Any Aikido organisation has it but the training syllabus normally only consists of a bare list of ranks and techniques and indicates the minimum training times required between tests. No further explanation is given and that’s not a big help, especially when considering how delicate the subject of grading is for most Aikido students
by SIMONE CHIERCHINI
Dreamers vs Lazy Ones
There are Aikido students that spend a lot of time going through the training syllabus, their attention mostly captured by the minimum training times required between tests. They are a bit in love with themselves and usually dream of wearing a black belt – it doesn’t matter they took up the art not many months ago. They often give up training shortly after, their uniforms forgotten in the attic.
There are others, on the other hand, that ignore their training syllabus altogether. The syllabus book for them is and stays an obscure tangle of weird foreign words. The lazy ones are content with not being able to learn the names awkward pronunciation – it doesn’t matter that they could be already 10 years on the mat.
The examiner is not bound in his duties by the training syllabus book. It is not requested that they follow its content technique by technique. When appointed, an examiner is given the training syllabus as his guideline, nothing more, as its purpose is to create a common basic standard in all dojo of the relative organisation.
The examiner is required to stay as close as possible to the syllabus. Despite that, the examiner really has only one obligation: to make sure that the student grading is within the specific training times required for the relative exam.
The Training Times
If we sum together the minimum training times required for all grades up to the black belt, it turns out that in most reputable Aikido organisations it is possible to reach the Shodan level after about 3-4 years and 700-800 hours of continuous training. That is less than two hours of practice daily, every day of the year, Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day included. College courses are definitely more demanding.
The above combined minimum times are quite clearly not attainable by most people – being realistic, it would be advisable to add in about 50%. That way, it should be possible to reach black belt level within about 5 or 6 years of steady practice.
Should I apply?
If you are seriously committed to Aikido training, if you are practising on a regular basis and feel that you are making progress, once you are beyond the minimum training times required for a belt examination, it makes no sense not to apply for the following grading test.
Your organisation’s technical board has established those minimum training times between tests for a reason. They are not be multiplied by ten in the name of a full technical mastership which a Mudansha (a non-black belt student) will never obviously have.
What is a Kyu Grade
The concept of “black belt” has no meaning in Japanese. In classical martial systems, the grading structure was completely different from the one in use today. When someone obtained the final certificate of a ryu – menkyo kaiden – it meant they attained mastership in the Art. Lower level certificates were called shoden, chuden and okuden (initial, median and deep transmission of the Art).
When a student earned a certificate from a ryu, he became a sort of “initiated” student of that school. The traditional menkyo kaiden system can be loosely compared to the current Dan grading system, which was devised by the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, at the beginning of the 20th century.
Classical martial systems had no equivalent of the modern Kyu grades (and of coloured belts). Kyu grades were introduced in the 20th century due to the large diffusion of some of these martial arts, in Japan first and then elsewhere. The need to devise grades for non-experienced people was brought on by the popularization of Budo.
Why was this need not felt earlier? In feudal Japan, a new ryu follower would have already been an initiate. Samurai warriors were educated for that purpose from childhood. Thanks to that, for several centuries premodern Japan remained under the rule of the samurai, a closed and not especially numerous warrior caste.
At the end of the 19th century, feudal Japan collapsed and there were no more samurai. The Japanese lost their condition of being “initiated”, becoming similar, paradoxically, to the Westerns to whom in a few years martial arts were going to be taught.
The Objective: to become an “Initiate”
Going back to our topic, we could say that Kyu grades were devised for non-initiated students, those who are learning the seven notes for them to compose – at some stage – their own music.
From this point of view, Kyu level equals primary and secondary school level for those who aspire to achieve a third level qualification and then professional mastery. Now, if a student needs twelve years to complete a school course designed to last six, he would be universally considered not so bright, to put it lightly.
Therefore, let’s be careful not to wear ourselves out while waiting to leave the condition of the “non-initiate”. Most Aikido students actually never do and that is sad. It would be great to see that when we commit to something, we don’t stop at its surface and go on trying to catch its essence.
One must practice moderately, maintain an unbroken continuity in training, foster a sincere mind, while learning Aikido’s orthography, grammar and syntax, timely going through all the relevant grading tests.
This is everyone’s challenge during the Kyu training stage. Grading exams are meant to be as frequent as one’s thirst for learning. When this stage is over, the student will master the basics and become “initiated” in Aikido. Standing on our own feet, finally, we can make a new start.
In this sense, the most authentic Aikido practice is the one starting when you get your shodan, not to be translated as “black belt” but as the “Grade of the Beginning”.
Copyright Simone Chierchini ©1993
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