Archive for the ‘Grading Examinations’ Category

Grading + KataWe have one of UK kendo year’s biggest grading exams coming up next weekend at my own dojo, Mumeishi. This one goes up to 5th dan there are nearly 90 candidates registered.

I have recently sat in on a number of practise grading sessions and whilst I have seen some good kendo there are a few errors that people fall into time after time. One of these seems to happen mainly with people taking ikkyu and shodan and is a reasonably new phenomenon. Candidates are taking turns in opening up and letting their opponent hit them, as if they were doing uchikomi-geiko.

The alternative seems to be that the two fighters use the limited time available to perform a series of ai-men, hitting each other at the same time. What the jury will actually be looking for is the ability to take or make the correct opportunity to attack as well as the ability to show correct basic technique.

Going up the grades, the big danger is attacking too much, particularly at times when no opportunity exists. Two or three successful attacks are all you need, especially if you are aiming for 4th or 5th dan. (Sueno sensei recently suggested that you need to hit 5 times to make 2 clear ippon). Show that you can break your opponent’s centre and take clear points.

Here are some points to keep in mind regardless of the grade you are aiming for:

  • Be careful of your chakuso. Make sure that all your equipment is tied neatly and correctly. Watch the length of your men-himo and ensure that loops and descenders are of equal length.
  • Make correct rei and sonkyo. You should take kamae at the same time as you make sonkyo not before or after.
  • You must not attack when there is no opportunity and you must attack when there is.
  • Commit 100 per cent to any attack you make. Ensure that your kiai is strong and that you make sae on hitting. Ensure too that your zanshin is present on every strike.
  • If you miss, keep good posture as you move through after the attack. A missed point with good posture and kiai can be more impressive than a poorly executed hit.
  • If kirikaeshi is part of your exam strike sharply and accurately and make sure that you do not cross your feet when you step backwards.
  • Do not try techniques that you are not yet good at. Oji do is a good example. Few people do this well and many others try it in gradings. Even if it means relying solely on men, do only what you can do well.

If you are taking this or any other grading next week, do not attempt to make major changes to your kendo. Do the best you can with what you already have and keep these few tips in mind. Oh, and good luck on the day!

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Seme and Tame again

HeronI am back from yet another grading examination. As usual the 4th dan pass rate was reasonably slim and as usual the main reason was visible lack of seme and tame. This seems to be a common thread that runs through every grading.

I deliberately added the word visible because I did see a number of people who made numerous successful attacks, but who still failed the examination. They may or may not have broken their opponents guard to reach the target, but the creation of the opportunity to strike was not visible to the panel.

Seme and tame are inseparable. The ZNKR’s Japanese / English kendo dictionary defines semeru, (seme’s verb form) as “To take the initiative to close the distance with the opponent with full spirit”. Likewise tame is described as “the condition of being composed both mentally and physically and maintaining a spiritually replete state despite the tense situation”.  The two added together and put into plain language, equate to the act of aggressively penetrating your adversary’s kamae whilst maintaining a level state of mind and then being ready to strike the moment your opponent shows a weakness in his guard.

There are numerous examples of tame in the animal kingdom. The way a heron waits by the waterside ready to spear the fish below as soon as it moves, the way a cat watches a mouse, ready to take the chance to attack when it knows the direction it will take, the way a snake almost hypnotises and then strikes its prey; all make good tame role models.

If this is all starting to sound a little too metaphysical, let me remind you  that you also need to make the correct physical actions to back up your kiryoku. As you make seme your left foot should snap into place to allow you to move at will. Your heel should continually be raised  so that the sole of your foot forms a 15 degree angle with the floor and the back of your left knee should be tense. You should hold your breath in your abdomen so that you are ready to explode when you see the perfect opportunity to strike.

Throughout all this your upper body should be relaxed, allowing you to deliver a perfect ippon.

Apologies for constantly raising this subject, but lack of seme and tame really seem to be one of the major barriers to reaching the higher dan grades.

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Grading + KataI just got back from a weekend kendo seminar and grading examination.  As well as kihon and kata practice we had two keiko sessions where I was impressed by the fighting spirit of most of the people who trained with me.

At the conclusion of the seminar I advised the candidates for the subsequent exam to just relax and display their best kendo; which many managed to do, but in some cases minus the element of fighting spirit. What we saw instead were what appeared to be nicely choreographed displays of technique with clear opportunities being taken in turn with little or no resistance.

Grading panellists are looking for positive evidence of candidates’ ability to demonstrate all the key elements of kendo: correct cutting, good posture, hand and foot coordination, timing, the ability to make and react to opportunities and of course fighting spirit. These elements are required in varied quantities in line with the grade being taken, but at any level, you need to show that you are there to fight.

