Jack Hoban is one of the founding fathers of American ninjutsu. He rode the
wave of ninja-mania that struck during the 1980s, and he weathered the drought
that moved in when the art's popularity plunged. Other fads have come and
gone, but Hoban is still there, steadfast in his belief in his art and the
teachings of Masaaki Hatsumi, its 34th-generation grandmaster. In this
exclusive Black Belt interview, Hoban brings his legions of followers around
the world up to date on the philosophical developments in his interpretation
of the esoteric fighting art. - Editor
Can you briefly describe
your involvement with ninjutsu and your teacher, Masaaki Hatsumi?
I studied some karate and
escrima and was a Captain in the U.S. Marines. I also boxed a little. I read
about Stephen K. Hayes and went to some of his training [camps], including the
Ninja Festival. It was Stephen who was my first sempai (senior) and who
introduced me to Hatsumi Sensei in 1981 or 1982.
BB: What was your initial impression of
Hoban: Well, he was very warm and
friendly - very different from the image of a stern Asian martial arts master.
His skills were absolutely awesome, and his approach to martial arts was
apples to the oranges I had previously studied. The breadth of his knowledge
was amazing, too. He talked about all kinds of things - from swordsmanship to
meteorology, from esoteric Buddhism to rope tying, from exotic healing to how
to kill a horse quietly. And he had this underlying hint of mystery - like a
small waft of smoke that would appear at times. Kind of like a Ninja, I guess
Masaaki Hatsumi Speaks Out
It's been almost 20 years since Masaaki Hatsumi first came to the
United States to teach ninjutsu. During those decades, a plethora of
changes have taken place.
"At the time I first came, there was a ninja boom," he
says. "Everybody thought that ninjutsu was something
mysterious, something bad. And I have gradually corrected this.
Ninjutsu is really a genuine martial art. That's the one reason I
changed the name from ninpo taijutsu to budo taijutsu. They are one
in the same."
Hatsumi insists the American practitioners of Bujinkan budo taijutsu
have represented the art well. "Jack Hoban is a perfect
example," he says. "He is far better at expressing the art
in an American way than I am. Jack will speak from his heart about
the art - in an American way. In him you have the genuine article
who will transmit to you my teachings. So even when I am back in
Japan, you can continue to ask Jack."
Has your impression changed much
Only in that I see him more as a
human being now. In the beginning he was more like a character from my
imagination. I can say this: In all the time I’ve known him, he has never
once done anything but support and help me in an extremely straightforward
manner. I have heard other people say different things, but that has been my
BB: How would you describe your
relationship with Hatsumi?
Hoban: I think of him as a mentor and
father figure. Nowadays I see him maybe four times a year. He is also kind
enough to write me letters pretty regularly; my wife can translate. As we both
get older, I am starting to feel that I understand him better and am
embarrassed at the trouble I have caused him over the years by being
impatient, arrogant, and immature. I hope to be able to repay his kindness in
future years by being more pleasant to associate with and less demanding of
his time and energy - and his patience. I don’t know what he would say, but
all in all, the relationship has been a wonderful one from my point of view.
When I first met him, there were not so many people training so I really got a
lot of time alone with him. That is impossible now for most new members of the
Bujinkan, so I was lucky. Good timing.
BB: You talk a lot about the Life
Values system of Dr. Robert L. Humphrey. What is your relationship to him?
Hoban: Dr. Humphrey was another father
figure of mine. His impact on my life cannot be understated. I often say that
I was such a bad boy that I needed three fathers – my real father, Dr.
Hatsumi and Dr. Humphrey – in order to grow up into a man. I first
encountered Professor Robert L. Humphrey in 1981 as a graduate student in San
Diego, California. I was working on a master’s degree in Business
Administration, and he was one of my teachers. The things that he said and the
stories he told touched me in a way that has changed me forever. I was stunned
to hear him explain, clearly and matter-of-factly, the meaning of life. He
called his theory variously “The Life Value,” or Life Values, Dual Life
Value or Balanced Life Value. I sometimes think of them, now, simply as
“Living Values.” His theories and teaching methods have been used
successfully to stop violence and promote cross-cultural harmony worldwide.
BB: What is his background?
