UPDATED: when I posted this article originally it was about the rokudan tests. When I later went to translate comments for the 2022 nanadan tests I realised that the published comments were the same. Rokudan and nanadan always happen together over two days, and it seems that the same shinsa-in work on both. I have updated the article to reflect that.
In 2022 there were seven shinsa-kai, or gradings, for 6th and 7th dan here in Japan. As you know, rokudan (the first kodansha or high grade) and nanadan are national kendo tests. What this means is that they are run by the All Japan Kendo Federation itself rather than local prefectural associations, and the judges are all hand-picked hachidan.
As Japan re-opened from the end of last year a few friends around the globe got in touch to say they would be in Japan (Kyoto) from late April to take rokudan (and watch the Kyoto Taikai of course*). For various reasons I personally don’t recommend coming all the way to Japan just to test, but I understand why people have a strong desire to pass high grades in Japan.
Friends often ask me what they should do to pass kodansha grades but not being a shinsa-in (grading panel judge) all I can do is recount my experiences. A better source of advice (outside of your immediate teachers) are the comments written by actually shinsa-in. You can find these published in the ZNKRs own newsletter after each grading, and sometimes in the kendo magazines.
In today’s article (for study purposes) I will briefly (and freely) translate the salient points as outlined by the senior shinsa-in at four of the seven kodansha (rokudan/nanadan) gradings that happened last year in Japan (only these were published online). These (abridged) translations are for the kendo portion of the test only, not the kata portion. At the end I added a little bit of personal commentary.
Note that 1. each commentary is by a different person (I have omitted the names) and 2. the pictures used in the article are just random ones and are not at the venue or date noted.
* Note that spectators will NOT be allowed at this years Kyoto Taikai
1. February 2022: Yamanashi prefecture
[ sensei #1’s comments ]
First, I want you to acquire correct basics. Becoming rokudan/nanadan puts you in the position of being an instructor. As such you must be a good model in areas such as: reiho, how to wear the dogi/bogu, your general carriage and behaviour, and so on. Unfortunately, many people here today were not good models. For example: wearing the dogi/bogu sloppily; randomly swinging the shinai around; the bottom of the shinai was sticking out too far; or having no ki-ken-tai-icchi.
Next I want to talk about the flow of the tachiai. Some people stood up from sonkyo and almost immediately attacked. Instead, after standing up, you must show a good (beautiful) kamae and express your spirit strongly. While probing, explore your partners intention with the feeling of “sen” (that is, in a proactive pressuring manner) and, reading the right moment, strike. Of course, the strike must be done in a split second, executed with Shin-ki-ryoku-icchi (with a unified and strong intention), and done to completion.
This isn’t easy to do, but if you keiko with lots of different types of people, watch a lot of different kinds of kendo, learn from others strong points, and if you constantly research and work on your own kendo, then your kendo flow will become better and you will improve.
After striking ensure that you don’t relax your feeling and keep strong pressure in the tip of your shinai. Make this a habit in your daily kendo.
2.May 2022: Nagoya (Aichi prefecture)
[ sensei #2’s comments ]
For this shinsa I was overlooking the #4 court (courts are arranged by # and age. #1 has the youngest participants and #6 the oldest; people can try for rokudan as young as 29 and nanadan from about 35, though challengers at this age are almost exclusively elite kendoka). Here are some things aimed at the people who failed.
A. Before taking the grading ask yourself the following things: Are you using a standard shinai? Are your men/kote himo too long? Are the sleeves of your keikogi and your hakama the right length? Are you using different shades (of blue) for your keikogi and hakama? Are the knots on your men or dou “upright” knots (instead of lying sideways)? Ensure that you have addressed all these things before attempting the grading.
B. The main things we look at in the grading are these: appearance; etiquette; kamae; strikes; presence/atmosphere. I think everyone (intellectually) understands these things but they often fail to spot defects in themselves. It is essential that you ask a senior teacher for advice in these matters.
