On Translating Bujinkan Works

by Scott Robbins


This began as a short essay that grew in the writing. After it was completed, several people kindly gave their input. If I begin to name the ones who aren't mentioned in the article, I'm sure I'll leave someone out, so hopefully all of you who helped with this will recognize their contributions and be satisfied with a general thank you. All mistakes, of course, are my own.
As there are various ways to write Japanese words in English, it might be worth explaining a few points. Most of the readers will be English speakers, and for their ease of reading I tend to copy the way a word would be written in hiragana. Therefore, if a long o is written in hiragana as ou I will do the same. "Ou" in a Japanese word should be pronounced, therefore, as a long o.
Conversely, the city of Oosaka for example, would be written in hiragana with two o's and again, I will simply imitate that. "Oo" should also be pronounced as a long o. However, words like ryuu and gyaku will simply be written as "ry", "gy" etc. In hiragana, the word gyaku would actually be written as a "Gi" and small "ya".
Proper names such as Bujinkan and names of various ryuuha are capitalized. Names of techniques and stances are not. Japanese words are put into italics, with the exception of Hatsumi Sensei,Takamatsu Sensei, and the word "kanji". Single syllables that are not words in themselves are put in quotes. Hopefully I will be consistent throughout this essay--please let me know any that I miss, at scottro11 [at] gmail. Ah well, I believe it was Emerson who said something like foolish consistencies are the hobgoblins of little minds--in other words, don't worry too much about it. Enough of this introduction and on to the main essay.

Every discipline has its own specialized vocabulary and the Bujinkan is no different. However, there are several difficulties confronting one who tries to translate Hatsumi Sensei's writings. Expertise in the Japanese language, even to the point of being a native speaker is no guarantee of perfection in translating.

As an example, consider a native English speaker who knows nothing about baseball. He doesn't even know that the term to "strike out" means missing the ball three times and making an out. Now, someone who doesn't speak the language that well, but knows baseball will realize what a strikeout is. However, our native speaker, when asked, might think, well, a strike means a hit and out means out so it's probably when the batter hits the ball out of the park.

There are terms that are unique to the Bujinkan , and by extension, the other x-kans and those that are every day words used in a different sense. For example amado.

The character on the left means rain and in this case is read ama. The character on the right means door and in this word is read, do This is an everyday Japanese word meaning window shutter. However, in the Bujinkan it refers to a pressure point toward the base of the neck. Whether these terms reflect a Chinese origin, as that language often seems to use flowery terms for body parts, or was a method to keep the teachings secret, I leave to those who know history better than I do.

In contrast, there is also the problem of taking a word as meaning more than it should. The characters to the left are read Takagiyoushin. This is the name of one of the ryuuhas of the Bujinkan . The first kanji means high, the second, tree, and read asTakagi. You means raised and shin means heart or spirit and was a juujutsu school in the time of the Tokugawas (and is listed as such in a large general usage Japanese dictionary.) Therefore, does one translate this as High Tree Raised Heart School, or Takagi's Raised Heart School, or simply Takagi's Youshin school? Takagi, although in these days, probably more of a place name, was the name of the person who, according to oral legend at least, systemized the ryuuha. I have sometimes seen it translated as raise your heart to the trees or some such, which is putting extra meaning into what was simply a person's name. It would be analogous to taking Smith's karate school and calling it the school of metal working empty hand.
Of course, to further complicate matters, the youshin that is shown in a general use dictionary is written with different kanji shown at left. That you means willow. It's another fairly subtle difference--the left side of the you is written with kihen instead of tehen. Again, I don't know if this was an accident, a pun--perhaps by the founder, perhaps Takamatsu Sensei, or Hatsumi Sensei--or the founder's effort to show it was a different school than the more well known one. Of course, it might have been total coincidence as well, people choosing an identical name and writing it differently. Considering how easy it is for we in modern days, with computers and spell checkers to make errors, it's surprising that such differences don't happen more often. Perhaps, it was only transmitted orally, and the one who eventually had to write it down had to simply guess at the kanji.

Whereas Japanese uses phonetic script interspersed with ideo and pictographs Chinese only uses these ideo and pictographs. Therefore, Chinese usually have a greater knowledge of kanji . Sometimes something that seems mysterious to one who knows the Japanese language is simple to one versed in Chinese. Again, I have no idea if this is because of the antiquity of the art, an effort to keep the techniques secret or simply a result of Takamatsu Sensei's having spent time in China. Even if there were no Chinese influence, in olden times it was fairly trendy to write in Chinese, so if the art is as old as we believe, whether or not it was imported from China or indigenous to Japan, the use of Chinese terms unfamiliar to most modern day Japanese is not surprising. Another point is that many kanji were simplified or dropped by the Japanese government after World War II. Takamatsu Sensei, of course, would have grown up with the older forms of the kanji ; Hatsumi Sensei would have been exposed to them as well, at least through grammar school. Additionally, he would have learned most of the specialty words from Takamatsu Sensei.


