Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Reflections on my first kodansha grading

6 dan candidates waiting for the venue to open, Esforta Arena, Hachioji

Kodansha (高段者) means someone who is either 6th, 7th or 8th dan. The other terms in Kendo are yudansha 有段者 which is some who has a dan grade, and mudansha 無段者, someone without or not yet dan-graded.

    What does it mean?
    Lots of non-Kendo people ask this question. The short answer is that now I am taken seriously as a kenshi. As one sensei told me, now you are considered an instructor in Japan. This means a lot to me. Ever since I was a teenager doing Kendo in Melbourne I have always looked to Japan as the pinnacle of Kendo. I've always felt that the depth of Kendo there was beyond my capacity to understand. Part of my journey to sixth dan was to do my best to understand this depth by throwing myself into Japanese Kendo at the deep end, as much as I could anyway. So there were many trips to Japan where I was smashed by all and sundry, including the students of the sensei I was visiting, and no success at all in terms of grading. Looking back, these visits were a big part of my preparation.

    What was it like?
    My first trip was overwhelming. Although I was as ready as I could be at the time, it became clear that I was not at the same level as the others who were going for sixth dan.

    What I learned was that there was a certain level of familiarity required regarding the experience of grading in Japan. In other words, I had to fail a number of times in order to be able to deal with the pressure of the grading situation itself. Familiar with what? Well, among other things, there not being any instructions in English, the sheer number of people around you, the pressure that these things place on you, how short 60 seconds feels like when under this pressure, fighting opponents you've never met and who may have much more training under their belt than you (a situation that those who compete at national and international level would be already familiar with) and so on.

    On each of my four trips to grade in Japan I received a huge amount of support from the people I met. I never just turned up for the grading and went home again. On my first trip this was problematic because the very helpful sensei who was looking after me was intent on reconfiguring my basics, one week out from the grading. In hindsight this may have been detrimental but it did mean that I had lots of things to take home with me and work on. The first time I failed 6th dan was also the first time I had ever failed a grading, so that was a extra kick in the guts. I had lots of work to do.

    The second time I was better prepared but still a bit at sea when it came to the actual grading. I don't remember my first opponent but my second opponent was a woman, quite a bit shorter than me. This should have given me an advantage, but she was, like many female kenshi, very good at protecting herself from being struck. Her waza were quite slow, but her degote timing was good under pressure and this unsettled me. I was definitely more afraid of what my opponent was doing than focusing on my own technique. She and I both failed.

    The third time I was knocked off my feet by a taller, more powerful opponent. He was adept at using tai-atari after his opponent had attempted a men cut. My failing there were that I had been knocked off my feet rather than pivoting around his tai-atari, and for having a 'banzai' (arms raised) follow through. His failing was to try and negate my attack without offering any kind of oji-waza (counter-attack), which showed his nervous insecurity. We both failed.

    The fourth time
    My fourth attempt was the successful one. As with all my other gradings, my opponents were both Japanese. Both were men. On this trip I had also had my basics pulled apart and analysed by a very helpful Japanese sensei just a week before the grading. But in this case, that sensei was hachidan and also a grading panel member. I was confident that what he had shown me was of such value to my future Kendo that in a sense I didn't mind if it upset my preparation and caused me to fail. I had been on this journey to sixth dan for so long now (seven years) that I felt that I might be able to incorporate these changes into my Kendo in time to be effective in the grading. Either way, I knew I was being true to my ethos of 'throwing myself into the deep end of Japanese Kendo.'

    In a previous post I mentioned that I was in bad shape physically by the day of my grading. Again, the length of time I had been on this journey meant that I was pretty sanguine about it. There's really no such thing as 'perfect preparation', or rather, there is, but it doesn't in any way guarantee you success. This, I realise now, is an important mindset to have. In line with what I said in that same post about 'heijoshin' (everyday mind), just plowing ahead in spite of circumstances is of fundamental importance. It's interesting that many people understand this when it relates to going for a single cut: throwing everything into the attack. But they forget it also applies to the bigger picture. Many people complain that they don't feel ready, or 'it didn't feel right' to go ahead with their grading because of some circumstance. I suppose this is each person's judgement call. But I feel that some people could practice not listening to their inner doubts a bit more.

    The part of the grading that was most stressful was, for me, the prospect of getting to the grading venue, which this time was a 90 minute train journey west of Tokyo to Hachioji. The stress came from the prospect of making connections between trains at the various major stations like Shinjuku. How difficult would it be? Would we have enough time to make our connection? I was there with Teoh sensei from Fudoshin Kendo Club in Melbourne and he was much more confident about the logistics. In the end we were fine, but I worried about it right up until the moment we finally got out at Hachioji station.

    The doors to the arena opened and there was the now-familiar rush for spots to park one's gear and start getting ready: another aspect of grading in Japan that can be daunting for the first-timer. The sheer number of people is quite astounding. Soon it became apparent that Esforta Arena, being a very conventional four-sided box of a building, had a lot more space than the Nippon Budokan which is octagonal and has no 'corners'. It is also considerably bigger than the Tokyo Budokan. So while there was more space for one's belongings, there was still no shilly-shallying about getting ready and getting down onto the floor for a very quick warm-up.

