Posts Tagged ‘Grading’

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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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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From the comments to my last post, it is obvious that grading examinations can be controversial. As a regular grading panelist and having been on the other side of the judges table numerous times both in Europe and Japan, I feel it is worth sharing my thoughts on how I perceive the process. 

I can of course only speak for myself, but as part of my own development I have asked a number of senior sensei for their guidance in this area.

Firstly and most importantly, I believe that we look for good points rather than the bad. We would rather see candidates pass than fail. We need evidence that a candidate can perform to the required standard for the grade and if this cannot be produced in the time allowed, then they will unfortunately fail. I have often felt palpable relief amongst the judges when someone has managed to make a good technique within the closing seconds of the grading.

Serious mistakes however tend to rule people out at an early stage. Not necessarily because these errors are critical in their own right, but because they demonstrate an inability to do what you need to do. For instance, if your left heel is on the floor in chudan kamae, you show that you are not able to move forward instantly when you see an opening. If you step back from sonkyo you show a lack of pressure and seme. If your posture is incorrect then you won’t be able to hit with ki-ken-tai-ichi, and the list goes on.

There is a level of subjectivity. There are written guidelines for panelists, but at the end of the criteria for each grade is a caveat which translates along the lines of  “must demonstrate that he or she has reached the standard of — dan”. However in kendo, we are as a rule, two dan grades above the level we are judging. You also have five or six individual judges, with their own, un-discussed opinions. This is in my view, much fairer than the system in some martial arts; where one solitary shihan can dispense grades at will.

Kendo also strives to eliminate bias by making the process anonymous, which is why zekken are removed and in Japan, overly large names on hakama are taped over. In the case of the kodansha gradings in Tokyo or Kyoto with 1000+ candidates and eight to ten panels, applicants and judges rarely know each other.  For gradings in Europe there is a real chance that the panel will recognise many of the candidates. In my experience we try to divorce the person from the kendo displayed on the day. 

The system is of course not perfect, but I believe that it is as robust as it can be.

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Of the Japanese martial sports, kendo has been exported in the most unadulterated form and retains an etiquette system based on traditional courtesies. Importance is still placed on the correct angle of bow whereas in say judo, standard practice in shiai is to give the slightest of nods before pulling open the judogi to make it difficult for the opponent to grip. I have seen an opposite example in one form of karate, where before performing a very athletic, showy kata, the demonstrator almost jack-knifed, with his head in line with his knees in the opening bow.

I have posted before about etiquette and whilst I bundle it all together under the term reigi, I touched on reiho, or the manifestation of physical actions that show courtesy. As with all my posts, this is not meant to be a scholarly examination of an aspect of kendo, but more hard practical advice. This one is particularly so, because whilst reiho and reigi are complex subjects, not knowing how to show the courtesies correctly, can significantly harm your progress in kendo.

I was discussing the recent grading failure of a candidate for a senior dan and I remarked that his jitsugi on the day had been reasonably impressive, and that I was personally surprised that he had failed. It was then pointed out by my friend who had witnessed his earlier keiko with several of the hachidan on the panel, that he had committed a number of etiquette sins in hitting and dropping his shinai, turning his back and walking away and making an incorrect bow. OK, that was not part of the examination, you might say, but the sensei may have taken the view that a candidate for a senior grade should be able to demonstrate basic etiquette and consciously or unconsciously taken that into consideration in their decision.

Harking back to the 4th and 5th dan panel in Brussels and my own previous experience as a grading panellist, someone starting the exam by bowing incorrectly or demonstrating wobbly sonkyo, needs to do a lot to atone for the shaky start. So whilst I suggest that you should spend some time researching reiho, here is a quick survival guide for grading reigi:-

  • Walk into the shinsa jo in a straight line as directed.
  • Walk in to a distance where you can comfortably reach the starting line in three steps.
  • Bow to your opponent to exactly 15 degrees, keep a straight back and bend from the hips, keep your eyes on his.
  • Do not bow to the judges.
  • Bring you shinai up to the hip with your thumb on the tsuba.
  • Take three steps forward stopping just behind the line.
  • Extend your shinai into the chudan position on the third step as you go down into sonkyo. Do not draw it like a sword, but simply bring it up and over, taking the shortest path.
  • Ensure that your sonkyo is wide and balanced. Take a minute to build your composure and fighting spirit.
  • Either make sonkyo with your feet in a kendo stance so you can stand up in position, or if you prefer to have your feet level in sonkyo, move your right foot forward, as you stand. Never go back or to the side!

