I am lucky enough to travel regularly for kendo and have been a panellist for or assisted with grading examinations in a number of countries over the past few years. During this time I have noticed that it is generally becoming more difficult to pass 3rd dan.
In the past it was often enough for a candidate to show correct waza and good posture to pass this grade. In some ways it was seen as a more polished version of 2nd dan. Now, I feel that it is becoming the watershed that 4th dan used to be.
An experience that I have not had for quite a few years is to watch a prefectural grading in Japan, but I have been told by a number of senior sensei that the bar has been raised there too. Japanese grading panels now look for sharpness (sae) of strikes and for the ability to make opportunities through seme (breaking your opponent’s centre) or hikidasu (pulling him in), for third dan candidates in the way they looked at 4th dan in the past.
Although purely conjecture on my part, I imagine that this is a reflection of the fact that since 9th dan was discontinued, the kodansha grades of 8th, 7th and 6th dan have become more difficult to attain and slowly but surely there has been a trickle-down effect on the grades below.
Third dan seems to be particularly in the firing line, because 4th dan was traditionally seen as the point where strong kihaku (strength of spirit), seme and hikidasu were required to augment the technique learned up to that stage. These elements now seem to be required for 3rd dan too.
Third dan candidates still need the basics of good cutting technique, posture and ki ken tai-itchi, but must now demonstrate the ability to control and dominate the opponent and to make sharp effective attacks at the right time.
Show the examiners that you mean business by ensuring that you are tuned into your opponent from the time you step into the shinsa-jo. Engage your partner’s attention and keep eye contact from the moment you start to bow. Then take three confident steps into simultaneous sonkyo before standing-up together. Allow the time to read each other and show strong kiai before an attack is made.
To prepare you should ensure that you work on creating correct opportunities in jigeiko and by including seme and hikidasu in your basic uchikomi drills. If you are able to combine good basic kendo with the ability to control your opponent at this stage, you should have a great foundation for the rest of your kendo career.