There’s always grading (Grading III) – Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan Iaido and Roukudan Jodo

We look for grading and ranks from largish modern organizations, but there’s always sorting in an art. The most basic and most important from a traditional point of view is time through the door. The mysterious sempai/kohei system.

It works this way, everyone first through the door of the dojo, regardless of rank, is senior to you. Except for some considerations.

First, that’s through your dojo door, not first into the art in general. Well sort of. The formal-ish part of this is within your own dojo, informally, someone in the art, not in your dojo, but with more experience (time in) than you ought to be considered your senior. Next is age, if you got there just before an older guy, defer to him. Then there’s social status, university professors in the door just after you arrived ought to be deferred to…

In other words, it’s the same sorthing that happens out in the world. You should respect learning. OK it’s the same sorting that ought to happen out in the world. I know that there are places and people who consider the less learning you have the better you are. If only the supporters of that belief would consider who is promoting it, and why.

Never mind, I just read the newspaper and am grumpy at the state of the world, as I have been since I learned to read.

The training-time system doesn’t really change due to absolute time in training. That’s picked up in groups that have ranking systems. If you have 300 hours training in one year, and your buddy up the line has 100 in the same time, he’s still up the line according to calendar time, you might be ranked higher due to training time.

Is that all clear as mud? The sempai system is informal and so subject to a lot of social dancing between those in the system. How you treat your seniors (by calendar time) is largely up to you due to that informality, and it will say a lot about your reasons for grading if you try to move your carcass up the line with your new 5dan past the older guys.

Modesty in all things folks, especially in the budo. Don’t advertise your skill levels, just deck the guy when you need to. Monologueing is for cartoon villains, as we all know.

On the other hand, don’t fight for the low spot in the dojo either, I got sick of watching that dance in my dojo, so now the rule is, first through the door, furthest from it, at each class. In other words, get out of the way of everyone else coming in, move down the line. I don’t care where you sit, it’s a small class and a small room and I know who you are.

Which brings us to small arts. When there’s a single dojo of ten people within a thousand mile radius there’s really not much need for a grading system is there? Do you know all the kata of the school and the guy next to you has just started? You outrank him, your rank is “know all the kata” and his is, “just started”. If you were in a giant, multiple country organization (say, ZNKR jodo) your rank might be godan and his ikkyu and those words might mean the very same thing.

You know where everyone in the family sits around the dinner table don’t you? When was the last time you put out name tags for the four of you?

Certification might be somewhat different than sorting in a small group. There might indeed be paper involved. What does that mysterious “menkyo” license look like? Well I’ve been told it’s usually a list of kata names signed by the teacher and addressed to the student. Musashi didn’t give those, his kata names were 1, 2, 3… or middle, lower, upper… but he did give lists of advice on how to fight, to named students with his signature.

These menkyo are generally assumed to be teaching licenses today but I can see a time in the past when they were written out and given to students who needed something to remind them what the kata names were. You learn all the kata in five or ten years, your teacher gives you a list of the names and then boots you out the door to go try it on with the rest of the country (musha shugyo with your shinai). You come back with some practical learning and you get told you can teach. Or you don’t come back and ask, you just go home and teach. Two hundred years later and we are all fascinated with the paper and know nothing of the process.

Smaller groups (can we say more exclusive? eh, smaller) might not even have a list of kata to hand out. Sensei might teach for a while and student might say “I’m moving away, can I teach” and sensei might look at him and say “sure, why not?”. I’ve heard that one. I’ve also heard “I’m teaching you guys so that the art will survive, so go teach” I’ve also heard “where are all the other students?”.

Certification to teach isn’t quite the same as sorting, but from a historical point of view we sometimes lay a sorting scheme over a lineage chart. “That line is more legit than that other line”. Sure, why not? But it only matters in the dojo if we can demonstrate that instructors from “more legitimate” lines are better instructors than the other guys. Then of course, you have to start defining “better” and I’ve never been good at that.

Sorting of students is sorting of students, it can be done lots of ways. Certification to teach is something else, often linked to a rank system but not always. Same with permission to give out rank or teaching certification. Often linked to rank but not always.

Big organizations get more formal as they get bigger, more stuff written down, more rules and regulations. Smaller organizations might be, might need, nothing more than a teacher and students. You sort according to when you come through the door and you teach when sensei says you can teach. In that case, you might look at your own students and say “sure, go teach, why not?”

Regardless of formal structures, there is always grading. It may be continuous in a small dojo as sensei teaches and watches you learn, or it may be sporadic as in a yearly grading in a big group. I suppose the small dojo is analogue and the big organization is digital. Both assess the student and various things happen as a result of learning. You may get to sit in a different place in the dojo, you may get to go to a different group in a big seminar, you might get to teach at your own dojo.

None of which should concern anyone overly much. The great writers of the past are unwavering in their advice that it’s the training that’s the thing. Titles without training are just paper in the “file folder of honour” as my buddy says.

Kim Taylor
Mar 31, 2015


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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s