Bowing to the “7”

Editors note:

The following is a guest post by NYC Ken-Zen dojo’s iaido instructor, Pam Parker. Last year Pam became one of only a small handful of American’s to pass the iaido nanadan exam in Japan (and probably the first American female) and as such I immediately asked her for her thoughts on the matter. She ruminated a little bit over it, but finally here they are!!

Note that the article is in two halves: an ‘omote’ part which describes how the testing process works, and an ‘ura’ part that is more personal in nature.


This is the omote (for people who are not familiar with Iaido).

The All Japan Kendo Federation holds high-level exams for Iaido, the sword-drawing art that is one of three arts under its aegis, twice a year, in November and in June-July. These are national-level tests, and are attended by candidates from all over the world. These twice-yearly tests are for 6th and 7th-degree black belt (called ‘dan’) ranks. The highest degree available nowadays is 8th-dan. The test for that rank is only held once a year, in Kyoto at the beginning of May. The November tests are in Tokyo, with more than 300 people testing. The summer tests are in two locations each year, one in the East of Japan, and the other in the West. These tests each have fewer candidates.

I went to Tokyo in November of 2013, trying for 7th-dan for the first time. I did not pass. This July (2014), I went to the Western part of Japan, to Okayama Prefecture, to try again. This test was scheduled for Friday, July 11.

All of my Japanese teachers have been from the Western part of Japan: Hiroshima, Okayama and Kobe. So I had some confidence based on that. Also, I had been working very hard to improve since November.

I went to Kobe (just west of Osaka) on Friday, July 4, for a week of preparation. Every day, sometimes once, sometimes twice, I practiced with my teacher, who holds 8th dan, in his private school.

The day before the test, we traveled to Ako City, for practice with some of my teacher’s other students. Thursday evening we continued on to Okayama City, checking into a hotel a short walk from the testing venue. Three of us who were testing walked over to the Momotaro Arena, which was open, to get a look at the place. The main arena is very big, with a nice floor.

Friday morning, we returned. We had some time to warm up (in a very hot secondary space), with our teacher. The 6th-dan candidates went first, signing in, and lining up. The whole group is divided by age, into a younger group on the left, and an older group on the right. There are two sets of judges, 6 per each age-group. The candidates go forward, four at a time, to perform the kata (prescribed sets of techniques) required. When all the 6th-dan candidates were finished (about 100 people), the judges retired; and the administrators sat down to calculate the results.

Meanwhile the 7th-dan candidates signed in, and prepared to line up. While we were waiting, the results were posted, and we saw that of the three 6-dan candidates from our group, one passed. This was his second attempt. (Jubilation all around!)

After 7th-degree candidates completed the sign-in process, we lined up and the judges came back out. I was in the 6th row, of the younger group, on the far left side. There were 7 rows, and a similar number on the older group’s side. There were 3 candidates from Italy (1 for 6th-dan and 2 for 7th-dan); together we made up the entire contingent of non-Japanese.

Each row stands up together, walks out, and waits for the head judge to give the order to begin. There is a 6-minute time limit. When all 4 candidates in the row are finished, the head judge dismisses the group, and calls in the next.

Afterwards I got a lot of handshakes, and did a lot of bowing and thanking. It turns out that I am the first non-Japanese 7th-dan from the US, to pass this test in Japan (Editor: see comments), and the first woman, also. For some perspective, while there are lots of Japanese 7th-dans (I attend a yearly seminar with 40-50 7th-dans), and a fair number of Japanese women who hold this rank, in the US there are a total of 4 7th-dans, three of whom are men, Japanese or Japanese-American. The passing percentage for this exam was 20%.

That was the omote.

Next is the ura: Bowing to the “7”

It’s started already…bows from students who only nodded to me before; bows from students who, before, only bowed if I specifically taught them. I need to remember that it’s the 7 they are bowing to, not me. I am no different than I was a week ago.

Over the course of preparing for 7th dan (which began the day after my 6th dan examination), I have written a great deal, in training notebooks, in compilations of notes from seminars and gasshuku. Mostly on the order of ‘KenZen solo; Seitei Mae.’ Every once in a while, something more abstract, or wafty, depending on your point of view, like ‘what am I doing? I’m doing THIS.’ All the writing was in service of practice, correction and intensification. Not elucidation.

Senior student jokes that I have become ‘a destination;’ buys a guestbook. Visitors sign it.

But, what am I doing? I do feel some increase in my sense of responsibility. Also I am experiencing an increase in the clarity of my feeling of the relationship between my responsibilities (to teach, to model good Budo behavior) and my practice. This is not to claim an increase in understanding, more like an increase in density.

