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The 4th Dan Barrier in Iaido

In recent years I have heard comments concerning the increasing difficulty of 4th dan gradings in Iaido and noticed that the number of people attempting but failing that grade has increased. As a dojo leader I have taught students that have passed 4th Dan and others that have 3rd dan now who expect to challenge 4th soon, and have sat on grading panels at 4th Dan and refereed competition at that level.

These are personal observations and opinion. They do not in any way reflect any policy, rulings or otherwise of either the BKA, or the ZNKR, if indeed there is any such policy or ruling.

The most widely held view is that 4th dan has become more difficult. This may appear to be the case because the standard is being more consistently applied by grading panels, in my experience. For a long time the EKF had one year less gap than the ZNKR between all grades above 2nd dan. This has not been the case for some years. But that should mean that applicants for 4th dan have a minimum of 2 years MORE training before applying, and should be that much better prepared and more experienced before making the challenge, though it does seem that the pass rate has dropped. When one takes an examination of that sort it is impossible to see the standard required with any meaningful and objective perspective. At that stage it is simply a barrier to be passed. Only later with greater knowledge and experience can we see exactly what is required. For this reason alone I cannot say if 4th Dan now is harder than it was when I took it in 1986. But I can be sure that the requirements have changed little in the last ten years.

Second observation is the widely held view that when the ZNKR dropped 9th and 10th dan promotions, the space between grades got bigger. I don’t think that can be the case. I see no evidence to suggest that 8th dan has got significantly more difficult, and I find it hard to imagine how it could. 9th and 10th dan promotions were not gradings in the sense we know them, that is to say they were never awarded by examination of technical merit displayed in a single embu under examination conditions. 8th dan was always the last technical examination of that sort, so to suggest that it has got more difficult and that grades from 4th dan and above are somehow stretched to fill the space left by the perceived harder 8th dan examination seems rather odd.

Indeed, I would suggest these and all other iaido folklore are excuses made by students and dojo leaders for the increasing number of people not quite hitting the mark.

As our arts become more popular, membership increases and more people climb the grading ladder, there will inevitably be more who fail to achieve the standards required at 4th dan, and 4th dan is (and always was) a difficult grade for specific reasons which I shall look at later. The problem is made more difficult by the increasing number of dojos run by 4th and 5th dans. With all due respect to them, it is difficult to teach a student close to your own ability. A 4th dan teacher will find it very difficult to help a 3rd dan student and have enough experience to determine how to help them overcome the barriers to their progress. This, after all, is why grading panellists should be at least 2 grades ahead of the grade being examined, only with that additional experience is it possible to see the problems and difficulties in perspective and be able to identify the best manner in which to proceed.

It is apparent that applicants who have trained regularly at squad training and have competed in national and international competition pass more consistently than those who don’t. I would suggest this has more to do with the standard of teaching at squad training than the value of competition itself, though putting ones performance under that kind of pressure has great value. However, for many prospective 4th dan applicants, squad training might be the only regular opportunity to train with and observe other students at the same stage and to be helped regularly by the most experienced instructors in the BKA.

I have sat on grading panels for examinations to 4th dan many times, and often I have had to fail applicants who are very good 3rd dans, but are not 4th dans, and are not likely to be if they continue training the way they do.

What then makes an applicant seem to me as a grading panellist to be a 4th dan rather than a good 3rd dan?

