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.