Autofails and Lazy Judging – Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan Iaido Renshi and Roukudan Jodo Renshi

Recently I was watching a student who shall remain nameless because, yes, practicing for an iai test. I found myself setting a timer because you will automatically fail if you go a second over time. If that yellow flag goes up and you’re just moving the sword back across to your left hand after your final bow, well, too bad. It would be unfair if you didn’t, at least that’s what a hanshi once told us.

Now, I can see where, in Japanese gradings with 600 yondan challengers to get through, you might not want them taking ten and fifteen minutes to do five kata, because they are taking three long breaths between, and doing a bit of meditating during their etiquette. But Canada? The best we’ve ever done for a grading was around 60 in total, all challengers, all grades. One second late, you fail. No matter how well you did, fail.

What else can you fail for? Etiquette. Forget a bow because you are nervous? You can’t speak to strangers but you finally found a martial art where you dared get in front of “everyone” and demonstrated, but you are dieing inside and shaking with nerves, and you forget a bow? Fail. We used to watch the panel wave their hands when they saw one of those situations, up and down the fingers would flutter, then they’d start rocking forward and back in their seats while the head judge waited before dismissing the challengers. Nope, we were told, no bow, no pass.

To my shame, as head judge I have been known to do things like say “bow” in similar situations. Sorry, to those who should have autofailed, you had a bad judge who was more interested in the excellent job you did before that final bow you forgot in your nervousness.

Dress. You have to wear a juban I was told, under your keikogi, or no, under your montsuki if you’re going for a “high rank”. Montsuki? Whatever, but I’ve never seen that in the manual. Nor in the FIK standard guidelines, let alone the CKF grading policy. OH, sorry, unwritten rule. So if I wear a juban under my rankogi (is that what you call the uwagi you wear for grading, the new one you bought to show respect, as opposed to the one with the tattered neck you practice in, your keikogi)? So if I wear a juban, what do I need? 1/4 inch showing all around, exactly, not skewed, not more, not less. You autofail for uniform. Me, I’d be wearing my kendogi instead, but who knows where those unwritten rules have gone since I got my 7dan in my keikogi. We are so crowded at the top, and our guys are so good, we have to invent new ways to autofail them.

Sorry, early morning cottage situation here, with four days worth of work to be done in one and a quarter and less help because the rest of the family is coming up a day later than I thought. I need to start spending a month at a time up here.

What is this autofail thing? When did it show up? Frankly I don’t know, but it’s getting under a lot of skin. Not so long ago I heard a senior instructor say “fail points” when referring to the “check points” in the manual. So all those are autofails now? Twelve kata, none very long, in fact all of them take less time to do than the etiquette, so twelve small kata repeated without change for 20 years, yeah I can see where you have to start adding autofails or we end up drowning in 8dans.

Now, I was taught that there was a standard for each rank. That everyone in a grading can pass. Yet percentages, only so many percent of each set of challengers can pass, so not a meeting of standards, but a tournament. Because drowning in 8dans, so autofails.

Or is it just lazy judging in our hinterland countries where we are not, actually, drowning in 8dans. Better look out, no 8dans are too many 8dans because… never mind. I’m going with lazy judging, it’s just easier to watch the challengers until they make an autofail and then go back to sleep. It comes down to how you judge, since nobody except the top guy sees how you vote, it comes down to whether you want to give your best to each challenger, or if you want to autofail and go back to sleep. I was once told, by email, by some kid who should never have seen the judging sheets, that I passed too many challengers at a grading. It’s good he wasn’t there in person telling me that, I’d have autofailed his rear end. In fact, that was an autofail of major proportions as far as I’m concerned. Read The Rules and if you’re not a judge, if you haven’t been trained, you don’t know the rules to begin with.

A bit sensitive about this, yes. But I have to be, I’m in charge of a set of judges, and it’s my job to make sure they are not lazy judges. There are no, none, autofails at any rank. There are different judging criteria and students can fail, absolutely they can, but not automatically. Now, if you’re a 6dan and you forget to bow, well… but it’s not an autofail, I would expect each judge on the panel to notice that. Perhaps five of them miss it and the head judge says afterward, “he didn’t bow”, well too bad, it’s a pass the moment the votes are cast. That’s how I was taught, that’s how we do it. Wake up, don’t be a lazy judge. No Autofails!

And yet, I keep trying to get the students through their next grading. In the recent case I mentioned at the start of this rant, I saw a great demonstration, but a tiny hitch during the opening etiquette. Guess what we did for the rest of the practice? I don’t care if a small hitch in the etiquette seems a long way from budo, it’s not. The reason to challenge a grading is to pass the grading. Just like the reason to play a volleyball game is to win, otherwise it’s just practice. The panels get to set the pass criteria and if that includes autofails and a hyper-focus on etiquette, you avoid autofails and smooth out that etiquette. That is your challenge, how you pass, hence your budo. If there are only 12 short kata to deal with, and you can learn them in a month, you work further and further down the rabbit hole. If you are not making world-class gymnasts gasp when you do one of those kata after 30 years of practice, you are the lazy one. Think what one of those gymnasts could do with 30 years worth of practice at a single routine that’s about 1/10 the length of their usual routines.

Yes, you are going to clip that half an inch from the end of the sageo, yes you are going to use velcro to keep your obi from shifting. If you can get away with a kendogi instead of a montsuki and juban, you are going to wear a kendogi because it is going to get rid of the risk of a messy juban.

If you can’t avoid that juban, sew it into your uwagi. Just do it, it’s not cheating until it’s declared cheating. The butterfly was a very efficient, within the rules, breaststroke until it was declared “not a breaststroke”. This is not cheating, it’s playing the game.

So spend the time smoothing out your etiquette, not because it is good budo, not because it will save your life when you are attacked by Orcs, but because that’s how you avoid an autofail.

In my world, in my head, autofails don’t exist, but I’m not in charge of the world. In your reality they exist, and if you have paid good money to stand in front of a panel, you better believe autofails and lazy judges exist, whether or not you think it’s fair.

Budo is not fair, life is not fair.

Kim Taylor
Oct 12, 2019



U. Guelph Japanese Swordsmanship Club (Sei Do Kai): Tues. 9-11pm, Fri. 7-9pm, Sunday 1-4pm.
Contact for details.

To Shin Kai Jodo/Iaido classes, Clarke Hall, Port Credit, 6-9pm. Oct 21, Nov 25, Dec 16

October 26-27, MJER Kenshokan Koryu iai seminar, Peterborough. Ohmi sensei. Not to be missed.

November 8-10 Annual CKF Fall International Jodo seminar and grading to 3dan. (Fujisaki s. hanshi 8dan, and Rikitake s. kyoshi, 8dan), Mississauga (Port Credit). Registration open now.


May 15-18. Annual CKF Spring International Iaido and Jodo seminar and Jodo grading.
iaito, bokuto, bokken, jo, shinken, karate and judo uniforms, books, videos and other…

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