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Posts Tagged ‘kendo grading examinations’

IMG_0985The past weekend I had a very enjoyable two and a half days in Dublin. Together with Terry Holt of London’s Mumeishi dojo, Yoshi Inoue from Kenyu in Paris and Steve Bishop of Edinburgh University, I went to help the Irish Association run a kendo seminar and grading. The weekend format should be familiar to most kendoka – keiko on Friday night, seminar on Saturday and grading examination on Sunday. Activities were of course separated by evenings of Guinness and craic to give the event a truly Irish flavour.

Unusually, the weekend attracted people with a wide range of experience levels from beginner to fifth dan, so we separated the seminar into groups, reinforcing the basics for the junior members and working on more technical elements with the seniors.

The grading examination included an “open kyu” session to give the less experienced attendees the opportunity to be assessed by instructors from outside their usual dojo group. For the newest members, this meant taking a test without wearing bogu where the objective was to demonstrate a number of kihon waza and kirikaeshi against armoured motodachi.

It has been a while since I was involved in a grading of this type and I found it interesting to see how much more relaxed and uninhibited candidates were when they did not have to worry about what their opponents were doing. People with only weeks or months of experience were able to deliver waza to a level that a dan grade would be proud of. As the examination moved to the next group it was obvious that it becomes much more difficult to execute techniques in keiko when you have the complexities of distance and timing of an opponent.

This made me think about the optimum period for beginners to train before they put on armour. If it is too short, they start to develop bad habits by becoming competitive before they build good kihon foundations. Do it for too long and they become bored and quit. I have heard stories of beginners left to do suburi on their own for a year before being brought into the group. I also know of clubs where newbies are allowed to wear bogu after 2 weeks. Typically the induction period varies from 6 to 12 weeks in UK clubs.

An added complexity is that many newbies who seem to enjoy learning the basic techniques lose their enthusiasm when they join the main class. This may be because the reality of training in uncomfortable, heavy bogu and being hit instead of just hitting makes them realise that the kendo path becomes increasing steep and difficult.

I would be interested to know how you structure beginner’s courses. What do you think is the ideal period before introducing them to bogu and how do you structure the transition from one stage to another.

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Brussels GradingReflecting on the Brussels grading, I am reminded that the higher your age, the more difficult it becomes to pass. In my experience, this is not just true for Europe, but applies everywhere including the kodansha grading examinations in Japan.
Now I don’t for a moment think that kendo is ageist. We are privileged to be able to participate at ages that would have exceeded the retirement points in many other sports. Nor when looking at the array of venerable sensei on some grading panels do I think there is any bias against senior candidates. It is however an irrefutable truth that it becomes more difficult to force your body to do good kendo as you reach your 50s and 60s.
Knees and ankles wear out, particularly after years of training on hard floors. Forward motion becomes more difficult and some older kenshi start to rely more on upper-body strength to hit the target. Unfortunately this is not the way forward.
I was fortunate to receive some concerted coaching from Chiba sensei when in my mid 50s that made me realise that I had to adapt my kendo to my age. The key points were that you needed to find your own distance, keep your footwork light, but still forward, and use your opponents’ movement to your advantage. Rather than making your attacks bigger and harder, they should be smaller and lighter.
The more you advance in grade the more important seme becomes. This does not mean that you should constantly push in to take shikake waza, but you should also use hiki-dasu to make your opponent move towards you so that you can execute debana and oji-waza. The logic is that when your opponent steps towards you, you need only take half a step to reach the target. And it’s not always necessary to make fumikomi. A sliding step forward can be sufficient if you have good ki-ken-tai-itchi. Zanshin is of course important, but you do not need to gallop across the dojo to make your point. Two or three steps through with good posture and kamae, before turning to re-engage should be enough.
Kizeme is a necessity. Mochida sensei’s often quoted truth that when your body becomes frail you have to rely on “indomitable spirit” to subdue your opponent is key. You should use your mental strength to make the opponent move in a direction and timing where you can hit him. One of my other favourite quotes on this subject is from Kikuchi Koichi sensei who said “as I become older I move more slowly, but I also see my opponent’s movement more slowly”.

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FIK-Euro-Zone-referee-seminarFY2010-2I returned last night from Brussels where I attended the annual European Zone Referees’ Seminar. These events take place in the three FIK zones, Europe, Americas and Asia and serve the purpose of both updating referee skills and as a selection forum for referees for upcoming regional championships and in some years World Championships.

For those of you who have not attended one of these functions, the format tends to be fairly consistent every year and in all three zones. The ZNKR send a delegation of three 8th dans as instructors to share their knowledge and each member country sends a group of referee candidates to benefit from their instruction. The referees work together in two groups; red numbers – who are candidates for the next regional championships and black numbers – people who are either newer referees or who are not available for selection but who want to keep their skills up to scratch. Each country also sends groups of fighters to take part in the shiai.

The event takes place over a weekend and includes keiko sessions on Friday and Saturday nights and at the end of Sunday morning. The grand finale is a grading examination up to 7th dan, which in Europe is one of the few opportunities to try for this grade. The weekend is a great chance to meet up with old kendo friends and to make new ones.

