Black Belt Magazine

Ethical Warrior - Black Belt Magazine, June 2011
Jack Hoban Interview by James Morganelli
(reprinted with permission)

Ethical Warrior - Black Belt

“That’s the way it used to be, man, I’m tellin’ ya.”

“It was much harder. He dislocated one guy's shoulder with it. He split another guy's head wide open, I mean wide open - whack-o! One guy got smashed and the other guy got smashed.”

The Marines Corps, late night fights at a cold war bar, and mentorship under two masters: one, the 34th generational grandmaster of the shadowy art of the Ninja, the other, a diplomat sage, who may just have discovered the meaning of life. Jack Hoban is reminiscing.

He’s recalling his own and various others’ Godan test, administered by the inscrutable Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi, 34th Soke of Togakure Ryu Ninjutsu and headmaster of Japan’s Bujinkan Dojo. Measuring courage and awareness, the test is a final exam before the rank of Shidoshi, teacher of the warrior ways. Taking the kneeling position Seiza, the master raises a sword behind every prospect. With killing intention, he cuts. In 1986, Jack was the second American to pass.

“The first time, it hit my arm. I moved out of the way and it hit my arm - skinned my arm. That was a fail in those days, so I had to take it twice. That’s the way it used to be man, I’m tellin’ ya – just about everybody failed in the old days.”

Jack is very much the big-brother type: popular, wise with council, but edgy too – he suffers no fools, he can’t, he’s out to save lives. A Subject Matter Expert for the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP), he actively trains Marines for what lies ahead.
MCMAP is not simply kicks and arm bars, it is infused with warrior values that shape the combat mindset for asymmetrical war.

“The combat mindset is the ability to maintain a professional frame of mind despite the physical and emotional stresses of war. Professionalism under fire can be developed through a combination of conscious ethical discipline and consistent physical training. Warrior ethics - moral protector values in action - are the “true north” that guide us through the debilitating physiological factors, stress, and emotions that typically assail Marines in the “fog of war.” The training kicks in and we do what needs to be done.”

Jack is on the path at 19 - he joins the Marines and winds up a series commander for drill instructors at MCRD San Diego. It’s 1980: Carter is president, Americans beat the Soviets in the Olympic ‘Miracle on Ice,’ the US severs relations with Iran for taking American hostages, The Empire Strikes Back comes out.

On base, Jack reads about Ninjutsu training and Stephen Hayes, the first American to pass the Godan test. Tracking down Hayes’ home listing, Jack calls him up, “And I was like, ‘is this for real?’ And he said, ‘yeah, this guy Hatsumi is for real.’” Still in the Marines, Jack finagles a trip across country to visit Hayes and start his training. In 1982, he meets Hatsumi at the first ‘Ninja Festival,’ the spark that ignites the ‘Ninja Boom.’

“I am not Japanese. I am U-F-O.”

“When I first met Hatsumi sensei, the thing that amazed me about him was how open minded he was. “I am not Japanese. I am U-F-O … He came to America and he’s wearing camouflage pants and t-shirts with us, and Marine Corps uniforms I gave him. We’re all sleeping on the floor in Steve’s house and eating Japanese food and Hatsumi is doing all kinds of cool stuff … “

The product of 15 years of apprenticeship under the legendary figure Toshitsugu Takamatsu, 33rd Soke and inheritor of the original secrets of Ninjutsu, Masaaki Hatsumi now brings those teachings out of obscurity.

“(Hatsumi said) Ninjutsu is escape rather than kill, take shame, take embarrassment, take anything rather than kill if you can; hone your ability to escape, rather than kill. Sensei said that’s the epitome of martial arts – I’m paraphrasing here. More important than anything else is protect your psyche in case you have to kill to protect life. And that’s why you have to have the clarification of the ethic as the premise behind your training. I don’t think it’s there clearly enough. Sensei said it. But people think of it as some floating in outer space philosophical mumbo jumbo.”

Jack doesn’t recognize the gravity of Hatsumi’s words right away. It will take another mentor, an aging Marine, to teach a young Jack Hoban how to understand them.

“So, you’re a Marine, I guess?”

