Essence of Ninjutsu 真髄の忍術

Presented[1] by Kacem Zoughari, Transcribed by Luke Crocker (all endnotes are Luke’s)

The following footage contains excerpts from various seminars by martial arts historian Dr. Kacem Zoughari, Ph.D.
On History

In order to use the word “school”… I am sure you have all heard about Japanese names like Gyokko-ryū (玉虎流), Takenouchi-ryū (竹の内流)[2] , Togakure-ryū (戸隠流). The word “ryū” (流) that we translate by “school” in Japanese doesn’t mean “school”. It means, “Current”, “way of thinking”, “fashion”, “continuity”. So, when the people have created a new way of using the body or weapon it was not something completely set. It was just an idea that helped you to survive. And you need to wait at least five or six generations after that, what was just an idea becomes something very sophisticated, well explained, as a school. At this moment we use the word “school”. And you mostly use the word “school” when it is a peaceful era. When you don’t need to fight anymore.
The beginning of a school, the beginning of the art is, what you need to understand, is the first level, what we call “shoden” (初伝)[3], the first transmission, the first level. This is the higher… highest transmission. So they used to teach always the top technique in order that if one day you lose the scroll, you lose something, you always, always can find your way. You cannot lose the school. Why? Because you understand what is the most important, and you can make it. So from that you can make what you want.
Nine schools means nine lives, and you don’t have nine lives. Okay, so you need to understand the principle called “Ninpō Taijutsu”[4], and this starts from Ichimonji (straight line; 一文字). That is why Gyokko-ryū kosshijutsu [5] and Kotō-ryū Koppōjutsu[6] actually used to be the basics of Iga-ryū and Kōga-ryū, the two main schools of the ninja provinces. Koppōjutsu and Kosshijutsu are the basics of using everything.

On Training and Practice

Of course you can do whatever you want here. You can, when you strike here you can kick at the same time, you can do what you want. But what you want… is not what the Sōke wants. You have been to Japan… what you want is what YOU want. If you do correctly the first technique, after, what you want goes without saying. That’s why it’s important first to limit ourselves. Limiting ourselves is something correct. When this correct thing is known, respected, polished, practiced through the years… what you want becomes useless. Because what you want, is desire. Martial arts is to go against your own desire. If you really want to seek the real… that’s why it’s close to religion, at this moment, no desire, and no intention. If you have intention he will feel it. You understand?21665_10151057741031324_519668721_n_SnapseedThat’s why in the martial arts, all the primary schools, Takenouchi-ryū, Kage-ryū, Kashima Shin-ryū, Kashima Shintō-ryū, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shintō-ryū, Nen-ryū[7]. All those primary schools, first they have a very strong rule. “Taiyu Shiai Nashi”, there is no fight against other schools. Why? If the guy loses, the winner knows about the techniques of the school, first… Second, if you never show the school. You never show that you practice martial arts. Techniques sometimes, even the name of the school… sometimes people practice the technique, yet they don’t know the name of the school and the name of the technique. It was like a whisper… Like the primary beginnings of the books of religion. You have something like this that was already a treasure, so you keep it.
So martial arts was like that, you should not attack, you should not offense. And there is… most of the schools, most of the great founders never accepted the place of Shōgun (warlord) instructors, because they know that life is made of changement, and one Shōgun will overpass another one, etc., etc… and even if they are with them, they need to commit suicide. All the top masters never committed seppuku, never. That was just for stupid samurai, for the honor. Life has more value than the honor itself. Life, on itself, is an honor. So here, if you show, if you do, that’s wrong. That’s why, no intention, no desire. You need to practice for the sake of the practice, for the sake of love and for the sake of the people you love. And again, in the world of protection, you need to understand the word “cause”. Which cause?
So imagine now, for me, I’m just saying very easy words, it’s not very deep or very clever. Imagine someone like Hatsumi sensei. The level of the man. The reason why he practices, the reason of his practice, the reason of the practice of Takamatsu sensei, and before. Try to look at the way you practice yourself… I don’t ask the same… But if you respect that, already the way you practice will be more on the right way.
Of course, if you like to do things in order to… “Ah, I like my friends, it’s a group”, “It’s a social stuff”, it’s good. It’s like doing chess. But you cannot call this martial arts. You call this human relations. Martial arts is something more deep. It’s important that you know that, when you know that, after you can choose, and of course the choice is about you.
It’s very important for all of you to understand that there is… you see a master like Hatsumi sensei who have, uh… I don’t think you can use the word “knowledge” for Hatsumi sensei because he IS a knowledge… a human knowledge, walking… one knowledge. You look at him moving, he has a certain age, he has a certain process on the body, and he has met the right master, the right master put his life on his [Hatsumi’s] body. This man is not a man, he is a part of an art. And when he moves, you see his form is very difficult to identify, because we don’t have the process, we don’t have what we need, the mission piece to understand that.