C. Without a full spirit there can never be a (correct) opportunity to strike. Unfortunately, I see a lot of people striking too quickly at the start of the tachiai. Tachiai are very short and people rush to strike and get Yuko-datotsu, but this is a recipe for a lot of wasted attacks. You must never rush. Technique comes from spirit.
In such a short time you must express a spirit of determination. The very first strike must be done at the correct time and through the process of pressure (seme) -> breaking (kuzushi) -> abandon (sutemi) -> strike (utsu). A long time ago we were taught that “techniques were the basics; but the heart is determination.”
3. November 2022: Tokyo
[ sensei #3’s comments ]
Here are some things I want people who failed this time to try for their next grading.
A. Appearance. In general peoples appearance is fine, but there are some points you should be careful about: the length of the men-himo and the fact that they aren’t tied in a balanced manner. Especially, you should be careful where you make the knot at the back of your head (i.e. it shouldn’t be too high). Also, there seem to be a lot of people whose monomi (the widest of the gaps in your mengane where you are meant to look through) is not lined up correctly.
B. Etiquette. During the start and end bow I want you to be careful when moving forward three steps do to so from your right foot and when moving back five steps do so from your left. You should be in kamae at the moment you sonkyo. When drawing the shinai out it should be in an action where (the extension) comes over your partners right shoulder before moving into chudan.
Don’t you thank that paying attention to fine details like these during the simple matter of bowing will have a knock-on effect when practising techniques?
C. Tachiai. Kendo is ki-ken-tai-no-icchi. We are looking at kiai (kakegoe), the flow and movement of the shinai tip, your posture (before, during, and after a strike), and whether you strike with abandon or not. During the tachiai are you only trying to strike men? Are you nervous? Is all you are doing coming in from the same side (omote; the left side of the shinai) and then striking the same way over and over ? I see a lot of this happening. To say it a different way: during this shinsa I didn’t see much seme from the omote, ura, or below the shinai; I didn’t see much osae (pressing) techniques and the like either.
I think more women where paying attention to these points than the men, especially their use of the shinai tip and ojiwaza. I think we can learn from women by watching their tachiai.
4. November 2022: Nagoya (Aichi prefecture)
[ sensei #4’s comments ]
For this shinsa I was overlooking the #1 court. Here are my remarks about the test.
First, congratulations to everyone who passed this weekend and commiserations to those that failed. If you failed, redouble your efforts and please challenge again. Don’t fret about things, instead treat kendo as a path to make yourself better and continue trying your best.
A. Don’t be lazy about preparation. Your allies, if you like, in kendo are your bogu, your shinai, and your dogi. How are the lengths of your men-himo? You aren’t mixing the colours (shades) of your keikogi and hakama, right? What about the tension in your shinai’s tsuru, or the position of the nakayui? Be sure and check these things before you attempt a grading.
As a kodansha you must always be prepared during your daily life, and serve as someone who can help others.
B. Foster dignity (in kamae and posture). As I am sure you know, there is an appropriate “level” of kamae, posture, striking, and dignity for each dan grade. Knowing this and actually being able to show it is a different matter however. Please, have a senior teacher help you with this. The most important things are shinai grip, kamae, posture, and the strength of strikes. They are all difficult because they seem easy. Small steps build up to vast distances.
C. Connect with your partner (this is associated with “tame” or “build up”). During tachiai it is common to see people scrambling to take the initiative, drive in, and strike first. Although I do understand why people strive to get a good strike in during the limited time of a grading, rushing will only lead to wasted strikes. You should be patient until your opponent attempts to strike. If you don’t wait then there will be no connection with your partner. Patience leads to connection, which means less wasted strikes. Next, you need to be brave enough to strike with abandon (sutemi). It’s a scary situation isn’t it? If you attack you might land a successful strike, but your opponent might also hit you and you’d lose. In spite of this, please keep the connection between you and your opponent and be patient. In this state of concentration the chance of a successful strike rises.
