By Boris Jansen
Originally published in Kendo World 7.2, 2014.
I am still on a high after passing my kendo 6-dan in August 2013. The preparation, failing, reflection, struggling and finally passing the exam, turned out to be a much greater experience than I initially expected. The failing forced me to take a step back and helped me to transform my kendo into what I believe is more mature and varied, and on top of it, just more fun. In this article, I would like to share my experience regarding my three attempts and highlight some of the requirements that I think are key in order to pass.
It is often said that 6-dan is a big step up from 5-dan. In Japan, this is partly reflected by the fact that the 6-dan examinations are organised by the All Japan Kendo Federation, in contrast to the examinations up to 5-dan, which are conducted by the prefectural and city kendo federations. At each of the 6-dan exams conducted about seven times a year throughout Japan, more than 1000 candidates take part, with the exception of the yearly exam in Tokyo on the last Monday of November, where there are about 2000 candidates. The average pass rate is between 15% and 20%. For candidates who failed, there is an opportunity to fill out a postcard with your address and exam number to receive feedback regarding your performance. On the postcard, the organisation will mark one out of three options:
A- You are very close to passing
B- You are to some extent on the right track
C- You are far from passing
For my first attempt in August 2012, I was full of confidence, as I had not experienced any difficulties up to 5-dan. Also, as a national team member for the Netherlands for the past 16 years, my focus had mostly been on shiai and I considered progressing on the ladder of dan grades as more or less a natural result of training hard at international level. For the practical component, jitsugi, I planned to suppress some of my shiai instincts, and set my main objectives to:
1—Strike with full spirit
2—Not strike too often; and
3—Keep a correct posture. These are all very similar to what I did for my 5-dan examination.
I followed through on my own objectives, but felt most strikes had not been convincing enough to be considered a full ippon. Therefore it was a disappointment, but not a surprise, to see I had failed the exam. However, by observing other candidates with a similar style or performance as my own, and their results, I also started to realise that even if I could have landed my strikes better, I probably still would have failed. Just making accurate strikes, yūkō-datotsu, with correct posture did not seem sufficient. The postcard in my mailbox one week later also informed me I got a “C”—basically, none of the examiners thought I should have passed.
In many of the candidates who I did see pass, I observed two characteristics that I think made their kendo stand out and contributed significantly to their success. First of all, their jitsugi was truly full of spirit. I had set a “full spirit” goal myself, but I had limited it only to my strikes. These candidates demonstrated full spirit from beginning to end, not only in their strikes, but also in their kamae, seme, zanshin, even in their rei and sonkyo. Part of this spirit was simply expressed in loud kiai, but it was expressed in their seme through taking the initiative throughout the tachiai, and in the absence of hesitation in their attacks.
There were other candidates who also showed full spirit, but still failed the exam. I think many of those candidates often lacked the second characteristic, which perhaps can be best labelled as kigurai. The successful candidates displayed confidence and elegance. It was not arrogance, or the result of ignorance, which enabled the former group to strike without hesitation. Rather, this was a kind of confidence powered by understanding and determination.
Back in the dojo, I started to feel lost. I knew I had quite some work to do in order to pass 6-dan, but I did not really understand yet what I had to do. I worked on “spirit” and tried to increase the impact of my strikes by giving more kiai and making my swings bigger; as a result, my kendo became quite static and more often than not my techniques were counterattacked by my opponents. What started to puzzle me even more was wondering how could I land a couple of good ippon on a candidate who is also testing for his 6-dan in only a minute or so? Many shiai take the full five minutes and often none or only one ippon is decided. How does one score multiple clean ippon, unforced, in a short amount of time? This thought started to unnerve me.
My second attempt was too soon after the first with only three months in between. I had improved one thing though. My strikes were full of spirit and had a bigger impact, but overall the changes were mainly physical. One sensei with access to the exam data told me I was one vote short of passing, confirmed later by the postcard with the “A” marked. The main difference between the first try and the second was that I was not trying to put on a show anymore, but fought for each ippon from start to finish. Still, I was not content at all with my performance, even though it seemed I was getting closer to passing. I lacked confidence, and felt I had not made any significant progress yet.
