What to look for when looking for a Bujinkan Dojo
I got a few private messages here from someone seeking advice on finding a dojo and what to look for. It seems to be a rather common question so I thought I would write a blog about it so people could reference it. I would like to try it out here and get some feedback first.
There are many Bujinkan dojos in the world. Unfortunately there are some frauds passing themselves off as Bujinkan. And not all Bujinkan dojos are ones I would recommend.
Your first stop should be to visit www.winjutsu.com and see the yellow pages they have there of Bujinkan dojos. Not all dojos are listed there. I myself did not have a web page for a few months after I started training. And they don't accept things like facebook or myspace pages, only ones that can link back to them in return. So a dojo you heard about not being there is by itself not conclusive. In addition, at least one dojo listed there I know for a fact is not Bujinkan.
The next step is a simple use of an internet search engine with the name of the instructor and the term "Bujinkan" in it. In this age, anyone that has been around long enough to teach in the Bujinkan would probably be discussed on the internet. You might find references to them going to a seminar or links from other Bujinkan sites. Some of the frauds will probably be exposed on message boards. If the only listing of the person is on sites they control, there may be a problem.
Even if the teacher is in the Bujinkan, there are times I would urge caution. Sadly there are some folks that seem to only put in the bare minimum of time to get listed as an instructor and then do whatever they want.
What I would look for is indications that the teacher is trying to improve himself and further his knowledge. This can be tricky. In my years of living in Japan I saw quite a few examples of people that only seemed to be visiting to say they had been to Japan and not to really learn. In at least two cases I know of people that flew out to Japan and spent only one day in class to take pictures for their web site to "prove" they were studying with Masaaki Hatsumi.
To be a full teacher in the Bujinkan you need to be a fifth dan. People below that rank can teach as assistants. Sometimes they are in locations far from the teacher that named them as assistants, but as the pool of qualified teachers grows this is becoming rarer. The fifth dan is given only in Japan now. So someone claiming to have it should have proof that they went to Japan or took the fifth dan test when Hatsumi was still traveling overseas to train people. Most people that have been to Japan are all too eager to put photos of them with a Japanese teacher or Hatsumi himself up on their web site.
I would look for evidence that the teacher has gone more than once and is thinking of going again. One trip may be to just take the test so that the teacher can say he was a teacher. If there are photo galleries, they might have pictures of multiple trips.
Not everyone can go to Japan. It is rather expensive as you can imagine. So if someone only took one trip, or none, that is not strange in my book. However, I would look for other signs that they are continuing to further their training.
One thing is an acknowledgement of a teacher they train under. Unless you are very experienced in Bujinkan it is common for serious teachers to still have a teacher in the same country that they go to from time to time. Someone who lives in San Diego might go up to San Francisco to see their teacher a few times every year. If someone in San Diego lists a teacher in Spain I would consider the possibility that they are only token students and are more interested in doing their own thing and not the Bujinkan. I have seen several cases of that.
One way of improving a teacher's knowledge is to host seminars. If there are senior people coming in to give seminars mentioned on the web site that is a good sign that the person is serious about improving themselves. It also shows that the teacher is probably not running a cult of personality and acknowledges that he is not the sole source students should learn from.
It is my opinion that an willingness to continue improving is one of the most important aspects of being a teacher of the martial arts. When you look at a web site or talk to the teacher you should be looking for signs that the teacher is still a student in deed as well as word.
There are some danger signs I would point out now.
One is if someone is claiming to teach several arts in addition to Bujinkan. There are some folks with a wide experience of arts. I myself have studied quite a few. But it is a tactic of some teachers to get ranking in multiple arts through video black belt courses in order to appeal to more students. And there are some folks in the Bujinkan that have sadly decided to make some money by selling video courses and giving rank to people they have never met face to face. I have seen some of the people that have started out this way and none of them are people I would send students to. One Japanese teacher of mine said that he thought that anyone who started with a video course was forever lost no matter how hard they tried.
If the teacher has multiple arts on his resume, do some digging. I saw one site where the teacher listed five arts he held instructor rank in. I followed the links he gave to his teachers and they were all in other states and all listed video black belt courses on their web sites.
One very big warning sign is indications that the teacher is catering to the fantasy of being a ninja. Selling the fantasy of being a ninja can make people a lot of money. I do not think the Bujinkan is about selling the fantasy of being a ninja. The Bujinkan I learned was about getting home alive if I was attacked.
Typical Bujinkan dojos wear a black outfit. The story I got was that they used to use standard white outfits, but Hatsumi's wife complained at all the grass stains they got while training outdoors. So they made the switch to black. If you see full ninja outfits on the web page instead of just a black outfit, I would stay away.
In Japan they use three colors for belts. If you have a white belt that means you do not know how to take a fall. I know I should not throw people with white belts. Green belts are given to people as soon as they can be thrown. When a person has advanced enough they are given a black belt.
Testing fees for rank are a good source of income for some teachers. To encourage students to take these tests, many schools have belts that show the advancement of the student. Sometimes this is the colors themselves or stripes on the belt to show increases in rank. If you see more than three colors or stripes you might consider that the teacher is interested more in getting money than doing what they do in Japan.
Running around in the woods in ninja outfits, doing drills of clearing houses like a SWAT team and images of meditating on a rock are all examples of selling a fantasy and I would avoid any school using them on their site. I can't think of a single group that has pictures of themselves wearing masks that I would consider competent.
In the past, ninja used hand gestures called mudras to achieve certain mental states. No one in America has ever learned how to do these from Hatsumi as far as I know. If you see someone doing this, my advice is to stay away.
One thing that should send up warnings is the use of exotic weapons. From time to time Hatsumi has demonstrated and had people do movements with weapons like the spear and kyoketsushoge (a rope with a knife on one end and a weight on the other), but that is not to say he ran them through the basics of their use. Hatsumi has said many times that he is teaching to tenth dans and above. My take on the meaning behind that is that he should not be bothered to teach the very basics and if you do not have them down you should go to the teachers under him to get them. But the people in Japan that can teach the basics of the spear are rarely willing to do so.
Sticks are a very common weapon taught to Bujinkan students. It is not unusual for a teacher to have knowledge of them. Sword is a bit rarer, but there is one teacher in Japan that runs many people through the basics if they ask. Anything more exotic than that should cause suspicion. I learned the basics of the use of a spear and glaive in Japan and I know of one other person that got the same training. I also know one Japanese student of Hatsumi taught the spear at a seminar in America when he was still part of the Bujinkan. So maybe someone might know those skills, but I would ask and be cautious. I never learned to use the basics of chain weapons during my years in the Bujinkan. My knowledge of those weapons comes from other schools I studied while I was there. I would be very wary of anyone claiming to teach them. It is more likely they decided to come up with something on their own rather than learned from a real teacher.
Some people may pass a few of these things and still be someone I would not recommend and others might not seem to pass muster and are good folks. In general, the more they seem eager to sell themselves as a teacher the less I would recommend them. In any case, the advantages of message boards like budoseek is that you can actually ask and see what others on the board think about him or her. Registration here is easy and does not cost anything. It certainly is cheaper than paying for a month of training only to find out that the teacher is far too busy building up himself as a business owner to be an honest student of the art.
I hope this helps people judge a Bujinkan dojo. I know it will please some people and anger others. I actually take pride in the people I have angered because they tend to be people I think are of low moral caliber. I look forward to hate mail from them.