Don’t become a Tengu

Last Sunday after keiko, I was lining up to say thank you to one of the older 7dan sensei (lets call him S-sensei). 77 years old now, I remember going to his 70th birthday celebration the highlight of which was him doing tachigiri keiko – he fenced a shodan, a nidan, a sandan, a yondan, a godan, a rokudan, and a nanadan consecutively… not bad for someone of that age (he won!). Seven years later and he’s still going strong. As often happens, I listened in to / overheard the sensei chat to the person in front of me in the line – someone actively attempting nanadan in their 30s. The conversation was why it was worthwhile attempting hachidan even if you think you have little chance of passing.

This year, as usual, the pass rate for the test in Kyoto was low: of 1,729 people attempting it, only 16 people passed… a 0.98% pass rate. “Too tough” is how most people describe it, so tough that some don’t even bother attempting even if they qualify. As the test involves travel, hotel, and food costs for most as well as the application fee itself, and as I am poor myself, I can understand peoples reticence to pay for and attempt something they have little chance of passing.

S-sensei first attempted 8dan back in the 1970s, but after a few attempts gave up as he realised he just didn’t have that extra ‘thing’ that hachidan often have. He told me this years ago, with no disappointment in his voice – this is just how it is. What he said to the person in front of me last Sunday, however, was very interesting: he said that one of the reasons people give up attempting hachidan is due to pride. Repeated failures injure the ego and – rather than continue to be embarrassed each year – its easier to just not go than to attempt and fail. That is, their perception of their own ability versus reality is not in sync. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t skilled at kendo of course, it just means that they are not as special as they may think they are (unlike S-sensei who knows the score). I have met some nanadan people like this myself – they tend to be overbearing in the dojo, batting strikes away and hitting their opponent at will. Sometimes these type of people don’t bother going to any hachidan sensei in order to improve their kendo…. they already ‘know’ it all and they will let you know so one way or another.

S-sensei continued and said that although there were many nanadans that refused or gave up attempting hachidan because of their pride, there were many (if not most) that continued to attempt the grading in spite of the extremely low pass rate and without a realistic chance of passing. These people did so because it kept their ego in line; it reminded them that they are not the best kendo person in the world. Presumably people who take this view are more humble in their practise of kendo, and are not as driven to prove themselves as the people described above.

Nowadays, the hachidan test occurs twice a year – in Kyoto (May) and Tokyo (October) – but it wasn’t always this way. For a long time the test occurred once a year in Kyoto around the time of the Kyoto-Taikai. One of the original purposes of the Kyoto taikai was to gather senior kendo people from around the country and to give them the opportunity to face each other. From year to year you could use your performance here as a barometer – are you improving? It wasn’t long before the then kendo authorities (Butokukai) started to issue awards/grades based on performance – starting with the precursor to renshi: SEIRENSHO. In other words, Kyoto was where senior people were promoted. Although nowadays you can attempt senior grades all over the country, hachidan is limited to only twice a year. The Kyoto taikai, however, is still regarded as the place to check if you have improved over the year. But I digress.

S-sensei’s words started the usual pondering mechanism in my head. One of the great things about living and practising in Japan is that until you get nanadan, you are basically just a nobody like everyone else. Even achieving nanadan, like I said above, is not the end of many peoples kendo shugyo – they continue to learn from hachidan(s), eventually attempting it themselves. Almost everyone that passes nanadan will not progress to hachidan, yet most continue to strive to improve. When I think about the purpose of gradings it seems apparent – to me – that its this recursive testing process that is one of the key factors in the process of shugyo in modern day kendo. I may even go as far as to say that repeatedly aiming for hachidan is the pinnacle of the kendo shugyo, not necessarily the passing of it.

I think it was 2001 or 2002, I’m not sure, but as I was having a beer with a British kendo nanadan, he told me stories of kendo in the good old days. One of the stories was the first time he attempted hachidan. Not only was he the first non-Japanese (non-Asian?) person do to so, but he tried it in nito. Very brave. I paraphrase, but he basically said that he knew there was no question of his passing, but he thought it important to try – not only because it was an integral part of his shugyo (so he had a obligation to attempt it) but also because of what he symbolised.