The characters at the left are read musoudori, referring to a fairly basic arm bar technique. The first character is mu, meaning negation or nothingness. The second character sou means a pair or a set. The third character to is the root of the verb toru to catch or capture and the final one is a phonetic ending "ri". Now looking at this, my guess was that perhaps it means unsurpassable or unable to be duplicated. A Japanese friend well educated, and in addition very knowledgeable in Yagyu Shinkage Ryuu was also unable to give a better definition. However, a Chinese friend looked and said, oh, undefeatable. To him, it wasn't at all mysterious.

Another difficulty is Hatsumi Sensei's love of puns. Ben Jones in his little jewel of a pamphlet Bufuu Ikkan (which I would strongly recommend, especially to those with an interest in translating Bujinkan works) mentions how when he looked at his rank certificate, he noticed that in the listing of the nine ryuuha the ryuu of Koto Ryuu was written as ryuu meaning dragon.. All the other ryuuha names were written with the standard kanji meaning school. The two kanji are shown below--the one on the left is dragon the one on the right is the one meaning school.

When Ben mentioned it to Hatsumi Sensei, he was told that Sensei had been waiting for someone to notice that. It isn't surprising, actually, that no native speakers had noticed it. The eye sees what it expects to see, and a non-native speaker would probably be more sensitive to the change.

"The sea was in his blood; his grandfather and father had both graduated from the Navel Academy with honors." Did you catch that Navel was spelled as in bellybutton? There's a good chance that you didn't. Your eye sees what it expects to see.

The image on left is the way the houko of houko no kamae is written in Hiden Ninja Submission. The left character, Hou, means grasp and the one on the right, ko, means tiger. In Ben's pamphlet, written about 9 years ago, I believe, he writes it with a different ko, that is usually read as kou, meaning arrest or detain. That kanji is shown below

I asked Ben about this. He said that rather than a linear progression, he suspected that sometimes Sensei uses one rendering, sometimes another. He also commented that Sensei sometimes playfully changes the readings of a kanji--for example, the way Ben wrote the ko of houko with a kanji that is always read as kou rather than ko. Nowadays houko seems to usually be written and shown in the videos with a very unusual kanji for ko. It is a kanji usually read as i, meaning to surround or enclose. Someone unfamiliar with the Bujinkan would probably read it as houi. It is shown below--note that in all three renderings, the hou kanji remains the same.

Lastly, sometimes one wonders if Sensei deliberately made a pun or if a publisher sometimes made an error, Sensei sees it and thinks, oh that's fine too. For example, look at the two below.

Note the first part of the first kanji. There is a very slight difference. To those versed in the language, they will realize that the kanji on left begins with kemono hen, and the one on the right with tehen. On page 48 of Sensei's hanbou book, every native speaker I have shown the book to read the heading as omotegyaku hasamidori. This includes a yondan in the Bujinkan. (The first two characters of the heading in the book read omotegyaku--I have not reproduced them here.) Hasamu means to pinch, trap, insert, etc. Again, it is a matter of the eye seeing what it expects to see. The second character is a phonetic one, reading "mi". As a rule, though one that is often broken, when phonetic characters are used, the kanji is read with its kunyomi, [Japanese reading as opposed to onyomi or Chinese reading]. Therefore, the one on the right would be read as hasami dori.

However--the character on the right is NOT what appears in the book. It is the one on the left. That first character has the kunyomi of sema with an "i" added in phonetic hiragana. Semai means narrow or cramped. As the wrist is trapped between hanbou and tori's arm, both could make sense. A shidoshi friend has told me that the technique is known as kyoumi dori. Both characters have the onyomi of kyou. However, it is a bit unusual to use the onyomi with the phonetic "mi". It may be a clever pun that simply stemmed from a publisher's error.

There is also the case of the kanji that is unrecognizable. The kanji to the left is shown in Sensei's books as ihen, as in ihen no kamae. The first two characters together are read as i. However, I've yet to meet someone outside of the Bujinkan who recognizes this kanji or can read it. I created it by making the kanji for iu, speak and the kanji for dai, meaning stately mansion and also being a counter for machinery--for instance two cars would be nidai-- and lessening the distance between them. The second kanji, hen, change is a common one. Once again, I have no idea if this is a word that came from China or if Hatsumi Sensei, perhaps, simply got playful and decided to use it to confuse people. It doesn't appear in Nelson's, though it is in Hadamitzky and Spahn's dictionary. [Note: Since writing this, I have looked in the new Nelson's, and it does appear.] However, I asked several native speakers, again, well-read ones, and none of them had ever seen it. When it appears in his books, he uses furigana, the phonetic reading above the word, which indicates that he doesn't expect the reader to know the kanji's reading either. Garth Lynch was kind enough to supply a translation from Haramitzsky and Spahn of the i of ihen meaning deceive, cheat, give leave behind and translated ihen as posture of deceptive change, or deceptive movement or possibly, leaving behind posture, as you leave your arm and leg behind

In conclusion, if someone does mess up a translation, don't be too hard on them. It's more difficult than you might imagine.

I've tried to make this interesting to both those who speak the language and those who don't--hopefully this compromise didn't manage to bore both.

Comments are welcome, so feel free to email me. with any corrections or criticisms.