KACEM ZOUGHARI – My rank is what you see on the tatami!
Interview by Dionysis Tsetselis
( brief introduction by D.T.) This year’s seminar with Kacem Zoughari was hosted at the Martial Way Academy of Martial Arts, where I had the chance to observe as a spectator. I had heard many positive things about him and was expecting to see a teacher at a ripe age. Instead, to my surprise I saw a young man who at first glance didn’t seem to stand out at all amongst the rest of the seminar participants. Nevertheless, the continuation was truly impressive. His very direct and analytic teaching, his great emphasis on the “details” of the techniques and to the correct posture and body movement, his persistence on executing the attacks, and thus the defenses, as close to reality as possible, without of course jeopardizing his students’ safety, his broad knowledge on martial arts, as well his politeness made me sit fixated and watch closely for almost the entire duration of the seminar. In addition, all the above led me to the decision to ask him for an interview, which he kindly gave to me. Enjoy it!
First of all, let’s start with the formalities. Would you like to tell me about how you started your journey in martial arts?
Dr.K.Z.: I was born and raised in Paris and at a very young age I did a bit of Shotokan Karate, which I didn’t like though. I was more moved by “street” culture, so I felt closer to styles like Muay Thai and Kickboxing, which among others gave me a sense of freedom of movement. At that time ninja movies were also in fashion so, as it was natural, I got the impression of also becoming a Ninja (laughter)! The only thing I wanted was to wear the black ninja mask and throw shuriken (laughter). At that time I knew nothing of organizations, genealogy and other such things so I started searching for a ninjutsu school in Paris. So I began lessons with a teacher but after a little while I started having many doubts on what that man was actually teaching me. Therefore, on December of 1989 and at the age of 17, I decided to travel to Japan so I could see what ninjutsu was really about.
At the age of 17 you just simply got up and said that you’re going to Japan to see what ninjutsu was?
Dr.K.Z.: Yes, just like that (laughs)! Of course it was very hard for my parents to understand and the ticket alone cost my father’s monthly wages. Even so, my desire was so big that I managed to have an agreement with them that I’d be away only for a few days. In the end, I stayed there for two whole months.
What was your first impression?
Dr.K.Z.: I couldn’t understand a whole lot but the first thing that I realized at once was that all I had learned that far was , excuse the expression, bullshit (nonsense). Everything!
I can imagine your disappointment!
Dr.K.Z.: Yes, I felt a very big disappointment. But then I had the rare luck of getting noticed by Ishizuka sensei, one of the closest students of Hatsumi sensei, who showed interest in me and asked me why I was looking so disappointed. I replied that I’d just discovered that everything I was taught was wrong. His answer gave me strength: “So what? Time you learn correctly then!”. I asked him “how?” and he told me to just watch him and to try to imitate everything he does as best as I could. I immediately started lessons with him. He would never explain anything, he just let me look at him and copy him. That went on for two months, until I returned to Paris.
What did you do then? Did you go back to your school?
Dr.K.Z.: Of course not! I had brought three techniques with me: tsuki, uke and geri, as well as a brief kata which I practiced constantly, so I would learn them all perfectly.
Wasn’t it boring for a 17 year old to constantly and exclusively practice on just three techniques?
Dr.K.Z.: Not at all! Those three techniques don’t just have the simplified meaning most practitioners give them but represent many more things. Tsuki is not just a punch but a whole way of body movement, so you can penetrate through the adversary with one blow. It’s governed by the concept of one blow-one life. Uke in reality means to accept but many people erroneously translate it as block. However, the word block has a very hard and absolute meaning. When we block, our whole body, as well as our heart, hardens and tightens , resulting in our energy being immobilized too. When our energy gets immobilized then death comes. The word uke has more to do with the flow and freedom in movement, while we respond to the everchanging demands of battle. Finally, with the term geri we mean the kicks, which also have very many demands and ingredients that can’t be seen at first glance. So, in reality I had a lot of work to do.
According to my knowledge, it was at that period in which you also started to occupy yourself with the Japanese language and with Japanese culture in general.