    Three things interrupt one's warm-up before the grading proper starts: 1) the distribution of grading cards and allocation of kaiba (grading area), 2) the pre-grading briefing to all candidates by the organisers and 3) the allocation of grading numbers. Generally speaking if you haven't had a warm-up by the time you have to gather for the briefing, you're not going to get any more than a quick (and discreet) stretch in beforehand. In my experience a physical warm-up is probably not such an important thing to aim for anyway. You will only be doing Kendo for a total of  120 seconds, so it's not going to be physically taxing. And you'll have to wait for anything from 5 mins to 3 hours before your grading, so any physical benefits will be lost for all but the first few candidates. And part of your preparation should have been the ability to perform -- to be "on"-- at a moment's notice. This is another reason to discard the notion of the perfect preparation. At sixth dan your mental state should remain unflustered no matter what happens.

    I was surprised to find that Teoh sensei and myself were up quite quickly: the previous time we had both been in the last grading group of the morning session. This time we had to wait less than an hour. Candidates are organised according to date of birth and it happens that Teoh sensei and I are so close in age that we were once in the same group of four. This time I was in the group following Teoh sensei's, so I got to watch both his gradings. Unfortunately he didn't get to watch mine as he was moving off the grading area and thanking his opponents. By the time he had done that I had finished my grading.

    the main arena for jitsugi

    $3000 kiai
    One of the sensei who had helped me prepare gave me this advice. When she heard how much it cost for me to come to Japan for each attempt she was a little shocked. "I'll never complain about flying up to Tokyo for a grading again!" She also knew that I had been told to make sure my first kiai was especially loud, so she said, "make it a $3000 kiai!" This was an easy bit of advice to put into action!

    It's hard for me to say how I went. I'm never good at remembering the individual waza I perform in gradings. I know there were a couple of degote, a couple of kaeshi-do, and perhaps a suriage men that wasn't 100%. I think I might also have landed one or two debana-men, which is the technique I had been working on the most. But I couldn't have said how well I had done any of those. I don't think there was a cut that felt 'wow'.

    Nevertheless when I was finished I felt good. I had done everything I could have done on the day. I had not been intimidated, and I hadn't tried to negate my opponent's cuts. I only did positive Kendo. If I didn't pass I felt that was OK. Passing and failing are outside our control. I had done my best with the things I had control over.

    The big piece of butcher's paper
    At these national gradings, the first results come out pretty quickly. After the first 16 groups of four candidates had finished they calculated the results. The grading was continuing on in the background when the big pieces of paper come out, just like in the documentary. Each kaiba had its own, and the dutiful Nittaidai students who do all the basic admin jobs hold them up: a reassuringly analogue display in today's digital world.

    When I saw my number I was strangely unmoved. I looked, thought "that's my number", looked down at my zekken to double-check, then looked at it again, "yep, that's it." Sadly Teoh sensei's number was not there. We commiserated, and then I looked around to see who else had passed and who had not. From memory neither of my opponents passed. People whose numbers were there started to congratulate each other: it's well known that the kata section of the grading is much easier to pass. Unless your grasp of the 10 kata is very poor you will receive your sixth dan.

    the kata arena

    The next part of the grading, Nihon Kendo no Kata, starts almost immediately. The successful candidates from all eight kaiba were called on to make their way to the second arena. We were assigned new numbers and then had to sit, while seven pairs of kenshi performed kata in front of three hanshi hachidan sensei. I recognised two of them: Ota sensei who had once visited Melbourne long ago, and Iwatate sensei, whose DVDs were playing at one of the pop-up Kendo shops in the foyer.

    We sat cross-legged and waited in rows. This arena was a real contrast to the one where jitsugi was still underway. The only sounds here were the kiai "yah!", "toh!" and the occasional clash of bokuto.
    The mood was one of restrained excitement, like children waiting to unwrap their Christmas presents, a total contrast to the more oppressive tension in the main arena. When my turn came after almost an hour of sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor, it was a relief just to be able to stand and move around. I did a passable set of kata, non-plussed a little by the 'blunt' kissaki (tip) of the bokuto that the All Japan Kendo Federation provides for all candidates. I must have done OK because in spite of the fact that I was placed directly in front of the grading panel, I passed kata as well. There was a moment of tension as results were tabulated and we realised there would indeed be a "pass-fail" announcement, then widespread relief when it was announced that the three candidate numbers on the butcher's paper were of those people who had failed. Out of a cohort of over 200 kenshi, that was a rather different pass rate than of the jitsugi. Overall the pass rate was about 20%.

    One thing I was very grateful I had the presence of mind to act on was to remove the tape on my feet before I did kata. There was tape on both my toes and also some kinesiology tape on my left Achilles which was falling off and stained a mottled-blue by my hakama. When we changed numbers on our zekken I thought to throw these bits of tape away with my old number, and I'm glad I did, especially given that I was placed directly in front of the grading panel. One never knows what might tip the old turtles over the edge, and dirty, ragged sports tape is pretty undignified. Little considerations like this were a product of my three previous attempts, and all the advice and disappointment along the way.

    Kendo is a personal journey. My path to 6th dan is my own and unlike anyone else's. Your story will be different. You have to write it yourself. However there are some fundamentals that are common to all successful attempts. Your ability to perceive what those things are and how to incorporate them into your Kendo will be part of your story.


    Grant Smith said...

    Congratulations on Passing, Ben!

    I remember meeting you as you were preparing for your first attempt in Melbourne. Such a fantastic journey that I hope to one day share!

    Best Regards,


    Amin Trabelsi said...

    Congratulations and thank you very much for this testimony...
    I'll use this article as a guide for my future grading preparations..

    Best regards from Tunisia