By fighting spirit I do not mean raw aggression, the feeling I am trying to describe is more like ability to keep a reservoir of energy centred in your abdomen so that you are constantly ready to step in and take the initiative and when you see the target to explode into action. At its best it is a combination mental attitude and correct breathing technique that allows you to commit 100 percent to an attack; win or lose.

At the early stages of our kendo careers it is difficult to rationalise applying pressure to our opponent whilst at the same time relaxing, but it gets easier to achieve the more kihon training we do. We can accelerate progress by actively developing the right attitude. By this I mean that even in the most basic drills you should try to make “mind contact” with your opponent and to always think about how you set up each technique by making your opponent move. This leads us into the concept of sen, sen sen no sen and go no sen, but whilst this is not difficult to understand on an intellectual level, the physical ability to make and take opportunity is one of the most difficult ongoing parts of our kendo training and can only be achieved through constant correct training.

So if you failed on this or a recent occasion don’t be discouraged, get back to the dojo, relax your shoulders, take a big breath, centre your energy and get back to kihon training with lots of confidence and controlled aggression.

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Kirikaeshi smallI have written on several occasions about the benefits to be gained from practicing kirikaeshi.  This time I wanted to share some thoughts on just how much kirikaeshi can tell others about your kendo.

I got home last night after the Watchet kendo seminar and grading. In the past in the UK, it was only necessary to include kirikaeshi in grading exams up to third dan.  Now to align with other European kendo countries, its inclusion has been extended to 4th dan  examinations.  With this in mind we did some work on kirikaeshi over the weekend and then as a grading panellist I watched 3 hours of it on Sunday, so as you can imagine, the topic is fresh in my mind.

It really is a very good indicator of an individual’s overall kendo level.  A demonstration of kirikaeshi is not affected by the relative strength of your opponent, it is a simple showcase for your kendo basics. It gives examiners a clear view of your ability to cut correctly with tenouchi, your footwork and ki- ken- tai-itchi and the strength of your kiai.

When as an examiner you watch kirikaeshi the first thing you notice is whether or not the candidate is demonstrating “full spirit”. A big kiai and the ability to make successive strikes in one breath will immediately get the panel on side. It is also easy to see whether the attacker is making correct cuts to the target. For yoko men this should be a a 45 degree angle to the temple and the right arm should be extended and the left hand should remain in the centre of his or her dou mune.

Many kendoka get into the habit of aiming at the opponent’s shinai rather than really trying to hit the target. When they are practising in their own dojo, they should get motodachi to receive the strike as close as possible to their men to encourage a correct cutting action and hasuji. It is also obvious if correct distance is being kept. This is usually a good indicator of someone’s ability to control their footwork.

One question I was asked several times over the weekend was whether tai-atari should be included in kirikaeshi in gradings. There are various schools of thought, but the simple answer is include it if you have to and don’t if you don’t. For instance if motodachi offers strong resistance, make tai-atari, if he goes back after your first strike, then there is no need.

Of course there are other elements of kendo such as timing, opportunity, seme and the understanding of riai that are not visible in kirikaeshi, which is why we go on to a jigeiko demonstration, but kirikaeshi certainly gives the panel a quick overview of a candidates level of competence with kendo’s fundamentals.

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Grading + KataI was recently asked about my thoughts on what was required to pass the 6th and 7th dan grading examinations. Over the years I have heard various theories. One of my favourites was from a successful Japanese candidate for 6th dan, who explained that throughout your tachiai you should have the feeling that you are writing the hiragana character “no” with a writing brush held between your buttocks.

In the EKF’s grading guidelines we get the slightly less fun but arguably more relevant interpretation as follows:

6-7 dan Capture

Like many of the guidelines for passing grading examinations, the meaning becomes clear once you have reached the required level, but appears as if it is designed to confuse those preparing for the next stage.

To the best of my understanding, “Jiri “ or “Jiri itchi” means the unity of technique and theory, so you not only need to deploy successful techniques, but you also need to look like you know why you are deploying them. To put it another way, you should do nothing that has no purpose.

Techniques should correspond with real opportunities to strike, but whereas with 4th and 5th dan the focus is on breaking through the centre with seme, you now need to add the more subtle principle of “hikidasu”, or pulling your opponent in, so that you can respond with debana waza or ojiwaza.