Maasaki Hatsumi performing Futari Dori (two-man capture; 二人捕).
Maasaki Hatsumi performing Futari Dori (two-man capture; 二人捕).

So, oh, he moves like this, oh he uses his elbow, oh, he uses his hip… here it is: For him, “body” doesn’t have the same definition. “Elbow” doesn’t have the same definition. For example, he said here… “I use my elbow”, but his body is already on the angle. “Here I use my hip”, so people say “he used his hip”. The way he uses his hip, the way he has been educated in the way he uses his body, the way he disciplined his body, it’s out of our definition, and it’s completely different.
So that’s why they said in the martial arts, “you need to forget yourself.” In order to grasp what is right in front of you. Because copy… Ah, there is an old saying by Confucius, “if you copy the master, you die… if you follow him and you inspire yourself from him, you’ll survive.”
In the case of the martial arts, it’s different because the purpose is different. You practice for… challenge yourself every day. Not challenge yourself to challenge someone, challenge YOURSELF. A fight against yourself. It’s a fight against your bad habits, the way you are, for example… if you have a way to answer to talk to people which is a little bit disrespectful. It is also a way to be aware of every detail in life. So for a martial artist at that time, it’s to be aware of all the situations, who can kill me… if for example if I eat like that [head down], I cannot see here, so I’m going to eat like this [with the head up], my eyes are everywhere, I cannot do big movements, I go like this [subtle movements], I can throw like this [gestures with food bowl]… So for a master it was like that, so the art that we practice is created in this way. So when you polish your art and your body… by following this kind of form, it changes you.
Think that, every moment… try to realize and try to always have in mind that each of your movements that you do, even if it’s just a step or just a shift, inside is what you are looking for. There is a connection with the art. Even the way of sitting, the way of eating, the way of talking with people, the way of walking. And if you start to think like that, even if you have to do washroom or whatever, wash dishes, clean the house, in all those movements there’s martial arts, there is an efficiency to find. If you don’t do it, what you do is not martial arts, it’s just frequenting a class, and it’s just sports. Martial arts is everything. It’s like a religious man, he doesn’t only prey when he goes to the synagogue or to the church. Every moment of life he dedicates, he devotes himself to God. Just the act of drinking water becomes a prayer, and at this moment it’s not the Bible anymore that he reads it’s a connection directly. Think about that.
Those techniques are made, I’m sorry to say, under the blood of people. People have sacrificed their lives. Some people have lost family, everything, just to find one technique correct. Some people did revenge for understanding those techniques. So, they are born, they are created under something maybe nasty, maybe wrong, or maybe glorious, or maybe noble to protect yourself or whatever. So because of this, it’s not something light. That’s why I said to some people, “Put weight to what you do”. Weight doesn’t mean that you put your [physical] weight. Normally in martial arts, you should use your weight correctly. So that goes without saying. “Put weight” is put MEANING… be there, stay on the line, do correct, push him to move correct.
Some people said “real attack”, it’s impossible to do a real attack in the dōjō. You can fake the “real attack”. The people that can do the real attack are already on a level to control a lot of things. It’s not rushing yourself, it’s not to rush too much. You rush, there’s always a payback.
I know you’re tired. I know it’s more difficult to focus. I know all those kind of things because myself, I consider myself as a student. But this is the moment in classical martial arts, and especially ninjutsu, this is the moment where some are going to endure, persevere, and go deeper, and some are going to stop. It’s not a question of victory or fail, or lose, it’s who can keep going, keep on enduring, and remain patient, and that’s why it’s connected with life, nature, and many things because everyone can do that. But it’s until which limit? Which depth? Everyone is tired. Always think that you’re not alone. It will give you a bit of a boost. But it is very important, at the moment you’re tired, the moment your energy going to fail, your focus, your concentration going to go down, this is the moment where something might happen. That’s why holy men of the past you can find this everywhere, they always said, “The critical time, the more interesting time, moment, is at the end.” And it’s always like this in life. You sign the contract at the end, you talk one hour for nothing, but actually… and if you rush too much… that’s why wait.

