By Dean Rostohar


The Japanese word Kaizen means 'change for better' (from 改 kai - change, revision; 善 zen - virtue, goodness). Always seek to improve in all areas of your life. Even small changes can add up and make a big impact over time.

I remember my beginnings...

In 1986, I knew nothing about this warrior art. I knew only that I wanted to learn and practice a warrior art, and I knew it would be a long, hard path filled with sacrifice. But I was ready.

After that, this warrior art and path saved my life numerous times.

I know I made the right choice.

After seven years of practice, Hatsumi Soke asked me to open a dojo. At that time, I was sure I was not ready for the task based on my skills, knowledge, and understanding. I told Hatsumi Soke, "I am not ready..." He did not want to hear that! I received a letter from Soke, "Open!"

I did not trust myself. I was just Shodan, but Soke had trust in me. During that time, there were no videos (except for very old ones) or books about this art. Even the techniques were unnamed (the TenChiJin Ryaku no Maki was later released).

Soke had trust in me.

So, I opened my dojo in 1993, during my Homeland War. When I wasn't in the war zone or on SWAT duty, I went to training whenever I could.

When the dojo opened, I knew nothing about how to teach.

So I found and read many books on learning, teaching, sharing, what to share, didactic - methodology, psychology, connecting with people, values, and, of course, Ninjutsu techniques. At that time, we didn't talk much about the Bujinkan or schools, mostly we spoke about Ninjutsu. For my first five years of practice, we did only Kihon Happo and Taihenjutsu. We trained each technique, or kata, very hard, with lots of pain, bruises, and blood. But the more I trained, the more I researched, and I got better and better.

At that time, I could choose from two paths: pretend I am a "teacher who knows everything," or always be a student who searches for knowledge, skills, and experience and tries hard... I chose "I do not know anything," but I need to improve every day, all the time, in all my life...

I trained every day, even if it was for 10 hours a day, not only training but also using these skills in war as a warrior or soldier and in my SWAT actions... At this time, there was war in Croatia, and I was in the military's Special Forces (SF) and SWAT. Everyone had automatic weapons, criminals would rob banks with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers... It was a very dangerous time. You could die at any moment on the battlefield with enemy combatants or in police work with criminals. I trained a lot and was grateful to learn that warrior art.

When I had the time and was lucky, my commanders would let me go to TAI KAI and seminars in Europe, where Hatsumi Soke taught. (Arnaud Cousergue, one of my buyu, recently posted a photo from a similar trip in Germany in 1994.) Croatia was at war from 1991 to 1995, but I stayed in the SF until 2000.

Anyway, every free moment I had, I used for my training and practice—even when I was heavily wounded in 1994. I kept training, practicing, and researching.

I was wounded behind enemy lines by a land mine... I spent 18 days in the hospital, eight in the intensive care unit and ten in a regular hospital room. The first thing I did after 18 days was use a crutch to lead training. At that time, I had around 80 students. After that, I returned to the hospital for a prosthetic. The doctors said it takes about a week to learn how to stand on a prosthetic limb, but I was so eager to return to my Ninjutsu training that I was already running on a track after only a week! After a few more months, I returned to my SF unit and back to the fight.

After being injured in October 1994, I attended TAI KAI in Valencia in the spring of 1995. It was there I received the Bujinkan Golden Dragon medal from Hatsumi Soke for my improvement, will, skill, and experience. I never stopped, I never surrendered!!!

So, every year when I go to Japan (I have traveled to Japan every year for 26 years), Soke wanted to grade me, but I always refused, which sometimes made Soke angry. He trusted in me! I always felt ashamed because I thought, "I do not deserve this rank." I received all my ranks from Hatsumi Soke, one by one, year by year. That was the way he pushed me! He knew I felt like I did not deserve it. So I'd push myself over every line... just to earn it!

When somebody thinks or says, "You cannot do that," I always say, "Watch me!"

And I did it, not because of other people, but for myself.

I should probably mention that I did many of these without a leg. I trained and got my parachute badge, my combat diver badge, my alpine certificate, and so on. My (no)-leg pushed me forward!

This is what I learned from Hatsumi Soke, and this is what I learned from Ninjutsu: to never surrender, to always keep going, to never give up.

And I still learn; I am still a student, with good and bad, with mistakes, with improvement... Try to be better every day in all virtues and values, in all skills, etc.

Hatsumi Soke showed me the way, my path, but I had to walk it alone, the hard, rough, and difficult way... This way, I could either pretend I deserved it or do my best, train hard, learn hard, and practice hard, and then deserve it. And justify Hatsumi Soke's trust and belief in me.

Well, by Hatsumi Soke, I did it... But I never stop trying to improve — every day. I share this with my students.

I never thought I would come so far (my experience, skill, knowledge, improvements, etc.), but my journey is not finished. Every day I am grateful because this warrior art has saved my life so many times. Every day I am grateful for Hatsumi Soke, his teaching, his trust, and the way he pushed me. Every day, I try to share and help others on their journeys because I care!

So, it was never about rank. Never about a certificate. Never about the belt...

It is about your journey, about your life improvement, and about helping others on their journey...

Many people gave up, many people fake things, many people try to take shortcuts...

But that is their path. Not mine!

I always remember the wisdom of Takamatsu Soke:
"We are like small insects. But even the smallest insect could travel very far if they jumped on a horse's tail!"

Horse tail is your life! Life is a journey. We all have different paths. But the point is not about the finish, it's about the path along the way.

People with a good heart, a good mind, a good soul, good experience, good skills, and good knowledge will always leave a path. Life path. Everyone should leave a path with their lives.

So, change for better, change for improvement, and never ever give up.

About a million times, Hatsumi Soke has encouraged, "Gambate ne!" Keep going!

I do... as a Warrior