On base, Jack is working 9-to-5, but his nights are the Red Garter, a local dive where Marines, Navy men, bikers, and Soviet spies mix in uneasy balance, “The place was unbelievable; it was like the Star Wars bar.” The 1980s Cold War scrum plays out at ocean depths between Soviet and American submarines and dauntlessly at the Garter, where Sailors are wooed for intel on fleet movement by shapely Soviet ‘honey traps.’ At 25, Jack is an ill-tempered fighting machine, habitually ‘killing’ everyone in his head with martial fantasies, before he can even sit down, relax, and have a beer at his favorite bar. “I was such a macho hard ass, you have no idea. Marines, training in martial arts, I think I’m a ninja, and I’ve done all kinds of … nonsense. Stuff I don’t want printed. What it had turned me into was a very hard, harsh person.” Jack channels his aggression into an MBA, setting his sights on the business world. A required course is “Cross Cultural Conflict Resolution in Business” - it changes his life.

“So, you’re a Marine, I guess?” the old professor says looking at his haircut – it’s the first day of class and Jack is already bored; this tweed jacket, elbow patches old man is wasting his time with chit chat. ‘What gave it away, Pops?’ an insolent Jack thinks. “I was a Marine too. A rifle platoon commander on Iwo Jima.” Every Marine is well schooled on the bloodiest battle in the 200-year history of the Corps - the 35 days to capture the island of Iwo Jima from Japan during World War II; 22,000 Japanese soldiers killed, 216 taken prisoner, nearly 7000 Marine deaths, with countless more wounded. Jack has a sudden new-found respect for tweed jackets.

The professor is Robert Humphrey, who’s flown around the world engaging in classified ideological warfare to combat communism at the height of the cold war. He’s settled unrest from host-nationals in dozens of hotspots, ensured NATO missile defense bases in Asia minor, and lectured and counseled hundreds of thousands of overseas US troops, turning the tide of culture-shocked ugly-Americanism.

“When I first met him he looked like a typical, aging college professor. Little did I know he was one of the toughest men I would ever meet. A professional boxer in the 30s and 40s and a rifle platoon commander on Iwo Jima, who, among other things, killed a Japanese soldier up close with a rifle butt stroke – he said it was instinctive, just like his boxing uppercut.”

Jack begins a 17-year apprenticeship with the diplomat sage. But Jack is one tough nut - too tough, it seems, even for the cold war warrior, “When I knew (Humphrey) in San Diego, he was starting to get irritated by me, I could tell.” Humphrey asks Jack for a favor - the next time he carouses at the Red Garter, instead of arriving and ‘mentally killing’ the patrons, think instead this one thought: “Everyone is a little bit safer because I’m here.”

A lifelong student of human nature, Humphrey plumbs its depths for solutions to conflict. After years of field work, he thinks he’s discovered it – a theory he calls the ‘Dual-Life Value,’ a ‘self and species’ concept highlighting the value we place on our life and the lives of those we love, and compels us to empathize the same with others, no matter who they are. This common sense thinking is decoded from downtrodden foreign nationals, who ask only one thing of American forces stationed in their lands – “treat us as equals.”

“Humphrey said it would take martial artists to turn our relativistic and selfish society around – they understand the physical-moral approach to conflict resolution. There are plenty of moral people, but they often lack the physical courage and skills to act. It can be scary and dangerous to be ethical, but ethics are moral values in action. There are adept people out there, like boxers and martial artists, but they can get confused, thinking martial arts are for them - their self defense, their ego, their competitive urges. This is unbalanced. Warrior skills are for self, but also for others. True martial artists understand the right balance, and as a result, can be protectors and the grassroots moral leaders in society.”

Humphrey’s understanding of the human condition is so vast, he impresses even Hatsumi, who bestows on him an honorary 10th degree black belt, one of the highest levels of mastery. In fact, on the wall of the Bujinkan’s Hombu Dojo in Japan is a photo of Humphrey and his “Warrior Creed”: “Wherever I walk, everyone is safer. Wherever I am, anyone in need has a friend. Whenever I return home, everyone is happy I am there. It’s a better life!”

“…Moving in a way that wins the fight.”

“After 30 years, training is pretty much the same feeling today, although Hatsumi Sensei is more adept and has a more philosophical approach, as befitting his age and experience. It’s natural to follow his lead, as he is the Soke, but I think it’s also important to train in a way that’s consistent with your own age and experience. There’s a saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin that I like, “There is much difference between imitating a man and counterfeiting him.”

‘Ethics, tactics, techniques’ is one of Jack’s mantras, whether training Marines or his own students. With a sound ethical base, Jack says it’s the tactics that give rise to opportunities to use techniques.

“ I would consider tactics to be moving in a way that wins the fight; a combination of experience and awareness … everything from the high ground to your fingernails and all the weapons and spaces and distancing and timing and strategies … (Knowing) environmental concerns: how many people, where are you, what’s the atmosphere, what’s the temperature, what’s the weaponry involved, and then of course, the five elements – strategies - earth, water, fire, wind, void – Godai.”