Hoban: Robert Humphrey was a child of
the Great Depression. Those were the days when life’s lessons were learned
in the school of hard knocks. He earned money as a semi-professional boxer. He
rode freight trains, worked in the Citizens Conservation Corps and finally
joined the Merchant Marines. Those experiences got him through his youth
worldly-wise but morally sound. He transferred to the U.S. Marines during
World War II. There, as a rifle-platoon leader on Iwo Jima, he passed the
ultimate course in life-and-death values. Near the war’s end, a
gunshot-wound ended his hopes for a professional boxing career. He was
discharged from the Marines, and for 12 years he passed through eight colleges
and universities “searching, just searching.” He was looking for answers
to that eternal question of “why.” Why had the Depression that devastated
his peaceful little hometown? Why that insanity on Iwo Jima that killed most
of his Marine friends? He took a Harvard Law degree and settled into teaching
Economics at MIT. Then came the Cold War with the predictions that the
Communists would win. He went back overseas to see if his global experiences
would guide him in solving America’s self-defeating Ugly Americanism. He
taught culture-transcendent, win-the-people values in the most vital overseas
areas – those surrounding the Communist bloc. The approach did overcome the
Ugly Americanism. It did win back the foreign peoples. And it kept the lid on
sabotage and violence in his assigned areas. It opened up a new
social-scientific pathway to human conflict-resolution.
We train as ninja, yet as human beings we are susceptible to
cultural biases like everyone else. Remember that the goal of our
training is to live. Many of us train in the martial arts up to a
certain level of proficiency. We become comfortable there. We
"fall in love" with a martial arts style of our own
creation. Even though we may train for many years after that point,
we never really progress. Style, like culture, is not of importance
in matters of life and death. We will not progress unless we abandon
our style for mu (formlessness). One might rationalize that it is
foolish and dangerous to give up and tried-and-true method - our
"style" - for formlessness. But the fact is that the thing
that is most likely to kill you is anything except the thing you
have trained for. --Jack Hoban
How have you integrated Humphrey's
Life Values with Hatsumi's Bujinkan ninjutsu?
I teach martial arts not to take
a life, but to save a life. So for me, there is no conflict. I also think of
the Warrior Creed of Dr. Humphrey when I think of how to represent myself as a
member of the Bujinkan. The Warrior Creed is:
Wherever I go,
everyone is a little bit safer because I am there.
Wherever I am,
anyone in need has a friend.
Whenever I return home,
everyone is happy I am there.
By the way, Hatsumi Sensei has awarded Dr. Humphrey an Honorary 10th dan in
BB: Does Hatusmi teach the same ideals
as Humphrey did?
Hoban: That’s an interesting
question. I guess for me, they are very confluent. What Dr. Humphrey says in
words, Hatsumi Sensei seems to mirror in his actions. I once asked Dr. Hatsumi
what was the purpose of martial arts. He replied, simply, “To live.” And
that, in essence, is the simple but deep meaning of Dr. Humphrey’s Life
Values theory – at least in my interpretation of it.
BB: You taught a seminar in Slovenia
during the height of the Kosovo conflict. What was the experience like?
Hoban: Naturally I was concerned
because the bombing of Serbia was beginning just as we were training. It was a
little tense, watching the bombers flying over our heads every day. But the
experience was great. We proved that the Buyû (martial arts friends) feeling
of the Bujinkan and the stories of Dr. Humphrey are a good way to make peace.
We had members from Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Austria all
together. And in our hearts, I think that we all felt equal as human beings.
It’s very hard to hate someone when you train together with the Bujinkan
BB: Is the training in the United
States different from the training in other parts of the world?
Hoban: Basically not, except for the
minor differences in culture. The training is the training. It’s more
fundamental than culture. That is why we could use it in The Balkans to
overcome the cross-cultural differences.
BB: What is the most important aspect
of martial arts training?
Hoban: Of course the most important
aspect of the Bujinkan and of martial arts is to “keep going.” Keep going
in your quest to be a good martial artist, a good person, and a person
dedicated to peace.
BB: What has helped you to keep going?
Hoban: Well, a sense of curiosity is
one thing. I am constantly entertained by the thought of what Hatsumi will
come up with next. He once told me that in order to be good at martial arts
you have to practice three times as much as a normal person, spend three times
as much money on your training as a normal person would, and be three times as
stupid as a normal person. Stamina, money, mule-ishness. I have at least two
of those qualities (laughs). But seriously, the Warrior Creed keeps me going
– inspiring me to be one of “those people” who can be counted on when
the chips are down. That’s a good feeling. And I have a lot of Buyu, too,
who are in the same boat as me. We move forward together, but alone. We
inspire each other to keep going!
BB: Nowadays, what do you work on in
your personal training?
Hoban: Whatever I think of to train on,
I do. It is like being trained by Hatsumi, even when he is not there. It just
comes to me and I go on. I just get out on the mat, close my eyes, and wait
for the inspiration to come. It always does. And that’s the most important
thing: to keep going. People often ask me: “What should I be working on.”
I say, “Just keep going.”
BB: Do you think anything is missing
from the martial arts today?
Hoban: No, I think martial arts is just
as it should be. They are a vocation that adapts itself for the times. The
martial arts of today reflect the times. I think careful reflection on the
Warrior Creed might help people focus more on the positive aspects of the
warrior calling, but other than that, things are the way they are because
that’s the way they are. And that is fine.
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