A lot of time and thought from the kendo great and good has gone into creating the current grading system. Though perhaps not perfect, it is a robust, consistent process that does all it can to give everyone an even chance.
I regularly come into contact with practitioners of other martial arts and sports and have very occasionally wondered if you can make valid comparisons of skill levels at the same grade between one discipline and another. For obvious reasons I do not include the one-man federations where everyone becomes 10th dan on joining, but I am thinking more about mainstream budo with established governing bodies.
Is a kendo shodan equal with a karate shodan? Does a kendo 8th dan match the skill level of a Judo 8th dan? Frankly, I don’t know, but I imagine that the answer is no. Firstly methods of examining candidates are different. In Judo, there is a totting up process, based on shiai performance which plays a major part in grading up to 5th dan. The higher dan grades are awarded for contribution, much as kendo shogo used to be. Karate grades are based on demonstration and evaluation, but many schools also use the shogo system, so I guess that the upper dan grades are based more on physical skill. Even Iaido which shares the same governing body and grade system must differ, as panellists are viewing individual performance rather than the interaction between two players.
Many martial arts have a rigid kyu system with up to 10 kyu grades which must be gained in sequence. Although it varies from country to country, we tend to be far more cavalier about granting kyu grades. In some cases people start on the grading ladder at 2nd or even 1st kyu, as a preliminary to shodan.
1st to 5th dan are national grades outside Japan and the responsibility of regional federations within. In my experience, 1st and 2nd dan levels in kendo vary from country to country. It is unusual to fail shodan in Japan, where it is viewed as a first step, rather than the pinnacle of “black belt”. 3rd dan seems to be judged fairly consistently around the World. 4th and 5th likewise, but the pass rate for these is becoming smaller everywhere.
With the exception of those granted by a few of the larger country federations, 6th to 8th dan are international or All Japan grades. Since the abolition of 9th dan, these have become increasingly difficult to reach. Unusually candidates are judged on physical and technical ability, regardless of age and physical condition. The kendo grading examination continues to be a measure of how well you did against your selected opponents on the day; with shogo kept in reserve to endorse your character and depth of kendo knowledge.
In my own view, it is probably easier to pass through the kyu grades and reach shodan or nidan than it is in judo. On the other hand I think it is harder to reach the kodansha ranks in kendo. I stress that this is my opinion, based on one-sided knowledge. I would be interested to hear the thoughts of those of you who practice more than one martial art or sport