Grading, Not Grading


In any Budo organisation, a training syllabus normally consists in a bare list of ranks and techniques. It may also indicate minimum training times required between tests, however no further explanation is given. That’s not a big help, especially if we consider how delicate this matter turns out to be for most students


The Dreamers & the Lazy Bunch
Some of the students read the training syllabus nearly every day, mostly focusing their attention on the minimum training times required between tests. They are in love with themselves and usually dream of wearing a black belt after a few weeks from picking up the art – and actually give up training after a few months, when they throw their uniform in the attic.
Others instead ignore their training syllabus all together. They consider the syllabus book to be an obscure tangle of weird foreign words and are resigned not to be able to learn their awkward pronunciation – not even over ten years of practice.

The Examiner
A training syllabus doesn’t bind the examiner in his/her duties. Examiners are not obliged to follow it technique by technique if they feels right to do so. When appointed, an examiner is given the training syllabus as a guideline. Its purpose is to create a common basic standard in all dojo of the organisation.
Examiners are required to stay as close as possible to the syllabus. However, the only duty for the examiner is to make sure that students adhere to the specific training times required for their grade.

Training Times
In most reputable Budo organisation, when adding minimum training times required for all grades up to black belt, it turns out that it is possible to reach Shodan level following 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. University courses are definitely more demanding.
It seems obvious that the above combined minimum times are not attainable by most people – being realistic, it would be advisable adding in about 50%. That way it should be possible to reach black belt level within about 5 or 6 years of steady practice.

If you have practiced hard, grade!

Should I apply?
If you are seriously committed to Aikido training, if you are training regularly and you 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 determined the minimum training times between tests. These times are not be multiplied by ten in the name of a full technical mastership which a Mudansha (a non-black belt grade) will never obviously have.

What is a Kyu Grade
In Japanese language the expression “black belt” doesn’t exist. In the old martial system, grading stucture was a completely different from today.
Basically, for someone to obtain a Menkyo Kaiden, the final certificate of a school (Ryu) it would have meant the mastership of the Art. Lower level certificates were Shoden, Chuden and Okuden (Initial, Median and Deep Transmission of the Art).
When a trainee earned a certificate from a Ryu, he would have become a kind of “initiated” student of that school. Roughly speaking, the traditional Menkyo Kaiden grading system can be compared to the current Dan grading system, devised by Judo founder Jigoro Kano at the beginning of 20th century.
In the old martial systems, modern Kyu grades and coloured belts did not exist. Kyu ranks are a 20th century invention, caused by the large diffusion of several of these arts, in Japan first and then elsewhere. Popularisation pushed the need to devise grades for non experienced people.
Why wasn’t this need felt before? We must remember that in feudal Japan a new follower of a warrior school would have been already an initiate. Since childhood Samurai warriors were educated for that purpose. Due to that, for several centuries pre-modern Japan remained under Samurai rule, a closed and not so numerous warrior caste.
At the end of 19th century feudal Japan collapsed and there were no more Samurai. The Japanese lost their condition of being ‘initiated people’, becoming similar 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 subject, we could say that the Kyu grades are the ones of the non-initiated people, those who are learning the seven notes in order to – at some stage -compose their own music.
From this point of view, Kyu level is the equivalent of Primary and Secondary school for those who aspire to achieve third level qualification and professional mastery. It is better to remember that a student needing 12 years to cover a 6-year school course would be universally considered not so bright, to put it lightly.
Therefore, be careful, do not wear yourself out waiting to leave the condition of the ‘non-initiate’, from which most of Aikido students never come out. That is very sad, because usually, when we commit to whatever activity, we are not supposed to stop at its surface, but to catch its essence.
One must practice moderately, keep unbroken continuity, foster a sincere mind while learning the orthography, grammar and syntax of his favorite martial art, timely going through all the relevant tests.

This is everyone’s challenge during the Kyu training phase and grading examinations are meant be as frequent and continuous as the wish for learning increases. When this stage is over, the student will master the basics and become an ‘initiated’ person. Standing on your own feet, finally, you can make a new start.

In this sense, real martial art 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 ©1991-2011Simone Chierchini
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5 pensieri riguardo “Grading, Not Grading”

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    You know so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I personally will
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    on a subject that’s been discussed for years. Excellent stuff, just wonderful!

  3. Well to me Martial Arts means respect and discipline. I have trained in
    different Martial arts now for well over twenty years.
    I have seen countless people come and go but one more thing that I have noticed is the
    respect and discipline that has definitely changed those
    peoples perception of life.
    Youngsters that have started that are now on the
    wrong side of the tracks, always in trouble and
    no idea how to respect other kids. Place them in a controlled environment
    with discipline and fighting and they soon start to understand.

    Martial arts is one way for children and adults to
    get rid of their aggression without hurting or bullying anyone.


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