Yes, it can be scary to step into issoku-itto-no-mai and wait. But as a Buddhist priest once said: “just breathe out while counting 1…2…3…” If you do this no idle thoughts will enter your consciousness. This is the heart of the matter.
D. Ki-ken-tai-no-icchi. In your kamae, is your shinai “blade” in the right position? If you don’t strike with the “blade” portion of the shinai you cannot do Yuko-Datotsu. Connected with this is the pull-up of the left leg. This is something we all have to continually work on during our entire kendo career.
E. The secret of success. “Your spirit should be full but clear.” If your spirit is full then the trajectory of the opponents shinai becomes (or at least seems to be) slow. A mental illusion perhaps. The secret of success is: “to do an easy thing that everybody can do over and over again until nobody can do it (like you).” A full spirit is connected to a prepared attitude and, eventually, a sense of clarity will be acquired.
F. Addressing women, jodan and nito people.
Women: make your spirit strong. When facing a male opponent take the initiative softly. Let the man attack first then defeat him.
Jodan: aim for debana techniques. Catch the instant your opponent wants to strike you and hit them first. A strong resolve is paramount. You don’t need to do any particularly tricky techniques.
Nito: be sure to use the shoto effectively. Use it to render your partners shinai useless. Devote yourself to this.
G. Finally. Gradings serve the purpose of checking whether or not one has correctly studied kendo. It is important to have your kendo looked at by senior sensei. It is through hard trials and tribulations that one comes to acquire kendo, and it is through this that ones personality is forged. If you do kendo with this in mind then your chance of passing will increase.
“Don’t chase yesterday, don’t wait for tomorrow, don’t miss the now.”– Hakuin Ekaku
First of all, I didn’t address the kata portion of the test because, well, that part should be simple. It is very rare, even in kodansha gradings, for anyone to fail the kata part of the test. As such, I don’t think I need to spend anytime translating anything or adding extra comments about that part.
Long term readers know my thoughts on gradings, but today I will try in comment in as neutral a manner as possible. Remember that I am talking about kodansha gradings here in Japan.
Point 1: before you go, research where the venue is and work out how to get there. Japan has great public transport so this generally isn’t a problem. Find accommodation as near to the venue as possible.
Point 2: You will have no chance for a warmup. Be prepared for this. In some venues pre-corona you could warmup if you were in the morning cohort, but this has been stopped now.
Point 3: As mentioned above in the sensei’s notes, it’s important to get your gear in check. That means cutting your men-himo, tying your kote-himo, ensuring that your dogi (both keikogi and hakama) look nice (= same colour and shade). Your shinai should be a standard one – don’t use a shorter one. On top of this I’ll add:
A. The rule is no names on your hakama for hachidan, but I suggest never wearing a hakama with your name visibly on it for rokudan and up. Katakana names or names in English will stick out a mile. And, of course, no keikogi with embroidery on the sleeve.
B. Use a new tsuka on your shinai and don’t write your name on it
C. An unwritten rule is that you shouldn’t wear supporters of any kind. I know people who have passed kodansha gradings wearing a heal supporter, but it’s a gamble.
Point 4: The actual tachiai time is very very short. For rokudan it is 60 seconds, and 90 seconds for nanadan, which includes bowing and going into sonkyo. You will have two bouts and they will be over very quickly. This lack of time means that some people will panic and just start attacking randomly. As you can imagine, this often leads to chaos. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you prepare, a bad partner can potentially stymie your ability to show your kendo.
This lack of time to actually show your kendo (as well as point 2 above) is one of the reasons I suggest not doing gradings here. If you do decided to try your rokudan/nanadan here in Japan, I hope this article helps, if only a little. Good luck!
I also suggest checking out these kenshi 24/7 articles as well:
* Yuko-datotsu (2010) * Shinsa - things to think about (2014) * Quality of assessment (2014) * My route to hachidan: Yano Nobuhiro (2018) * Zanshin confusion, sutemi, and hikiage (2018) * My route to hachidan: Ishida Toshiya (2020) * Point of view: female gradings (2021)