This particular article has been brewing in my head for years. In private, I’ve talked about the situation countless times, discussing it with friends and probing for opinions or experiences. As I’ve being saying for some time now, and as most people should know (or at least feel), the grading aspect of modern kendo is by far the weakest link in the chain. When it comes to the highest grade – the amazingly unreachable “hardest test in Japan” – hachidan, any weaknesses are, of course, amplified. I decided to finally write about it here today not because I have anything particularly amazing to say, but because any articles about gradings I write are popular. Today’s article, a critical one, brings balance to the discussion, I believe.
Anyway, let me start with an anecdote, the true story that sparked years of contemplation on the subject.
My entire kendo experience in Japan revolves around the education system and police dojo, for which I am lucky. I have studied under and watched kendo professionals non-stop, and I have applied (often hard) lessons learned to my daily keiko at work and to hundreds of students over the years. I’ve watched and studied a lot. My base adult dojo (a police one) always has at least one professional teacher at keiko (sometimes three or four or more) as well as non-pro cops and “civilian*” kendo people as well. I think the dojo has about 40 nanadan or so because, like I explained before, basically everyone reaches that grade eventually. As such, “grade” isn’t really a major issue to tell you the truth, there are the police pros, then there are the rest of us.
[ * In my usage, the term “civilian” refers to kendo practitioners who are not affiliated with the police or school systems (civil servants), and is used to distinguish them from those who are. This includes shakai-jin (社会人) or “normal” people, as opposed to police officers, school teachers, and their ilk. ]
Anyway, there are always people trying for hachidan, but most are, sadly, not expected to pass. Still, trying is important, right? One day a guy that I had practised with on-and-off for a while, passed hachidan (I don’t know how many attempts he had). His kendo was good, of course, but there were plenty of other nanadan – including police pros – whose kendo was (to everyone) obviously superior. The gentleman (it’s always a man…) in question graduated from a private school known for its kendo decades before, and had his own little kendo shop. At some point he, for a handful of years, held some sort of public office in his local area. Anyway, as news of his hachidan spread many people were surprised. People mentioned that the school he graduated from has produced a large number of hachidan: “they have good kendo there” everyone said. Hmmm…
He came back to the dojo a few times after that but, sensing unease perhaps, and realising that he was now hachidan and was expected to teach, was forced to re-orientate his kendo. Instead of staying at the dojo he started to float between random keiko-kai for a year or two before finally starting a new venture: he branded himself as a teacher of adult “civilian” kendo. “Follow my method and pass your gradings,” he said. Of course, being hachidan (and a nice guy as well), lots of adults flocked to his keiko. Or they did in the beginning. As the excitement of being a newly-minted hachidan wore off, he became just another civilian kenshi, albeit with a grade that none of us will ever attain.
About 18 months or so after he passed hachidan I found myself in a bar sitting next to him with about three others. We’d had keiko earlier in the evening, went out drinking/eating with a large group, then the last remnants stumbled to a smaller place together. It was a good time, chatting about kendo and other stuff. At some point he turned to me and said (remember, we’d had quite a few beverages before this point) “I want you to take me abroad to do some seminars. I have to use this hachidan somehow to get some profit.” He went on to describe his ideas to make money teaching abroad, made me promise that I’d ask him if I was going to do a seminar, and also to help do any translation of teaching materials he had ideas on. For me the proposal was quite shocking. I still did/do kendo with him now and then, but from that very instant my opinion of him changed. Needless to say, I never invited him abroad.
He was the first of what I have come to term “accidental hachidan.”
According to the Osaka kendo associations website there are 60 hachidan in the prefecture. Combined with hachidan in nearby prefectures (Kyoto, Nara, Hyogo), you can imagine there is quite a number of them in the area, criss-crossing about and getting involved with this and that. Most of these hachidan are non-civilians, so they spent a lot of their kendo career before becoming hachidan instructing kendo = they already had teaching skills, and lots of students before passing. In a lot of cases, becoming hachidan is often an event celebrated more by their students than the individual themselves.
However, some of the hachidan are private individuals, just normal guys working in companies, i.e. “civilians.” Some may have had experience in teaching kendo to kids over the years before passing hachidan, but some, if not most of them, continued kendo at a far more casual pace (sometimes with large blanks in activity). The problem being, of course, the crazy working culture here in Japan. Work can and does take over your life causing people to become mainly “weekend kenshi” (if they have the stamina left). This is not a negative thing, by the way, this is the “norm” for adult civilian kendoka here in Japan.
Rarely – more so in Tokyo – you might find the odd person who has their own family-run dojo which they run as a business (sometimes while working a normal job). This is a different type of kendo “career” so they don’t really fall neatly into the “civilian” category.
Anyway, in the last few years I’ve noticed some “floating” civilian hachidan about. They are normal working men with no real home dojo or students. They just roll up to keiko, sit at the kamiza, do kendo, and sometimes give the odd sermon about kendo this-n-that. Some of them have really amazing kendo, others not so. To give one example, I did keiko with one particular guy something like five times over eight months at various keiko-kai before I realised that he was hachidan. It was only after wondering why so many people were queueing up for him when there were much stronger kenshi at the practice that I clicked. Looking at his kendo – even today – I still don’t get it.
It will be no surprise to you, then, to hear that these “accidental hachidan” often stick together and congregate at the same keiko-kai’s.
Just because it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
It is an unspoken rule that hachidan can be qualified by both career and skill. A police hachidan, whether pro or not, is at the top of the food chain. Next come the teachers. Civilian hachidan come in vastly different types but – and this is true – you might find them sitting below pro-police nanadans (especially if there is an age difference), by their own choice.
Skill can be far more difficult to measure, and it changes as someone ages, so I’ll leave deep discussion of that out for the moment. What I will note is that shiai success (one measure of skill) is important, and police pro’s tend to have way more notches on their belts in this respect.
However, the social position of police kendo teachers is, outside of the kendo community, not particularly “high” (most people don’t even know that such jobs exist). Civilians, on the other hand (whether hachidan or not), can have high status jobs, an amazing income, and just have better “quality” of life in general (as defined by modern societal norms). Their social and economic status opens up doors that simply don’t exist for kendo pros, so they are important for the kendo community as a whole, and can have a large influence over kendo organisations. As such, even though there may be a difference kendo-wise, it may all balance out if they bring patronage and other skills to the table. Maybe it was no “accident” they became hachidan after all.
So, what am I trying to say? Well, that the grading system is deeply flawed (we knew that already). Within grades themselves there can be a large spectrum of abilities and experiences (again, this is almost certainly something everyone is aware of). And lastly, that we should be prepared to not automatically accept peoples rank at face value, including hachidan.
(Everything in todays article is based on my observations and experiences, as are all my articles of course. YMMV.)
When I mentioned my theory of “accidental” hachidans to a friend not so long ago, he took my term literally and told me a story about a sensei (a civilian) who was awarded hachidan – literally – by accident. They wrote the wrong number on the piece of paper and didn’t realise until after it had been unveiled, by which time it was too late. Of course, I have no idea if this is true, but it is perfectly possible. There is more to the story, but my lips are sealed…!