All you have to do now is two 2 minute sessions that look as good as the opening rei.

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Freshly inspired by Chiba-sensei’s thoughts on seme, I taught at a pre-grading seminar over the weekend. I made sure that every shikake and oji waza drill we practiced, started from making the appropriate opportunity, either by breaking the opponents centre or by inviting him to attack and taking away the point. Many of the students there visibly bought into the concept that you win in Kendo by creating the opportunity and that the strike is just the completing statement. So far, so good.

On the afternoon of the second day, we had the grading and the ikkyu and shodan candidates did a great job of demonstrating their ability. When we got to the 2nd and 3rd dan candidates the pass rate dropped dramatically. The reasons for failure were those I listed in a similar post after the last grading. Mainly people did not pass second and third dan because they did not hit anyone.

By hit, I mean strike the target correctly with clear intention and opportunity.  Taking it on one level, they did not make opportunities by using seme. Instead they waited for a reasonable interval before rushing in and attacking without breaking the opponents centre or coaxing them out of centre. This resulted in various strikes that missed or at best achieved ai-uchi.

This was disappointing because the grading panel needs to see clear evidence that the candidates can stike with correct timing and opportunity before they can put their circles in the box. Most of the failures had been making and taking perfectly good opportunities at the previous day’s seminar, so I can only assume that nerves or adrenalin overdose were the problems on the day.

Many senior Japanese instructors talk about the grading requirement as “having done sufficient keiko”, this does not mean turning up twice a week and having fun beating all comers, it means practicing kihon and waza until they become instinctive.

So guys, more kihon drills starting from seme and the next examination should be a piece of cake.

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Men Drill

Men Drill

Since my last post, several people have made the point that it is fine to say what they did wrong, but it might be more helpful to tell them how to fix it. So here goes – do more kihon practice.

OK, let me be more specific. I highlighted three problems: 

  • Not using the left hand
  • Not being able to push off instantly from your left foot
  • Not hitting your opponent

The first two are the easiest to resolve and in doing so there is a good chance number three  will go away, so I will save that for another day.

The left hand problem is relatively simple, given that you want to change. Most people can cut correctly when doing basic exercises and drills, but stiffen up when they get into jigeiko.  To my view this suggests that we all should do more kihon and less free practice, but back to the point in hand! You get the cutting action right through practicing correct suburi. Try the following:- Stand in front of a mirror, (or get someone to video you), and make sure your posture is correct – back straight, with your balance just slightly forward from perpendicular, feet well spaced and shoulders relaxed. Now look at your kamae. Your left hand should be in line with your navel and your right hand directly in front, touching the tsuba with your knuckle. The point of your shinai should line up with the throat of an imaginary opponent of your own height. Your arms should be relaxed and close to your body but with elbows and wrists relaxed. You should also allow space for your arms to move freely without sticking on your dou.

Make sure that you are gripping correctly, hold the shinai  with your little finger and ring finger with the rest of your hand loose. Now start suburi with the feeling of pulling up with the left hand to just above your men. The point of the shinai should not go back too far, 45 degrees at the most. When you make the strike, ensure that your left hand always stays below your right, but that you extend your right wrist so that the eventual destination of the shinai is the chin of your opponent, squeezing gently with your right hand just after reaching the top of the men. Ensure that you lift and strike in one continuous movement and that your hands are turned in rather than out. Finally come to a complete stop after each cut and ensure that your balance and posture is right before the next.

This can be done in pairs, taking turns to hold the shinai above your head and stepping backwards and forwards for your opponent to make renzoku suburi. Chiba sensei suggests doing this in a set of 200, so you keep relaxed from the outset.

To my mind the best way to fix the drive from the left foot,  is to work in pairs, wearing men and kote. Face each other in issoku, itto maai and build pressure between you with strong kiai and kamae. Ensure posture and kamae are correct, then kakarite should move his weight from 50:50 to 70:30 left foot : right foot and also 70:30 between ball of foot and heel on the left foot. When motodachi feels that pressure has built to a maximum, he or she should make a small step forward on the right foot, opening their kamae and inclining their head forward. Kakarite should instantly push off from the left foot and strike in one action.  Practise this in sets of four or five changing motodachi after each set. Now you have the perfect debana men – which should keep you going until you make hachidan.

