In this article, I want to explore the numerous cases of both young achievers of high positions (yes, plural) as well as those who were fortunate enough to attain mastery of more than one art. Now, before I do so let's get two counter-arguments out of the way. The two most common I hear are that times were different back then, they were able to train for 12 hours each day and so progressed much faster. That sounds great, except that even then they had jobs and families to tend to just like today. The second myth is that the life expectancy was so short, 20 was middle-aged. The global average life expectancy in the latter half of the 19th century was around 70, also much like today. When you think about it, the conditions were not different and so what we really have is a self-inflicted inferiority complex of the Western martial artist to their Asian counterpart.
So who were these superhuman martial artists that were able to do the impossible? Well, for the sake of time let's just include all members of the Samurai class pre-Tokugawa Shogunate who had to learn not just one, but demonstrate proficiency in 18 different martial arts (collectively called the Bugei Juhappan). In this article, I want to focus on the modern era (post-1868). The short list is as follows:
- Takeda Sokaku - born in 1859 and by 1876 had earned Menkyo Kaiden in Ono-Ha Itto Ryu Kenjutsu. This was the year of his first meeting with Tanomo Saigo, but there is no record of any further contact between them until 1890. In 1898, he goes public and teaches his first Daito Ryu seminar in Miyagi Prefecture as the art's headmaster. At most, this gives him 9 years of study under both Tanomo and his father, Sokichi, in the art of Daito Ryu (or its predecessor if you consider Sokaku its founder).
- Kano Jigoro - born in 1860 and first started martial arts training in 1877. By 1882, he had earned Menkyo in Tenjin Shin'yo Ryu Jujutsu and Menkyo Kaiden in Kito Ryu Jujutsu. He founded the Kodokan and the art of Judo shortly after.
- Hatsumi Masaaki - born in 1931 and first started martial arts training in 1957. Just fifteen years later, he had earned Menkyo Kaiden in 9 separate martial arts from his teacher, Takamatsu Toshitsugu. He formed the Bujinkan in 1972, and founded the art of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu.
- Oyama Matsutatsu - born in 1923 and first started martial arts training in 1946. In just 7 years of training, he had earned the ranks of 7th Dan in Goju Ryu, 4th Dan in Shotokan and 4th Dan in Judo. In that time, he had also studied Daito Ryu under Yoshida Kotaro and earned Menkyo. In 1953, he founded the art of Kyokushin Karate.
- Shimabukuro Eizo - born in 1925 and first started martial arts training around 1940. In 1959, he was awarded 10th Dan by Toyama Kanken of the All Japan Karate-Do Federation.
- Miyamoto Musashi - born ca. 1584 and founded the art of Nito Ryu Kenjutsu at age 15.
We've created such a lofty, unattainable pedestal for those who've paved the way for us that it's nearly sacrilege to point out they were just men. They were not divine, immortal beings. They were men who did great things, yes. But were they so different from the rest of us? I'd like to think they're examples of the great things anyone can achieve with perseverance and dedication. They're not the exceptions to the rule. They set the rules. They set the standards.
In order for the martial arts to stay alive, we need to encourage innovation. We need to encourage greatness. In Japanese martial arts, there is a concept called "Shu Ha Ri" that seems all but forgotten. It described the different stages of development of the practitioner. The first stage, Shu, is to obey. Those in this stage simply follow along and regurgitate what they were taught. Unfortunately, this is where the majority of martial artists stand today.
The second stage, Ha, is to detach. In this stage, the student begins to develop their own ways of applying their art and internalizing its principles. The final stage, Ri, is to transcend. They are no longer bound by the confines of their art but rather they become their art. They become the masters themselves and set their own standards, while still honoring their teachers. This is the level of development we should all be seeking.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to how you define mastery. While there is no doubt a spiritual component to the arts, never forget that first and foremost the martial arts are skills of war. Therefore, there is something to be said for technical mastery of those skills, according to the standards and traditions of the style. Some people achieve that faster than others. We are not all created equal. But ethnicity has nothing to do with that. The fact that so many Japanese were able to do so in such a relatively short of time sets the precedent for others to do be able to do so too... Unless, of course, you want to subscribe to the idea of Japan being a superior race, but I think we've already been down that road before. In the age of information and enlightenment, aren't we more advanced than that?