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Interview with Laszlo Abel (2)

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #96 (Summer/Fall 1993)

Australian Laszlo Abel, through his association with ninja researcher Yumio Nawa Sensei, has uncovered a great deal of information which debunks prevalent myths concerning modern-day ninjutsu. Here he describes some of the fables and some of the reality, based on research and translation work that he has done in his sixteen years in Japan. He also speaks of his friendship with Kiyoshi Watatani, compiler of the essential dictionary of Japanese martial arts, the Beigei Ryuha Daijiten.

Aiki News: What about the literally thousands of foreigners who come to Japan to study martial arts? Some of them want to come and be accepted into a classical tradition. Would you give us your opinions about that? What should they be expected to do? How should they conduct themselves?

Laszlo Abel Sensei: Don’t come.

Why do you say that?

I don’t really mean it. Unlike modem martial arts, such as judo, aikido, karatedo, or basically anything ending in “-do,” if you get involved with an old martial art, you have to plan on a long residency here. This means that you have to give up whatever you’re doing in your own country, whether it’s education or a career, for something that you may not be able to do back in your home country. For instance, when I return to Australia, who do I practice the chain with? Or who do I do sword with? I will be placed in the position of needing to teach somebody to be able to have someone to practice with.

So automatically I become a teacher, whether I want to or not. Personally, I don’t want to teach. I’m not a teacher.

Because Nawa Sensei is a ninjutsu scholar, people, especially foreigners, get the impression that he’s a ninja. Each year, there are foreigners who turn up at Nawa Sensei’s dojo looking for ninjutsu or inquiring about whether he’ll accept someone as a student.

I remember two Australian guys who came along looking for ninjutsu, but who were convinced that they had found something better in the chain. They wanted to come back. I took them aside and asked, “Do you really want to do the chain?” They replied that they did. I asked, “Why?” They answered, “Because it’s different; it’s good.” “Yes, it’s all those things, but do you realize what you have to sacrifice to get to any sort of competent standard? Even the beginners have been here for three years, and they’re Japanese, who are “supposed” to have a natural ability to be able to stand properly, because they have the proper waist height. Look at you, you are bouncing all over the place. To reach that level, you’re looking at five years. Then you’ve got to learn all the physical motions, so you may be there a lot longer than you expect. I’ve been here since 1976. I feel that I’ve given up my life in Australia. Every time I go back to Australia, I feel so far behind all my friends. They’ve got houses and cars and businesses, and I have nothing like that. Was it worthwhile? Not only the many years of persistence, but also all the hassles that you may not have to go through, because I’ve already gone through them and established precedents. In the dojo I’m a sempai, and almost always now I am the head sempai so I take the class. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to have Japanese coming in, look at me and say, ‘Who’s that foreigner out there.’ Or to talk to the class and have some of the newer people just pretend to listen and not do what I say. I don’t go there to teach, I go there to learn.”

They did not join. I don’t know if they took my advice or even understood what I was saying, but they never came back.

Regardless of which kobudo you select you must be aware of a few other points. Training may not be as rigorous as it is in modem martial arts. Most traditions cannot offer daily practice. It is common to have practice once or twice a week. Kobudo dojo are often located outside of Tokyo. So train travel is involved and I think that nine times out of ten, the train ride there and back takes longer than the training session itself. Or you might find a dojo in Tokyo, but with a head teacher who is only able to come once a month.

Of course, there are ways around such problems. Before I got married and had a family, one of the ways I got around this sort of thing was to belong to a number of traditions, and so I was able to train three or four times a week. However, I only trained once a week in each of them; it’s not like three or four times a week for aikido or karate. So if you do come here to do martial arts perhaps it’s easier to do one of the modern martial arts. When you go back to your home country or wherever you go in the world, there is a good chance that practice is available. I don’t recommend coming here for kobudo, even though I think that the kobudo are far superior to modern martial arts in a lot of ways. They really represent the true Japan; most Japanese culture can be explained in martial arts terms.

Being a Japanese in the martial arts world is so easy. You’ve got your teacher, who’s going to be there until he’s eighty or ninety, and you’ll never have to worry about teaching, you’re always going to be the student, and that’s a comfortable feeling.

