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gradings kendo

Point of view: female gradings

(Note that I added an UPDATE section at the end of the article)

A number of years ago, while on a seminar in Edinburgh (actually, in the pub afterwards), a young female kenshi from Sweden asked me why there were no female kendo hachidan (they exist in iaido and jodo). I slowly quaffed my beer and very deliberately said something like “unless something changes that will never happen.” Needless to say, coming from such an egalitarian society as Sweden, she looked shocked. To be honest, I was actually surprised that I said it myself. 

Obviously, by that time, I had already been living in Japan for waaaaay too long. 

Edinburgh Kendo Seminar

You probably heard/saw the news earlier this year pertaining to the olympics: the octogenarian head of Japan’s Olympic Organising Committee, the gaffe-prone ex-Prime Minister of Japan, Mori Yoshiro, stated his opposition to increasing women on the committee, his argument being that having more women would mean (because “they like to compete with each other” and therefore “will talk needlessly”) meetings would take longer. Not long after being ousted (= forced to resign) he again made the news for speaking badly about women, this time calling a politicians female aide “too old to be called a woman.”


A number of years ago the local kendo association asked if they could use some of my students as “volunteers” for the upcoming Todofuken taikai. Being able to work on the courts and watch some of the top kenshi in Japan at close hand would be an amazing experience, so we were more than happy to help out. On the day I watched from above and took pics, noting some of my students working on some of the courts. Lucky them, I thought. 

The next day in the dojo I of course chatted to the students about their experience and thoughts. Although the boys were working on the courts and watched lots of shiai I was *astounded* (to say the least) that the girls had been forced to work making and delivering tea to the (all male, all older) shinpan all day… they barely got to see any kendo. My astonishment turned to anger very soon after that, and I vowed never to let my students volunteer for that competition again if the girls were going to forced in to that job. 

I could go on. 


As anyone who has lived in Japan for any amount of time knows, although there is push for change, this type of institutionalised sexism is the norm. It is why “unless something changes [a female hachidan] will never happen” rolled off my tongue so easily. Actually, it is difficult to call it “sexism” per-se because that concept seems almost culturally alien to many here (especially for older men). 

Well, much my surprise I fully admit, the ZNKR recently published a missive regarding gradings for females. Remember, the ZNKR administers only the national-level kodansha gradings as well as the shogo (6th-8th dan, plus renshi, kyoshi, and hanshi). I will quickly translate it below before discussing it further. Not that italicised remarks in parenthesis are mine.

Point of view: how to train for grading exams
ZNKR, Female Affairs Committee

Recently, the number of women sitting the kodansha  exams (6th-8th) is increasing year by year. At the same time, the ZNKR believes that it is important to give hope to female kenshi as well as letting them fulfil their dreams. 

Grading criteria are described in the Grading Rules and Grading Implementation guidelines, and in them it stipulates “riai” (kendo theory/rationale) and “style/dignity” as important. However, women are sometimes overwhelmed by the strength and speed of male partners strikes (in a grading), which often makes the women look bad (i.e. worse than they actually are).

Of course, it is essential to acquire the skills needed for each grade, but to compensate for a lack of strength (i.e. compared to men), please take care to refer to the points below during keiko. These points where created after consulting with the Grading Committee head (a man). However, please note that it is difficult to explain exactly in words, rather, it is something that can only be understood tacitly (i.e. by doing it). 

As the phrase “Hyakuren jitoku” (“mastery comes by practicing one hundred times”) intimates, it is only by doing something over and over again that acquisition comes. We will be very happy, then, if you take the points below in to consideration and practice them deeply, over and over again.  
 
