The 4th dan grading examination is to my mind, one of the major milestones in a kendoka’s development. Through the kyu grades we expect a player to learn basic technique and coordination, increasing the range of waza and awareness of timing and opportunity through the first three dan grades.
At 4th dan, a whole new dimension is required – the ability to achieve mind contact with your opponent and to control his movement through the strength of your mind and kamae; and to disturb his composure using seme to enable a successful, meaningful attack. Of course 5th, 6th and 7th dan are increasingly difficult, but 4th dan is probably second only to the ultimate 8th in requiring a major change in kendo technique and attitude.
Having just witnessed two 4th dan grading exams in two weeks, (the second as a panellist), I was reminded how big the step is between 3rd and 4th dan by the very different pass rates. On the most recent occasion the percentage of successful candidates dropped from over 50% to less than 10% between the two grades.
The inherent difficulty is that you are required to make and take every real opportunity to attack but not to attempt any technique when there is no chance of success – that is to say, when your opponent is in full spirit and holding a strong kamae. The way to break through is of course from making seme, either by pushing forward with your whole body and breaking his centre, or by opening your kamae slightly to invite his attack and then beating it with your own technique. You can also break his attack by using harai, osae or suriage, but these should be attached to the correct seme to create the opportunity.
In my view 4th dan is all about control – control of your opponent and more importantly, control of your own movement. You need to ensure that when you move forward that your left foot follows your right and that you are in the position to push off instantly from the ball of your left foot as soon as you make or see the chance to attack. You need to remember to make seme with your feet and body, not just your hands. It is also imperative to use tame; the process of controlling your breath and holding your mind steady in readiness for attack once you are in the correct position.
There is of course a big element of luck, in that if you draw too strong an opponent, or an individual who is intent on rushing around needlessly, it is hard to exert the required level of control. But if you can master seme and tame, you are well on your way.