Too Many Jonin in the Kitchen (Warning: Rant)

In the Togakure-ryu Ninjutsu martial lineage I study, there were traditionally three levels of actual “ninja”: field operatives (the agents on the ground who actually carried out missions) were known as genin, middle-level cut-outs (the handlers who conveyed orders from the top-level to the field agents) were called chunin, and the master strategists who saw the big picture were known as jonin.  This three-tiered system was used for several reasons.  From a security standpoint, it was essential that there be cut-outs between field operatives (usually the most at-risk personnel for capture) and the leaders in charge of overseeing large-scale operations (terrorist cells routinely use this method as well).  But from another perspective, this three-tiered system was used for a very simple reason: not everyone is cut-out to be a leader – especially a leader who might well be sending operatives out to potentially die in the name of the mission or the security of the grander family.

Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with a lot of people.  A lot of folks want to believe that they have what it takes to lead; that they have the determination and know-how combined with the ability to see things on a grander scale that would make them leadership material.  But leadership isn’t necessarily something to crave.  And more often than not, the very best leaders are those who have found the mantle thrust upon them, rather than aspiring to assume it.  Cincinnatus, the famed Roman leader was a former aristocrat forced to live as a farmer who answered the call when his nation needed him most.  Once his duty was done, he returned to farming – completely abdicating absolute power and authority for a much humbler existence.  Desiring to be a leader and all that it entails is a very serious decision, not to be undertaken lightly by anyone.

Nowadays, we don’t necessarily have active ninjutsu intelligence networks, but the concept remains very similar with regards to progression through ranks.

When I started my training about twenty years back, certain things were expected of an enthusiast – especially one aspiring to be accepted by what was a very close-knit group of hardcore practitioners.  You were expected to show up and train – hard – as much as possible.  Three times a week for several hours of training per session was the norm (we would have all trained more if we’d had a dedicated training space, but we took what we could get).  Ranks were doled out sparingly.  You had to prove that you not only knew the material for each rank, but that you knew how to use it, while simultaneously understanding that the rank was merely a waypoint, merely one means of gauging aptitude.  And true mastery was an elusive goal far off decades in the future, possibly not even attainable in this lifetime.  In other words, the journey itself was the reward – not the embroidered black belt hovering on the fringes of one’s dreams.  We all knew that a belt or a rank didn’t mean squat if we couldn’t use the techniques when it mattered on the street or elsewhere in our lives.

I don’t point to the past and say, “I wish it was like that still.”  Far from it.  It is the nature of life that things evolve.  And it’s foolish to desire for things to be the way they once were – especially for a ninjutsu practitioner who is supposed to understand, perhaps more than most, the role of nature’s unfolding dynamic within the universe.  Ninjutsu practitioners are supposed to evolve as their environment changes.  We adapt.  And we prosper no matter the circumstance, no matter the obstacles or challenges.  Our training prepares us to anticipate surprise, expect the unseen, and persevere in order to succeed.

That said, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately.  The same sense of ridiculous entitlement that pervades a great deal of modern society, now seems to be infecting the ranks of an art I hold dear.  It’s become commonplace for a practitioner to gain a black belt and immediately think they are now worthy of becoming a jonin of their training group, or even a full dojo.  Gone is the humility that should accompany any worthy leader, replaced by this sense that they know better than those who have gone before them.  Gone is the heavy burden of responsibility that any true teacher shoulders, understanding as they do that their actions, speech, and even thoughts can adversely affect the lives of those who look up to them.

Instead, many of those who gain rank now immediately set out to prove their worth and value by setting up shop and proclaiming themselves master.  Their sole estimation of personal worth is measured by how many students they can mislead – whether through malicious intent or blind ignorance of their inability and an ego that masks a tremendous sense of insecurity.  They know longer view themselves as warriors on a path toward personal betterment.  They are “masters” who know it all.

In reality, they are deluded.  At best.  At worst, they are dangerous.  Any type of leadership role carries with it the potential to do untold harm toward those who look up at you.  In this case, a supposed teacher who has not taken the time to continue his own training and clean out his own reservoir of insecurity, becomes a destructive force to the fragile student blindly seeking knowledge from what they believe is a qualified source.

