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Archive for the ‘Kendo grading examinations’ Category

4-dan-passesWe just had the grading that I mentioned in my previous post and as with all examinations there were euphoric successes and disappointed failures. From my side of the judges table the most impressive part of the day was the attitude of everyone who took part. Those who passed did so with modesty and those who failed did so with the determination to train hard for the next opportunity.

Within the constraints of the time I had, I tried to give feedback to everyone who asked for it. But for those I missed here are some general points.

For ikkyu and shodan, everyone went for it. There was no problem with staged , ”you hit me then I hit you” performances that I mentioned in previous posts. The most common criticism from the panel was “incorrect cutting” which in most cases meant that the hands finished too low and the monouchi was at too steep an angle so that it hit the mengane rather than the top of the men. There were also a number of people who did not lift the shinai enough to hit correctly.` The remedy is more suburi and uchikomi geiko.

Nidan and sandan mostly failed on timing and opportunity. I am sure that many of the candidates had developed their technique to a pass level, but unless they were able to make or take the opportunity to make a clear strike, there was no way to show the judges that ability. To train for your next grading, think about the opportunities to strike, such as when your opponent initiates his attack or steps back. or visibly breathes in. Also consider ways to break his physical and mental kamae. Don’t just save these for jigeiko, incorporate them in your drill regime.

Yondan and Godan  – Seme and tame were what let many people down. You need to demonstrate that you are controlling your opponent throughout the tachiai. You need to break his or her centre and take your own ideal maai. If you can see an opening when you do this then immediately strike the target. If his kamae stops you from doing this then keep control and hold your breath in your abdomen until he starts to move, then strike. You can encourage him to do this by slightly moving the point of the shinai or slightly moving your front foot forwards. Or as Chiba sensei advised, just slightly bend your forward knee. Incorporate seme into your kihon drills.

For everyone, pass or fail, a little more kata practice would not be wasted.

So congratulations or gambatte kudasai, but please keep going.

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Grading + KataFresh from yet another seminar and grading examination yesterday, I was asked for feedback by a number of people who passed. My apologies for not providing this, but I feel it is more important to use the time available between signing menjo and taking the long drive home to explain to the candidates who were not successful what they need to change to pass next time.

It is of course disappointing to fail an examination, but it is not an uncommon occurrence in kendo. The higher you move up the grade ladder the lower the pass rate. However the difficulty of passing certain grades is not common to everyone and different people reach there “wall” at different points. I have known people to get stuck an 4th dan for 14 attempts and then pass 5th 6th and 7th dan exams first time.

I am only too familiar with the moment when successful candidate numbers are posted on the wall and yours is not there. Reactions can range from resentment at the panel being so strict to self-recrimination for getting it wrong yet again. The healthiest response is to think “what can I learn from this and what can I add to my training  to ensure that I pass next time”.

To be fair, most people ask the question and go away with the determination to change, but often the normal routine gets in the way and they fall back into their old training schedule and old habits. Unfortunately hours in the dojo alone are not going to change anything if they are not spent wisely. As some self-help guru or another said “the more you do of what you do, the more you get of what you have got”.

The first thing to do is to make sure you understand the examiners’ feedback. Ask for clarification if you are at all in doubt. Consult your instructor on what you need to bring to your practice to overcome the challenge you are facing. Make sure you get the chance to train with people who are of your own level and above. If this means travelling, then make plans to do it. Start as soon as possible. As in the case of the seminar I just attended, we try our hardest to show people what to do to improve their kendo. Unfortunately learning new skills the day before a grading exam seldom helps. You need to do at least three months of consistent training to make something an integral part of your kendo behaviour.

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OverheadA friend recently mentioned that he was giving up shiai to concentrate on getting his kendo to a level where he could confidently try for 6th dan. This made me reflect on just how compatible success in shiai was with developing high grade kendo.

Conventional wisdom says that keiko, shiai and tachiai for grading examinations should be the same, and at the highest level of kendo this is true. Watch the All Japan 8th dan Championship and you will see some truly impressive shiai that nevertheless keeps to the fundamentals. At lower levels, and I include the World Kendo Championships and the All Japan Championships, some athletes adapt their kendo to a much more defensive style, using the shinai to block overhead or holding it in front at head height extended downwards. Obviously national pride and the prospect of a secure job make the occasional bit of ducking and diving forgivable, but is it kendo?

In contrast I found some notes that were given to me by Inoue sensei , that made the following point. “Ken means to attack or strike an opponent. Tai means to wait while observing the opponent’s movement calmly. Offence and defence are inseparably combined. This term illustrates the importance of always being mentally and physically ready to defend against the opponent’s counter attack while attacking, and ready to counterattack while defending”

In more basic terms the answer is to keep a good kamae and an unfettered mind without preconception of what you or your opponent might do. You should push for openings and then react to them, or whatever might come in their place, rather than rigidly defend throughout your five minute tachiai.