Dr.K.Z.: During my stay in Japan I felt a deep disappointment because I couldn’t effectively communicate with Ishizuka sensei and Hatsumi sensei. Of course they spoke English, but I felt that they wouldn’t trust someone who didn’t speak their language. So, when I got back to Paris I started learning Japanese. Of course, at that time I couldn’t even imagine that later I’d be doing complete studies and get a doctorate degree in Japanese language and culture, that I’d be able to study from very old manuscripts (scrolls) and that I’d finally undergo postgraduate studies at the University of Paris on the history of Japanese martial arts.
So finally, when did you return again to Japan?
Dr.K.Z.: I returned in Japan in 1994 and ever since I’ve travelled there many times, trying to learn the art of the ninjas as well as I could and to also discover ancient authentic scripts, in order to respond to the demands of my studies. You know, in the end it’s not so important how long you’ve been in Japan but rather the quality of your time there, your training and your contacts there. I know many people who go to Japan three times per year but who haven’t accomplished many things. The most basic challenge (need) is to build a deep relationship of trust with the sensei, so he can really teach you his art in depth and not just superficially. But to build such a relationship takes a lot of time, effort and a pure heart. Senseis very rarely give out their deeper knowledge to someone.
Why does that happen, I wonder?
Dr.K.Z.: It’s very simple. In the older years, if a master showed someone all his secrets, then it was like handing him the weapons with which he could, if he was finally proven bad-intentioned, successfully go against someone of the genealogy or even kill his own master. Therefore, the duty of finding the master’s successor, who would receive all the secrets of the genealogy, was very deep (grave). Today, even though circumstances have changed and no one’s life is in danger like that, this old habit has mainly been retained and masters show their secrets very rarely and to few people. The question is very old and extends to our days: How can you give everything, even put your life at stake, for someone you don’t know? So it’s always a matter of trust, and confidence of trust is a matter of time and quality of personal character (personality).
So, in the beginning of 1990, until 1994 when you returned to Japan, what did you do?
Dr.K.Z.: Like I mentioned, I come from a poor family and I didn’t have the possibility to have trips to Japan. However, all that period of time I worked hard, working countless hours on my techniques, training in many other martial arts and studying the Japanese language and culture. I had to search and dig deep on my own in order to move on. In 1994 I went back to Japan while already speaking, reading and writing Japanese, I got a university diploma on the language in 1998 and in 2000 I got my doctorate diploma. In all of this period of time, as I mentioned, I had a lot of long visits to Japan, where while learning ninjutsu, I also studied Japanese culture for the needs of my university.
How was it when you travelled to Japan?
Dr.K.Z.: Since that time, every time I went to Japan I stayed in Ishizuka sensei’s house. I followed all of his training days, as well as all of Hatsumi sensei’s ones, and when group training was over we did a lot of private lesson work with the senseis. Of course, I am not the only one that went to Hatsumi sensei’s or Ishizuka sensei’s house and that had lessons under them. However, as I mentioned before, what matters is the type of relationship someone has with the master and not the number of lessons he’s done with them. I’ve never had economic aspirations from martial arts, nor personal ambitions. I just wanted to learn and not to take non-deserved ranks and knowledge in order to sell after going back to Paris. It is that which, in my belief, was appreciated by my masters and resulting in them giving me something more.
Excuse me if I’m rude (impolite), but your story resembles a Hollywood movie a little bit. A fifteen year old boy from the West suddenly shows up to the master out of nowhere, tells him “I came so you can teach me your secrets” and he, even though doesn’t profoundly teach anyone in many years, opens his arms and says “Welcome! It’s you that I’ve been waiting for all my life to give you all of my secrets!”
Dr.K.Z.: (Laughs) It wasn’t exactly like that! At that period of time I went to class just like everyone and paid just like everyone. At first I was nothing more than a western human wallet (laughs). It took a very long time, effort, sacrifices and most of all training until I could be considered Ishizuka sensei’s internal student, as well as be allowed by Hatsumi sensei just to get a look at the authentic ancient manuscripts (scrolls) of his art. Like I said, gaining trust takes years, and mostly demands quality in the relationship. Everyone just doesn’t suddenly open up in front of you, like in the movies. Even after someone is accepted as an internal student, a master continues to test him till the end and as long as the student passes the tests, the more a master opens up to him.
Nowadays traveling is easier and western teachers come and go to Hatsumi sensei’s headquarters, bringing back stories on how close their relationship with the masters is. Really, how is the situation for them?