So, maybe reading the above you can get a feeling about my opinion regarding the purpose of grades and their relative importance (or non-importance). This is probably why I often find myself perplexed at the overblown value of grades I often see expressed abroad: people opening their own dojo at nidan, facebook status updates boasting about grading success (despite the grade being low), and rumours about people passing grades then making their own t-shirt stating as much (or buying themselves a new hakama with boastful embroidery of their choosing), etc. Things like these, in my (considered) opinion, show a deep misunderstanding of the role/value of the grading process, the process of shugyo, and an overblown sense of the particular individuals place in the larger kendo community. Their perspective is skewed.

As I said above, its great over here in Japan because you get to be a small fish in very big pond for the majority, if not the entirety, of your kendo career – the reverse of the examples above (big fish/small pond status acquired relatively rapidly). Any ideas of greatness I’ve had are pretty much squashed on a regular basis by my sensei and sempai.

Going back to S-sensei. Although he never became hachidan and gave up attempting it early on, he has continued to practise kendo (focused on teaching children nowadays) for over 30 years. For his birthday keiko this year almost 100 people were in attendance, including a few hachidan. At the end of the day, the respect that people obviously have for him is nothing to do with this grade, but his perseverance and humility. That I have the chance to learn a sense of perspective from people like him is something that I am indeed thankful for.

The long-nosed goblin image at the top of this article is a picture of a TENGU. These mythical creatures are often said to be expert in swordsmanship, but the flip side is their often vain and conceited attitude. Get good at kendo by all means, but don’t become a Tengu.

By George

George is the founder and chief editor of
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15 replies on “Don’t become a Tengu”

I enjoyed the sentiments and insights of this post. Especially the concern over low-ranking people opening their own dojo’s (this is how the “strip-mall dojo” trend started in the US, effectively killing off a lot of martial arts by diluting their quality).

That-said, I posted on Facebook when I passed nidan (my current rank)! It was my second effort and I was humble yet excited about it and just wanted to let my friends know about it. I think some elegant fist-pumping via social media can be forgiven… 🙂

Passing a grading examination represents that progress has been made, and it should be a cause for celebration. It marks a new beginning within the continuous process of improvement, a landmark. Its a moment to refill our motivation, review our current position, and aim towards new goals. A shodan examination is a challenge for those attempting it, as much as a yondan is a challenge for the one attempting it. All examinations require us to give it our best, as much as our current potential can. Celebreting and sharing this with others seems only natural and lighthearted response. I believe that an individual achieving a grade is a success for all of the kendo community. Pretending that ignoring or making less of this occasion is humble sounds kind of pretentious actually.

I have gotten a nice something, like a tsuba, in commemoration for grading successes. Every time I see this tsuba, it reminds me of that and it prompts me to keep it up. Maybe people who get fancy equipment and such do it for similar reasons, as opposed to show it off. In times of crisis (I am sure we all go through them every now and then!) I have for example bought a very expensive shinai as a means to force myself into practice. “That was pretty expensive and nice stuff, so you better drag yourself into practice and make good use of it!”. Sometimes motivation needs a kick on the backside, and a symbol can help.

When kendo in my country started, our first national instructors where shodan. However low grade they where, that was the seed that started it all. Being in Japan can skew our perspectives of the reality of kendo in other countries, where even a nidan can serve as a leader. A nidan in other countries might have the responsibility and institutional burden that japanese practitioners wont have until they are rokudan or higher (if ever) because of the context in which they are. Rather than a big fish in a small bowl, it most likely is a leader. If it wasn’t for adventurous practitioners who dared to teach and invite others to practice, kendo would certainly not exist is many many places, enriching the lives of people in so many countries. Of course, it depends on the attitude. But I wouldn’t be so harsh as to condemn a “low grading” practitioner from opening a dojo. Things should be evaluated within their respective contexts. Doing otherwise could turn in in very tengu-ish arguments and opinions.

