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.