Dr.K.Z.: The Japanese are very polite people. They smile, invite you for dinner and such but that’s mainly an etiquette. They never open themselves totally to you. Ishizuka sensei and Hatsumi sensei are very polite towards everyone who comes to meet them, for any reason. They happily discuss with everyone but when one asks something he truly doesn’t deserve the answer of, then they just smile and say “I’m sorry but I do not understand what you ask me”. Ishizuka sensei in particular, can become friends with someone because he’s good company, or go out for dinner with someone but that doesn’t mean that he’ll give him technical knowledge too. You may be his best friend but if you’re not technically good and really devoted to learning he will give you nothing.
After your acceptance as a student from Ishizuka sensei, how did your relationship change as well as the teaching you were receiving?
Dr.K.Z.: My relationship with Ishizuka sensei changed a lot during time. While at the beginning I was nothing more than another student from the West, today he has reached the point in telling everyone who asks him about me that I am his son. I think that alone says it all. Of course, like in any real father-son relationship, the father talks to the son according to age, knowledge and experience of his son. In reality, Ishizuka sensei doesn’t teach me anymore but rather transfers his knowledge and those are two entirely different things.
Yes, I heard that during your seminar. Can you tell me a few words concerning that difference?
Dr.K.Z.: The meaning of the term “teach” mainly concerns training of kids and/or adults in matters of either theoretical or technical nature, by a teacher. The meaning of the term “transfer” is much deeper. In a relationship of knowledge transferring there is a deep experience-based transmission of the art and it’s deeper ingredients (elements), which happens from body to body and from heart to heart. For example, in martial arts you have to be able to not just learn what is taught to you but mostly with your own eyes to copy the movement and meaning in it, while watching the master executing it live in front of you. But to copy the master at such a high level so as to obtain the entire depth of his teaching is something very very difficult. Many times, you’re not able to understand something you see. But that stays inside you like a seed waiting to blossom and when you’re ready, even if the master is no longer there, the seed will blossom. The way that I understand this relationship, I feel that I never need to ask my masters questions. How can I pose questions if I’m not firstly moving correctly or if I’m not flawlessly executing the techniques? When you attain technical perfection then the questions get answered by themselves. The answers are not in words but in the movement itself and the bodies of the masters. The way they walk and execute their techniques. That is true knowledge transferring.
What do you do today? Do you teach ninjutsu as a profession?
Dr.K.Z.: No. I never wanted that. When you expect to make a living from teaching you must make a lot of sacrifices in quality. Many times you’ll need to give certificates to people who don’t deserve them, you must occupy yourself more with the politics and promotion and less with training etc. I’m not saying that something like that can’t be done in the right way but I can’t do it. Many say that they train with their students but that is not correct. Real training is done when someone is alone. So I teach just twice per week. The rest of the time I work at the university as a researcher of anything concerning martial arts and Japan, I occupy myself with my personal training and I also have a family which I have to take care of. I also speak on numerous universities’ events and teach at seminars when I’m invited. All those are enough for one person, don’t you think?
Of course they are! Now, would you like to say a few words on your academic career? It sounds a bit odd that you have a PhD on martial arts. Is there such an academic Chair?
Dr.K.Z.: When I was young I studied electronics but I got very tired, since they didn’t suit me at all. So, I decided to study Japanese at the university, where the level was very high. I took all courses, even those which didn’t interest me at all, like history, philosophy, art, religion etc entirely in Japanese, just to learn the language proficiently. When I graduated and told my professors that I wanted to do my PhD in martial arts I naturally faced suspicion and irony. The usual story of martial arts is abundant in non-scientific and unproven inaccuracies such as: “that’s what my master told me”, “my art was revealed by God himself”, “the scroll of my art’s philosophy descended down from Heaven in a shining light” etc. Therefore, martial arts aren’t particularly appreciated in academic circles. I was allowed to attempt such a thing, only because I was known and appreciated. So, in order to respond in the best possible way and to reverse the prevailing general view, I had to first and foremost find authentic sources, which would not be susceptible to any doubt. I had to meet, talk with and gain the trust of living masters from authentic styles. I had to discover and study the prototypes of ancient scrolls (manuscripts), crosscheck them and stay absolutely loyal to them. Finally, it was also necessary to invent the method with which I would accomplish this task, since I was the first to attempt it. The subject was big, since apart from the formalities of dozens of schools, like chronologic events, names etc, I needed to also find the kinesiology of each school, how they fought, what weapons they used etc. In the end I gave in my thesis, which contained 800 densely written pages and so I got my PhD. From all of this research I learned that we shouldn’t just suffice on what one or another says (even if it’s from Grandmasters) but to look back on the sources. Only there does the authentic knowledge and truth exist.
