Shinnenjutsu (part 1)

心念術 (shinnenjutsu: controlling your opponent's perceptions)

Also translated as intention technique, mind reading, mind control, and manipulation of another’s thoughts or perceptions, this concept lies at the heart of Budo Taijutsu.

Over the years Hatsumi Sensei has used different “themes” related to a particular school of the Bujinkan to illustrate or point to the essence of Budo. Similar to having many different people describe a particular object, Sensei’s use of these themes, and the interpretations of them, to give us many different viewpoints from which to gain an understanding of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu. There seems to be a common thread to all of these themes, that is, the manipulation of truth and falsehood in what our opponent perceives. This seems fairly obvious on the surface, but there are many differing opinions as to what that means. I offer my own opinion; based on my search for a scientific, replicable explanation for the “magic” that Hatsumi Sensei is able to do. By no means am I claiming to have “the secret” to Budo Taijutsu, but the subject matter in this article has gone a long way to my understanding, and replicating, the abilities that Sensei demonstrates. I reserve the right to change my mind at any time as new and better information comes along that allows for a more complete understanding of Sensei’s art.

Part 1: Visual Perception

Sensei is always saying that Budo is not about being strong or weak, fast or slow, it’s about taking the shape of the attack and then manipulating what our opponents believe to be happening – shinnenjutsu. Now, there are many different ways of looking at this concept, for instance, there could actually be some kind of force that exists that can be transmitted from one mind to another, however, as far as I know we don’t have the tools to measure such a thing in a tangible, repeatable way that can be systematically taught. So what I want to concentrate on is the magic that IS available to us, the things that we can physically do with our bodies in training? Therefore, we will look at shinnenjutsu through the idea of controlling your opponent’s perceptions, focusing on the 2 primary areas of perception related to movement:

Visual Perception and Proprioception (perception of body position).

Because of the size and depth of the information, I will cover these two areas in two different articles. This article will cover the first of the two:

Visual Perception:

The human eye sees Motion first, Shape second, and Color third. Generally speaking, what this means is that, as you become aware of something, it’s motion (relative to your position) is perceived first, followed by the shape of the thing that moved, and after, by more fine detail, such as color or texture. How does this affect us in terms of our taijutsu? As we will see below, it’s really the first two that concern us.

1. Motion

If the eye sees movement first, then that means your opponents body will react to any sudden or big movement on your part. So, our goal, in order to control our opponents mind, is to move as little and as slowly as possible. How do we do this effectively?

Of primary concern is your distance. Hatsumi Sensei calls Budo Taijutsu the Martial Arts of Distance for good reason. Let’s use Muto Dori as an example. When performing muto dori, Sensei tells us to put our head in a place that is easy to cut, while moving our feet to a position that cannot be cut. What does this mean? To begin with, you must be at the edge of your opponent’s effective striking range, meaning that he can’t strike you without stepping. Your distance should be such that, as he steps forward to deliver a strike, you have sufficient distance to simultaneously step back out of his reach, but just barely! (Sensei says the difference between being too close and being too far is the thickness of a piece of paper!)

If you practice this concept the way that Hatsumi sensei demonstrates it, you will find that moving your feet actually pulls your head back out of reach of your opponent. The effect on your opponent occurs when he attacks you, because, as far as he can visually perceive, you have not obviously moved your head, so he will believe he has succeeded in his goal of hitting you – his mind, through his visual perception, still believes your head is in the same place (shinnenjutsu). This will cause him to continue with his (now obsolete) attack, giving you the opportunity to affect him from a safe vantage point.

The opposite of this is: beginning your motion by moving your head first, an instinctive movement based on the flinch reflex, which can be trained out of our habitual movement through Progressive Impact Training. (This training protocol is simple, but will be left for another article.)

