How Stephen Hayes discovered the secret art of the ninja and brought it back to Dayton
By Mark Luedtke
Photo: Stephen K. Hayes of Quest Center for Martial Arts in Centerville
It all began with a book. When Stephen Hayes was a student at Kettering Fairmont High School, a friend gave him a copy of Ian Fleming’s novel “You Only Live Twice.” “James Bond, the protector of the monarch of England, goes to Japan,” said Hayes, summarizing the novel. “He trained as a ninja there. That’s the first time I heard that word. They find a wife for him from the sea coast of Kyushu island. For a boring little 15-year-old kid from Kettering, Ohio, this is almost painful to read. This is so cool.” Little did he know at the time that that book would start him on an odyssey to discover Japan’s authentic ninja, learn their 800-year-old art, then bring it back to the U.S.
Hayes always had an interest in martial arts, though he’s not sure why. “I didn’t grow up in a dangerous neighborhood,” Hayes said. “I wasn’t an abused kid. I wasn’t bullied, but I saw people who had difficult encounters and I wanted to be able to protect if I had to. What if somebody pulled me down into the gutter? I wanted to be the one coming out of the gutter on my own terms.”
The opportunity to study martial arts didn’t materialize until Hayes visited Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where he saw a man in a martial arts uniform. He immediately applied to the school and was accepted. Despite not being in ROTC, he managed to join the Navy ROTC karate club at Miami. He became obsessed with it.
After graduating from Miami with an acting degree, Hayes tried to work in corporate America for two years. After discovering he was “spiritually unfit to work for anybody,” he moved to Atlanta and opened a karate school.
But Hayes still wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to learn more than he wanted to teach, so one day in 1975, Hayes hopped on a plane and flew to Japan to seek out and learn the art of ninja – ninjutsu. He described how outrageous this was: “Imagine you’re in New York and this Japanese person comes up and says in Japanese, ‘I don’t speak English very well, but I’m trying to get to Gotham City because I want to study with Batman.’ It was that preposterous. But miracles happened.”
At one point, Hayes stayed at an inn and he told the innkeeper he was looking for the grandmaster of the Togakure Ryu ninja, Dr. Hatsumi Masaaki. The innkeeper laughed at him because she knew Hatsumi, a physical therapist, but she assured Hayes he was not a ninja. At that time ninja training was still secret, even in Japan. Still, she generously called Hatsumi for Hayes and set up a meeting.
“I was used to sport martial art,” said Hayes. “In sport martial art, two people are competing. By consensus we’re going to simulate combat. One of us will win. The other will lose. I know what the other guy is going to do. If it’s karate, he’s going to try to hit me or kick me. If it’s judo, he’s going to try to throw me down and choke me out. That’s what I’m there to do. When the referee says begin, you begin. I didn’t want to do sportsman things, but that’s the martial art I was studying. These guys didn’t start out with that clear intention. So this man, moving, I thought he was about to start conventionally, but he didn’t. He just froze. He threw off my perception. Then he engaged his intention again. So this is more the kind of thing people would encounter in a difficult self-defense situation. They had me so confused I was unable to do an authentic technique. I was using conventional thinking. The ninja is the master of unconventional thinking.” Hayes had finally found what he was looking for.
But it wasn’t exactly what he expected. He expected to enter a big dojo like he was used to, but Hatsumi trained his students in a small room in his house. Fourteen students trained in a room that was little bigger than a closet.
Hayes felt honored to have been invited to train with Hatsumi after only one interview, but many years later one of his fellow students told him the real story: “Is that what you thought happened? In those days you were a really big guy and we wanted to practice on a really big foreigner. We thought you would get frustrated and leave after a week.”
Hayes did movie, TV and voice work to support himself while training. He was John Rhys-Davies’s stunt double in “Shogun,” which he called extremely dangerous, but fun work. He also worked for Canon Inc. and that’s where he met a girl named Rumiko – from the coast of Kyushu island – whom he later married.
Shadows of Iga
Hayes and Rumiko returned to Kettering when his visa ran out at the end of 1980. He originally had intended to work in Hollywood to tell stories of the ninja, but project after project fell through. Hayes got a good laugh when talking about Hollywood: “These people in the movie industry were just wild thieves and rascals. All the stories that you might hear about growing up in Ohio, of Hollywood being full of liars and thieves, it’s actually true. You have to know how to navigate all of that. So many shenanigans were pulled.”
Hayes was still not ready to settle down and start his own school; he was still training for himself. Rumiko began training in ninjutsu at this time as well.
Hayes devoted himself to training and writing books about the ninja. He published his first book, “The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art” in 1980.
“The books did it all,” Hayes said. “They put me on the map. Pre-Internet. Pre-electronic. Pre-digital. That was what you had to do. A combination of Black Belt magazine and these books is what did it.” His 19 books have sold over 1 million copies.