Should foreigners come? Should they not come? If they do come what should they do? Where do they check it out? You have to know what you want to do, whether it’s a long weapon, a short weapon, or no weapon. I’ve had a lot of people over the years ask me about jujutsu. But because the dojo I trained at closed down after the teacher was transferred out of Tokyo (due to his job) I wasn’t in any position to have people come along. I would have loved for my teacher to have been there to guide these people. The more people present in a dojo, the more enthusiastic the teacher gets and the more he will teach.

In the seven years I was in the jujutsu dojo I got through half of the curriculum of the school. I worked it out one time that for me to get to the standard of say a Meiji or Edo period martial arts person who trained for three odd years, it would probably take ten to fifteen years. But then you always have the problem of going back to your country.

Quality and authenticity of training is important. Many of the modern disciplines have changed so much since their birth, that I think it is poison for something like the martial arts to grow too big.

In Edo-period Japan the machi [town] dojo was not uncommon. In fact, it could be said that the commercialization of the martial arts started with their inception. They were normally established by samurai who had no stipend from any clan. There is no evidence that any of the machi dojo were handed down and are still active today. History tells us that it was common for a dojo to thrive and have its students establish their own “business” elsewhere. “Dojo busting” was the constant bane of such establishments.

The dojo thrived within the institution of the feudal clans, where samurai were given official positions as martial arts teachers. Such positions were passed from generation to generation. For example, in the Ogaki clan, the sword of the clan was taught by the Kotoda family. They represented the clan until the Meiji period. Other sword schools were also taught in Ogaki, brought into the clan by Ogaki samurai who had been sent to Edo (Tokyo) for official duties, while others were introduced by those who had learned from other experts. Such was the case with the naginata of the Ogaki clan. This was introduced by Toshimitsu Masaki, who had studied under Katori Kinbei Tokio, and who subsequently assumed leadership of the Senni-ryu Naginata, which became the official halberd school of the clan. These can be viewed like a second job. In this way the clan remained strong militarily and in touch with the latest developments in martial arts. The clans ensured that the martial arts survived at least until the Meiji period.

When we go back to our own countries, we’re looking at a machi dojo situation. There’s a chance you might have to put up with ninjas or so-called swordsmen, or jujutsu people saying their art is hundreds of years old.

Speaking of ninja, I am under the impression that none of the various ninjutsu groups that existed actually survived into present-day Japan. There’s no continuous lineage. The so-called ninjutsu schools that exist now are composites, made up of some elements of weapons or jujutsu systems, plus whatever somebody has read in a book and tried out. Am I correct in that assumption?

Oh yes, I think so. Nawa Sensei always says it’s good to have these people around though, because it keeps the image of the ninja alive. Not that the ninja were regarded as good people by the communities in Japan of long ago. Their numbers were never very large. If you look at the number of samurai, and then look at the number of ninja, you find that they constituted just a very small percentage of the population. Most of them lived a very poor life.

Were they a caste? Or branch of the military? What was their social position?

I think you’ve got to understand what the real samurai, not the samurai of the Edo period, were like. You had an awful lot of people in the Edo period who wore swords, but who never actually drew them in mortal battle. In the Sengoku era, the main aim of a ninja was to gather information. I’ve spoken to a lot of authorities on ninjutsu and gotten different viewpoints. Not one of them believes that ninjutsu existed after about the middle of the Edo Period. If any ninja existed on their own, they were very lonely outcasts. They were not part of any system, because they worked for clans, but only on the outside.

They were espionage agents?

When they needed to be.

They were mercenaries?

They were. Nawa Sensei says that one of the last chapters in recorded ninjutsu history was the Shimabara Rebellion. It was a Christian rebellion. We shouldn’t really use the word ninja when we talk about them, because the word ninja is a new word. They used to call them shinobi no mono, kusa no mono, mitsu no mono; depending on which clan you worked for, there was a different name. The records from that particular history show that the shinobi had problems understanding the language. That’s a very big problem. Imagine what it would be like to successfully sneak into the enemy’s camp and not understand what they were saying. It wasn’t like today, when you can go all over Japan and understand everybody. In the old days, if you went to Hokkaido or Kyushu, they could tell at once you were a gaijin, an outsider. So the shinobi couldn’t really don disguise and go and act like a Shimabara person, because they couldn’t speak or act like a native.