What is the biggest difficulty for someone wanting to study the history of martial arts?
Dr.K.Z.: First of all one must of course be able to separate myth from reality, and that is very very hard. To achieve that, first condition would be to distance himself from his choices, likes and dislikes. Usually martial artists get very bonded with their master and their martial art and have difficulty in acknowledging the truth, if it is different from the one their martial art supports.
Have you achieved that? Since the beginning you were, and still are, devoted to one specific art. Can you distinguish the truth and the lie concerning your art, or could it be that your emotional (sentimental) involvement with it has led you towards erroneous conclusions in your academic research?
Dr.K.Z.: Since the beginning I had a separate view concerning my personal training and my academic research. The training concerns what “works” and what doesn’t in a body to body conflict. It also concerns on how I’ll train in such a way that I protect my body and be able to continue to train at an even older age. Academic research is a totally different thing. It’s exclusively occupied with the historical facts and not with technique. So I have never mixed one with the other.
Correct, although emotional involvement with an art may possibly make a researcher want to hide facts that aren’t “convenient” with its genealogy, or just reading the facts with special “glasses” and filters, bringing them to his standards.
Dr.K.Z.: One of the basic principles of martial arts, the way I understand them, is above all honesty with our own self. When I train I want to learn the real thing. When I attack Ishizuka sensei I don’t fake it, but with the intent to really hit him. Only that way can I see if what he transmits to me is real or not. I ask the same from my students. So, since I behave like that in training it would be paradoxical of me not to do the same with historical matters, which concern the past. If I discover something which is different from what my master claims, I discuss it with him and after I form my final scientific opinion, whichever that may be, I write it down. When you do a research, you have to be ready to overthrow even the history of your style, or even to bring to light evidence that isn’t convenient for you. I’m always ready to do it and I indeed do it. If I did it any other way, how would my university teachers trust me enough to give me my PhD?
So, since you’re absolute on that, may I ask you a question concerning Ninjutsu’s historical validity. Mr. Dervenis, who was one of Ninjutsu’s pioneers in our country, claims that after studies he has made he has concluded that Ninja’s never existed and that this whole story is just a manufacturing of both Hatsumi sensei’s and the movies, for merchandising (commercial, business) purposes. As an academic, what is your opinion on this?
Dr.K.Z.: I know Mr. Dervenis’ claims very well. Firstly, I would like to say that he’s an exceptional (remarkable) person. I had met him in Japan many years ago, at a phase when I was completely out of money and desperate. Without even knowing me, he gave me 10.000 yen which was very valuable for me. Nevertheless, may I be allowed to mention that Mr. Dervenis firstly is not a historian and secondly he doesn’t speak Japanese. With all due respect towards him, my understanding on what he said is that it’s entirely wrong. I believe that his assessment is a result of fragmentary research and studies he has done from a few books written in English, while what he knows about Takamatsu sensei and Ninja history is just what he was told by Hatsumi sensei (what he wanted to tell him, to be precise), who of course had and still has his own reasons for all he says and does. Of course Mr. Dervenis didn’t have the chance to study the authentic ancient documents, as I have, so he naturally reached erroneous conclusions. Also, please let me estimate that Mr. Dervenis wrote what he wrote being urged by his personal bitterness and disappointment for the way Bujinkan has evolved through the years. I can understand and I don’t judge him for what he says. Nevertheless, to answer you a bit to the point, even though I think that one interview is not the right place for such a big subject, Ninjas’ existence has been proven via a multitude of ancient texts. In a 14th century chronicle, the “Nochi no Kagami”, there is an extensive reference on the warriors of the Iga and Koga provinces, the Iga-shu and the Koga-shu, who were specialized in sabotage attacks and espionage. All the names and techniques we find in that text is related to the Ninjas. Of course, when researching ancient documentation on the subject we don’t search to find the name “Ninja”, which was invented at around 1680, but for actions and techniques related to espionage and sabotage attacks, and they were completely different from what the samurai did and the way they operated. From then onward someone needs to research very deeply in order to find evidence, since of course any history of spies that moved in the dark isn’t something that could have been easily recorded. When doing an academic level research, we search to find different sources that cross-reference our subject, we check who every person claiming anything we read is as well as what his motives are in saying so, and we finally present all different opinions we find, thus letting the reader draw his conclusions. This is real research and not reading five-ten books and hastily providing arbitrary conclusions. Therefore I believe that Mr. Dervenis is wrong and, to whoever interested, I prove that completely in my book “The Ninja: Ancient Shadow Warriors of Japan” (by Tuttle).