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Shinsa feedback

Pre-grading seminar

Pre-grading seminar

Having just returned from sitting as a panelist at a grading examination and having instructed at the pre-shinsa seminar, I was asked for feedback by many of the unsuccessful candidates. Although this examination was for candidates from ikkyu to 4th dan, I realised that most people who failed did so for the same reasons. So having posted before on the things you need to do pass, this post is a simple guide to the 3 mistakes that will cause you to fail.


  1. You did not hit anyone – it is surprising how often candidates get to the end of their 2 minutes without having managed to make a successful strike. There are various reasons for this. In more senior shinsa it can be because both players have strong kamae and it is not possible to break through, but more often than not it is because people wait rather than seizing the initiative with seme. This can result in successive ai-uchi attacks where one person attacks every time their partner initiates their own attack.
  2. You did not lift your left hand up – people seem to confuse quick small attacks with a static left hand, causing the right hand to do all the work. Typically this makes it impossible to hit the top of your opponent’s men with sufficient sae to make a successful yuko datotsu. Too much right hand power also spoils your posture causing you to lean forward or leave your left hip and foot behind.
  3. You did not have sufficient weight on your left foot – this is related to the two earlier points, but you need to have enough weight on the ball of your left foot to push the right foot forward as soon as you see or make an opportunity, thereby being able to strike instantly without having to transfer weight from one foot to the other.

Of course this is simplistic and there are other elements such as kihaku and zanshin that impact performance, but by and large if you get these basics right, you will get at least to 4th dan without too many problems. The good news is that fixing these problems is not rocket science. Good kihon practice including kirikaeshi and uchikomi geiko is the cure. Do not go back to do what you were doing before until the next grading. As someone once said “The more you do of what you do, the more you get of what you have got.”

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Shodan shinsa

Courtesy of FIK

Courtesy of FIK

Sometime back I wrote a post on how to train for grading examinations. Having sat on the 4th and 5th dan panel in Brussels last week and as I am scheduled to be an examiner for the Irish National Grading this coming week end, I thought it might be useful to highlight some of the points that the panel will be looking for on the day.

The purpose of the kendo grading examination is to allow you to demonstrate what you have learned and what you are capable of. It is unlikely that you will pull something out of the bag that you can not do in your normal keiko. You need to have put in the quantity and quality of practice since your last grading to justify promotion. There are some people that treat the shinsa like a lottery – turn up often enough and your number will eventually come up. The chances are if you are doing the same things you did the last time you failed, you will fail again.

There are some excellent guides available to tell you step by step what to do for each grade, so this is just a quick overview of the points that catch an examiners eye:

• Chakuso – clean unfaded hakama and keikogi. Hakama should be the right length, keikogi wrinkle free at the back. Bogu should be tied correctly with men himo of the correct length. Shinai should be in good condition with no protruding tsuru or nakayui and the tsuba should reach the bottom of the tsuka.

• Entry and exit – make sure that you understand the pattern for entering and crossing the shinsajo operating at that grading. Either watch the people before you, or ask if you are in the first group.

• Sonkyo – bow correctly and make a strong confident sonkyo with a straight back. If you have knee problems tell the organisers and make an alternative salutation.

• Kamae – keep a strong kamae and make sure your left heel is off the ground.

• Full spirit – give yourself time to settle and make a strong kiai. Attack at the right opportunity with full spirit. If your opponent counters or stops you with his shinai, do not let it break the force of your attack. Do not show emotion at, or acknowledge your opponents successful attack, just go on to take or make the opportunity for your own technique.

• Correct posture – keep your posture straight, do not duck to avoid being hit.

• Ki-ken-tai-ichi – remember that your hands and feet should work together.

• Seme – take the centre befor you hit. If you can make your opponent move first and take debana waza, you should impress the panel.

• Zanshin – show good zanshin, do not showboat. Ensure that you turn and go forward to the correct distance after each attack.

• Most importantly – keep a clear mind and do not panic into attacking when there is no opportunity.

Good luck!

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