The hot sports news from Russia this week is that President Vladimir Putin has been promoted to 8th Dan in Judo. Clearly a great achievement and an even greater one as his last recorded grade was 6th Dan. Judoka please correct me if I am wrong, but this is I believe, not an unusual scenario. If my memory serves me correctly the higher grades in Judo tend to be awarded for contribution to the sport; rather than being earned in grading examinations.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, this is not the case with kendo. Anyone who has watched the 8th Dan examination in Kyoto in May or its November counterpart in Tokyo, will be aware of the bravery and determination of candidates in their 70s and 80s still trying to demonstrate the physical qualities required to take hachidan.
Many of us have seen the documentary “The 8th Dan Challenge” where we watched the preparations of Ishida sensei, then 48 years old and Miyamoto sensei, who was approaching the age of 80. I had the opportunity to talk to Miyamoto sensei several years ago in Kyoto. I mentioned that the programme had been seen widely outside Japan. His response was that he was embarrassed when it was shown in Japan and that he could now say that he was embarrassed on a World scale. He did however say this with a smile. At the time of our conversation he was still nanadan.
There also appear to be no exceptions made in kendo for the great and good. The late Japanese Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto remained at 5th Dan after a lifetime in kendo.
For kendoka who want to climb the grading ladder within FIK (International Kendo Federation) or its member organisations, there is no short-cut. The pass percentages at this year’s examinations in Aichi were just over 17% and 12% for 6th and 7th Dan respectively and a daunting 0.84% for hachidan in Kyoto . Even shogo, which were at one time awarded by recommendation, now have to be earned by examination. For the ZNKR Kyoshi, even non- Japanese candidates have to physically attend the examination in Tokyo.
The ZNKR does have other ways of recognising outstanding contribution to kendo development such as the prestigious Korosho. This award is presented to few people and is meant as an accolade for a lifetime of service to kendo. My colleague John Howell is one of the few non-Japanese to receive the Korosho. In his case it was presented for many years of continuous service to European Kendo.
When it comes to grade however, no matter how great one’s service to the organisation, it’s a matter of getting in the registration queue at the Nippon Budokan and doing your best for 120 seconds.
So congratulations Putin sensei, but for us poor old kendoka – Gambatte kudasai!