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The Way of the Shadows:
Martial Arts Training for the Blind Warrior

by Stefan Verstappen

Zatoichi the Blind Warrior


In 1992 I was teaching a self-defense course at a community center when I received a phone call from a woman inquiring about private lessons. After answering a few questions she revealed that she was blind. I told her I had no experience working with the blind but that I would be willing to talk with her and see if there was anything of use that I could teach her.

At first the idea that a blind person could learn to fight was ridiculous. To be a warrior implies a knowledge of and training in warfare. How could a blind person do battle with what he or she cannot see? However, in my studies I have come across numerous folk tales and myths about blind warriors who overcame their disability to become fierce fighters. These stories originate from the far east in China and Japan.

In Japan a popular series of stories featured the character of Zatoichi (Blind Man Ichi) who roams feudal Japan as a highly sought after masseuse (the traditional occupation for the blind in Asia). Zatoichi carries, concealed within his walking stick, a katana, (saber) that, despite his blindness, he wields with deadly accuracy in the name of knightly virtue. This character of the blind warrior is revived in contemporary media in the blind Master Po, a Shaolin monk from the Kung Fu television series, and in movies such as Blind Fury, which revives the Zatoichi character. Even the superhero comic book series Daredevil features a hero who is blind yet skilled in combat.

There are other precedents as well today. In some martial arts schools, advanced students are taught fighting techniques while blindfolded. Also masters in China routinely perform dangerous stunts while blindfolded to demonstrate their development of secondary sensory accuracy.

The question is, are all these stories just the stuff tall tales are made from or is there some truth in them? The implication is that when one loses the sense of sight, the other senses will become more enhanced and compensate for the loss of vision. While the idea of blindness bestowing hyper-awareness in return may be a comforting as well as discomforting thought for sighted people, what of the reality? Are these stories just a means of easing the guilty conscience of sighted people, or is it really possible to train the other senses to such a degree that they could detect and react to a physical attack?

Curious to find the answer myself, I began researching the techniques, methods, and exercises found in eastern practices such as Yoga, Tai Chi, Kung Fu, and Zen meditation, while seeking correlation with modern research into brain and sensory functions. Armed with a hodge podge of exercises and theories I experimented with the numerous exercises. The results after only a few months of training were encouraging: increased confidence, physical strength, coordination, balance, and sensory awareness. I believe that these simple and practical methods will provide valuable benefits that could be easily and economically taught to others with visual disabilities.


Researchers are detecting another deeper sensory apparatus; if the conscious mind is somehow impaired, it seems a secret array of senses in the unconscious may go to work. Thus blind people may sometimes "see" a flash of light, brought to them, some scientists believe, along little used, vestigial pathways in the brain.

The Mystifying Mind, Library of Curious and Unusual Facts

(Case Study continued)

Photo reprinted with permission from The Momii Company, Zatoichi: "The Blind Swordsman" Video Collection.

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