“Dan Inflation in the Early Years of Aikido,” by Stanley Pranin


“My own teacher, Morihiro Saito told me on more than one occasion that he skipped two ranks in his advancement to 9th dan”

stan-pranin-closeupThe other day I found an interesting article in the 33rd issue of the “Aikido Shimbun” published in March 1962. You may recall that the Aikikai Hombu Dojo began publishing this four-page newsletter in 1959. The newsletter has appeared continuously through today, an enviable publishing run of over 52 years!

What caught my eye was an announcement listing the dan promotions awarded on January 15 of the same year at the annual Kagami Biraki celebration. A number of famous names are mentioned in that list, some of them prewar students of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba, while others began training following World War II.

I have selected certain names of people that have become prominent and added the year of their enrollment by way of reference.

8th dan
Rinjiro Shirata (1933)
Hajime Iwata (1930)
Takaaki (Shigemi) Yonekawa (1932)

7th dan
Morihiro Saito (1946: 16 years to 7th dan)

6th dan
Zenzaburo Akazawa (1933)
Shoji Nishio (1951: 11 years to 6th dan)
Nobuyoshi Tamura (1953: 9 years to 6th dan))

5th dan
Hiroshi Kato (1954: 8 years to 5th dan)
Hiroshi Isoyama (1949: 13 years to 5th dan)

4th dan
Yoshio Kuroiwa (c. 1954: 8 years to 4th dan)

3rd dan
Masatake Fujita (1956: 5 years to 3rd dan)
Koretoshi Maruyama (1959: 3 years to 3rd dan)
Katsuaki Asai (1955: 7 years to 3rd dan)

If you look at the number of years of training resulting in the indicated rank, you will find certain cases where the progress of dan promotions was very rapid. For example, three years to 3rd dan, or nine years to 6th dan–as in two of the cases cited–would be considered an aberration by today’s standards.

This sort of rapid advancement, or “dan inflation,” if you like, was a common occurrence in the 1950s and 60s. The reasons have to do with the fact that aikido was a new martial art, and relatively unknown to the general public. One of the most effective means of promoting aikido were public demonstrations. When aikido was being demonstrated by so-called “experts,” it would seem odd to have people of low rank representing the art. But since aikido was new, there were not yet very many highly-ranked practitioners.

Also, in the case of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, there existed a kind of a rivalry with the rapidly expanding Yoshinkan Aikido established by Gozo Shioda. In the early years following the war, the Yoshikan school was more active than the nearly dormant Aikikai which still had bombed-out families living in the Hombu Dojo. As the separation between the Aikikai and Yoshikan was not as distinct as today, representatives of both schools would sometimes appear in the same demonstration. The Yoshikan rapidly advanced their senior teachers and standout students, and the Aikikai followed suit so as not to be looked upon in a lesser light.

My own teacher, Morihiro Saito told me on more than one occasion that he skipped two ranks in his advancement to 9th dan. There were a number of other prominent teachers who experienced the same thing. The “Aikido Shimbun” is a good source document for tracing this early progression through the rankings of well-known instructors.

As aikido became established over the years, generally speaking, standards became more stringent, and today it is not uncommon for it to take three or more years to reach 1st dan, and several more years for each dan thereafter.

If you think about it, the early instructors who were sent abroad to disseminate aikido were, comparatively speaking, still novices in the art. Many of them, however, made rapid progress because of the difficult conditions and challenges they faced in setting up dojos and organizations overseas. They may have been promoted rapidly early on, but their reputations as aikido experts were built through long periods of hard work and strenuous testing of their mettle.



  1. I am glad someone else noticed this. Kenji Tomiki started aikido in 1926 and was the first 8th dan awarded in aikido in 1942, I believe. He took 16 years to 8th. That is fairly quick by today’s standards.

    • One source says 1940, which is rapid – but he died an 8th Dan, while Tohei was given 10th and Shioda was given 9th. Tomiki did have a post with the Imperial Family Staffers and training the military at the time of his 8th Dan promotion, that might’ve been necessary for him to hold his post.

      There is an instructor, Suenaka Sensei, who says he was training in Okinawa and wanted to open a dojo there. He was told by local authorities he needed a menkyo Kaiden, which O Sensei allegedly filled out on the spot just so the school could open. Maybe this shows some validity for the story.

      What would be the reason for those promoted more slowly?

      • I noticed something else about Tomiki Sensei’s promotions that I thought was worth mentioning. He joined O Sensei in 1925 and received a Judo Godan at the same time. In 1940 he becomes the first 8th Dan in Aikido. He never became a Judo 8th Dan until 1971. Different standards, or politics of two teachers?

