Posts Tagged ‘The 8th Dan Challenge’

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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The hot sports news from Russia this week is that President Vladimir Putin has been promoted to 8th Dan in Judo. Clearly a great achievement and an even greater one as his last recorded grade was 6th Dan.  Judoka please correct me if I am wrong, but this is I believe, not an unusual scenario. If my memory serves me correctly the higher grades in Judo tend to be awarded for contribution to the sport; rather than being earned in grading examinations.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, this is not the case with kendo. Anyone who has watched the 8th Dan examination in Kyoto in May or its November counterpart in Tokyo, will be aware of the bravery and determination of candidates in their 70s and 80s still trying to demonstrate the physical qualities required to take hachidan.

Many of us have seen the documentary “The 8th Dan Challenge” where we watched the preparations of Ishida sensei, then 48 years old and Miyamoto sensei, who was approaching the age of 80. I had the opportunity to talk to Miyamoto sensei several years ago in Kyoto. I mentioned that the programme had been seen widely outside Japan. His response was that he was embarrassed when it was shown in Japan and that he could now say that he was embarrassed on a World scale. He did however say this with a smile. At the time of our conversation he was still nanadan.

There also appear to be no exceptions made in kendo for the great and good. The late Japanese Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto remained at 5th Dan after a lifetime in kendo.

For kendoka who want to climb the grading ladder within FIK (International Kendo Federation) or its member organisations, there is no short-cut. The pass percentages at this year’s examinations in Aichi were just over 17% and 12% for 6th and 7th Dan respectively and a daunting 0.84% for hachidan in Kyoto .  Even shogo, which were at one time awarded by recommendation, now have to be earned by examination. For the ZNKR Kyoshi, even non- Japanese candidates have to physically attend the examination in Tokyo.

The ZNKR does have other ways of recognising outstanding contribution to kendo development such as the prestigious Korosho. This award is presented to few people and is meant as an accolade for a lifetime of service to kendo. My colleague John Howell is one of the few non-Japanese to receive the Korosho. In his case it was presented for many years of continuous service to European Kendo.

When it comes to grade however, no matter how great one’s service to the organisation, it’s a matter of getting in the registration queue at the Nippon Budokan and doing your best for 120 seconds.

So congratulations Putin sensei, but for us poor old kendoka – Gambatte kudasai!

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