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Archive for the ‘7th versus 8th dan’ Category

With Kato sensei, Takatera sensei and Mike Davis at Saineikan

With Kato sensei, Takatera sensei and Mike Davis at Saineikan

Last Tuesday Mumeishi  dojo  enjoyed a visit from two 8th dans, Takatera sensei,  Meiyo Shihan of the Imperial Palace Police and the well-known teacher and writer Ozawa Hiroshi sensei . They were accompanied by a third teacher Iino sensei, a senior kyoshi 7th dan.

The dojo was packed tight with students who came for the privilege of keiko with these excellent kenshi. We had our usual kihon session then an hour of free keiko, so I made sure that I had my men and kote on quickly and was the first to practice with Takatera  sensei  before  joining the line for the other two teachers, finally moving back to the motodachi side.

Although in his 60s, Takatera sensei is a remarkably fast, forward moving 8th dan. When you face him the pressure is intense. He very quickly “took me apart” before leading me through kakarigeiko and kirikaeshi. Different hachidan have different approaches to practice with older opponents and Takatera  sensei’s is obviously to expect them to work hard. The sessions with the next two sensei were almost relaxed by comparison.

There is a temptation for senior grades to stay on the motodachi side of the dojo and not take advantage of these occasional chances to learn from more experienced teachers.  If you are over 60, many Japanese instructors are relaxed about whether you join them for keiko or line up next to them. Whatever your age and grade you owe it to yourself to take every opportunity to improve and if it means finishing the keiko with wobbly legs, then so much the better.

When I joined Takatera sensei, who is as good natured as he is fierce, for a beer after training, he told me that even though he has retired from the Imperial Palace, he currently attends 15 keiko sessions per week, which makes my three seem decidedly lightweight by comparison.. Takatera sensei, along with some other notable teachers, works extremely hard at his own kendo practice and expects the rest of us oldies to work equally hard. So this was a timely reminder to keep up the intensity of my own training. For the rest of this week I have made sure that we make kakarigeiko  more challenging and that I join in as kakarite.

In kendo we use the expression “utte hansei, utarete kansha” meaning that we should  learn by reflecting on the successful strikes we make and by showing gratitude for the successful strikes against us. I clearly have a lot to thank Takatera sensei for.

* I will be away at the European Kendo Championships from mid-week until next Monday, so unless I can get my sausage fingers to work on a hand-held device, next weeks post will be late.

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29323_1401129875529_1450794437_1070239_8154535_nMy 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.

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Having spent a fairly relaxed summer, work has gotten hectic again as we enter September. Unfortunately, this allowed me just two brief visits to Sumi sensei’s current seminar in the UK. On the first, my participation was limited to acting as motodachi. However on the second, I managed to move over to shimoza, after the initial shidogeiko, to wait in line for Sumi sensei, Tashiro sensei and Kumamoto sensei.

Whilst I experience the same challenge as many non-Japanese senior kendoka , of being a “big fish in a small pool”, I try to do as much peer and senior keiko as I can, to the extent of visiting Japan regularly, to compete in the Kyoto Taikai and train with as many hachidan sensei as possible.

7th dan embraces a broad range of skill levels from young All-Japan level professionals, to ex-champions who have been at the same grade for 30 years; to middle aged rookie nanadan. All of us have passed the test to the same stringent criteria and although I am at the higher end of the 7th dan age spectrum, I am fairly confident of my ability to practice competently with most of my peers.

7th dan against 8th dan is another matter. In my keiko with Sumi sensei and Tashiro sensei yesterday, I immediately felt the need to “move up a gear”.

If you are a reasonably seasoned kendoka, you are spared the pain of collapsing into instant kakarigeiko against such senior opponents, but instead, you should show strong seme and make committed attacks against real opportunities. The difficulty, is that kendo players of this class, do not often show weaknesses. After repeatedly trying to break immovable kamai, you are forced to make attacks that you know are doomed to fail. Nevertheless once committed, there is no alternative other than to complete the technique with your best posture and zanshin.

Even though you are attacking at a lower work rate than you might with easier opponents, the effort required to break sensei’s kamai and attack correctly is enormous. After 5 minutes with Sumi sensei, I felt exhausted.

Several people commented that my keiko with Sumi sensei looked impressive, but frankly, that was more the result of his charity than of my ability. The famed difficulty of passing 8th dan is not exaggerated, and results in a breed of super-sensei that are head and shoulders above the rest of us mere mortals.

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