  2. Hello Stan,

    I think there should be some thought about the level of the people you practice with and the number of other arts people may be proficient in. I believe a number of these people held multiple dan ranks in other arts. Judo, Karate, Jujutsu, Iaido, and Kendo were all long established. It seems to me that if you have become proficient in two or more arts, then the third and subsequent arts are usually picked up quicker. Also when you practice one on one with people who have already been doing something for a decade or more, then they will push you along and show you detailed nuances much faster. When you couple both of those thoughts with intense, frequent practices, then rapid advancement would not be so unusual. This is what I found. I think many places here in the States have no idea of the level of practice in old dojos in Japan. Places that think they are intense and hardly break a sweat are kidding themselves.

    I used to judge a good practice by whether my gi bag felt like it was welded to the ground when I went to pick it up. If your gi and hakama are fully soaked you may have a gallon or more of sweat in there. I had one night when we stopped and I noticed I was really sweating a lot. I held out my hand and there was s steady stream of sweat running off my little finger. Another way to judge is when the sweat running down your face tastes like fresh water. All the salt is gone. That’s some good koryu. You don’t need a shower cause you have been washed by the misogi.

    Tom Huffman
    Gainesville, Florida

    • Your point is well taken. People like Shoji Nishio and Morihiro Saito had considerable experience in arts like judo and karate and were older. Some of the younger uchideshi entered the dojo when 18 or 19 and may have only had a smattering of high school judo training. If you look at some of the old film of these folks before their departure at Japan, you’ll get an idea of their level.

  3. I agree that in the day aikido seemed to be a sort of graduate school. I’ve had good people come to me, but the vast number of beginning aikido students in the USA have little background in martial arts.

  4. I concur. Today’s twice weekly practice sessions don’t come close to the 6 and sometimes 7day training sessions many had in the sixties and early seventies. Not to mention continuing training with broken arms and or fingers.

  5. Frank Weldon says:

    I wanted to chime in with something that was mentioned in the previous post. I certainly find the article very interesting, but in my opinion it is certainly hard to compare yesterday’s training to our training of today. Most classes span about an hour or so today +/-? Aikidoka of today, usually dont spend more than 3-4 days a week training, if they are lucky. These masters of today, seemed to have trained intensly for 6-7 days a week with multiple hours of one on one training by founders of the art. Aikido roots are nothing new…they derived from Aikijutsu which was practiced by many at that time, not to mention Judo and others. I spend 4-5 days a week training because I truly enjoy it and I spend hours reading books to better myself but I will most probably never reach the level they have because paying mortgages and raising kids will not allow for it. Life today very seldom allows for this type of training, but there is nothing better than seeing someone who is proficient in their skill set. This makes you look at things differently and maybe understand the adversities we also face today, although different, certainly they are barriers from allowing us to progress more rapidly. I enjoyed the story and thank you for sharing this article.

    • An interesting exercise would be to view some of the early surviving films of the instructors who went abroad. It was partially having viewed a great deal of footage that prompted me to come to the conclusions I have.

  6. I’m wondering about the X years till Y-Dan numbers you are giving.
    Example: Katsuaki Asai (1955: 7 years to 3rd dan)
    Does that mean 7 years in total or 7 years from 2nd Dan to 3rd Dan?

  7. Time spent on the mat learning from highly qualified instructors in end is the absolute key. I took a seminar with a Shihan from Japan who had been doing aikido as many years as me. The difference? – I trained 6 hours a week. He trained six hours a day.

  8. Regarding the years required by somebody to acquire X. Dan: it might be worth mentioning, that Katsuaki Asai Sensei (7 years from to 3. Dan) started at Aikikai Hombu in 1955 at the tender age of 14, which is, to my knowledge, quite unusual. Also, as far as I can tell, he was the only one actually “sent” by Hombu (or more precisely, asked by K. Ueshiba Doshu) to go abroad to setup an Aikido organisation (!967, Germany, as a 4.Dan at the time). All the other (at least the “european”) Shihan (Tamura Sensei, Tada Sensei, Noro Sensei, etc.) went to the respective foreign countries (France, Italy, Spain, etc) for their own personal reasons.

  9. Moacyr Rosa says:

    Dear Editor, Do you know when exactly did aikido start using the kyu/dan system?

    • Going from memory, I believe the first dan rank was given in 1940 by the Kobukai Foundation (forerunner of the Aikikai). This was during the war period and few students were at Morihei’s Kobukan Dojo. I don’t know if a kyu system was implemented at the same time. During this period, the Japanese military government pushed for standardization among the country’s martial arts. Morihei’s Aiki Budo was for a time under the umbrella of the government-controled Dai Nippon Butokukai.

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