Last year, I had the opportunity to challenge my 4th-dan in the Nagasaki Prefectural Shinsa. I recall seeing a similar article in The Iaido Newsletter a few years back, so I thought, What the heck; Iíll write my own take on this! So here goes.
But first, a little background. I started iaido in 1991 in Guelph, Ontario with our very own Unka Kim Taylor, with occasional visits from Ohmi Goyo Sensei of Toronto. As my interest in Japan deepened, I decided that I wanted to spend some time living in Japan, and applied for the JET (Japan Exchange Teaching) Programme. Although I applied strategically to be positioned close to the teachers with whom I wanted to train iaido and jodo, my first choices were ignored and I was placed in a small town on a small island in Nagasaki Prefecture. All was not lost, however, as I soon found an excellent sensei in the next town over (or rather, he found me, although I still donít know how, exactly).
In Guelph, we had trained in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu but my new sensei practices Muso Shinden Ryu, so we do koryu only very rarely and generally stick to the Zen Ken Ren (Seitei) Iai kata. I also found that he does some things differently than I have been taught, which is no surprise considering the variability of this supposedly standardized beast that we know as Zen Ken Iai.
Over the past eight months, I have been diligently attending practices in the tiny dojo that backs onto the local fertility shrine. Under the watchful eye of the various kami (not to mention all the stone phalluses) there, I have endured the hot, humid Japanese summer and the numbing cold of winter in this flimsy, unheated building.
Another difficulty has been the language barrier. I speak little Japanese; my sensei speaks almost no English. But he surprised me one day by pulling a folded piece of paper from his kimono and tentatively uttering some English words, like loins (for Koshi) and rival (for Teki) that he had looked up in his dictionary, in anticipation of needing them at some point.
Despite a few minor problems, I have been enjoying my practice immensely. Eventually, I became eligible to test for 4th dan. I did not know exactly what would be involved, but I was definitely looking forward to it. I learned that it would be five waza, with one choice from the koryu. I also learned that there would be a written component. Fortunately, one of the sensei on the grading panel is also a professor at a University in Nagasaki city and speaks English well, so I would be able to write my exam in English, which he would then translate.
The first step was obtaining permission from the Canadian Kendo Federation. If you ever find yourself in my position, make sure you have taken care of this far in advance! I left it until the last minute, and only thanks to the patience and indulgence of the CKF President was I able to get the paperwork on time. On this end, my Japanese sensei bent over backwards to contact the All Japan Kendo Federation and all the various bodies concerned to make sure everything was in order. (Sometimes, despite all the strange looks, it definitely pays to be a foreigner here. People assume you are helpless, which is often true, and take a big chunk of the responsibility on themselves.)
Finally, the big day arrived. There was some confusion about the
venue, so we managed to show up fashionably late. The morning was
to be a seminar in which the various bigwigs ironed out some of our problems.
After lunch, the actual grading would commence.
The seminar opened with a lot of speeches, as is customary here. About one hundred people attended, and there were about fifteen sensei of rank 7-dan or higher. After seemingly interminable speeches in Japanese, we were told what waza we had to do. For 4th and 5th dan challengers, we had one koryu kata of our choice, then Zen Ken Ren Ushiro, Tsuka Ate, Sanpo Giri and Nuki Uchi. Yes, you heard right! Even though, to my knowledge the new waza, numbers 11 and 12, were actually being official unveiled on that very day in Tokyo, we were expected to do them on our test! Fortunately, I had been practicing them, but I had received next to no official ďThis is how itís really done!Ē instruction. I knew then that this was going to be a fun grading.
We broke into groups by rank. There were only three 4th-dan challengers,
so we had an 8th-dan all to ourselves, heh heh! He spent a lot of
time on etiquette, and it was clear that they didnít want to see anybody
failing because of a misplaced hand or sageo (Itís nice to see things
are the same all over.) I was a bit worried to see him do the closing
sword bow slightly differently than I am used to. He may have said
that it could be done in either of two ways, I not sure, but he only
demonstrated one way so I decided I would follow suit.
Generally, I spent the morning taking it easy and trying to relax. I have found in the past that, the more I practice, the worse I feel in a demonstration, tournament, or grading. I went through my paces a couple times, asked a couple of questions, and satisfied myself that I was either ready by now or I never would be.
The morning practice finished and we ate a nice big lunch just to make sure we were feeling bloated during the test. With very little ado, the tests started, with the ikkyu challengers going first. The standard was generally very high. I had heard stories that gradings are easier in Japan than they are abroad, and I certainly hoped it was true, but the skill level of the challengers was obviously high.
Rather than sit through the large number of lower rank challengers, I went to another room to try and collect myself. There I met a 20-something fellow who had come all the way from Portugal to do his test. He seemed quite calm, so I took inspiration from him. After all, he had a lot more to lose than I did! His sensei, a Japanese ex-patriot living in Portugal, gruffly said to me, ďDonít worry. Youíll pass. I was watching you.Ē That buoyed my confidence, and I decided that I was capable of passing, I just had to do what I was capable of doing.
After some time, I wandered up to the main hall, only to discover that it was almost my turn! Somehow, perhaps due to Japanese efficiency, they had finished the lower ranks more quickly than I expected. I grabbed my sword and sat behind the start line. In the blink of an eye, it was my turn. Everything was going smoothly. My first kata was a choice from among the koryu. I did Yae Gaki and at the point where I stood up, stepped and cut down, was amused to hear an elderly sensei sitting on my right gasp with astonishment (perhaps at my height or the length of my sword?) and say hai! I almost had to laugh.
As the test progressed, I could feel the adrenaline getting the better of me. I knew my face was becoming flushed and I struggled to relax. My next kata would be Sanpo Giri which involves taking about seven steps forward. This would bring me dangerously close to the judges, so I took two large steps back from the tape. Even so, at the last cut, I diverted myself a bit to the right and cut between the two judges sitting in front of me, who displayed a heart-warming confidence in me by dodging to either side. From my vantage point, it looked exactly like they were siamese twins, and my final cut had dramatically separated them. Again, I felt like laughing; I hadnít been that close! Nevertheless, it evoked a few gasps and some nervous laughter from the audience. Hey, thatíll teach me to put Sanpo Giri in a grading! I did the final waza and the closing etiquette, and walked off feeling that things could have gone a lot worse. (I could have killed a judge, for example).
Afterwards, I was told that I had added an extra step in the last kata. I didnít find this hard to believe, as I barely know it, but I hoped that the judges were watching for other things at the time. Finally, it was time to gather for the closing ceremony (i.e., speeches followed by more speeches.) The spokesman for the grading panel gave a long list of the things that had been done wrong by too many people, that they wanted people to fix. (Again, nice to see things are the same all over.) The head sensei made a few comments, and then said congratulations. There was some applause, and we were released.
So, did I pass? There did not seem to be a sheet posted anywhere
with results. We were being hustled out of the gym and so I had no
time to ask my sensei before he wished me a safe ride home and took off
in his car. Hmmm. Very strange. I felt like I had passed,
but it was not until the next day, when speaking to my sempai on the phone,
that he said congratulations! I heard from Sensei that you did it!