I wish I understood this better.

My students want to receive their menjo from my hands; they will wait if I am not available. I manage to figure this out with only a little assistance.

In Merida, Mexico, at the CLAK (Latin American Kendo Championships) I am given the use of a separate gym, to teach Iaido while the Kendo taikai goes on. I think to myself, “Wow, they are trusting me to take these folks.” A bit later, I think, “But, I’m a 7th dan, so that’s just fine.”

In the ‘sensei’ bus, a recently promoted 8th dan Kendo Sensei asked me if I had changed because of the 7th dan. He said he had certainly experienced changes because of his 8th-dan.

We are planning a big party to celebrate the 7th dan. Certainly we never did this before. Two of (the 3) local 7th dans told me we should have a party. No-one ever suggested such a thing (to celebrate a new rank of mine) before. The party is a smashing success. It perfectly conveys my conviction that this 7th-dan is good for all of us.

Not even two weeks later I get told, quite clearly, that I have to act like a 7th dan: show stronger leadership. But it’s OK; I’m a 7th dan, I can do it.

2009-pam-kyoto

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Pam Parker

Pam Parker teaches Iaido in Ken Zen institute, NYC. At renshi nanadan she is the highest graded female iaidoka in the Americas, and the first non-Japanese American to achieve nanadan.

10 thoughts on “Bowing to the “7””

  1. Congratulations on your achievement Parker sensei. I had the honor to meet her in Merida and during practice she delivered fully demonstrated that she is actually renshi nanadan, but above all a great person.
    Greatings from Argentina.

  2. Well done Pam sensei.

    You are not only a very good friend, but an excellent student to our sensei and a role model for all iaido-ka with your hard work and perseverance. JHG

  3. Congratulations Sensei. I also have the honor to meet her in Montevideo, Uruguay.
    Thanks for helping me with my Iaido and for being the great person that you are.
    ¡Greatings from Argentina!

  4. Parker Sensei:
    Thank you for sharing your insights and experiences with us. I enjoyed reading the article and appreciate your leadership and instruction.
    Again, Congratulations!!!!!!

    Greg Condemi

  5. Pam Sensei, you’re an example of perseverance. A good friend, a good student and for sure a good teacher! I can only imagine how your Iai will increase from now on. Congratulations! Alex

  6. Congratulations, sensei! This was a very interesting read. I had the pleasure of receiving your instruction hands-on multiple times in Princeton and you always taught with incredible amounts of dignity, knowledge, and insight. You certainly deserve this honor! Be well and I hope to see you again soon.

  7. I thank you for posting this article. Parker Sensei has done a great deal to advance iaido in the United States, and her accomplishment in achieving iaido nanadan is awe-inspiring.

    There have been other non-Japanese-Americans who have passed the iaido nanadan exam in Japan. I assume that with the caveat “non-Japanese-American” Parker Sensei is being distinguished as the first “American” to achieve such a feat. With this assumption, to my personal knowledge there were two American gentlemen by the names of Donn Draeger and Don Trent who received the iaido rank of nanadan in Japan many decades ago. These two practitioners, and possibly others, have faded from the memories of many, but not from the historical records.

    In November 2013, Mark Uchida Sensei, a third-generation American, also obtained iaido nanadan in Tokyo, Japan. Although he is Japanese by ancestry, he is no less an American than Parker Sensei or myself. His study of kendo and iaido have been home grown in the United States of America.

    There is a possibility that Parker Sensei is the first American woman to pass nanadan, but to make such a claim without review of the All Japan Kendo Federation records maybe somewhat tenuous. In support of this, however, my limited online research found nothing to refute this possibility.

    I do not mean to diminish Parker Sensei’s hard work and accomplishment; their inspiration extends beyond iaido and kendo. However, I just wanted to bring to light the historical facts and to extinguish the unwarranted separation of Japanese-Americans from “Americans”.

  8. Sorry, I just saw your comment. I’m interested in you mentioning Draeger as I’ve also heard a rumour that he was kendo 7dan as well (this is the first time I’ve heard of his iaido 7dan). I’ve had a look at ZNKR yudansha-meibo around the 60s and 70s and didn’t notice him in it …. I must look again. Mind you, it might not have anything under 8dan.

    I’ll amend the article as you suggest, sorry for any (not deliberate!) antagonism.

  9. Fay Goodman (7th Dan Renshi) from the UK achieved her 7th Dan in 2008. With all respect to Parker sensei, she is not the first woman from outside Japan to have achieved this. Goodman sensei even had a spot on the History channel regarding Japanese swords.

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