You spoke before on the situation in the Bujinkan. It’s a common secret that the situation is not good. What’s your opinion?
Dr.K.Z.: The situation in the Bujinkan, and I’m not talking about Hatsumi sensei of course but about the organization, isn’t just not good but desperate. Many people come and go to Japan with the only purpose to buy grades, and while they can’t even move decently correct they claim that they possess the supreme killing art. But once they’re up against an MMA athlete for example, they are on the ground. Unfortunately, most Bujinkan teachers are only capable against their students and that’s not honorary at all. When you do martial arts you have to be able to face anyone. If you’re not able to do it, then you should at least be silent and continue training. To possess a high grade means nothing. Ever since martial arts were born, the grade of someone is what he can do in battle.
But, if the situation is so, who should take the responsibility if not the one leading the organization, meaning Hatsumi sensei?
Dr.K.Z.: Here we have two things. Firstly, as we said above indeed the situation in the Bujinkan is very bad, and for it the responsibilities can undoubtedly be shared and given in many directions. The second thing is that Hatsumi sensei from a technical, theoretical, philosophical and fighting/combat point of view is very very high and no one can doubt him in any way. Personally, I’ve never been interested in the organizational thing, the grades and the titles. It is something completely beyond me. My exclusive interest is in training and learning. Personally I have no grade at all. My grade is what you see on the tatami mats. You ask why this is all happening? How much of it is Hatsumi sensei’s fault or the insatiable thirst of western students for grades and diplomas that don’t correspond to reality? I really don’t know and I’m certainly not the one to judge him on the organizational aspect. Don’t forget that it’s always been like that in martial arts, even when they were inside the monasteries. Even Funakoshi sensei or Ueshiba sensei gave out belts for a price to people not deserving them or to people with power. There were and there always will be obvious reasons for that. However, even though you can buy a belt, it’s not the same with knowledge. You have to earn that. What I do know firsthand though, is that in the Bujinkan there is authentic and deep knowledge for anyone interested and willing to try hard for it. Anyone desiring just diplomas is out of my field of action and thought.
You talked before about the lack of fighting experience even from very highly ranked Ninjutsu teachers, who can’t stand in front of an MMA athlete. MMA people claim that it’s the lack of sparring responsible for that in your art. What do you think about that?
Dr.K.Z.: I disagree. I don’t mean that sparring doesn’t have its value. It teaches you a lot of things like distance, rhythm and timing and it also helps you check the validity of many techniques as well as your ability to do them. However, sparring is governed by rules where as real combat isn’t. Therefore sparring isn’t the panacea that will magically solve all problems. I believe that the problem in Ninjutsu (apart from the false grades of course) is that attacks are never made in reality, with full force and intent. Therefore the defenses are also loose and trainees never learn to work with correct speed and power. Also, practitioners don’t feel the need to learn the details of every move as well as correct body alignment, necessary ingredients for a technique becoming efficient, since all is done in cooperation and no one is in danger. Now you will say, if techniques were done that way, then we would have injured or even dead on the tatami. Correct. That is exactly the reason why real martial arts are finally aimed only for an elite group of dedicated people and not for everyone. From the moment of opening the doors to everyone, then a martial art has to be “diluted” and in that way loses its battle characteristics. Nevertheless, we can find the via media so that training can be realistic and at the same time have the least possible injuries. And that is the bet for someone who wants to work correctly.
Concluding our very interesting interview, I would like you to tell me what you consider most important in a person practicing martial arts.
Dr.K.Z.: Honesty concerning one’s intentions, seriousness and continuity concerning one’s training, and no “blindness”. If you discover along the way that something isn’t right either with your master, with your art or with you, don’t hesitate to admit it and to change it at once, even if the price for that would be to start over from the beginning.