Posts Tagged ‘kendo grading examinations’

Courtesy of eBay

Courtesy of eBay

We have scheduled a kyu grading at my local dojo for this coming Thursday and we were discussing the format. My preference is that candidates who are taking their first kendo examination should be allowed to demonstrate basic technique without the pressure of fighting for opportunities against an opponent, or being constrained by wearing men and kote. The requirement would be for them to deliver kirikaeshi and a pre-arranged sequence of kihon attacks against an armoured motodachi.  Another option or possible addition is the inclusion of the “Bokuto ni yoru Kendo Kihon Keiko-ho” or Training Method for Fundamental Technique with Bokuto.

My rationale is that it is difficult enough to learn correct technique and footwork without the added complication of understanding an opponent’s timing, particularly if he or she is equally new to kendo. There is also a danger that when new kendoka are told to “fight” there is a temptation to block or move to avoid being hit, whereas if they are in the role of kakarite, they can concentrate on correct technique and posture.

Grading examinations really are the “tip of the iceberg”.  There is an often quoted urban myth that pre-war, adult beginners in some Japanese dojo were left to practice suburi in a quiet corner for at least a year and then admitted to the dan ranks. In the present day UK, it is more likely that you will get to wear bogu after your 6 or 8 week beginners’ course.

Wearing men and kote too can be more challenging than experienced kenshi realise. Of course using these essential pieces of kendo kit eventually becomes second nature, but I have seen several instances of beginners quitting because the feeling of being blinkered by a men or being hit on the head felt so unnatural. On the other hand some brave individuals, who start kendo with the image of the armoured samurai, ready to do battle from day one in mind, find it hard to be patient while they are learning the basics.

Buying bogu too early in your kendo career can be as punitive financially as it is in terms of technique development.  eBay and the kendo message boards regularly have used bogu for sale and I am sure that there is much more stashed in cupboards and attics against the slim chance of the owner starting again.

I am interested in your views on when we should start wearing bogu. Should we get the basics right first, or is it better to at least have a taste of keiko in armour during the early stages of our kendo careers?

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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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Brussels GradingI was asked by the British Kendo Association’s new grading officer to suggest some questions for the written exam that forms part of all UK grading examinations.

I won’t reveal my suggestions, just in case they want to surprise you with them at your next grading, but the exercise made me think about the essential qualities for each grade. Obviously the written questions reflect the points that the panel are looking for in the jitsugi and kata sections, but your answers confirm whether or not you understand the theory as well.

Remember that the qualities for each grade are incremental. When you take the examination for second dan, you need to maintain all the qualities you demonstrated for first dan, plus the new elements that are unique to second dan. Most country organisations  have a list of the requirements for each grade on their web-site and the FIK and EKF sites have the FIK guidelines, so if you are preparing for an examination make sure you read them. The points that I have listed are those that stand out to me as essential for each grade, but this is just my personal view.

  • Ikkyu – The first official grade and hopefully the one that you will build on as part of a long and successful kendo career. You have been working hard to build correct kihon, but my “must have” is good reigi, demonstrating correct ritsu-rei and sonkyo . Your chakuso, or the way you wear your equipment and hold the shinai should also be correct.
  • Shodan- This is where we look more critically at your technique, so you need to have developed strong spirit and correct posture and kamae and be able to strike accurately with ki-ken-tai-itchi.
  • Nidan – Fluidity of movement and footwork should now be added, so we are looking at your ability to deliver nidan waza.
  • Sandan – This is where you have to show that you really understand distance, timing and opportunity. The beginning stage of seme is something you should strive to demonstrate.
  • Yondan – “Seme and tame”. You need to show that you can break your opponents centre and use debana and oji waza.
  • Godan – “More seme and tame” but this time going further to show that you can dominate with the strength of your kigamae and to pull your opponent in for oji waza.
  • Rokudan and Nanadan – For these it is about demonstrating the understanding of riai or the rationale for each technique.
  • Hachidan – I am still thinking about that one.

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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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