I have just returned from the annual European Zone Kendo Referees Seminar in Brussels. At the end of the final day, a grading examination was held and I was invited to be part of the panel for 4th and 5th dan. As an examiner, I of course had the opportunity to watch all the candidates very closely and whilst we do not discuss the outcome of our decision as a group, I was able to pick up the view of several of the other examiners.
Grading panels have to make objective decisions. This does not stop individual examiners feeling sympathy for the candidates who suffer the disappointment of not seeing their number on the results announcement. On this occasion we saw only one of six 4th dans and three of nineteen 5th dans pass. Every individuals’ kendo strengths and weaknesses are basically unique, but in my view, there was one common reason why people were failing these grades on Sunday – lack of presence or pressure and seme.
By and large people were doing technically accurate kendo but of these only the few successful candidates gave the impression that they were stamping their presence on the keiko and making rather than reacting to opportunity. The biggest obvious mistake was that people were just waiting and then attacking after the other player had started to move. This results in aiuchi (same time) strikes or atouchi, hitting after your opponent. 4th and 5th dan are both grades where the holders need to demonstrate the ability to control through kihaku (strength of mind) and from seme (breaking the opponents composure).
To impress the examination panel, from the moment you stand up from sonkyo, your posture and balance needs to show that you are able to move as soon as the opportunity arises. Your initial kiai should be loud and intense and you should also show restraint when there is no obvious chance. Most importantly, you need to be able to step into your opponents distance, make him flinch or twitch and instantly hit men or kote. Two or three times with each opponent is enough, although on Sunday a candidate who made numerous attacks passed, simply because he created the opportunity for each strike by making seme. Just to make things more complicated, you need to do all of this whilst remaining relaxed and flexible.