The different flavour of kyu grades — 6th kyu to 2nd kyu
Last weekend I was on a grading panel for the first time in a long time. It was a real reminder for me of the way the levels progress in Kendo.
In Japan, kyu grades are designed for children and dan grades for adults. In Australia, where the majority of people start Kendo as adults, kyu grades are a necessity for all. It is possible to double-grade and this is important, allowing those who can pick up the basic skills of Kendo quickly for whatever reason to move ahead more quickly than the norm. This is as much for the protection of the 'average' Kenshi (is there such a thing?) as it is for recognising excellence. How? Well it allows the grading panel to advance a stand-out candidate, rather than grade down (or 'moderate') his or her fellows in comparison.
In other words, if you're just an average Joe going for 3rd kyu, and you're grading next to some guy who grew up doing Kendo in Japan as a kid but who never graded until now, he's going to make you look bad, right? Wrong. Gradings are not competitions. All the grading panel is looking for is whether or not you can perform the requirements to a set of quality criteria. If you can, great, you pass. If you perform really, really well, then you pass and may get to come back and try for the level above.
This is the first grade in Kendo in Australia and therefore is the easiest. The focus is on demonstrating correct attire (chakuso) and correct basics from standing to bowing to sonkyo, kamae and so on. It is difficult only because you will be nervous. Everything you're being asked to do should have been mastered weeks or months before. You wear do and tare. Almost impossible to fail.
TIP: even though you might feel like your job is done, stay and watch closely those who come after so you know what to expect at 5th kyu.
is almost as easy as 6th even though for most it comes six months down the track. Six months extra training and the confidence of knowing what the grading will feel like makes 5th kyu probably even easier than 6th, because there's not a lot extra required. Still only wearing do and tare, the only extra is kirikaeshi against a motodachi in full bogu. Simple. Still close to impossible to fail.
TIP: train hard in the months between 6th and 5th kyu and aim to double-grade here by absolutely smashing it with perfect basics. Just make sure you have your men and kote handy...
This is a bit of a shock now because from here until 8th dan you'll be wearing full bogu for every grading. But still, you will usually have at least 18 months Kendo under your belt by now, so you should be able to do this one in your sleep. They're still looking at how you wear everything, how you stand and bow, straightness of posture and so on, but now there are more cuts required and you also have to receive cuts. There will be multiple cuts as well and finally uchikomigeiko, which is difficult if you're nervous. People often start to use too much energy here: too much kiai and too much stiffness in their arms and shoulders, perhaps because perhaps they feel like there's a trick somewhere. "This stuff is easy isn't it? But look at all those judges! That must mean this is really hard. Must put in extra!" Well don't. Just do it nice and easy, big and correct, loud and relaxed. Difficult to fail but sometimes happens, mainly because a candidate shows they don't know the basics at all. This is more their instructor's fault for letting them grade when they weren't ready.
TIP: Keep you left heel up like you know you're supposed to!
Third kyu is a long list of things to do. Everything from 4th kyu and now also sandanwaza (three cuts in a row). Sometimes, depending on who's head judge, you might have to do kakarigeiko. But hopefully not. Could be tiring if you're not prepared for it. Remember you expend about three times the energy to do in a grading what you can do easily in training*. Double-grading here is tricky, because what comes after this is very different. And yet one person did it last weekend so it's far from impossible. Failure is starting to be a possibility, particularly on the quality of you performance, not so much just on whether you got the movements correct.
TIP: Enjoy it. This is the last drill-oriented, rote-learned, kihon-based grading you'll ever do in Kendo.
Now failure is a real possibility, and the criteria have a subjective element, as you enter the realm of jitsugi. Jitsugi is similar to shiai. The reiho is the same, but there are no shinpan. The Dojo Steward calls hajime! and yame! He or she will also call sore made! which means "it ends here" and that's when you do sonkyo. The big difference between jitsugi and shiai is that jitsugi is not competitive. You do fight of course but there is no winner and no loser. Both candidates can pass any given jitsugi. It is not an 'either-or' situation. So you should not worry about your opponent's attacks and whether they land or score. Don't try to block or dodge. Focus only on your own attacks and being as effective and correct as possible, because this is where it's different. Up until now every grading you've done has been about whether your Kendo is beautiful and correct. Now it also has to be effective. You have to score a winning ippon. You're starting to see what sho-dan looks like from here.
TIP: Train hard and regularly for this one, and against as many different people as you can. Visit other dojos and do extra training. Suburi every day. Watch great Kendo on Youtube and great Sensei in real life.
A knowledgeable kenshi once told me that the gap between 7th dan and 8th dan is wider than the gap between 1st dan and 7th dan. This thinking applies to the kyu grades as well. The higher you go, the more is expected of you. For 6th kyu to 4th kyu you have to perform everything you performed last time and more. For 3rd kyu and up you have to also perform it better than last time.
*(not a scientific measurement)