Dispelling a Modern Myth

Dr. Kacem Zoughari performing a cut with a left-handed grip.
Dr. Kacem Zoughari performing a cut with a left-handed grip.

So in order to understand the art of sword, you need to understand long weapons. And long weapons are the best to educate and cultivate both sides of the body. Because you practice, there is both sides. In the sword there is only one side. And there is no record that says that you should practice the sword only from one side. Most of the primary schools you practice both sides, because it’s war and you need to face any type of man with whatever the weapon you have and whatever the hand you use. That’s why each scroll, it’s always written at the end “sayu” (左右), practice both sides. I don’t know if they knew all the impact of the neurophysiology, I don’t think so. But for sure, when you have to survive you need to know both sides. If you get hurt on the right hand, how you do? You said, “Stop, please, I will come back tomorrow when everything is alright”? No, he kills you and takes all your family, and that’s not cool.

On kamae

You need to move always from kamae to kamae in order that when you do a movement he cannot touch you, he cannot grasp you, he cannot hurt you. Kamae is like your own shield, your own protection. Everything you do with kamae, every time you take a kamae, it’s a way of look, avoid, move the sword and the center of your enemy. Each time, kamae should be this in your mind. Not just a posture, if it’s this you make a big mistake. That’s why after Hatsumi sensei, and he have the right to say, like many masters, kamae is wrong, form is wrong because it makes you stiff. You need to understand the form or purpose, in order to break the form after.[8]
Kamae is your life. Of course there is no form, but you can understand there is no form when you have the form. The question is, you cannot grasp something that you don’t know, that you don’t see. We talk about spirit, you talk about the heart, and you talk about the muscle, but you don’t know what happens inside. You don’t know how it is. It’s dark, you need the light. The light is the form. So again, if your form is right, your shadow is. Kamae means “spirit attitude”. Most people translate this as “position”. Kamae, the word kamae comes from Nō theater. The Nō, and from the Nō they create this.
Martial artists didn’t have words for explaining their world. So they used words, from everything, “Ah, that’s great, that looks like what I want to say to describe what I do.” But that doesn’t mean the word has to do with martial arts. So they used the word “kamae”, which means “spirit attitude”. Kamaeru (構える)! “Ready?!” But kamae means also, what your body reflects. Your kamae must reflect what you really are inside. And when you are “nothing”, you become muge (無碍), mu form, without form, formless. And if you look at the process of ninjutsu, the process of Hatsumi sensei’s practice, which is more important, and Takamatsu sensei’s practice because now we have the DVD of Takamatsu sensei so we can have a form, we can have an image, you know, to compare.

On Movement

It’s like, for example, when you start a technique, you don’t know how to teach, “dak, where here… one… two… Ichimonji no kamae, and when I step for the tsuki, you can move.” (Demonstration of Ichimonji gata from Gyokko-ryū). This, normally this I should not talk about. When you start to do things like that, it is not koryū anymore. We call this “yakusoku” (arrangement; 約束). Yakusoku waza, yakusoku katachi. This kind of thing are put for people who don’t know martial arts. It’s a sports way of looking at koryū.
In koryū there is nothing like that, classical schools. He attack you need to be able to do the technique. If you cannot understand this type of distance (arm’s length), by yourself, just by your nose, and by everything you have, you cannot survive. Why? Because all those techniques were practiced by people who had experience in war and fighting. This is one of the reasons that when Hatsumi sensei met Takamatsu sensei when he was 27 years old, he was already as master of many things, and he could see the value of that very deeply. How a master like that could exist and know things like that? How a way of moving like this could exist?
“I’m 27, 5th dan in Jūdō, 6th dan in karate, I’m talking with all the top men, I know Ueshiba, Mabuni… I do boxing, Chinese martial arts… I have already more than one-hundred scrolls… I can beat anyone, I know all the martial arts that exist, and this old man, 70 years old does something I’ve never seen before! Let me know why?!” And you know the history after… He becomes sōke of the nine schools.