Skills that you should aim to acquire for gradings

1. Kigamae (KI - spirit)

- The courage to face your opponent head on without backing away
- an aggressive and full spirit when executing both shikake and oji techniques 

2. Datotsu (KEN - sword)
- Rather than strength, strike at the correct chance with “Sae” (crispness) and a “clear sound”

3. Posture and movement (TAI - body)
- A stable posture with an unforced kamae
- rather than strength vs strength, keep control of your central line and with “graceful footwork move effortlessly”

4. Attack and defence (attacking and defending skills)
- reading the opponents intentions, flexibly respond
- don’t wait, take the upper hand and “pressure and break (kamae, spirit)” or “pull an attack from them (and respond)”
- without breaking your central line, attack and defend using correct hasuji and the shinogi

Finally, as you increase grade your posture should also, which will improve your yuko-datotsu even by a little bit. “If strength and speed have been lost, move your opponent and strike.” “A clear striking sound is a beautiful ippon.” “A debana technique (even if the strike is light) reverberates in the heart, and becomes a splendid ippon.”

With these points in mind, please work hard during keiko. 

I pray for the bright future for female kenshi. 

(originally published in Kenso, March 2021)

Although the whole thing is framed with the phrase “point of view” the nuance I get, after reading it, is that we are potentially about to see an increase in female kodansha soon(ish) and – perhaps? – even a hachidan. 

The “point of view” phrasing is a bit annoying though, is this official (it is published on the ZNKR website…), or is it just some sort of guideline? Since the grading panels for the kodansha tend to be full of hachidan (all men of course, not so young), I wonder if this really will be effective? Only time will tell. 

My initial reaction was, due to the timing, to suspect the missive of being a direct consequence of the Mori and the Olympic Organising Committee kerfuffle, and the recent increase of media attention on female matters. However, perhaps that and this are both indications of a (slowly) growing sea of change in regards to female issues in general here in Japan. Although I have hope, I’m not holding my breath. 


Is this enough?

It is good to see the ZNKR take action in regards to females and gradings, but what of the organisation itself? Is it more or less egalitarian than, say, the Olympic Organisation Committee?

Let’s have a look at the core organisation of the ZNKR, which you can see on their website here

Translation here:

Positions
President: 1 (octogenarian of course!)
Vice presidents: 3
Managing director: 1
Standing Directors: 11 (one female)
Directors: 16
Supervisors: 3 (one female)

Committees (only the committee heads are listed)
There are 13 committees: General Affairs, Promotion, Female Affairs, Grading (dan-i and shogo), Shiai and Shinpan, Strengthening, Community Education, International Affairs, Iaido, Jodo, Science and Medicine, Anti-Doping, and Publicity. Out of the committee heads, only one is female - the boss of the Female Affairs Committee. This is the same person listed above as a standing director. 

Out of a total of 48 possible positions (discounting regular committee members, whose numbers I don’t know) only three are filled by females, one of whom holds two of the positions. 

Hmmm, still someway to go I suspect… 


Addendum

There was more to the conversation I had in the pub in Edinburgh a few years ago (when beer is involved there is always more). When quizzed about what were the barriers for a female hachidan were (above and beyond patriarchy), I split it down in to two technical points:

1. Strength of strike (physical)
2. Direct confrontation (psychological and physical)

A hachidan once told me that up until nanadan the grading panel are looking for your GOOD points. At hachidan, they are looking for your BAD points. Bad points, of course, include the absence of something as well. 

Where someone might pass nanadan with a light, but nice timed attack, for hachidan that’s not good enough. Strikes must be strong (remember, the all-male grading panel are judging by their own ideas of “strength”). 

The holy grail of kendo, and in gradings in particular, is executing debana men. Tall, physically strong (and heavy) men are at an advantage here. If you are shorter and/or lighter, whether you are male or female, you have to work harder. Unfortunately, many women learn early on in their kendo career to move around larger, often more aggressive male partners, perhaps favouring debana-kote or nuki-dou. Both waza are of course totally valid, but in kodansha gradings – even if executed wonderfully – the absence of debana men in particular, and ducking under or moving out of an attack, can be frowned upon. 

