These gradings are rank! – Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan Iaido and Roukudan Jodo

Once again the winds are blowing toward the “what if we had gradings outside the organization” direction. It happens often, people get annoyed with the system, they wonder why they grade, they wonder why they pay the money, they wonder why they have to jump through so many hoops. Maybe the gradings become silly, or too much of a loyalty test instead of an examination of skill. Maybe they become corrupt. Whatever the reasons, people start thinking about other ways.

First, there’s nothing stopping anyone from grading outside their organization. I have grades in the Kendo federation and in an Aikido federation. No problem with either, they are different arts. I could also have ranks for the same art in a koryu organization and the kendo federation, again, no problem. The koryu rank might be something from my sensei in the menkyo system. The kendo rank would be in the dan-kyu system from a panel. Both are ranks, both are gradings. The koryu assessment might be over several months or years and be a declaration that I have “arrived”. The dan rank would be a one-time snapshot of my abilities on the day, at the moment. There are different ways to assess, some more suitable to large numbers, some fine with smaller numbers. It would be difficult to assess a hundred people by panel over a long term. That’s why there are usually time requirements and sensei recommendations in the “one-shot” system.

The only problem with multiple gradings comes when one organization or the other, or your sensei, gets a bit stroppy with gradings that can be confused, one for the other. If one were in the kendo federation and the iaido federation or perhaps even the Butokukai, and had ranks for “iaido” that were different from one another, maybe a 5dan, a 6dan and a 7dan but all “dan” rank, it could get somewhat confusing. But again, legally, technically, this really should not be a problem. It is a matter of your sensei or one of the organizations saying “pick one” perhaps because it is irritating to see you with multiple loyalties, multiple calls on your time.

What would be a greater problem would be to set up a parallel grading system with the same people, one inside and one outside the organization. This becomes a financial concern, the examiners are, at minimum, creating a system where the organization may be losing grading revenue. While this sort of thing does happen, as for instance when you have a koryu ranking system from people who also sit on the kendo ranking panels, it can cause irritation. The two systems would need to be kept separate, different things being assessed, and maybe it should be kept quiet as well. Why kept quiet? Because one’s advancement in one system is always at risk when one annoys those higher up.

In all this, the one thing not to do would be to, for instance, test seitei both inside and outside the kendo federation. First, why would one do this and second, it would certainly be a reason to be booted out of the federation or at least sidelined. This has, by the way, happened, with the offending person being sidelined for the rest of his career. What has also happened is that gradings “inside” the federation have been offered but without being approved. This ends up with results being thrown out, and in the case I’m thinking of, a bunch of folks leaving the organization. You know, even if nobody cared, if the organization said “go ahead and have gradings inside and outside our control if you want”, why would you want that? Redundant grades are redundant, and if they get out of synchronization, which is the “real” grade?

Perhaps we are getting the idea that gradings belong to an organization. In a very real sense, gradings ARE the organization, they are certification from a certifying body. You can get certified by the Red Cross or by St. John’s Ambulance or by the Royal Lifesaving Society in similar things, but they aren’t the same thing, nor should you set up your own system using their standards and materials. For one thing it would not be recognized as legitimate should you be trying to get a job as a lifeguard.

Grading systems may be loosely organized (as in my Aikido system where anyone of sufficient rank could do a grading any time) or very tightly controlled (as in the CKF where gradings simply cannot happen without approval because the registration, payment and certification is all done through the website).

So we accept that if we wish to grade “outside the organization” we leave that organization. Maybe we join another and we’re done… until that system starts to show its cracks.

If we want to organize our own gradings using the same material (who says we can’t?) we have some things to think about. Who says we can’t? Who says our internal recognition of our new system isn’t sufficient to our purposes, martial art rank is not usually transferrable between organizations… well, unless we’re raiding students of course, as in “sure, join us and we’ll recognize your rank, in fact we’ll give you one higher”. It happens, but usually a rank in an organization is only relevent to that organization. I don’t go with my Aikikai rank to a Yoshinkan dojo and say “gimme a shodan”. It doesn’t work that way, I put on my white belt.

Thought experiment: Let’s say we wish to grade in Seitei but outside the CKF. What should we think about?

1. Why?

Seriously, why are we setting up a grading system. Because we’re pissed off at the CKF? That’s a lot of work for spite, mind you if we’re trying to raid all the students as well, maybe we have to do gradings. Students like gradings, they say they don’t but they show up and grade. They don’t ask the questions below, even if they should.

Why do gradings? Because students like them and we need students of course, but from our point of view?

Skills assessment perhaps. How are we doing? How is our teaching system? Are we getting the material across?

