A number of grading exams are looming in the UK and many people whom I practice with are starting to think about what they should do to pass them. We had a mock grading exam in my local dojo and quite a few conversations about the best way to present oneself on the day, but I am not convinced that this will have provided the answer.
Now, I have not seen statistical evidence to back this up, but I believe that kendo has more than its fair share of practitioners with masters’ degrees and PhDs. I would not be taking too wild a guess in assuming that these individuals have had considerable successful experience in studying for and passing examinations, yet almost universally, kendoka assume that all they need do to take a grading is to turn up on the day and show their stuff. Clearly this works for many, but to quote a business cliché “if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail”.
Nearly all kendo associations have a syllabus of what is expected for each grade, hidden somewhere in their web-pages. I will leave it to those interested parties to do the research, but the core is that you need to be able to do correct kendo basics with ki-ken-tai-ichi and then progress through renzoku waza, correct timing and opportunity and seme incrementally as you move up through the grades.
Surely there is some sense in understanding what is required for your next step and practising it for long enough for it to sink in before each grading. Many kendo clubs and renmei provide pre-grading seminars a few days before, or on the same day as the grading. Whilst these are great reminders of what you should do, they are not designed to help you make major changes or fix fatal flaws. You need to practice something intensively for at least three months for it to become part of muscle memory.
Many sensei say that your keiko should be the same as your shiai and that should be the same as your grading performance. This does not mean that you should slug away in your keiko whilst doing your best not to get hit and then replicate that in an examination. Nor should you briefly switch from your “yippee this is fun” keiko to something approximating serious kendo on the day of the grading. Rather it means that you should treat every kendo practise as if you were being judged on it. Good luck and start preparing.