“A Rant About Rank,” by David

“I find that recently I have been having frustrating feelings towards the budo I practice.

In three weeks I shall be testing for nikyu in Aikido. As much as I always feel that I am not good enough for my grade, I do acknowledge that I usually exceed the standard set for each grade I take (although that is a whole other mess of crap that I won’t get into).”

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  1. Experience counts for little these days…. We are a certified nation with litigation coming out of our ears, therefore the need to have bits of paper abounding…. Trust today is on paper, not on common sense and gut feeling….

  2. I dislike the way techniques on a grading become the focus of training for up to a month before gradings, I much prefer courses where you can just “do” aikido, but as you say you “need” pieces of paper to become an instructor where most people don’t even know how to scrutinise a dan grade certificate, e.g. which association has issued it, etc.

  3. Rick Triplett says:

    My current instructor and I have been training together since 1989, and neither of us has ever been interested in rank. Naturally we assumed incoming students would have similarly “noble” motivations. Since then we have realized that students like being appreciated for the effort they have put in, and they are at least partially motivated by the “paper” we give them. So now we have detailed testing guidelines and frequent testing. This motivation is just human nature and there is nothing wrong with it. As for our own credentials, not once have we been asked to identify our association or to see our “paper”; students join us if they like what the see on our mat. This is also natural and not likely to change.

  4. Tom McIntire says:

    As a Aikidoka I can only address the ranking system in my own art. Shodan means first man (or person). This means that when you are awarded the rank of shodan you are finally a student. Until that point you are a student-in-training. Aikido is a lifelong endeavor. The first 4 or 5 years you are studying your primary aim should be learning how to learn. The award of black belt means that in the estimation of your Sensei that you are ready to be a good training partner and go beyond the surface to learn the principles of Aikido.

    As to your ambitions to teach aikido, they are admirable. The urge to share your knowledge with others is natural and you will have many opportunities to do so. I would like to relate a story about a great teacher whose name you would probably recognize but I won’t mention here. About 30 years ago this person came to America to study with his Sensei who had recently moved here. At the time he held the rank of Sandan. His Sensei was preparing to move to another city and told him that he would now be sensei of the Dojo. This Aikidoka protested that “I am no Sensei, I am student.” This argument went on several minutes until his Sensei reminded him that he must follow his wishes. This young Aikidoka is now one of the most respected persons in world Aikido.

    Tom McIntire, Godan
    Sensei, Nashville Aikikai

  5. Jim Cooper says:

    Shodan does NOT mean “first man”. Dan (which should really be pronounced more like “dunn”) in this context means level (of education or achievement) or diploma.

    As for the OP’s topic, unfortunately, even the pieces of paper can prove worthless. When I moved to the UK from Australia, my Shotokan dan grade was not recognised for purely political reasons. The main Japanese organisation split into two, and the Australian organisation ended up in the “wrong” camp, according to the UK association, who wanted me to retake the exam (for money, of course).

    Also, I hope David is mistaken when he says he doesn’t know if he’s training with a sankyu or sandan. It should be pretty obvious. If it isn’t, then perhaps the grades are not hard enough to get.

  6. There are many different outlooks on testing and ranks, probably even more than there are styles of Aikido. Over the years, my thoughts have differed over the importance of rank. When my life’s journey led me to another country and a different style of Aikido which did not accept my previous rank, I came to the decision that rank was not as important to me as training and I started at the bottom again. A few years later, back in the U.S.A., and affiliated with yet another style of Aikido, I finally tested for shodan after training for almost 20 years. After the exam, I was talking to a friend in a different association. He was exuberant. He had just passed his shodan exam also. “I have finally made it to the top of the mountain!” he said. I couldn’t suppress a chuckle. “Wow, congratulations,” said I. “It’s funny though, as my teacher handed me a black belt she said that now I had finally made it to the bottom of the mountain. She said that now I was considered a serious student.”
    I think that regular testing is important in Aikido. In a martial art without rules or competition, it is a way to see how we perform under stress. Testing and rank awards are not really for the benefit of knowing what level practitioner we are working with. The rank system provides points where students can direct their focus and training energy. It allows us to get a reality check on what we can and cannot do. Testing allows instructors to gauge their teaching abilities and how well they are communicating with their students.
    Enjoy each test. It is one of the few times when the Aikido mat is yours to own and express what you have learned. If you aspire to teach, that certificate will let others know that you have shown the commitment to learn the prerequisites.

  7. …enjoy your test. it’s the closest thing to “the real thing” you’ll get in the dojo and you won’t have many more similar opportunities.

  8. In the Koryu, rank is not about how good you are but at what level your initiation into the art is. However, as aikido is not as systematic as other arts, where typically one would be exposed to various levels only after having obtained the particular rank for that level. It seems that in aikido, we are initiated into all of it on day one; is the new student ready for a drink of aikido? Open wide because the fire hydrant will be turned on full capacity immediately.
    In this way one ends up standing knee deep, then later waist deep, then hopefully neck deep and so on in aikido, as they struggle and splash around attempting to develop some sense of coherency to this art.
    I think the way in which the grading in aikido is done is more difficult for a student to grasp, sometimes it can seem arbitrary, with no real sense of direction. And as we attend seminars and work with sandans that may not be that great, and perhaps a shodan that is really good we wonder about ourselves and how and where we fit into this scheme. And for those of us that are perfectionists, no, we would never make shodan or nidan because we could always be just a little better, perhaps I can test tomorrow or next week when my skills are just a little more polished. Ultimately, do you trust the judgement of your sensei, and will you relax into what they perceive about you? They would not have you test unless they thought you are ready.

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