The Twilight of Aikikai Grades

Tramonto Aikikai

From coveted and valid beacon landmarks in the past to devalued pieces of paper that everyone can get today, once paid the relative grade trafficker… A Fall from grace: a brief history of the twilight of Aikikai grades



The topic of the grading system in modern Budo is extremely complex, and being such, it is necessary to proceed by sectors, gradually extricating ourselves in the relative matter. I am going to take for granted that those who read me got informed by studying the subject in “The Grade System in Aikido” by Malcolm Tiki Shewan. In that article, the author thoroughly examines the history of the grading system in the periods before Budo, and in modern Budo and Aikido.

There is a large number of experts in our sector who propose a return to the oldest certification system, the Menkyo Kaiden, as it is supposed to be more linear and fair, and is based on teaching-related skills and not on non-measurable technical skills or combat effectiveness.

There is, however, an unsolvable underlying problem. “The Menkyo or Menkyo-Kaiden certificate“, explains Malcolm Tiki Shewan “meant that its holder was fully qualified on all aspects of the curriculum“. It is now clear that in modern Aikido a certification system based on these assumptions would be completely unimaginable, given the volatility of the basic curriculum. The Aikido schools within the Aikikai family are characterized by a very wide range of didactic approaches. Therefore, by definition, the idea of having a single Menkyo-Kaiden certification based on perfect knowledge and understanding of the basic curriculum within Aikikai-style schools is impossible.

The situation with Iwama-based schools could be different. Here the basic curriculum is accurate, identified and accepted without conflict by the students of the area: it is the system built by Morihiro Saito on the basis of his direct life and training experience with the founder of Aikido Morihei Ueshiba. It would be possible, in theory, to use the Menkyo Kaiden system in connection to Iwama’s pedagogy, but the problem is that whoever could have started it never did. To best honour the memory of his teacher, Morihiro Saito remained faithful to the Aikikai Foundation throughout his life, and even in the moments of greatest human and technical distance from those who managed the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, he did not leave the organization started by the founder. Consequently, he only ever used the Dan degree system in vogue in the Aikikai Foundation and did not grant the Menkyo Kaiden to any of his students. Accordingly, none of the direct students of Morihiro Saito can today issue a Menkyo Kaiden in Takemusu Aikido, with one notable exception: Hitohira Saito, son of Morihiro and founder of his personal school distinct from the Aikikai Foundation, the Iwama Shin-Shin Aiki Shurenkai. However, the ranking based on the Dan system is also implemented within Hitohira Saito’s organization.

Aikikai Hombu Dojo

It would seem that there is no alternative to the Kyu/Dan system. When it was decided to use it, historically everyone aimed at holding Dan grades issued from the motherhouse, the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. In the world of Aikido, Aikikai grades had an indisputable value and a significant historical function between the 60s and the 80s, remained prestigious in the 90s, and resulted in counting progressively less and less since the beginning of the 21st century.

The 30-year period going from the beginning of the sixties to the end of the eighties was characterized by:

  • the arrival in the West of the Shihans dispatched by the Aikikai Hombu Dojo;
  • their forming strong national organizations;
  • their intense groundwork for the diffusion and the consolidation of the Art.

The Aikikai Hombu Dojo rank that at the time the Shihan provided meant the certification of an effective connection between the student and the Shihan, and through it, between the student and the motherhouse.

In the nineties, circumstances changed. The national Aikikai associations began to prove unable to manage the entire Aikido movement in their respective country of competence, and splitting began. Next to the resident Shihan position, arose a new position, that of the guest Shihan who visited 2-3 times a year a series of countries that he managed to attract under his sphere of influence. These were Aikikai Shihan as well, almost invariably of great prestige, whose role, however, was more that of external consultants, given the low frequency of their appearances at the associations that referred to them – unlike the resident Aikikai Shihan, who truly and physically oversaw the day to day training and administrative activities of their organisations. As a consequence, the teacher-student relationship with a guest Shihan is usually less close than the one with a resident Shihan.