It’s pretty hard to be a spy in your own town.

The way things are portrayed on TV here really gets to me. The shuriken flying out of ninjas hands. Getting a weapon made four hundred years ago would cost money. Where would you get the money? Where would you get them made and not fall under suspicion? Imagine paying a considerable amount of money to have some shuriken made and then loose them by throwing them at the enemy. Nawa Sensei told me once that he thought that no samurai would want to be a ninja; due to their training, most samurai could cut a ninja in half quite easily. The ninja weren’t recognized swordsmen. I’ve heard it explained that when the ninja attacked somebody, there were always three attacking, one from the front and two from the back.

The ideal situation for a ninja group was for someone to sneak into a clan and establish a base, such as a second-hand clothing shop or a bath house—somewhere people come along, and gather and talk freely. Slowly people would filter in as support. But if three people came in, those three wouldn’t know each other. Only the main person knew. He would ensure that the newcomers would get set up in other things. Then another three would come, perhaps including a couple of good looking women as geisha. No one would know who they were. Slowly the group would spread. In such positions they were not only gathering intelligence but could also wreak havoc and terrorize from within.

Was it a family sort of thing?

So they say. I think it’s quite difficult to say it was any one thing. I’ve seen records that say that a ninja from the Tamba group had to be able to swim under water intoxicated, to jump down from high points on a building, to drink three huge bottles of sake and not be drunk… We all remember in school there was always one fast runner, always one good swimmer, out of a class of thirty or forty students. I don’t think it was any different then, just that the numbers were a lot smaller—especially if blood ties were strictly adhered to. You might get one in the group who was very fast, another who was a good swimmer. Not every ninja was a good swimmer, not every ninja was good at everything.

One strong point of ninjutsu was the use of gunpowder, which was definitely not samurai-like. They actually concocted little bombs that were extremely efficient. In fact, there was a very good documentary some years ago about a researcher living in Koga — the birthplace of the Koga ninja—who was “reviving” the gunpowder techniques of ninjutsu. It showed some landmines and smoke bombs, etc. When smokescreen bombs were exploded, everything around turned into a thick white cloud for about twenty seconds. Even when the wind blew the cloud did not dissipate, it just drifted along. He proved this was possible using old ingredients. It was very interesting to gain some insight into the psyche of the ninja.

The ninja weren’t really interested, I believe, in fighting one on one. Why would they throw weapons away, like a shuriken, which if it missed, would more than likely be lost? That’s definitely unlike the ninja. In effect, the shuriken was probably big enough to fit over the heart, so it was a means of protection without using heavy armor. It probably had sharp points on it, and was used as a drill to open up holes. Between the points of the star they’d entwine a wick and use it as a light. It is said that a good ninja used each tool for nine different purposes.

The skills and tools differed from area to area?

Definitely. I translated part of the Bansen Shukai, which is said to be the most trustworthy document on ninjutsu. It has been translated into modern Japanese. Some of the contents are just childish. For example, if your enemy is coming towards you this way, pick up a rock and throw it the other way, and escape in the opposite direction. They actually had to write that down. It’s obvious, right? There’s lots of things like that.

Has it ever been completely translated into English?

I’ve done some, but I don’t think it’s really worth completing. It would need heavy editing if it was going to be published. A few years ago it was decided to put the most original of the manuscript copies of the Bansen Shukai into modern Japanese. This is a massive work of 22 volumes and only three volumes have been completed. Apparently sales did not go well. It was these translations of the old Japanese that I translated.

Are there any serious works on ninjutsu in English?

They’re all too light. They are predominately “How to” books, ideal for commercialization purposes. I suppose a lot of ninjutsu practitioners today were first introduced to what they are doing by magazine articles and those books. It’s rather ironic that something which was handed down by word of mouth and through blood ties is no longer protected by such a system.