In one keiko with Toyomura-sensei, one of the two 8-dan sensei in my dojo, I reached the peak of my frustrations. He was playing with me as if I had just started kendo, and the harder I tried the worse it got. After practice, he told me that what was hindering my development was that I did not want to get hit. He advised me to slightly raise my left hand in kamae, open up, and to develop a mindset of inviting your opponent to attack. Do not care about getting hit, only care about putting your own full spirit in every action.
This was not the first time that something along these lines had been said to me, but perhaps because of the frustrations and my struggling, I was more willing to really try and follow this advice. By doing so, things started to improve rather quickly. By not caring about getting hit, I ironically got hit less. By inviting the opponent, rather than constantly searching for an opening to attack, I not only improved my ōji-waza, but I also discovered more opportunities to attack when the opponent would not respond to my seme. By slightly raising my left hand and focusing on keeping a correct and straight posture, my striking distance became slightly closer and as a result my strikes naturally gained in impact. By overcoming the fear of getting hit, I felt my kendo started to improve on many fronts.
On my third attempt in August 2013, nine months after my second, my confidence was back. It was a different kind of confidence though, compared to my first try. Regardless of the outcome of the exam, I was very satisfied with the changes my kendo had undergone. I sensed that my kendo had matured significantly. Now I only needed to show this to the grading panel.
My first opponent had demonstrated strong kendo in the jitsugi before me, and I thought he was well on track to pass. We rose from sonkyo and pressured each other, fighting for the centre. Finally, I felt I was on top and he was not able to strike anymore. I jumped, but my first attack, men, got countered by a strong kaeshi-dō. I thought after this the examiners would not let me pass, but I pushed that thought out of my mind immediately. I strongly suppressed the urge to try to make up for it quickly, knowing that the tachiai would only last only about 10 seconds more. The remainder felt good though, as if I had come back from an ippon behind in a hard fought shiai. The second jitsugi went very well, and I scored men, debana-kote and kaeshi-dō on my opponent, whom I felt resembled the state I was in during my first 6-dan attempt.
This was by far my best attempt. The only reason I thought they could fail me is because of the first kaeshi-dō countering my men. Anyway, I was confident that I could now pass 6-dan with my current kendo. When the numbers of the candidates who passed the jitsugi appeared, I saw the number of my first opponent. It took me another moment to realise that my number was next on the list—I had passed.
As mentioned above, many consider 6-dan a big step up from 5-dan. I think the reason for this is that the importance assigned to the different requirements on which candidates are evaluated changes significantly from 5-dan to 6-dan. I believe that 5-dan is a continuation of 4-dan, with very similar requirements, although at a higher level. The majority of the assessment for candidates trying for 5-dan is still done at the technical-skill level. In short, the candidates are required to demonstrate that they have mastered and refined a wide range of techniques, and have a good understanding of maai and correct application of seme.
While technical skills of course remain an important aspect, I think for 6-dan the focus shifts from the evaluation of technical skills to the appraisal of the candidate’s mental state. First of all, the candidate is required to display an understanding of what defines and results in a valid strike. Any strike needs to be the result of well executed seme. I believe you will get a higher evaluation if you truly pressure your opponent with full spirit and strike at the right time, even if you miss the target, compared to strikes that connect but are short on seme. For example, strikes based on power or speed, or just waiting for the opponent to attack in order to apply ōji-waza. It takes confidence and courage to fight for each ippon by applying seme and have tension build up, but I believe this is vital in order to pass 6-dan. It was my initial mistake to treat the 6-dan exam as an advanced 5-dan exam.
I often think about what would have happened if I had passed the first or second time. I wonder if I would have been able to achieve similar growth in my kendo, and if so, when, if I had to do it without this strong drive to pass the exam? Therefore, I am grateful to the sensei who failed me the first time, and even more so the second. Although I feel I have made great progress, so many new doors have been opened that it also feels as though I am just at the beginning of a wonderful new journey, and for the first time I am eagerly looking forward to the challenges the next exam may bring. For anybody who is currently struggling with an exam, or may do in the future, I would like to say, “embrace the failing”. Take a step back and enjoy it. It may be one of the best times in your kendo life.