and their place in it.