“Rank in Aikido, a Perspective,” by Nev Sagiba

Dojo ranks are not really ranks at all.

In the good old days we had the classifications of senseis, sempai and kohai. It was more than sufficient to define an authentic measure of progression.

These are service levels, which by virtue of time and skill developed over that time, allow a person to care for, assist, nurture and facilitate the growth of those they serve. Of course, there is a reciprocal obligation of respect and care.

Sensei, as the prefix “sen” denotes, simply means the individual doing the guiding and leading has merely been at it for a brief period longer than those having newly begun. A few years, since no one lives more than three score and ten. He is not a guru. He is not a “spiritual “ leader. He is definitely not, or should not be a political leader of a cult like malady, seeking “followers” to train “under” him. Rather a person reasonably capable of allowing individuals to find and reclaim their own personal power by keeping a potentially high risk environment safe, without omitting exemplary context and understanding of an art that is more than merely a handful of “techniques.”

There is no mandate to push weight around, bully or order about. Whilst some old dojos of the past evinced psychiatric disorders in physical bullying, some so called “aikido” dojos, display this in a seniority structure of toxic psychological bulling which has nothing do with the vision of the Founder.

Aikido students, at any level, are not real soldiers, will never serve in a feudal war, in on-the-ground combat; and that is not the purpose of Aikido, so no chain of command exists which can be considered valid, or indeed which should be deemed valid.

Levels of competence as a budo, however, are not denoted by “standardized gradings,” a way to kill the art. The discovery, research and development or continued exploration are what the founder requested and expected of those who are deemed to continue the art. Morihei Ueshiba made it abundantly clear and requested, loving protection, nurturing and healing the family of humanity instead of indulging hubristically in a shameful circus of political contest.

He was heard to say: “Alas, when I look behind me, I see a chasm and no one following the true path. They are too busy doing politics!”

I would like to believe that to some extent, this may have changed for the better over the years.

Levels of Budo competence are denoted by active service in the field where the warrior attributes of Aikido can be used in meeting death to serve life, such as a soldier, policeman, firefighter, bomb disposal, lifeguard, nurse, paramedic, security, spy, search and rescue, and so on.

Only this truly qualifies to teach anything at all about Budo. Otherwise, it is at high risk of becoming theoretically academic pseudo-budo and fakery.

To what end?

You see, individuals prancing and strutting and endlessly demonstrating nothing much at all, and it is an embarrassment to the art. As is the cringe factor when a junior (kohai) addresses his SENSEI as “shihan,” an invented political name which can be purchased. And incorrect syntax, non-existent in the Japanese language. This trend seems to be becoming common. As does dancers purporting to teach life saving “self-defence” which self evidently will not do so, to anyone with all but the minimum modicum of field experience.

Why make reference to a fictional political rank? A teacher, no matter how modest, is a teacher, a SENSEI. Even if that person is merely teaching by accident of simply wanting to promote the art, having had no real combat experience and, in reality, still sempai, at least he or she has the dignity of character in the desire to attempt to pass on something of value, which they no doubt treasure deeply, with all the integrity they can muster.

Training is more important than overt references to rank and meaningless position.

In any event, to my knowledge there are very few instructors with funny named ranks, if any, who have in fact actually served in life-death scenarios. All, the others are paper tigers who can mimic a form. The real adepts, who have done real work, do not seem to care about rank.

This is a tragedy for Aikido because it is not an academic art which can be taught out of a book or by opinion. Or dance.

I know of cases where active working security personnel who train to de-stress and who would like to improve their personal safety and capability at work are being corrected in a dojo, by an unemployed person, or in some cases, an office worker who has never seen action and whose only real risk is a paper cut at the office, and who cannot apply a technique, has no understanding of the how and why and then gets shown how by this “junior” in a white belt and no hakama, who daily saves lives by putting his life on the line. Is this not a travesty?

Is it not just a little upside down, Alice in Wonderland, weird scenario?

Whilst there is some immense and real talent out there who rather more closely, quietly follow the intent of the Founder, most are not usually associated with either “big names” or known organizations. And they dare to “cross train,” because they want to be able to deal with more than fake attacks and uke who “sell” techniques by jumping and taking a dive, and which are self evidently fake and ineffectual. They want to be able to aiki every attack possible. They know it is possible. And they are prepared to meet the challenges involved in achieving real function for Aikido. SOMETHING WHICH IS IN FACT POSSIBLE.

But since so-called “aikido attacks” are non existent kindergarten forms suitable for beginners, not a lifestyle career move, necessarily there appears no option than to search further afield.

You do not find Aikido by “doing aikido.” You find it by being real, honest, authentic and sincere; something obviated by self opinionated, pompous and important “would be kings,” all striving to be king of a dung pile of political nonsense going nowhere.

These aberrations do Aikido no favors, as the worst enemies of Aikido are to be found in the “aikido world,” people using the name Aikido for other purposes.

Where do we go from here?

I would caution every “follower” to start leading themselves and to question everything.

Ask yourself: Is this way of training making me more me, more capable, more skilled in other areas including human relations, more free and more truly centered and capable as a creatively constructive contributor of the society in which I live. If not, why not?

Or am I descending into becoming a follower in a cult-like, peer-pressured group of blind believer, self deceivers and ill conceivers?

Aikido, if it is to be more than merely a dance or a brutal killing, battlefield jujutsu, must embrace both the practical and the ideal, functionally. Analogous to a tree of life embracing both the heaven and earth alluded to in Doka.