But if there were a book or two that were accurate… The problem is that there’s so much junk out there.

Well, in the old days you had the Bansen Shukai and a handful of other titles which were probably never widely circulated. Even so, accuracy depends on what year it was written and also on the transcriber. There were no photocopiers in the old days. No scanning or computer technology, so for me to get a copy of your Bansen Shukai, I had to borrow it, spend the money to buy the paper, and the brush and the ink—not cheap in the old days, especially in the areas that didn’t make paper. Then I had to transcribe the whole lot, and hope that I didn’t make a mistake. Of course the transcriber had to be able to read Japanese. This was not a common accomplishment in the eras that the shinobi thrived. So the problem is, which copy is the most original? A lot of people don’t realize when they find something referred to in a book, that it might not be from the true original. So that’s another point that you have to be really careful with in research. So it depends on what degree of accuracy you are after.

The things you’ve just described are fascinating, though they’re certainly not the kind of thing that I’ve read.

Well, I think a lot of it comes down to just common sense. For example, the high jump record is a couple of meters, but only a few people can ever reach such a height. The ninja is said to have easily run a hundred kilometers in three days. An average person could probably do this, but would be awfully sore afterwards. Part of the reason ninjutsu is so popular abroad is because the Japanese produce a show on TV, and they say, “Let’s make him jump over the fence.” or “Let’s make him fly or disappear.” You don’t see the trampoline or understand the tricks that are possible with a movie camera. If he throws a star knife one way, they say, “No, let’s get a whole pile and throw them from the palm of the hand.” It just goes on and on. It doesn’t matter that perhaps the only way to consider a shuriken to be a killing weapon is if it is held in the hand for stabbing at very close quarters.

And look at the other weapons. The shinobi katana, the ninja sword, typically had a square sword guard and was straight rather than curved. Now if you are a border guard in old Japan and you obviously have been told to watch out for certain kinds of people, and this guy walks by with a short straight sword with a square guard, you know he’s a ninja. It’s pretty hard to conceal that sort of thing. It’s my guess that if they used such a sword, it was when there was a lot of war going on, and nobody really cared. When traveling—if they could get a travel permit—they had to be as inconspicuous as possible. That’s when they were effective. I’m pretty sure if a ninja were here today, he’d be a computer expert, and prefer to use a gun. He would make himself fit in with regular people. He would be an athlete. Perhaps educated, but not too educated. He wouldn’t stand out.

In your understanding where did the material Masaaki Hatsumi Sensei is teaching come from?

I haven’t done a lot of research concerning this, but my understanding from some of the Japanese I have spoken to, is that he was a student of Takeshi Ueno, a small man who taught jujutsu, and who apparently belonged to some gangster group. I’m not certain about this, but he was heavily tatooed. He had quite a reputation in the downtown area of Tokyo. Apparently, Hatsumi was a student of his.

I don’t really know the details. I’ve also heard that he borrowed quite a lot of documents about martial arts that Ueno Sensei had gathered and that the information gained from these documents helped formulate the basis of what he teaches today. It’s not easy to say with certainty, but just from the techniques, it is quite obvious that they are not very old. It’s modern ninjutsu, if you’d like to call it that. I don’t think you could call it anything else.

So it’s a reconstructed art, as far as you’ve been able to tell.

Any school proclaiming that it is a school of ninjutsu I think is a reconstruction of what may have been. I don’t think ninjutsu survived through to the modern times. I don’t think it is fair to conclude that what is thought to be ninjutsu today—people clad in black suits jumping around in the air—is what was in Japan hundreds of years ago. The overall environment and style of living was so different.

It’s one of those things, similar to what happened to Miyamoto Musashi, especially for the Japanese, who can no longer separate the historical Musashi from the novel of Eiji Yoshikawa. Unless someone actually does some serious research, this image of ninja as portrayed in Japanese movies and dramas, or portrayed in the Western media, is so strong and overpowering that it’s hard to understand that the guy was probably a member of an intelligence group, who was lying low most of the time and was probably more involved in gathering information than in using exotic weapons.

