A few years ago I was invited to lunch after training with Hatsumi Sensei, Seno Sensei, Someya Sensei and Christian Petrocello from Argentina when the topic of judging people’s characters came up. Hatsumi Sensei spoke for a while about how important it is to be able to accurately tell what kind of person you are dealing with when you first meet someone.
Ideally you get lots of time to make a judgment about someone because it’s impossible, or at the least, very difficult, for someone to hide their true nature over time. But sometimes you need to be able to make a very quick judgment about someone, possibly even instantly.
Being able to do this is extremely important and there is a skill studied within ninpo dedicated to it called jinshin kanpajutsu 人心看破術.
The literal translation of this is something like ‘person-heart-appearance-break apart-skill’ but really it means ‘the skill of understanding human nature’. It’s a sub-discipline of Togakure Ryu Ninpo, and it’s described there as a kind of spiritual method but would probably be better understood today as functional psychology.
Jinshin Kanpajutsu is the ability to discern information about a person extremely quickly. This is something that everyone does to one extent or another but in the Togakure Ryu it is trained to a high level. The key is to have above average levels of attention so that you can at-a-glance make educated guesses about a person's background, attitudes and likely assumptions based on what you know of their background, their appearance, body language and general bearing.
A key part of it is also learning to listen to your intuition and gut feeling. When this was first described to me, I was instantly reminded of reading the Arthur Conan Doyle books as a kid. There’s an episode in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories where Holmes astounds a visitor to his consulting rooms by telling them exactly where they’d been that day, what they’d done and who they’d been with.
He is seemingly exhibiting a psychic ability but then explains it’s just deductive reasoning. He explains bit by bit how he is able to read clues, such as the exact shade of mud on the man’s shoes that’s only found in one place in London, and once the trick is revealed the mystery drops away. Of course Holmes is a fictional character but the reasoning is fascinating.
The author Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in his 2005 book Blink and in particular he talks about the psychological phenomenon of 'thin slicing' - the counterintuitive idea that sometimes decisions made with less data can be better or more accurate than decisions made with lots of data.
He presents some entertaining examples, such as a famous detector of fraudulent art pieces who had the ability to at-a-glance spot a fraud when other experts took a lot longer, or worse argued themselves into thinking a piece of art was authentic seemingly because they were taking in too much information about it.
The fraud detector had many years of education and experience that allowed them to make an intuitive guess that was often more accurate than a decision based on lots of information. In particular he discusses the Getty Kouros, an 'ancient' Greek statue bought for $9 million by the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1985. It was a fake but many experts at the time testified to it being authentic.
Likewise in the 1950s, the US psychologist Paul Ekman pioneered the science of reading micro facial expressions to determine the emotions that test subjects exhibit while being interviewed. He became a human lie detector, based on his understanding that everybody flashes micro expressions when they talk and it’s pretty much impossible to hide them. Ekman started the process of explaining something we all know at some level - sometimes you get a feeling off someone that tells you something worth knowing, even if you're not really sure where that feeling comes from.
These are two examples of jinshin kanpajutsu in the modern world but there are many more, and they exist at the intersection between our understanding of human psychology and intuition.
It is a fascinating area of study and it's not hard to see how having an ability like this would give someone playing the role of a historical ninja a significant advantage. And of course we all do have that ability to some extent but studying it deeply can improve it.
It's even more interesting when you consider that the study of Jinshin-kanpajutsu within Togakure Ryu (supposedly) predates Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud and the relatively modern concept of the existence of the subconscious.
At the time when operational ninja were wandering around Japan, using educated gut instincts to 'read' people, there was no scientific framework for understanding how such skills worked. Obviously given the lack of records of ninja and how they operated, it's impossible to really know for sure, but it's interesting to consider.
On a practical level, one way to improve your ability in jinshin kanpajutsu is to practice being as mentally present and aware as possible in the dojo. When you see something demonstrated – whether it’s a kata, henka or some form of free movement – look for the essence of the movement, and try not to get distracted by what you already know.
Many people look for what they already know when they see something. This is natural – it’s how we build connections in our brains to try to learn more efficiently. But it can lead people to think ‘I know this already” when there is almost always something new to be gained, even from studying something you think you already know.
In fact, thinking you know something can hold you back because we tend to see the rough outline of the movement, and our brains fills in details that aren’t necessarily there. When I first started training with Hatsumi Sensei in Japan, I was disorientated by how quickly he taught, how quickly he changed technique and by the fact that he almost never broke anything down or repeated it.
It was very different from how I’d learned. It was a sink-or-swim experience – I had to learn to pay attention and try to get what he was doing as quickly as possible, and to be as in-the-moment as I could be. Blink and you’d miss it.
So one way you can practice this aspect of jinshin kanpajutsu is to check in with your assumptions in the dojo.
Here are some key questions to ask yourself in class:
Does this look like something I already know?
How is it the same? How is it different?