Its proponents must have some modicum of the direction they are leading others over and beyond their own bank balance.

Ask, who gains from this? And how?

Don’t get me wrong. There are some fantastic proponents out there who quietly produce excellence in themselves and also their students and who refuse to mass process numbers merely for lucrative gain, rather because they care.

And others, who work hard to keep the roots alive by publishing matters which would otherwise become forgotten; as Aikido meanders and risks becoming lost from its true and intended direction of human and global uplift.

This is reflected in many of the numerous forums and blogs online.

But there are also those with a motive, not Aikido, who prey on the gullible because they would like to believe they live on a pedestal.

The greatest budoka, indeed Aikidoka, I have ever met, never made reference to their rank, qualifications or position. Indeed ,some did not have any!

Their main interest was self-correction and training. After that, getting on with their lives without imposing on anyone, or effecting harm.

Not only were they the best teachers, but were often unaware of this salient fact, preferring to simply be a good human being who did their best and humbly honest about their human weaknesses and foibles.

The most you would get out of them was, “Lets train together and explore the possibilities.”

Mythically powerful in the field of real high risk, this was evident to most, but apparently not themselves. To these, the extraordinary miracle of life was work in progress, incomplete and requiring continued input without blowing any trumpets.

My advice to everyone is: Find yourself, reclaim yourself and be yourself. Think for yourself.

You are the master of your destiny and unless you join the real military, you owe no one anything more than respect. But not too much. At least, no more than is deserved.

And this depends on you. Hone the primary weapon of the peaceful warrior: Discernment!

The only path to “follow” is your own. Listen to your heart.

Then you can gain by training WITH anyone.

Improvement never ends and that is the purpose of Aikido, to provide a comprehensive auxiliary to augment real life as it is, by progressively awakening innate potentials. Whatever your other fields of service.

This has already made the world a better place despite its currently distraught condition. Hopefully, this “path without end,” will be met and continued with the dignity of authenticity it deserves for endless generations to come.

If you can serve students and keep them safe both on the mat and in life as well; by virtue of real quality teaching, you have done your job and perhaps deserve the title of Sensei, on the mat.

For purposes of all round safety in training, strict, draconian vigilance and autocracy on the mat is a necessity. Off the mat, off duty, I’m quite as happy for you to call me shit-head or whatever you want, and I won’t take it personally. We are all ordinary human beings. It is the journey which is extraordinary, not any personality as such.

On as many days, I still sweep the mats because it does not really matter who does it, so long as it’s done well. Besides demonstrating a high standard can only be continued by ongoing practice. A teacher is not exempt, rather more responsible to get things as right as it is possible to do so.

Rank has less to do with Aikido than the spirit of true human service to all life. Something which also never ends if you are serious about a path of Hikari, and not the dark path of power over others.

Nev Sagiba


  1. bruce baker says:

    The one thing I have learned as the years have passed my by is .. YOU CAN LEARN FROM THE MOST INEPT INEXPERIENCED PERSON IN ANY CLASS. Yeah, but only if you keep an open mind and pay attention.

    So, in effect, every single person in that room is teaching you something whether they mean to or not.

    I don’t do well with attitudes, and authority that hides information either. I don’t mind be a loser, or a fool if .. I learn something in the process that keeps me from being a loser a fool down the road.

    What I do mind is the attitude of either superiority that is lauded or displayed in spiteful way. We should all try to treat each other as equals trying to be mindful of our role of giving and taking knowledge from each person we train with.

    Every single person in that room you train in is teaching you something.

    Sure, there is one teacher in charge, and probably a senior teacher in charge, but when everyone realizes the duality of everyone being teachers and students at the same time … then we are finally getting somewhere … and maybe to that place the Morihei Ushiba was alluding to that we weren’t getting to as the Chasm was opening up as politics were being practiced instead of the art itself?

    I am not saying anarchy should be the thought, because organization and politics is there to maintain order, but a realization of thought which leads to behavior, and then leads to a mastery of body, mind, and spirit.

  2. Is this a possibility.

    Aikido began as an ideal, which became a way, then became a method, then became a school, then became an organisation, then became an institution, which became dead to the ideal, and now is a dead end, and the institution is becoming fossilised.

    As always with man, that which he cannot receive in his soul by revelation, he creates and moulds by his own imaginations, to his folly.

    Ueshiba sensei witnessed death, he experienced the the prospect of dying, therefore he sought to bring to the martial arts, light, life and love, as opposed to darkness, death, and division, by way of a spiritual awakening to the fundamental questions and problems of living in this fallen world.

    These things cannot be graded on the curve, by such things as a title by a diploma, or a coloured belt worn around the waist, but rather fostered in the heart and mind, that they may manifest through our words and actions, this kind of fruit takes a life time to mature.

    The question is, how well are we cultivating the vine, for the fruit to grow.

    Aikido is simple, we make it complex.

  3. Nev,

    Another fantastic post, I always enjoy what you have to say on matters of budo. I think all of us fall victim to the lures of rank both inside and outside of the dojo. I can’t help myself but feel that slightly disgusting feeling of superiority when I get on the mat with lots of other students when I see they are not wearing hakama and I am. It may only be a small subconcsious thing and i try my upmost not to let it affect my practice but I cannot deny that it is there. I read an article the other day that spoke of the old days in the Kobukan dojo where O’sensei made everyone wear hakama, it denoted only the the spirit of budo and the 7 virtues of the samurai to remind everyone of these important aspects, and had nothing to do with rank at interesting position. Anyway great article, I look forward to reading more

Speak Your Mind