However, this months missive seems to have addressed both of these problems. Points 2 and 3 above say: “rather than strength, strike at the correct chance with ‘Sae’ (crispness) and a ‘clear sound’”; and “rather than strength vs strength, keep control of your central line and with ‘graceful footwork move effortlessly.’”

If that is the case, then, it seems to be that the door to hachidan for women – at least to me – has now opened, it not a lot, a little wider. Let’s hope so. 


First, second, and third place individual medals won by my female students in March 2021

**UPDATE** (1st April)

This article has generated quite a bit of discussion so, after some thought, I decided to add a little bit more.

First off, I am not a big fan of grades. I have commented on the matter here on kenshi 24/7 in the past, sometimes strongly. In fact, if I am being honest, I see no point in having grades past, say, rokudan (max). If you have been practicing for the amount of time it takes to pass rokudan, you probably don’t need the motivation to work hard that gradings are said to give. Instead, I would much prefer to see the role of shogo (renshi, kyoshi, and hanshi) increased. Award these to people not for their skill with a shinai, but contribution to the community, for example teaching, research and publication, building dojo, running kids clubs for a long time, etc., or to those that actually live up to the stated purpose of kendo. I would even be tempted to have the shogo awarded, like Ozumo Yokuzuna, by a non-ZNKR affiliated council of revolving dignitaries. If grades didn’t go so high and the power to award shogo was taken away from the ZNKR, I think we could, if not entirely, eliminate a lot of gender bias within kendo… for grading matters at least.

Secondly, it seems to me that many people equate hachidan with “strength.” You have to have amazingly “powerful” kendo that “overwhelms” any and all opponents. While this is the general consensus, your ability with a shinai has absolutely no connection to you as a human being, nor does it indicate whether you are a good teacher either. The first is important as the ZNKR states that kendo is character building (yet they never attempt to measure it), and the teaching aspect… well, if your teaching ability has nothing to do with hachidan, what’s the point of passing hachidan exactly? In other words, “hachidan” means (or should mean) more than technically good kendo and the domination of others.

So what am I saying anyway? Well, people obsess over grades in kendo that really, to be honest, have little meaning past a certain point. This female orientated “point of view” missive is an attempt to address real concerns within the (Japanese) kendo community, but it seems to me the easiest way to deal with the situation is not to band-aid something that is already broken, but to radically overhaul it. There used to be judan and kyudan, and they were stopped. Why not get rid of nanadan and hachidan too? Even rokudan? The only reason anything above godan was added after WWII was to match judo anyway. By doing this we would suddenly have a lot more “high grades” across all genders and nationalities. Sure, it wouldn’t stop misogyny, but now that everyone reaches the same “high” grades more easily, at least you don’t have to sit and listen in silence anymore.


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By George

George is the founder and chief editor of kenshi247.net.
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16 replies on “Point of view: female gradings”

Hi George, my two cents on reading the article ESPECIALLY when they said “give hope to women kenshi” was “WTF?!?!??!?!!?”

I mean, that sort of archaic thinking really needs to be thrown out, but hey, what do I know…

Talking to some senseis in Japan last 2 weeks, there was a small conversation regarding this. As it is now, women will -never- become hachidan simply because a woman, and an old woman at that, cannot overwhelm a man of her age whether it be physically or mentally. So to accommodate the rising number of women challenging for koudansha, there is talk on splitting grades (ie: a women’s koudansha and a men’s koudansha). I’ll be very curious what happens next. My personal take is that while women challenging for higher dans is great and is to encouraged, there is one valid point in that archaic way of thinking. It’s very hard to imagine a women in her mid 40s/50s by earliest successfully neutralizing all her men challengers. There is a reason why wars are fought mostly by men. And if a woman hachidan cannot do that, I doubt she’d be taken as seriously as her male counterparts. Just my two cents.

As a female kenshi— I appreciate this article. It hurts my heart to hear the hachidan comment roll off the tongue so easily, and I am glad you addressed your feelings on that (and more so, taking action).