Moving the head first gives our opponent all the information he needs to correct his attack “on-the-fly” (as he is attacking). This is because of our dominant ability to perceive motion and correctly triangulate the destination of a moving body (movement first!). (Not to mention that pulling your head out of alignment with your shoulders and hips makes you open for the inevitable follow-up attack, since you will be momentarily “stuck” in place as you struggle to regain your center of balance in order to move again!)

The next component we must consider in order to control our opponent’s visual perception is:

2. Silhouette (Shape)

Remember, the second thing the human eye perceives is silhouette (shape). This relates to our position relative to our attacker. Predominantly, we want to be “squared-off” or torso face-forward to our attacker. If you have trained with Sensei at all, or even watched his videos, you will have noticed that he uses the “shizen kamae” where he is face-forward to his opponents 99% of the time. This is not because he is old or lazy! One of the main reasons is this: when trying to control your attacker’s perceptions we want to give him a target, while at the same time being able to move in any direction. If you are squared-off, and at the correct primary distance, there will be a triangle created with your forehead and shoulders, your attacker’s brain (visual perception) will focus on this triangle, whether he does so consciously or unconsciously. (The head and upper torso are where we gain the bulk of our visual information in a fight situation.) As he is tracking this “triangle” , you should be moving with your feet, he will not be aware of how the rest of your body has shifted to take control of the kukan. Nearly everyone knows about the narrowing of focus (tunnel-vision) that occurs in high-stress situations, we can use this to our advantage by showing him what we want him to see (visual perception).

Turning your body completely side-on to your attacker presents a smaller target, very useful if he is shooting arrows or throwing spears at you and you are in formation with many other soldiers, but less useful if you want to hide the direction you will be moving to next. When you are side-on, you have allowed your opponent to “cross your T” as they say in the military, meaning that he is able to get all his weapons on you, but you can only present one side (half, or less, of your weapons) to him. We must remember that people almost never throw only a single attack, and when you turn so far as to be side-on, you will be open for that next attack. So, be squared-off, presenting a target your opponent feels he can easily reach. Because you are in this position, you have the mobility to move in any direction. Also, since your face–forward position creates a larger silhouette, as you counter-attack, bringing your weapons toward him from your centerline (tight, controlled attacks…not wild, swinging arcs that are easy to discern and prepare for), he will find it very difficult to perceive what the counter-attack is until too late.

(Keep this in mind: when I say things like “be squared-off”, I do not mean perfectly, or at all times! Remember, these are rules-of-thumb; as such there will always be exceptions to the rule. For instance: when slipping forward alongside the blade in muto dori, you will of necessity turn side-on to your opponent – but only for a brief moment, then you are back to squared-off. The important thing is that you can perform the rules-of-thumb at will, and then it will be your choice to move differently, not forced upon you because you can’t do anything else!)

So, in order to take control of your opponent’s visual perception, in effect, controlling his mind (Shinnenjutsu):

• Use a kamae that allows for you to bring all your weapons to bear on your opponent (torso squared-off).
• Move with your feet first, allowing your head to be pulled or pushed in the direction you want.
• Move as little and as slowly as possible.

These two pieces, movement and silhouette, are really just the beginning. Obviously there is much more to the subject of visual perception than I can address in a short article, things like:

• 1 body motion, 2 steps
• Move Down, then Over
• Leave your Head in place, move your body
and many other principles of Budo Taijutsu.

Not to mention studying the ever-changing theories about how the eye/mind connection function. It’s also true that you can’t begin to truly understand this kind of thing without sufficient training under someone qualified to teach it to you. There is so much more depth to understanding the movement that I have described above.

While many people may already have a good grasp on the importance of controlling our opponent’s visual perception, it is the second area, that of Proprioception, that has been overlooked, yet holds the key to some of the greatest “magic” in Hatsumi Sensei’s budo.

In the next article I will introduce you to the ideas of Proprioceptive Dysfunction and Proprioceptive Dissonance.

If you have any questions or want to contact me please go to:

Rob Renner
August, 2007