I loved your post and agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. I know a number of “S” senseis who modestly keep on with their pursuit of shugyo without expectation of passing hachidan or the need to boast.

I am planning to buy a medal of St Jude for my own first attempt in three years time. Its an excuse to come to Kyoto.

There’s nothing wrong with being excited but I’ve seen some really arrogant posts.

Originally I quoted a couple here but I removed them because I’m not interested in pointing fingers….

I’m not taking about 30-40 years ago during the dark ages of kendo in Europe when there was perhaps no option, but now, where there is much much more.

I know of (and have heard of) people who started clubs just because they can’t be bothered travelling an hour down the road to learn from an experienced person. Instead they create their own domains in their own backyards. These are the people I question, not the small clubs in places like Ecuador struggling to get things up and running.

Mind you – since you brought it up! – had the initial infrastructure been set up in a country like the UK back in the 70s perhaps we’d have a better average skill level, more yudansha, and less bickering than we do now. Surely you must admit that we’ve not used the last decades as good as we could have?

As for gradings, perhaps I didn’t explain it well. I have no problem at all with celebrations and a bit of well earned pride, I do, however, have problems with people boasting about it as if they are now ready to dominate the land with their new yondan or whatever. I didn’t post examples but I could have.

I’m the first to acknowledge that my situation is different from pretty much all of the k247 readers…
and I hope that this is a plus! Should I ignore the fact that I’m such a great situation?

About that “opening a dojo being nidan” thing, there are two possibilities: Where I live, south of Spain, Kendo is not only a minority, but almost imposible to find. In my city, there are no more than 15 people who practice. Back in the time, when we started, classes were led by an ikkyu who used to move a lot to go to kendo seminars, and was asked by a nanadan to start a dojo here and start getting some beginners to kihon kendo. From then to 2012, a sandan moved to our city and started leading us. So, I guess you could say the starting of our Dojo was made by some low, really low, graded kenshi, but wasn’t a matter of someone having an attitude.

However, some months ago, two of the initial members of our dojo, now shodan, decided to part ways with us and start their own dojo. I don’t know why this happened (I can speculate, but they never told me, nor anyone, anything), but it looks as if they think we’re not doing things right, as if they were better than us (given our humble beginnings and nowadays situation, I would say even us KNOW things can be done better, and that’s what we practice towards).

The thing is: now we have to small dojos in a small city (pop: 400 000), about seven people in each dojo, that never practice together. All that because of someone becoming a Tengu (in my opinion). And that makes me sad.

I hope no one will feel “bad” for this post, since I am only describing an actual situation and how I feel about it, nothing else. Cheers.

Thanks for your comment. I think the situation you mention is possibly quite common.

I was reading an article on Hatakenaka Atsumi sensei in March’s Kendo Nippon. Now, Hatakenaka sensei is a Iaido practitioner, and a woman, and last year she finally passed her 8th dan exam in Kyoto, on her 11th! attempt. As the author of the article admits, she was defiant and would not give up.

Coincidentally, George, do you know of any female Kendo 8th dans in Japan?

No female kendo hanchidans yet, but I think a few female sensei are trying or are on the cusp of doing so. Will be interesting.

It’s interesting reading this and being in my position of having passed shodan in aikido a couple of months ago in the UK. When normal people here find out, they are very congratulatory and quite a lot impressed, which is very ego-stoking. A lot of people don’t know that shodan is a starting point, they have no idea of the gulf that exists between me and someone who’s just passed their nidan, let alone a sandan or above. It would be easy, in this culture, to get carried away with what being awarded shodan actually means.

And what’s that, I hear nobody at all ask because everyone here knows?

It means you’ve got a lot of work to do!

I think shodan in most aikido groups has a lot more ‘worth’ than the same grade in kendo. In Japan, shodan-sandan are childrens kendo grades with extremely high pass rates. It doesnt start to get real until really yondan, but even they you would not expected to be in a teaching position (unless to children). In Osaka, where I live, you are not allowed to open a dojo unless you are nanadan.

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