Another opportunity to watch kendo that embodies the basic principles is at the annual Kyoto enbu taikai where the good and great are responsible for showing their best kendo. It is particularly interesting to watch some of the older  8th dans. I have seen occasions where one or two of these highly skilled kenshi have acknowledged “mairimashita” to a point before it was made, because their experience tells them that their opponent’s seme was strong enough to make the following ippon inevitable.

Perhaps though it is easier to be gracious when the stakes are the bill for lunch or a few beers rather than a job promotion or a new car.

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3_Shikakewaza_Men2Even though I am due to take my first non-kendo break of the year next week. It feels like summer is over and we are back up and running with the autumn kendo schedule. As part of this I sat on the panel for the UK’s only annual grading to 5th dan on Saturday.

We were lucky enough to have Sumi sensei head the panel which consisted of another hachidan, Tashiro sensei, and 4 7th dan examiners. Although we don’t look at each other’s marks, when the result papers came back in time for the kata section; it looked like our votes where almost unanimous. Unfortunately cut-off time for the hall booking did not allow us to give feedback to the many people who asked for it, but for the people trying for third dan and above that I spoke to and the those that I overheard the other panellists advise, the cause of failure was almost identical – the lack of seme.

To vastly oversimplify, the requirement for Ikyu and shodan in kendo exams is to be able to demonstrate good technique with strong spirit and good posture. Nidan should do this with more understanding of timing and opportunity plus the ability to demonstrate renzoku waza. As we climb the grading ladder from there, the focus increases on the importance of making and taking the opportunity to strike. This is often slightly mystically explained along the lines of “you must strike when you see an opportunity and you must not strike when there is no opportunity”.

Unfortunately in kendo, like most other facets of life, opportunities do not just happen; you have to make them. The way we do this is with seme, either pushing through your opponents guard with your own stronger physical and mental kamae, or by creating and breaking your own pressure to draw him into distance with hikidasu. By doing so, we proactively create the chance to strike.

This is half the battle. The other half is being able to launch yourself to strike as soon as you make the opportunity. To make this happen, your left foot must be continually drawn up to the correct position with a feeling of pressure in the ball of the foot and tension at the back of the left knee. Your posture must be perpendicular with just a slight inclination forward, so that you can move smoothly forward as you push with your left foot. As you do so, you simply raise the shinai and strike the target in a timing of one.

If your balance or footwork is incorrect then you will have to adjust your posture before you strike, by then your opponent will have recovered his defence and the moment will have passed.

If you passed on Saturday my warmest congratulations, if you didn’t it’s time to do some more work on seme and attack.

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John on right

John on right

I mentioned in last week’s post that we have two new seventh dans. One of them is my old friend John O’Sullivan whose success is richly deserved. John passed the examination at his 15th attempt, a feat that deserves praise for sheer grit and determination, but what impressed me more was that at the age of 70 he was able to completely change his approach to kendo.

John is a kendo veteran with 40 or so years of kendo behind him. He had previously practised aikido and played rugby. As you can imagine, he is immensely competitive and this will to win sometimes resulted in a defensive approach to kendo. He is also a big, strong individual and has tended to sometimes rely on his physical strength in keiko.

As most of you know, there are no honorary grades in kendo. No concessions are made for age, infirmity or services to kendo. You either demonstrate that you meet the standard against your opponents on the day or you stay where you are.

John has obviously been reflecting on past grading exams and thinking about the changes he needed to make. A few months ago he attended Ozawa sensei’s seminar and was given the advice that he needed to continue forward after striking men rather than hitting and stopping. With that in mind he has been using me for target practice as part of our weekly keiko.

We were regularly working on men drills and although most of what we were doing was correct, something was not working properly. After a few sessions I noticed that as he stepped in to make seme, he was dropping the point of his shinai. This not only gave a clear indication that he intended to attack, but also resulted in his balance being on the front foot as he attacked, which meant that he was leaning forward after the strike. Like many things in kendo you can argue which was cause and which was effect. Lack of hikitsuke could result in the point dipping or vice versa but from John’s perspective the road to Damascus lay in the realisation that he was dropping the point.

At the examination he started pretty much the same way as he has done in previous gradings, the then pushed off to take an immaculate debana men followed by three steps forward and a turn back to engage with his partner. He then did the same again before the call of yame. With his second opponent he pretty much repeated the process.

Although a panellist for the 4th and 5th dan examination which happened at the same time, I was fortunate enough to finish in time to see both his tachiai. I also had to walk past the table where the results were collated and could see that he was not only one of the 4 successful candidates out of 22, but that he had pass marks from all six judges. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Well done mate!

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4th DanI 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.

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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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