Many people are given over simplistic advice, such as “wait 30 seconds, give a loud kiai and make two good attacks”. This sounds ideal, but it is perhaps too simple a way of saying that as you stand from sonkyo you must make strong mind contact with your opponent and then strive to make opportunities to attack. If you can only make one strike in the brief time available, so be it. On the other hand, if you make or are given 20 clear opportunities to strike you must take advantage of them. The rule is don’t attack when there is no opportunity, but do when there is.

This should be overlaid on all the things you had to get right for the previous gradings – correct footwork, posture, kamae, tenouchi etc. and of course don’t drop the writing brush.

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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.

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This week I received a request to outline the qualities required to  pass the grading examinations up to 5th dan. I recentlyposted on the both the 4th and 5th dan examinations and on the difference between ikkyu and shodan, so I will not go back over the same ground; instead I will talk in more detail about 2nd and 3rd dan requirements.

I have in front of me the ZNKR instructions to examiners from 1998. These may have been since updated or replaced, but these definitions may give you some idea about how much reliance is put on the judgment of individual examiners.

 “A person who is eligible for 2nd-dan shall have learned Kendo basics and his/her skills are in a satisfactory level.”

“A person who is eligible for 3rd-dan shall have learned Kendo basics and applications and his/her skills are in a satisfactory level.”

Not a lot to go on really. The only difference is the introduction of the word “applications” which gives the clue that examiners are looking for the “why” as well as the “how”.

From my own perspective, I believe that there is a clear difference between the two grades. As with sho-dan, nidan requires good basics incorporating ki-ken-tai-ichi. At this level shikake waza is important. You should be able to move correctly and strike men, dou and kote with full spirit and commitment. Your cutting action should be relaxed and correct with the point of the shinai going forward rather than back towards your own nose. In addition it helps if you are able to demonstrate one or two ni-dan waza to show that you have the balance, control and acceleration to make successive attacks.

At this stage seme and tame are not specifically required, but you need to show an appreciation of opportunity and timing so that you can make clear clean attacks rather than sink into a succession of pointless ai-uchi.

For third dan the picture starts to change, as per the subtle suggestion of the ZNKR. We are now looking for all that ni-dan had to offer but with a stronger understanding of timing and opportunity, including the use of oji-waza. As well as the ability to hit your opponent at an opportune moment, you need to create some opportunities to attack. This is where you sow the seeds of seme. Whilst a long way from the strong seme required for 4th and 5th dan or the push / pull ability of the kodansha ranks, you need to create some opportunity by either pushing through the centre or tempting him or her to come forward into your distance.

In both cases there is no need to rush or panic, but better to find one or two clear opportunities to attack; and whatever you do, do not cower or attempt to block your opponent’s strikes. We are judging you on what you can do, not what he can’t.

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The 4th dan grading examination is to my mind, one of the major milestones in a kendoka’s development. Through the kyu grades we expect a player to learn basic technique and coordination, increasing the range of waza and awareness of timing and opportunity through the first three dan grades.

At 4th dan, a whole new dimension is required – the ability to achieve mind contact with your opponent and to control his movement through the strength of your mind and kamae; and to disturb his composure using seme to enable a successful, meaningful attack. Of course 5th, 6th and 7th dan are increasingly difficult, but 4th dan is probably second only to the ultimate 8th in requiring a major change in kendo technique and attitude.

Having just witnessed two 4th dan grading exams in two weeks, (the second as a panellist), I was reminded how big the step is between 3rd and 4th dan by the very different pass rates.  On the most recent occasion the percentage of successful candidates dropped from over 50% to less than 10% between the two grades.

The inherent difficulty is that you are required to make and take every real opportunity to attack but not to attempt any technique when there is no chance of success – that is to say, when your opponent is in full spirit and holding a strong kamae. The way to break through is of course from making seme, either by pushing forward with your whole body and breaking his centre, or by opening your kamae slightly to invite his attack and then beating it with your own technique. You can also break his attack by using harai, osae or suriage, but these should be attached to the correct seme to create the opportunity.

In my view 4th dan is all about control – control of your opponent and more importantly, control of your own movement. You need to ensure that when you move forward that your left foot follows your right and that you are in the position to push off instantly from the ball of your left foot as soon as you make or see the chance to attack. You need to remember to make seme with your feet and body, not just your hands. It is also imperative to use tame; the process of controlling your breath and holding your mind steady in readiness for attack once you are in the correct position.  

There is of course a big element of luck, in that if you draw too strong an opponent, or an individual who is intent on rushing around needlessly, it is hard to exert the required level of control. But if you can master seme and tame, you are well on your way.