From the beginning of the 21st century, the Aikikai national organizations began to implode, this mainly due to two factors: the emergence of local mid-tier teachers/managers, and the ageing and progressive disappearance of the original resident Aikikai Shihan. These two factors, intertwining and combining in different ways, caused substantial fractionation within the national Aikikai organizations, to the point that since 2001 even the Aikikai Foundation was forced to change its policy, once firmly based on implementing a single recognized organization in each country, and open to multiple recognitions.

Each of the many groups that detach themselves from the national Aikikai organizations creates a private relationship with a guest Aikikai Shihan. Only, at this point, they are no longer prestigious sensei who come from abroad to bring quality teaching. For the most part, in fact, these are mid-tier instructors, Japanese or Westerners, who have created their own give-and-take relationship with the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, thanks to which they can give Aikikai-recognized exams more or less everywhere within their sponsored groups.

These guest instructors bring hundreds of diplomas per year to the Aikikai Hombu Dojo (and therefore a lot of cash in its coffers); Hombu in return grants these individuals the privilege to sign the recommendations for grade promotion, which in turn brings prestige and (again) hard cash. Instead of bringing quality, many of these guest teachers now take quantity in the form of money. Their direct relationship with the students is close to non-existent, and their exams are a sort of notarial deed, at the end of which the guest teacher puts a stamp and signature on a certificate request form bearing the Aikikai Foundation logo. The Aikikai blindly issues certificates that at this point possess very little intrinsic significance.

Sensei and student together under the rain, praying in front of the Aiki Jinja

In Budo, a certificate completely ceases to have meaning in the absence of a direct relationship with the person who issues it. Within the Aikikai world, this relationship – initially very close – has completely broken down over time. We are now at a point where Aikido instructors worldwide train their students from scratch to Dan level; nonetheless, childishly, they require that someone else, thousands of miles away and completely unaware, certifies the validity of the promotions they are awarding.

I could go further, censuring the idea of ​​martial arts grades altogether. What are these grades for? In which other art or specialty are there Dan degrees? There are no San-dan or Roku-dan violinists; there are instead violinists who are a pleasure to listen to and others who are unbearable. A cardiac surgeon is not good because he is Hachi-dan, but because he may be able to save my grandfather following a heart attack. Chefs become famous when they can prepare the best tagliatelle on the planet and not because they have some kind of certificate issued by Tagliatelle HQ in Bologna…

This idiotic grading system exists only in martial arts and has the function of producing dividends for the trademark holders, in our case the descendants of the frugal O’Sensei and their acolytes, who pocket exorbitant amounts from the thousands of diplomas they annually issue on a global scale. On the other hand, we happily and spontaneously continue to give them money, so why should they refuse it? If each of us in the space of 30-40 years wants it to be written 6-7 times on a piece of paper “XY Level Super-Skilled Certificate”, we must take it out on ourselves, and not on who makes money on our stupidity.

All the above said, we are aware of the fact that the Kyu/Dan system is now widespread worldwide to a level where it has become impossible to get away from it. There are millions of people engaged in a myriad of different martial styles that use the Kyu/Dan system, so this is the contemporary standard, be it good or bad. To state that grades are not needed, that in Budo they are a contradiction, it may also be somewhat true, but the fact remains that we still live in the Byzantine Post Empire of Paperland, where only certificates count. Without a certificate, a teacher does not even legally have access to sports facilities, or to an insurance cover for the students, so let’s not waste time with ideology-based approaches that in the real world correspond to pure and simple utopia.

It would be high time that the world Aikido community grew up, becoming aware of its intrinsic value. It wouldn’t be bad to finally see a community free from the inferiority complex that drives it to seek its legitimacy with foreign authorities that now no longer represent anything special, and which aren’t controlled and managed by the community itself. The way forward could be that of shifting the responsibility of issuing rank and certificates to an international and democratic organisation. We are still a long way from that.

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2020
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