In my opinion to pass 4th dan an applicant must show ALL of the following:

  • There should be no technical errors in the Seitei performance. (By technical errors I mean those details describing the correct actions of the reiho and kata as laid down by the ZNKR. The document for this has been ably and expertly translated by Chris Mansfield and copies are readily available. This project has been of enormous benefit to our Iaido. All members should obtain a copy.)
  • There should be no errors in the reiho
  • The first cut of the first kata must be strong, well timed and decisive. (In 1995 Sagawa Sensei made the point that the first cut is the most important. If it fails, then anything that follows has no meaning. In competition he said that if two performances are so similar it is impossible to judge between them, then the effectiveness of the first cut should be the deciding point.)
  • Shisei should be strong, focussed and well balanced. (shisei does not only mean having good posture physically, but the correct state of mind)
  • Kigurai should be demonstrated from the first moment you are seen approaching the shinza jo to your manner after leaving.
  • The performance should demonstrate Jo-ha kyu in all actions, kan kyu in the kata, ma and maai should be correct as demonstrated by metsuke and how far you travel between cuts for the timing you choose.
  • The performance should demonstrate aji, fukaku
  • There should be no suki that could be entered by a person of at least similar grade.
  • This is the first grade at which the performance should consistently appear as though it would work in a real situation. (The applicant should not look as though they are trying to correctly remember a sequence of movements, but are performing naturally and realistically, performing effective cuts and strikes to deal with the situation of the Riai of the kata while remaining in control and not looking overly aggressive, rushed or as if taken by surprise.)

This may all sound a tall order, but is it really too much to expect after a minimum of 7 years training? I really don’t think so. And, as I have said, this is only my opinion. Other examiners may have different criteria. That said, I feel confident that all of us who have sat on grading panels in the UK have similar requirements. I know people have passed that I have thought should not, and vice versa. For this reason, to eliminate the inevitable variations of specific expectations of the different examiners, grading panels increase in size for higher grades.

You might reasonably ask then, what you should do if you are one of the unfortunate people who have failed 4th dan on more than one occasion.

  • Of course, more training is necessary, but if what you are training is incorrect it will do you no good. You need to find out what is wrong with the way you train.
  • After teaching at Watchet last year it became all too apparent that many people who do not train kendo, but only iaido or Iaido and Jodo do not do enough suburi. Suburi not only improves cutting efficiency (reducing the need for force and making the movement faster, sharper and less stiff), but improves shisei, breathing, seme, kigurai and many other aspects of the performance.
  • Seek help from other teachers. This is not an insult to your own teacher, whose permission or recommendation should be sought. I don’t mean you should abandon your own teacher. Seeking help elsewhere is useful for you both. This can be done at BKA seminars for example, or squad training. Another teacher might explain the same thing differently or change the emphasis so that you better understand what you have already been shown. This is particularly the case if you have access to a Renshi or Kyoshi instructor from time to time. Looking beyond the confines of your own dojo and deepening your understanding in this way is the “Ha” stage of “Shu-ha-ri”. Anyone seriously challenging 4th dan should be seeking knowledge and understanding from all sources and beginning to assimilate different methods.
  • Have faith in what you have been taught and in your training. Practice with no thought as to the correctness of your movements, but try to imagine the enemy and deal with the situation using the method in the kata. Use a video camera and review your practice as soon as possible after the session so you can recall what happened, how you felt and connect what you see with the performance itself. Of course you should not be making technical errors. By this I mean that your training should now allow and enable you to perform a kata correctly in this sense without thinking through the various stages and moves. This will allow your movements to flow naturally your own personal interpretation of ma and mai will develop and subsequently so will fukaku.
  • Do grading embu practice as often as possible.

At all times maintain a positive attitude. We all have barriers to our progress, and they are often related to a wrong perception, or wrong thinking rather than bad teaching or reaching a competence limit of some kind. When this barrier has to be crossed, and it is different for all people, it can seem insurmountable and frustrating, but generally most people hit one in those 3 years after third dan. Look deeper, train harder and seek further afield for the answers. They are there to be found.

Good luck

Peter West Myoken Dojo

Myoken dojo always welcomes visiting students. While we have 4 practices a week (a new one beginning soon on Sunday evening), the hall is available most times and I am happy to arrange accommodation and classes for anyone or group who would like to spend a few days in Cornwall and train with us. (4 weeks notice or more if possible preferred). If you are on holiday in the area give us a call and come and join us.

© Peter West 2005, all rights reserved