Sorting criteria. Let’s assume our new organization is going to get big, we need to sort the students into levels of skill so we can separate groups at seminars. “4dans and up down here” is an easy way to do that, faster than “who knows chudan?”… “no, I mean who has done it before, who knows the steps”… “OK I know damned well you’ve gone through it with me several times, get over there”. Sooo much easier to say “4dan and above? Over there”.

Teaching certification: If you pass a certain grade you get to teach. Now some organizations are strict about that, some are not, we need to decide how to handle it. The CKF says you have to have a 5dan or above sign off on gradings, but it’s not a problem for lower grades to have a dojo and teach. And they do, as long as there’s someone to catch what-for if that teaching isn’t any good.

Administration structure: Do we say the top ranks run the system? This leads us to pay, should we be fortunate enough to have that many paying students, who gets paid what at what rank. Who gets paid what, at which rank, for seminars?

2. Who does the grading?

Assuming we have decided gradings are a thing, who sits the panels? Do you sit there if you’ve got sufficient rank? That rank sytem might be created when we create our organization. Yes we just did create an organization, you can’t do gradings if you don’t have an organization to keep track of them. Well you can, but it will go wonky fast if you’re trying to use it for anything. Do we bring our ranks in from the old organization? Do we set up a challenge grade at the first meeting? (Who judges that?) Do the founders get together over beers and award each other ranks?

Ah, I set it up, so I’m the top dog and I’ll tell the rest of you what’s what. Yes, that’s the most usual system.

Now, do we want to assume a certain rank means the ability to judge? If not, we need to train judges. Do we create a separate ranking system for judges? Two grading systems?

Tournament referees? Oh dear, how many grading systems do we need, how many intersecting rank bubbles in our Venn diagram of an organization?

3. How is it done?

The two basic systems have always been “sensei hands you a rank” and “grading day”. Rank can show up because sensei decides you’re “there”, or sensei may set up a day where you demonstrate specific skills and he decides if you demonstrated them well enough.

Do you have a system where there’s a single judge or do you call in others to opine as well. Single or panel. Once you decide on a panel how do you define it? Is it local so that everyone knows the criteria being tested or do you make it as wide as possible so that standards are standardized. How many on the panel? Secret vote or does the big guy get to override the panel if he figures his student should pass even if the rest of you don’t?

Yes you have to define all this and you have to be clear, transparent about it, or the students will decide it’s unfair and start this whole process over again when they get ticked off. Fun isn’t it?

What do you call your grades, are they menkyo, are they maki, are they kyu and dan? It doesn’t really matter, pick the one that seems right.

Now decide how many levels you need. One? You’ve got everything I know, here’s a list of the kata, get out of my dojo. Two? Here’s your level that says you can teach students, later you might get a level that says you can give out ranks that say you can teach and give out ranks. Many? “OK guys, it’s the first of the month, time to pay up and test for your 3rd black stripe on your brown belts!”

What about time? Do we put time limits in or do we simply allow challenges at any time? If we decide we don’t want to test the idiot that figures he’s “there” every other week, we put in some minimum practice times. Years? But what if they never show up in class? Classes? But what if some classes are three hours and others are half an hour? Hours? Who is keeping track of this stuff? And why can’t I do my next grade this month, I’ve got the hours in, I practiced here and at the dojo across the street too! Hours plus years? How about Hours plus years plus 4 seminars per year? Oh and you’re still not good enough dude, come back next month at the grading in the next province and see if you can pass there.

4. What is tested?

This, this is tricky. You will test what you know. You will of course test “do you know the shape of the kata or the physical shape of the techniques”. That’s the first step to learning and the first thing to test. Next maybe “how well can you demonstrate the skills” which is really the same thing only later, as in “have you got two year’s worth of practice in?”

Is there anything else to this? What’s this Shu Ha Ri stuff? Can we judge that? Do we know what that looks like? “Hey sensei, how do I do Kigurai? I know it’s on my 6dan test so I should learn how to do it, right?”

Still want to set up gradings outside the organization? It’s a lot simpler to stay home if you’re unhappy with the grading system, nobody HAS to grade, not in any organization I’ve ever been in.

If gradings are rank, stay away or hold your nose. Your choice entirely.

Kim Taylor
Dec 18, 2018

DSC00597 (2)

April 6, Seito Bugei Juku seminar in Peterborough.

May 17-20 Annual CKF International Jodo and Iaido seminar and grading, (Kurogo sensei and Mansfield sensei) Guelph.

November 8-10 Annual CKF International Jodo seminar and grading (Kurogo sensei), Mississauga (Port Credit).
iaito, bokuto, bokken, jo, shinken, karate and judo uniforms, books, videos and other…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s