Dr. Kacem Zoughari performing Za-iai waza
Dr. Kacem Zoughari performing Za-iai waza

When your eyes can see big, what is small… Do you understand? Once again, when your eyes can see clearly, “CLEARLY”, that means all the image, of a small detail, I’ll let you imagine what you can see in people’s movements. This is what ninjutsu is about. That’s why ninjutsu is “invisible”. Invisible because it escapes from the regular image of using the body.
For people like Hatsumi sensei, and even Ishizuka sensei on a certain level, it’s the same thing. For them this is non nothing, this is NOT nothing. They will not give you what they sacrificed their full life for, if they do not trust you. If you transpose this for Takamatsu sensei and before that at a time where a knowledge like that was the meaning of surviving or being dead, the choice of the student, of a disciple, was VERY heavy.


Shinzui no ninjutsu 真髄の忍術 (Essence of Ninjutsu). Transcribed by Luke Crocker. Published by Anderson Gray. Perf. Kacem Zoughari. YouTube, 2015. YouTube Video. 11 March 2015. <;.

Zoughari, Kacem. Ninja: Ancient Shadow Warriors of Japan. North Clarindon: Tuttle Publishing, 2010. Book.

[1] Shinzui no ninjutsu 真髄の忍術 “Essence of Ninjutsu”, the kanji of this was shown in the title within the video itself.
[2] Takenouchi-ryū 竹内流, is the oldest school of jūjutsu of Japan for which hone has reliable documents of transmission. This allows one to follow the affiliations of the school since its creation by Takenouchi Nakatsu Kasadayū Hisamori (1503-1596). It is by far the most important school of jūjutsu in japan because it gave rise to the different branches of jūjutsu, kenjutsu, bukijutsu, and so forth.
[3] Shoden 初伝 “First transmission”. It is important here to understand this not as a “beginning level” or “basic level” as so many do, but instead as “the beginning of the school’s transmission”, as in the earliest development of the tradition itself – at a later level of polishing and tempering of course.
[4] Ninpō Taijutsu 忍法体術 “Principles of endurance, perseverance, and valor applied to the science of the body”, an exceedingly subtly method of utilizing the body to gather information on the enemy in close combat while mitigating the amount of information provided to them.
[5] Kosshijutsu 骨指術 “Science of the bones of the hand”, a system of striking, grappling, and massage applied with the structure of the hands to softer parts of the body, as well as tendons and ligaments.
[6] Koppōjutsu 骨法術 “Science of the principles of the skeletal structure”, a system of combat , as well as bone and muscle alignment focused on utilizing the skeletal structure of the human body to disrupt and damage the structure of the enemy. From this an understanding of Seitai (Chiropractory; 整体) developed as well.
[7] Nen-ryū 念流, is one of the principle branches of kenjutsu (science of the sword; 剣術), being founded at the start of the Muromachi period (Approx. 1337 to 1573 CE) by Sōma Shirō Yoshimoto (相馬四朗義元), who later became a monk and changed his name to Jion Nen Washō (慈音念和尚). The name “Nen” (念), is not arbitrary, and refers to one of the highest level lessons of the school. Referring to the ability to detect motives and intentions in the enemy’s movements. This went on to influence such schools as Kage-ryū (影流), Shinkage-ryū (新影流), Nitō-ryū (二刀流), and so on.
[8] Shuhari 守破離 “protect, break, and distance”, referring to learning the form (to protect it, not losing anything), destroy (break away from the structure or habit the form builds), distance (surpass and leave behind the form).


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