From the comments to my last post, it is obvious that grading examinations can be controversial. As a regular grading panelist and having been on the other side of the judges table numerous times both in Europe and Japan, I feel it is worth sharing my thoughts on how I perceive the process.
I can of course only speak for myself, but as part of my own development I have asked a number of senior sensei for their guidance in this area.
Firstly and most importantly, I believe that we look for good points rather than the bad. We would rather see candidates pass than fail. We need evidence that a candidate can perform to the required standard for the grade and if this cannot be produced in the time allowed, then they will unfortunately fail. I have often felt palpable relief amongst the judges when someone has managed to make a good technique within the closing seconds of the grading.
Serious mistakes however tend to rule people out at an early stage. Not necessarily because these errors are critical in their own right, but because they demonstrate an inability to do what you need to do. For instance, if your left heel is on the floor in chudan kamae, you show that you are not able to move forward instantly when you see an opening. If you step back from sonkyo you show a lack of pressure and seme. If your posture is incorrect then you won’t be able to hit with ki-ken-tai-ichi, and the list goes on.
There is a level of subjectivity. There are written guidelines for panelists, but at the end of the criteria for each grade is a caveat which translates along the lines of “must demonstrate that he or she has reached the standard of — dan”. However in kendo, we are as a rule, two dan grades above the level we are judging. You also have five or six individual judges, with their own, un-discussed opinions. This is in my view, much fairer than the system in some martial arts; where one solitary shihan can dispense grades at will.
Kendo also strives to eliminate bias by making the process anonymous, which is why zekken are removed and in Japan, overly large names on hakama are taped over. In the case of the kodansha gradings in Tokyo or Kyoto with 1000+ candidates and eight to ten panels, applicants and judges rarely know each other. For gradings in Europe there is a real chance that the panel will recognise many of the candidates. In my experience we try to divorce the person from the kendo displayed on the day.
The system is of course not perfect, but I believe that it is as robust as it can be.