Well to demonstrate, the Bansen Shu-kai describes exploits of some ninjutsu exponents and what was most necessary was the need for patience, to be able to enter a residence or castle and wait undetected often for days on end to gather information. All the other abilities of such a person seemed to be secondary.

Just to observe what was going on?

Yes. What it took was a fairly disciplined person, because he had to control himself, physically and spiritually. His bowel movements, his supply of water and food. Now, this brings it down to a science, and he had his own type of health food, he had his own tablets and such that they’d developed. He had a special style of lantern that didn’t show too much light. They needed to be able to control their feelings with the same degree of alertness throughout the complete assignment, and they had to get out the same way they got in—unseen. We’re talking about a time when they didn’t really have a lot of time for research, but these things developed out of use. I can’t believe it was just one family unit doing it on their own.

They wouldn’t be able to develop that sort of technology alone.

They weren’t on the same level as the samurai, but they were probably a very important part of any defensive or offensive movement for a clan. I couldn’t imagine samurai doing the work of a shinobi. You would probably have to have a person who was more even-tempered, not afraid to resort to the means necessary to win, a person who could actually take abuse. To be able to sneak into an enemy’s camp long enough to ascertain their strengths and weaknesses, to be able to deliver this information without being found out, was only possible for a special type of person—definitely not someone trained as a samurai.

A good general would probably send two or three people to get information, each not knowing about the other, double- and triple-checking the information. For the long term, they probably sent people out for three or four years to develop a little community. And how did these people maintain their physical skills? Let’s face it, a person who doesn’t do any physical training for six or twelve months, is probably going to become pretty rusty, especially in the physical skills that today seem to be so highly stressed in ninjutsu training.

I don’t think there were many of them, but they were probably loyal to the person with whom their boss had a contract. I don’t think it really needs a lot of explanation. I know the kunoichi, the female ninja, were used more than the males, because it was easy for a woman to get entry to the officers’ or soldiers’ quarters, using sexual wiles. Also it was easier for them to carry out assassinations, or to work in kitchens where they could easily poison the food. It’s a part of history that quite a few Japanese scholars really don’t want to talk about.

It’s not particularly glamorous.

No, it’s not, but it was effective when used in the right context. But then again, they were sacrificing their own lives. In regard to modern-day ninjutsu here, you’ve got to consider it as something a teacher is teaching that is his interpretation of what may have been, three, four, or five hundred years ago. Because you’re training in something that’s old, it doesn’t mean that it’s the same as it was two hundred years ago. Look at aikido—if you’ve done aikido for twenty years, and analyze what it was like ten years ago, in that short time it’s changed. After two hundred years of change, the Japanese have gotten bigger, so maybe the sword cutting techniques have been altered based on the size of the person. Judo techniques have changed because there’s a better way of doing ukemi now. You’ve got to change with it. But ninjutsu is awfully glamorous, it sells a lot of books. Like with anything, you’ve got to expect that there’s going to be some sort of deception involved. If you’re willing to take it, go ahead and do it.

This is something that I don’t think has hardly ever been talked about in print, but it’s very important. There’s a book that’s well-known among people who are seriously interested in martial arts, Kiyoshi Watatani’s Dictionary [Bugei Ryuha Daijiten, Tokyo, Tokyo Kopii Shuppan, 1978]. You actually knew Watatani Sensei. Would you tell us a little about the man? About the Dictionary, which was his life work?

That was one of his life’s works, and perhaps the most important. I knew him when he was quite old and was in and out of the hospital. He never gave up, even when the dictionary came out—he kept on researching and rewriting. When he found new information he would put it in these little booklets, and you subscribed and he would send them to you. The Daijiten comes in one of those slip-covers, and he showed me his copy at his house in Kamakura, with all of the rewritten notes in it. There were so many that the cover was almost bursting. It was the first of its kind, a dictionary of all the martial arts and schools in Japan. That is thousands of schools. And this man tried to organize them in such a way as to give researchers today a stepping stone. Of course there were many mistakes in it, but you can’t expect such a voluminous book as that not to have mistakes, especially since he was the only one working on it.