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I have returned from the deserted beaches of the Red Sea and am back to kendo. Yesterday after keiko, I was asked about the different qualities required to respectively pass first kyu and first dan gradings. I blithely answered that there is no real difference, just a bit more of the same. Now logically this can be said about the difference between any two grades, but having potentially short-changed my questioner, I looked up the BKA’s sylabus just to check the official line. These are the key points:


  • Act correctly on the shinsa-jo
  • Be tidily dressed, show correct etiquette on and off court
  • Show correct ashi sabaki and ki- ken- tai- ichi for ikkyu level
  • Show reasonable kirikaeshi – attacking side only                                                      
  • Hold the shinai correctly, cut with control, cut on target                                           
  • Be eager to initiate attacks                                                                                          
  • Show the appropriate kata level for ikkyu


  • Everything as per ikkyu plus the following                                       
  • Correct chudan kamae and issoku itto maai                                                                
  • Correct cutting
  • Good kiai, posture and ki- ken- tai- ichi                          
  • Show effective zanshin

Some of the additional requirements look like obvious duplication. such as “cut with control, cut on target” for ikkyu and “correct cutting” for shodan but this could be taken to mean more emphasis is required on the total cutting motion. So you could for instance make a controlled accurate attack for ikkyu but fail shodan because your shoulder, elbow and wrist coordination is lacking.

The emphasis on correct chudan and issoku-ito-maai is clearly additional but begs the question “if chudan is a new requirement for shodan, what kamae is required for ikkyu?” In my view this refers more to the quality of the candidate’s chudan and whether it is effective in preventing your opponent from attacking you at will. Ki-ken-tai-ichi is similar – more of the same but better. The only really new emphasis is on issoku-ito-no-maai,  kiai and zanshin.

Distilling this down and putting it through the filter of my understanding, what separates ikkyu and shodan is better distance and more spirit. In both cases you should have mastered basic kendo movement and be able to attack freely and enthusiatically. Of course different shinsain have slightly different conceptions of what is required, so there is alway the question of interpretation, but that is why in kendo we have panels to issue grades, not individual instructors.

Still the subjective element is always there. Many years ago, I saw a Japanese grading sylabus where the points for each grade were overwriten with the caveat “The standard for ….dan is the standard for ….dan”. My interpretation is that you will pass if enough people on the panel think you should.

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A lot of time and thought from the kendo great and good has gone into creating the current grading system. Though perhaps not perfect, it is a robust, consistent process that does all it can to give everyone an even chance.

I regularly come into contact with practitioners of other martial arts and sports and have very occasionally wondered if you can make valid comparisons of skill levels at the same grade between one discipline and another. For obvious reasons I do not include the one-man federations where everyone becomes 10th dan on joining, but I am thinking more about mainstream budo with established governing bodies. 

Is a kendo shodan equal with a karate shodan? Does a kendo 8th dan match the skill level of a Judo 8th dan? Frankly, I don’t know, but I imagine that the answer is no. Firstly methods of examining candidates are different. In Judo, there is a totting up process, based on shiai performance which plays a major part in grading up to 5th dan. The higher dan grades are awarded for contribution, much as kendo shogo used to be. Karate grades are based on demonstration and evaluation, but many schools also use the shogo system, so I guess that the upper dan grades are based more on physical skill. Even Iaido which shares the same governing body and grade system must differ, as panellists are viewing individual performance rather than the interaction between two players.

Many martial arts have a rigid kyu system with up to 10 kyu grades which must be gained in sequence. Although it varies from country to country, we tend to be far more cavalier about granting kyu grades. In some cases people start on the grading ladder at 2nd or even 1st kyu, as a preliminary to shodan.

 1st to 5th dan are national grades outside Japan and the responsibility of regional federations within. In my experience, 1st and 2nd dan levels in kendo vary from country to country. It is unusual to fail shodan in Japan, where it is viewed as a first step, rather than the pinnacle of “black belt”.  3rd dan seems to be judged fairly consistently around the World.  4th and 5th likewise, but the pass rate for these is becoming smaller everywhere.

With the exception of those granted by a few of the larger country federations, 6th to 8th dan are international or All Japan grades. Since the abolition of 9th dan, these have become increasingly difficult to reach. Unusually candidates are judged on physical and technical ability, regardless of age and physical condition. The kendo grading examination continues to be a measure of how well you did against your selected opponents on the day; with shogo kept in reserve to endorse your character and depth of kendo knowledge.

In my own view, it is probably easier to pass through the kyu grades and reach shodan or nidan than it is in judo. On the other hand I think it is harder to reach the kodansha ranks in kendo. I stress that this is my opinion, based on one-sided knowledge. I would be interested to hear the thoughts of those of you who practice more than one martial art or sport

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