Jack’s weekly workouts and training sessions somehow don’t seem to fit the average 55- year-old.

“I practice the basics – sanshin no kata, kihon happo with henka – variations - the various waza from the densho. I practice with weapons. And I do conditioning exercises. I don’t do the same thing every day. But over the course of a week I typically fit in a few runs - 45 minutes to an hour. I lift weights, I do a lot of core training, and I do various calisthenics. In the winter, I use the gym for the rowing machine, treadmill and elliptical. In the summer, I swim in the ocean almost every day. I also practice martial arts daily by myself and have a class between 2 and 5 times a week.”

Jack’s four volume DVD set, “Art of the Ninja,” done several years ago, is still available as a good introduction to the art. But by far the most important thing to Jack is clarification of the warrior ethic.

“Totally anti-intuitive, but a better life.”

“The most important thing about martial arts is to clarify your moral perspective. The Jesuits might call it the “non-negotiable.” This perspective for me is that Life is sacred and should be protected. Whose life? Self and others. Which others? All others. As warriors we act in defense of self and others, all others. That means that there is a strong and inescapable physical component to the training. When I met Hatsumi Sensei one of the very first things he said was that the purpose of martial arts was “to live.” We are used to hearing that all of the time now, but it was a revelation back then.”

Why is this moral clarification so important?

“The fact is war and killing is so abhorrent to normal humans it’s inherently damaging to virtually everyone who participates. In fact, it could be said that it would be unnatural if people—even Marines—didn’t get some degree of PTSD from exposure to killing, even if it’s “sanctioned” or “justified.” That’s why we are careful to include ethical training, clarification and re-calibration in our Warrior training – both in the Buyῡ, but also in my work with the Marines. Ethical Warrior training, done well, provides a physical outlet for stress, activates respect for all life, including the enemy's, and functions as a “rite of purification” if our skills are ever needed to kill to protect life.”

How do you define a warrior?

“A warrior is supposed to protect people at the risk of his own life, but what they do that (others do not) is kill to protect life; this oxymoronic thing that actually undermines this feeling of nobility from defending others. Yes, I did protect others. Yes, I did protect life, but I had to take life in order to do it. This is an added burden. They almost cancel each other out. And that’s why people get sick from it. And they’ll surely get sick if they do it from the wrong mental perspective, out of anger or fear or prejudice or disrespect or dehumanization – you’ll get real sick. But even if you don’t, it’s very, very difficult. And that’s why a warrior to me is the epitome of human endeavor because even though they protect life they may have to take it which is almost … so dangerous to you … that it can’t be overlooked.”

Is that why proper training is so crucial?

“If you train to be a warrior and you don’t train correctly, you give yourself PTSD without firing a shot. You can see how a lot of people get into warriorship and become violent and unhappy people and they’ve never even been in a war. This is all because they approach it incorrectly. And that’s why a lot of it gets watered down. A lot of martial arts get watered down – they don’t understand this aspect of it.”

Any training advice?

“The bottom line is just ‘keep going,’ man, keep training and do it with humor, realize that everybody is not gonna get this. This could be a millennium before we reach a tipping point where we stop killing each other or we figure out what to do with people who don’t have the Life Value and want to kill and disrespect others. We’re not gonna see it in our lifetime. But we can have a great deal of serenity if we see it with clarity and humor and patience and do our best to enjoy our time here. And we’ll have a great time because we’ll find other people who are like this and they’ll be more fun to hang out with instead of arguing with and convince the people who are not ready to get it.”

How do you see your role in the art?

“So much of this is luck of the draw. The best warriors often get killed because they’re in the front by themselves leading. Or they sacrifice themselves so that others could - less confident people could live. How’s that for anti-Darwinism right there? The strong die to protect the weak. What happened to me has been largely a function of luck. I mean I was just one of the first guys so a lot of people know me. That’s it. I mean, am I the best tactician out there? Do I know the most? I don’t know. I think that’s all debatable. Who’s the best guitarist? Everybody’s got an opinion.”

What’s been you own biggest lesson?

“I had gotten in my head that martial arts was for defending myself and killing bad guys. That’s what I had in my head when I first started. And I came out of it realizing that martial arts was not about killing people, it was about defending others. Which others? All others. Totally anti-intuitive, but a better life.”

James Morganelli has studied martial arts for 30 years. He lived in Japan training under Masaaki Hatsumi and his Shihan for three years. He lives in Chicago with his fiancé, teaches through his Bujinkan Shingitai-Ichi Dojo, and writes a training blog called KOSSHI. Contact James at:

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