“What is the almost visceral attraction of being handed progressively higher
grades for members of those organizations in the greater Aikido community?”
Why is there such an apparent fascination with having ranks, certifications, and the special status that often attends the highest numbers in the realm of Aikido, and of other martial arts systems as well? What is the almost visceral attraction of being handed progressively higher grades for members of those organizations in the greater Aikido community, that are based, not on any mutual developed standards of established merit, but rather on the seemingly simple exercise of their self held rights, capacity and license to do so, regardless of outside approval? And finally, is such ranking any true indication of proven prowess, acquired knowledge, and for a legitimate license to then freely transmit such knowledge and traditions to interested others?
Some cynics may point out that grading, while arbitrary, and not necessarily conforming to any universally established or accepted standards, is an excellent method of acquiring and keeping students who pay the bills. This viewpoint may especially be applicable on reviewing how children and youth programs are administered, and have successfully been run. Opinions do vary, but it is no secret that there are both benefits and consequences to such a business oriented philosophy of instructing traditional martial arts, and spreading its reach to many. Only in such a context can a comprehensively thorough and fair review be accomplished.
Anecdotes about the Founder of Aikido giving out ranks without forethought abound, with an apparent frequency and arbitrary serendipity that baffles the credulity of any outside observer. O Sensei never felt constrained by notions of organizational standards or of building consensus of support for consistent ranking. His childlike glee in shocking people was only matched by the indifference he had to ranking itself. Michio Hikitsuchi Sensei, from the Wakayama Prefecture, comes to mind as someone who admits that he was given his 10th dan directly from the Founder. I have as yet to receive confirmation from Aikikai Foundation that this gift was formally recognized and recorded. I do know of others who were offered direct promotions, but were quietly dissuaded by Hombu officials from advertising that information.
For children and youth, such martial arts exposure in a well regulated and genuine setting, can give a secure and inspiring environment to those in need of structure, discipline and the nurturing atmosphere that many of these programs provide. Self esteem issues, negative home and school environments, and the need to freely explore their inner potential in a supportive, well organized, focused and fully committed effort by their respective teachers, may well have been the difference in success or failure later on in the children’s lives outside the dojo. By including the trappings of continuing advancement and growth that fair and innovative grading can provide, belts of different colors and designs have proven their worth time and time again. This is positive reinforcement doing its best.
For teens and adults, however, there may be other considerations that come into play. In our highly competitive environments, locally and worldwide, we are inundated with status symbols, trophies, and the trappings of success for those who qualify, based on the arbirtrary rules in play. It is then a natural next step to provide such public acknowledgments in the form of belts, awards, certifications, and for a clearly visible and desirable ranking systems that are deemed proven and acceptable, and are legitimately run by recognized authority figures. To the extent that these acknowledgments actually satisfy a human need for recognition, approval and acceptance by others, such practices are successful and appropriate. It is no doubt greatly appreciated by those who participate, who often reward such gestures with loyal and proactive membership, especially in recruiting additional students.
There is a highly visible and established Aikikai Shihan who has recently stated that he did not believe in the grading system in Aikikai. His was the apparent opinion that such a system “creates a competitive mind”, and that “people know who is good, and who is bad”, and that “the ranking system in aikido is another headache.” Yet, one may correctly argue that his widespread organization has enjoyed huge success over the decades, largely due to the grading system he has adhered to and exploited during this time frame. Such seeming ambivalence seems odd, and may infer a double standard in play.
Again, it is a natural need for humans to be recognized and acknowledged for their accomplishments, real or imagined, and that they will willingly support and promote such a system in the belief, largely accurate, that many do benefit significantly from such policies. There is no need to apologize, justify or even defend those systems of merit and appreciation that are genuinely established to assist in the growth of both individuals and of organizations that positively and consistently assist such individuals in their growth and progress.
In life, we learn that there are no guarantees. Even the warranties available are so conditional and fine printed that one who expresses confidence in such is willing to buy beach front property in Phoenix, Arizona. There is nothing special about special people. It is what they DO that makes them special. Similarly, training in any form of martial arts guarantees one nothing if such training is no longer adhered to as a matter of habit. Use it or lose it comes closest to answering the question posted last in the first paragraph.
Performing and/or teaching martial arts theory and practice is largely a skill, one easily eroded by misuse or by disuse. To me, it remains an unconditional commitment over a lifetime to ensure having any real chance of successfully completing the journey with skills, knowledge and wisdom intact, and ready for transmission programs workable under the correct circumstances.
I do believe that grading can be a valuable and progressive tool to maintain the growth path of students and of organizations that remain committed to the highest standards of quality, equality, and integrity of purpose. The clear, established, and legitimate standards must remain transparent for all to see and appreciate. Fairness must be a given, so that faith in the underpinnings of consistent adherence to traditional values and legitimacy remain unshaken. All must qualify, or none may qualify. This is the goal of successful grading and certification, and the continuing goal of Ueshiba Aikido for the future.