My old friend and sempai from Osaka, Hayashi Kozo sensei came to visit last month and although it was at the height of the summer holidays, we managed to attend 6 keiko sessions in a week. My wife who has been watching kendo on and off for many years, commented that “seeing him with some of our younger members was like watching someone swat mosquitoes”
Hayashi sensei whilst 2 or 3 years my junior in age, is very much my kendo senior. When I started training in Japan he was 5th dan to my 2nd. He passed 7th dan 15 years before I did and he has a kendo resume that includes 2 appearances in the Todofuken Taikai, one as part of the winning Osaka team. Although he has passed the first of the two 8th dan examinations, he and I have the same kendo qualification, Kyoshi, 7th dan.
As Fukumoto sensei often says in the opening address for 7th dan grading examinations in Japan, ”7th dan is not the dan that follows 6th dan, It is the dan before 8th dan”. With an eighth dan pass rate of less than 1%, most of us are going to be stuck at 7th dan for a long time.
If you are lucky enough to attend a 6th, 7th or 8th dan grading examination in Japan, you will soon become aware that the pass rates in the various courts, which are separated by the candidates’ age groups, are very different; the younger the group, the higher the pass rate.
This bias is mainly because young police tokuren and other physical education professionals are able to train for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week and are in a far stronger position to improve their kendo. The average company employee or business owner is able to spend 3 or 4 hours per week maximum in the dojo, so anyone from this group who manages to break through the 8th dan barrier should be commended. Others may spend as many years as a 7th dan holder as they have spent in all their previous kendo grades combined.
Nevertheless, the number of candidates attending the 8th dan examinations in Tokyo and Kyoto continues to increase. For most, it’s a matter of turning up, chatting to old friends, enjoying two two minute tachiai and then retiring to the nearest drinking establishment for a consoling beer.
With the exit route from 7th dan being so difficult, there are a wide range of abilities within this grade. Some constantly strive to improve; others are happy to stay at the level they have reached.
For those who are keen to progress it is important to seek out as many chances as possible to train with peers and seniors, sometimes difficult when you live outside Japan. So it is imperative that we get to regional seminars, make training trips to Japan and invite as many sensei as we can to visit. However you approach the role of 7th dan you need to enjoy it, because you may be there for a very long time.