Hayes had no trouble finding students to train with. They found him. He started doing workshops and professionals showed up to train. Law enforcement, military, intelligence community and adventurer types came. A rodeo guy who made a living grabbing bulls by the horns and wrestling them to the ground came. He also ran a club in the basement of Hills and Dales Shopping Center in Kettering, which he eventually moved to a local tobacco barn. Students trained in fatigue pants and T-shirts. Hayes formed a loose organization called the Shadows of Iga to facilitate training.
Hayes recalled how naive he was back then: “We could have been sued. You can’t get sued in Japan. If you go to a martial arts school where they’re throwing people into a wall and twisting their arms around and you get hurt and you want to sue, the judge says ‘Get out of my courtroom.’”
During this period Hayes became a bodyguard and then close family friend of the Dalai Lama, for whom he has high praise. “He’s one of the few human beings who I’ve met who totally lives up to his billing. I’ve been around some celebrities who out front are gracious and cool, but when you get them back stage, they’re really ugly human beings. This guy is amazing.”
The Shadows of Iga organization ultimately fell apart as charlatans appeared claiming to be ninja and ninja became cartoonized in American pop culture.
In the late 1990s, Hayes was finally ready to settle down and start his own school, so he opened the Stephen K. Hayes Quest Center for Martial Arts on Far Hills Avenue in Centerville, where he teaches today. The art Hayes learned was designed for ninja to protect underdogs from warlords on a 15th century battlefield, so he had to develop a curriculum suited to modern America. “Twenty-first century America is so different,” he said. “The laws and the morality are different. If I’m going to teach self-defense, I have to adapt this to the laws and clothing and the situations of America: Guns. Cars. Hard-soled shoes. Big glass walls and windows had to be accounted for, so I had to reinterpret this. But the principles are the same.”
Students love the art and Hayes reports they stay for the fun. Hayes explained how Quest differs from other martial arts schools: “The point of our school is self-actualization for dealing with any kind of danger. Other schools might show you how to win a gold medal in the Olympics. Another school might show you how to be a bad boy. It’s more important to train people like ninja. How do you get out of there? How do you not be a target? If you did need to engage, how physically? They’re going to be bigger or [there will be] more of them because that’s how criminals or heavy-duty bullies operate. You can’t fight them one-on-one like a boxing match. That’s why they have weight classifications in wrestling or jujutsu or boxing. You need to have the ninja understanding of positioning and leverage and so forth, so it’s very authentic, but it’s a very modernized version of the historical art.”
Hayes emphasizes conflict avoidance and de-escalation. Combat is a last resort. He also emphasizes a strong moral code. Despite having licensed nearly 30 Quest schools worldwide, Hayes doesn’t believe he’s made ninjutsu mainstream: “I don’t believe that the way we talk and what we’re doing is supported at all in our society now, the idea of picking a certain area and becoming a master of it, the idea of having high ideals to which we hold ourselves accountable. I don’t see a lot of that in our society. We’ve been betrayed by religious leaders, political leaders and sports heroes. Where is the hero? Where are the noble people? It’s become a joke. It’s become something we apologize for. The younger ones believe they can’t be heroes. It’s all self-interest. The way we talk is so different here that we couldn’t call it mainstream.”
Rumiko believes the art especially empowers women. Women everywhere are socially pressured to be accommodating, so it’s harder for a woman to resist an aggressor. The most important lesson she teaches women is the mindset that they have a right and the power to defend themselves. She also believes that each lesson must teach a defense skill that can be internalized during one training period. “Some of the techniques we show them are easy to do,” said Rumiko. “They don’t have to drill too hard to internalize them. So after a session, you go home with some sense of, ‘I feel good about myself. I didn’t know I had this much power in me.’”
Rumiko teaches principles that empower a small defender to overcome a large attacker. “It’s easy for guys to dominate because of size,” she said. “But ninjutsu is very different. It’s not about speed or power. It’s about timing and placing yourself. If you place yourself in the right position, you don’t have to be very strong to take down a big guy.” These lessons are especially effective for young girls because they internalize the mindset and the physical skills at a young age. Hayes believes young students not only learn self-defense, they learn how to learn, a skill many don’t learn anywhere else.
Rumiko also teaches a Japanese ancestral health method she calls Dragon Body Ninja Yoga. It uses ninjutsu movements to promote healthy circulatory, lymphatic and digestive systems.
Hayes offered an interesting reflection on his journey from seeking the ninja to serving the community: “I go back to that James Bond story. Wait a minute. I went to Japan. I became trained in Togakure Ryu ninjutsu. I got this beautiful, love-of-my-life Japanese girl from the sea coast of Kyushu island. This old-timey, old-fashioned girl like Bond got. I traveled to protect the monarch of Tibet, not England. Sometimes, I tell the young ones to be careful what they read in study hall.”
The Stephen K. Hayes Quest Center for Martial Arts is located at 6263 Far Hills Ave. in Centerville. For more information call 937.436.9990 or visit skhquest.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Mark Luedtke at MarkLuedtke@daytoncitypaper.com