When I asked him about some mistakes in the Daijiten, he answered, “Well, it’s simple. It has been published. People do not come back and tell me. How can I check on everything? I don’t get feedback.” He’s one hundred percent correct. But his whole life was centered around that sort of thing and his old house in Kamakura was just full of old documents. I don’t think anyone today could attempt half of what he achieved.

Was he a scholar, a teacher, a practitioner?

It’s interesting. I think he grew up in the same area of Kyoto that Takamatsu Sensei, who taught Hatsumi Sensei ninjutsu, grew up in. Watatani Sensei practiced some kenjutsu, but as far as I know he was mainly a scholar of the martial arts.

I thought Ueno Sensei taught Hatsumi Sensei?

He taught him jujutsu. Apparently a lot of what Hatsumi learned came from Takamatsu. Watatani grew up in the same area and knew him as a boy. So all those things you heard about Takamatsu being so strong, Watatani refutes, saying that he was just an average kid.

What was his profession?

He was just a researcher.

He lived from the sales of books?

When I knew him he did. I don’t know what he was before. Apparently he had a publishing company going. Also, although I don’t know exactly where he was getting all his money from, he didn’t need much to live on, since he was a very old man.

Was he a practitioner of something?

Apparently, he did some kenjutsu. He did tell me that once he tried to fight some kendo people to prove to them that kendo wasn’t a martial art, but a sport. After they faced off, Watatani just circled his opponent and this seemed to confuse the kendo man who refrained from attacking. I think the bout ended in no decision. It’s unfortunate that there wasn’t someone there to learn from him. Watatani Sensei used to say that the trouble with a lot of research is that the researchers don’t actively do what they research. And a practitioner is not a researcher. It’s difficult to do both, but the best type of person is someone who is researching, whether it’s kenjutsu or judo or whatever, as well as doing it. He gets to understand it a lot better, and can present it to a fuller extent. Watatani said he didn’t know anyone who was doing that. He did say that it wasn’t uncommon for a teacher of a school who knows a little to inherit documents, and study them and think it is research. I think what he meant by this, is that they never show the documents so that material can be considered dead.

Physical possession somehow proves their mastery of it.

Most of the time, when those people die, the family doesn’t know what they’ve got, so often the documents get thrown out or sold.

Did Watatani Sensei write only about martial arts?

He wrote many books on the history of martial arts, and the people involved. I actually found an old historical magazine from around 1954, in which there is an article of his about the kusarigama. Now at that time, there would still have been quite a few of the old teachers still living.

Did he speak any English?

Yes, he could speak English. In fact, Donn Draeger used to get a lot of his information from him. But there are a lot of people out there who don’t like Watatani’s dictionary. Those people are just short-sighted and don’t understand that it’s the best start they can have if they ever begin their own research.

It is a start. When you realize what he undertook, it is awe-inspiring.

When I did an article on naginata with Larry Bieri for the JMAS Newsletter, I used the dictionary as a base. It took me a week to pull out all the schools that had naginata in their traditions. It’s just awe-inspiring. He must have read untold books to find out what school was where. It will be a long time before anyone does that much work again! I remember that edition of the JMAS newsletter was one of the largest ever done.

Thank you for talking with us.

You’re welcome. By the way, if you could mention that I am interested in buying books published pre-1950 on unarmed combat, judo or jujutsu, I would appreciate it. Anyone with information can contact me via Aiki News.


Laszlo John Abel was born in Wollongong, Australia in 1954. Began training in Kyokushinkai karate in 1969. Studied the following martial arts traditions during his sixteen-year stay in Japan: Tokagure-ryu ninjutsu, Masaki-ryu manrikigusari-jutsu, Tenjin Shinyo-ryu jujutsu, Negshi-ryu shuriken-jutsu, and Shindo Munen-ryu kenjutsu. Participant in numerous classical martial arts demonstrations. Author of Masaki-ryu Manrikigusari and several magazine and newspaper articles. Founding member of the Japan Martial Arts Society and frequent contributor to its newsletter. Researcher of early foreign practitioners of Japanese martial arts. Employed at the Australian Embassy, Tokyo.