In New England, my teacher Mark Davis at The Boston Martial Arts Center is the most qualified teacher and source for Ninjutsu.  Mark has been studying for three decades both here in the US and abroad in Japan, has never stopped studying, and is the epitome of what a teacher should be.  He works to perfect himself while making sure his students have what they need to become potentially even better practitioners than he is.  When I met Mark, I’d come from a tradition where we addressed the teacher as “sensei.”  Mark insists we call him Mark.  It’s not some silly thing to be casually dismissed, but a reminder that Mark is still on the path with us, not lording over us from some exalted position on high.  He may be further along and have had countless experiences we have not yet had, but he is still learning, still working, still training, and he sees the big picture.  In short, he’s a true jonin.  (Mark will no doubt deny this and I will simply say that denial only reinforces my point, lol)

Aside from Mark, there is Ken Savage at The Winchendon Martial Arts Center who is Mark’s seniormost student, a fantastic teacher and jonin in his own right, and a person I’m proud to call one of my most-trusted friends.  Ken reflects all of the good things I mentioned above.  His own dojo has been a long time coming; Ken took his time setting things up because he wanted to do it properly.  There’s a lot I’m deliberately leaving unsaid in that comment because I hope some of the folks who will read this actually re-read that simple statement and reflect on whether they’ve done things properly..

I have two other friends and fellow practitioners I would send people to train with.  In Paul Etherington’s case, he doesn’t yet have his own dojo.  But Paul embodies that same virtues that Mark and Ken do.  He’s a phenomenal practitioner and he was the first person I trained with in this art.  Paul teaches at Mark’s school in Boston and his classes are incredible.  Dennis Mahoney is another friend who runs Shinobi Martial Arts in Plaistow, New Hampshire.  Dennis has been around for years and still makes the commute into Boston most Friday nights for advanced training – he’s not complacent and understands that his role of teacher demands that he continue to improve his technique.

That’s it.

(For the astute, you’ll get what I’m saying here.  You can stop reading now.)

For those in need of the blunt:  If you’re training with someone else in New England, you are not getting what you need as a practitioner.  And the fact is, there shouldn’t even be another school or training group operating at this point.  Why?  Because there’s no one else qualified to teach.  Doesn’t matter if they’re a first degree black belt or a fifth.  The four people mentioned above are it.  And anyone operating a group or dojo should haul their butts back to Boston and make sure their own stuff is sorted before they go traipsing about proclaiming themselves “teacher” or “jonin” or whatever other label they want to throw around.  Right now, there are supposed teachers telling people they should be black belts when they are not remotely qualified to make that sort of proclamation.  The people they’re telling these things to then get upset and wonder why they haven’t been promoted.  This is an example of someone who shouldn’t be teaching (but thinks they are qualified) virtually destroying a practitioner’s life.  And rather than accept responsibility for it, they back away and hide.  It’s a horrible development and it only underscores the simple fact that there are too many people wanting to be jonin when they’re barely able to function as genin.  So get your shit straight, drop the plans to launch your DVD series, and get your ass back into the dojo in Boston so you can learn from the source: Mark Davis. 

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  • Merle December 15, 2009  

    Very well said…love the section for those in need of bluntness!

  • mystiquetur December 15, 2009  

    I agree with you 100%. There are so many people out there who think they are master of something and still have TONS to learn.

  • Fiona (McDroll) December 15, 2009  

    Jon, I totally support what you are saying. Although I know nothing of your world of martial arts, I am increasingly experiencing a similar pattern in education. I have been a Head Teacher for 21 years. Everyday I continue to learn. I always strive to do better so that my students get the very best education that I can offer. I have dedicated my adult life to this task. I take my position in my local community very seriously and have worked hard through thick and thin to ensure that the local youngsters get a quality education. I could have walked away at several points in the last 20 years as I have had offers and opportunities to go further with my career. But I have chosen to stay put and serve this community. Now, sadly, newly appointed head teachers can’t seem to wait to climb the greasy pole. They are no sooner in post than they have been seconded out, usually to go around schools and advise others. How can somebody who has only been a head teacher for 2 years have enough experience to advise others. Why don’t they take their role in their local community seriously?

    Well…your rant has led to mine……sigh!! Good to know that I’m not alone!!

  • Jonathan December 15, 2009  

    Jon your philosophy is so refreshing and this is by no means a rant but more a wake up call to the Martial Arts world as a whole.

    I was a Judo practicioner who migrated to Hapkido and my Sensei has retired. Now I am looking for a new teacher. This is something for me to keep in mind. Thanks for helping me clarify my thoughts.

  • jonfmerz December 15, 2009  

    Thanks everyone!

    Fiona – so true! And you’re never alone on the Internet! 😉

    Jonathan – good point, my friend! If you’re in Boston I can probably point you to a few good teachers!

  • Dave Maciver December 15, 2009  

    True dat. I take Wolverine as my teacher, no point in stopping until your the best there is at what you do. So there’ll always be something to learn. The only time you stop learning is when you stop breathing and a lot of people forget that.

    I could go on a GIANT rant about the way the world is going, but I’m fighting rants about “darned kids” cause I’m not old enough to do that yet dammit!

  • Petya March 31, 2010  


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