Posts Tagged ‘8th dan’

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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Ishida sensei in Kyoto

With Ishida sensei in Kyoto

To quote Marshal McLuhan “The real news is bad news”. Whilst we had a wonderful 15th European Kendo Championship with some excellent kendo and a great deal of good fellowship, one of the most discussed aspects of the event, certainly amongst people who did not attend, was a single example of rough play. I can understand why people are concerned about this type of behaviour as it has a detrimental effect on kendo, but maybe the time has come to think about the more positive aspects of kendo.

For those of us who follow the kendo groups on Facebook it would be difficult to miss that the All Japan 8th Dan Championships were held recently.  Thanks to the AJKF there are many clips of shiai from this taikai on YouTube. For many years I have felt that this competition gives us some of the best examples of kendo that we could wish to follow. Whether it is a “chicken or egg” phenomenon, I do not know the answer. Either the sensei who achieve 8th Dan did so because they display a perfect understanding of “riai”, or as 8th dans they are conscious of their positions as kendo role models and perform accordingly in the shiai-jo. Either way I think that this is the sort of kendo that we should aspire to.

Tani sensei on left sitting

Tani sensei on left sitting

There are lots of great examples from this year’s taikai but the final between last year’s winner, Tani sensei and Ishida sensei says it all. Not only do both fighters display fantastic awareness and kihaku throughout the shiai, but they are ready to attack instantly at any opportunity. Their distances throughout the match are text-book and on the few occasions when they get close, they separate by mutual consent without losing mind contact and concentration. There is no wasted effort, only real opportunities are taken and when they are, the action is clear and decisive. Ishida sensei’s single winning point is a great example – he explodes forward to nearly take men and as Tani sensei tries to recover is kamae he comes forward to do it again this time with a clear target and unanimous ippon from the referees. If you haven’t done so already take a look.


Both of these sensei are in their fifties and there were some equally impressive shiai from competitors well into their sixties, so this taikai holds particular interest for oldies like me. I think however that kendo of this kind should be what we all should aim for in our long term development.

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Referee seminar, Tani sensei front far right.

This past WKC seems to have generated more debate on the future of kendo than any previous championship. Whilst the results were fairly predictable, the closeness of the whole competition surprised many people.

Numerous comments were made about supporter reaction, the defensive nature of the final and the inevitable discussion about refereeing decisions continues. In my previous two posts I touched on the fact that there is a general leveling of global kendo and I obviously defended my referee colleagues with the “it’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have” argument. I have however so far refrained from writing about my perceptions of team tactics.

I for once allowed myself to get slightly bad tempered in responding to a point made on LinkedIn’s kendo forum, which stated that weight training has become the norm for those engaged in competitive kendo. This may or may not be true, but for it to be postulated online, supported only by second hand hearsay evidence, is ridiculous. Looking at some of the later stage shiai however, if I had to guess the coaches’ instructions, I would suggest that they were along the lines of “don’t lose”.

One of the highlights of my week in Novara was being taken to pieces by Tani sensei in the referees’ keiko. Curious to see how he performed against bigger and better opponents, I resorted to YouTube to watch him in action in the finals and semi finals of this year’s All Japan 8th dan Championships.

What I saw was very different to some of the kendo at the 15WKC.  Shiai were conducted calmly in good distance with minimal time spent in tsubazeriai. When tsubazeri did occur, separation was instant and by mutual consent. Points were clean and clear and invariably graciously acknowledged.

Perhaps at eighth dan there is recognition of the fact that you are a kendo role model and this is what keeps your shiai as an example of correct kendo. Having said that, there is value in betting that a number of the athletes who competed in the finals of this and previous WKC’s are sooner or later going to reach that exalted position. It would be interesting to put a time machine into fast forward to look at their future performances at hachidan level. I expect that we will see tachiai which are just as dignified as Tani sensei’s.

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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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