When I first left for Japan in search of the ninja 40 years ago, it was by no means a happy or triumphant thing. I had a small karate school, and I was not happy with where American karate was headed. It was the early 1970s, and big hair, gold chains, monstrous egos, and cocaine were taking over. But the public did not care, it seemed, and I struggled to make a living.
When I left, I knew I would not be coming back the same. Nobody was interested in the ninja, with their historical significance, street survival as opposed to contest ring winning, and the overwhelming Japanese-ness of their cultural heritage. But it was something I had to do for myself. I had to find them. I was alone in a world that was incredulous at my single-pointed desire to find the ninja and join them. I took all sorts of ribbing and kidding from my kick boxer buddies, but I left for Japan.
40 years later I am being honored with the Martial Arts Industry Association Lifetime Achievement Award this July in Las Vegas. MAIA picks one martial artist per year to receive the award, and they have picked me for this year.
This says a lot about what we have built. In the 40 years that have passed, I went from confusing obscurity to being the most talked about name in the martial arts of the 1980s. Then came the 1990s Brazilian Jujutsu craze, and I was seemingly forgotten.
But in the background I continued to grow and explore. I took the historical ninja martial art and adapted it to Western situations and threats. We kept the philosophy and basis of physical action, but radically updated the emphasis on what happens in a 21st Century confrontation. This returned me to my 1970s questing for a realistic street art as opposed to the more popular ring fighting. But now I had years of experience that I had lacked in the beginning of my quest.
I have a lot of friends now, too. People who have seen what we stand for and who have linked their future with ours. From the three Shihan down to our newest members, we have all agreed to pursue our unique martial art with commitment, enthusiasm, dignity, and humility.
I use that word humility carefully. I am to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award, but it really is only possible because of what we have built. We may be small; but we are a force to be acknowledged. We are a martial legacy that thrives on curiosity, open mindedness, enjoyment of tradition and demand for modernity, respect for our elders and care for our juniors, and honesty. I am honored to receive “our” award this summer.