The actual seminar takes the form of referees working together in groups of three and the 8th dan instructors stop the shiai to point out mistakes and invite discussion from the rest of the group. Candidates are numbered according to age and seniority and each session starts with the lowest numbers first on court. For some reason, probably due to the retirement of some of my senior colleagues, I was number two red. I therefore had the pleasure of being in the first group to referee; the one that invariably gets stopped most often to set the tone for the weekend. In some years there seems to be an emphasis on a particular aspect of the shiai rules. This year it was not so. The sessions served more to emphasise correct positioning of each group and the criteria for judging valid yuko datotsu.

The groups of fighters did a great job, treating each shiai as if it were the final of the World Championship. This year I was particularly pleased to see that the British national coach, Malcolm Goodwin, had arrived with a team of our younger competitors who fought well and gained a number of compliments on their attitude and team spirit from the EKF organisers.

My last job before leaving was to sit on the grading panel for the first to fifth dan group. This was of course an honour and a pleasure to do, but sadly it meant that I was not able to watch the 6th and 7th dan grading which took place simultaneously in the next court. Two candidates out of 14 passed 7th dan including Mr Kurogi from Belgium. Our team manager Malcolm Goodwin was one of the few to pass 6th dan and in my court two British guys Alan Thompson and Keith Holmes passed 5th dan. Congratulations to all the successful candidates, name checked or otherwise. I am now going to unload a case of duty-free wine and two sets of wet kendo equipment from the car.

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I have been reviewing the results of the poll on possible future Olympic status and looking at your comments. More than anything else I was overwhelmed by the number of impassioned, well thought out, well written arguments both in favour and against. Counting comments on the blog itself, in the poll, on Facebook and other media; this has been the most commented upon post of my blogging career and I had far more pleasure in reading your thought than in writing mine.

The poll itself stands as I write, at 77% of readers against Olympic inclusion and 23% for. It has remained around this percentage from the start of voting. I will leave the poll open to give those on holiday a chance to air their views.  As I expected, the comments around the poll were far more enlightening. Opinions ranged from the reactionary “let’s not only keep kendo out, but take it back to an earlier form”, (including trips and strangles); to we have to accept the inevitable, to lets embrace the Olympics and the benefits they will bring.  Overall we seem to be a fairly conservative bunch that prefer the way things are at the moment.

On a completely unrelated front, I had the honour of being part of a panel this weekend for a grading examination from ikkyu to 5th dan. The examiners were two Japanese Hachidan and four British Nanadan.

I did not record the pass rates, but as usual, they decreased progressively up the grade scale. My recollection however is that jitsugi passes at the higher end were around 33% for 4th dan and 25% for 5th. I had to leave quite quickly after the event, so did not have the chance to give as much feedback as I would have hoped to people who missed the boat this time. To be frank the same reasons for failing were pretty much common to everyone, so here is some catch-all advice.

I sat out on the ikkyu, shodan exam, so can’t comment. For the nidan and sandan fails the reason was mainly that there was not sufficient pressure on the back foot to allow the smooth launch into an attack.  In some cases grip was wrong, or kamae too stiff to allow free movement. A few people lifted the shinai with just the right hand, holding it vertically before striking, others made their approach with the shinai in the air rather than reaching distance and lifting and striking in the timing of one.

Fourth and fifth dan candidates knew what was expected. To a man, or woman, they stood up, took their time, let out a great big kiai and then many started to fall apart. We all know that we have limited time, so it is natural to try to demonstrate attacks in the few minutes allowed. Most however did not make sufficient seme and allowed their nerves to force them to attack when there was no opportunity. For many people, once they were in this downward spiral, the attack rate increased as the opportunities decreased.

The only two fifth dan passes performed at a significant level above their peers. Despite one or two misses in one case, both made strong pressure and seme, dominated the centre and attacked opportunities that they had created. Unfortunately there was no happy ending. Both failed the kata

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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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Back in 2009 I wrote a piece about tsuki http://wp.me/stBQt-tsuki . Since then, I have continued to see the occasional Youtube video of this technique resulting in brilliant ippon in the All Japan Championships, but I never see the technique practised.

I have enjoyed keiko on four continents (I still hope to get to Australia), and have hardly ever seen anyone doing tsuki drills. I have witnessed numerous university practises and the occasional police tokuren session in Japan where tsuki has been ignored. This begs the question – how do those athletes who excel in tsuki get to be so good at it?

There are lots of implicit embargos on tsuki. It should not be done by beginners or children, or used by more experienced players against the same. It is also thought to be impolite to do tsuki against a senior teacher. This does actually make sense as keiko between instructor and student tends to take the form of hikitategeiko, where the senior partner subtly makes openings for the junior. In this situation it would be extremely rude to charge in with a heart-stopping tsuki when sensei kindly opens for you to attack men.

There is also a feeling, although I have never heard anything definitive on this point, that tsuki should not be attempted in grading examinations. Having watched the hachidan shinsa five or six times, I have only seen tsuki from one individual who has become a minor legend. At every grading, his reputation causes a knot of anticipation where the watchers go through a “will he, won’t he?” speculation. Every time I have seen him in action his very impressive tsuki emerges before the end of his second tachiai. I am a long way from being able to understand whether this is the reason for him not getting through to the niji shinsa, but his kendo looks pretty good to me.

Perhaps I am painting too negative a picture. Tsuki is included in most courses and seminars, but normally its inclusion is brief and it seems to be there as the token fourth technique. Nevertheless the kendo world seems to be split between those who can’t do tsuki and those who excel at it. It is probably the result of my over active imagination, but I have the suspicion that those who can spend their nights away from prying eyes practising tsuki in the dark.

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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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