I would like to also say, as a female player, I seldom get to work with other females. I am the only female player in the last two dojos. I am grateful to be able to gain feedback from lady Sensei— someone who understands my struggles. Or maybe know how to fight a bigger opponent with wisdom.

I hope this sexism changes.

Also— seeing in Japan, the lady Yudansha sitting lower than the men, even if they held a higher rank, was very unsettling to me. This wasn’t common, thankfully, but it was a surprise.

@Observer:
The sword is an equalizer here. By the time someone teaches the age to attain hachidan, I don’t think strength is the factor. The message about older women being mentally inferior is honestly the saddest thing I’ve heard today.

@observer, let’s see how nowaday girls face male in forty years more. Im sure they will kick asses

@Aravena show me an older woman that can dominate her men counterparts at a hachidan level and I’ll very happily be glad to eat my words.

Really great article George and timely too. I think anyone who’s been doing Kendo for a while, especially men, have internalised the sexism of Kendo to the point of not questioning it and so your article is a really important piece of introspection. In recent years the notion of the meritocracy (i.e. that the best people rise to the top) has been thoroughly debunked. We’re starting to talk about and recognise systemic and structural barriers to advancement for certain groups of people and invisible ‘tail-winds’ for other, favoured groups of people. This kind of thinking will take a loooong time to have an impact on Kendo at the highest levels because Kendo is a bastion of conservative values in Japan. But beyond that, I think the issues you raise are important for how those of us practising outside Japan think about and address these issues in our own dojos and Kendo associations. b

Thanks for joining the conversation everybody.

There seems to a be some misunderstandings in what I wrote. First of all, the “point of view” in the title is taken from the ZNKR missive, it isn’t my point of view, though I did comment on it. At no time in the past or present have I ever intimated that women should not gain hachidan or any kodansha grades. What I said is that the current situation in Japan makes it impossible. My surprise was verbalising this so readily. Secondly, it was not implied in anyway in the text that I believed women to somehow be “mentally inferior” as one person commented. I am not sure that comment was aimed at me, but just to be safe I’ll change “mental” to “psychological” in the text.

Thinking more on the issue, I will write a small update to the main article.

Reading your comments on strength and debana men reminds me of doing jigeiko many years ago, when i was 19, ikkyu and 8 stone, with a very large (in every sense of the word) rokudan sensei and him taiatari’ing me onto the floor. 10 times in a row. Such a confidence booster…

Sophie,

Yeah, that sucks. I think I was ikkyu around 19 as well, and I was only maybe 8.5 stone at that time, and I’m only 10 stone 25 years later (I’m average height)…. so I’ve had to deal with similar situations throughout my kendo career. The question would be was the sensei (I assume male?) doing that with everyone, male and female, big and small, heavy and light, experienced and inexperienced, or only with you or lighter/smaller females? If it’s the latter, the person was a bully. If it’s the former, well, then they were just tough.

fwiw, I teach students from 15-18. Some (boys and girls, but mostly the girls) are super light/small. I adjust my toughness depending on the skill level of the student as well as their personality and physical endurance.

Andy,I am tempted to upload video of me getting beating up by some female nanadans …. one keiko I regularly attend (well, pre-corona) had about four of them.

Loved to see that video link from Fischer sensei. 2 years ago I was lucky to chat with Murayama sensei for couple days about kendo and everything, and one of the topic actually was about female hachidans. Knowing how great her kendo is, I was very surprised how hesitant her responses were about her passing hachidan. I thought it might be the typical Japanese politeness, but now reading this blog I started to wonder that she might have also felt the cultural barrier on the grading.

Hey Tero,

Perhaps “resignation” is more apt that “barrier” ? I know a handful of Japanese female 7dans but I have no idea if they actually believe they “deserve” to be hachidan (or are even interested in it). I know waaaaaaay more male 7dans, the vast majority of whom are also resigned to the fact that they have absolutely no chance to pass hachidan!! Every now and then someone will “accidentally” pass hachidan though… but that’s a topic for another day.

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