What is this Rank and Grading Stuff? Part 2 – The Federation

What is this Rank and Grading Stuff?
Part 2 – The Federation

By Kim Taylor

In Part 1, I discussed why or why not to grade from the student’s and teacher’s standpoints. This article will look at the federation’s standpoint.

From the federation’s standpoint:
Gradings, from a federation standpoint, are almost everything. Certainly in the iai and sections of kendo federations there is really nothing else. In the kendo section we have those tournament things which are probably, come to think about it, more important than gradings. Business speak is all the rage today so what does the kendo business do? It sells rank and promotes tournaments to its members. Since it is a membership driven business, a big part of the plan is to increase membership through involving current and new members in gradings and tournaments. I’m not sure if we can put it any more simply than that, although I’m sure many folks are gritting their teeth right now. What’s wrong with it? Ah, the phrase “sells rank”. Very well, how about provides instruction and certification in the arts for which it requires fees.

As mentioned above, the ranks from ikkyū to 3-dan are testing for basic skill acquisition and are judged in such a way as to “encourage” the students. In other words, the judges are looking for reasons to pass the students. Once they have been around long enough to get 3-dan they are likely staying and so 4-dan is judged a bit more critically, so now you know why there’s a jump between 3-dan and 4-dan. In this way, you might say that “easier” gradings are promoting the art, or at least membership in the organisation, but realistically, how much can we ask from those grading up to 3-dan?

No, the very act of providing gradings will promote membership in the arts. Especially in the West, where kids don’t have much knowledge or appreciation for kendo tournaments, the first thing they want to know is “Can I get a black belt?” If there’s grading, that’s a good thing. Too bad they didn’t feel the same way about school…

Managing the “ruling class”. Politics? Of course.
The nasty bits: Rank is just politics right? Surely you’ve heard that?

Well, at the upper levels, in many ways it is. Those at the top run things in a sort of hierarchical way that is also sort of consensus driven. To put it more plainly, no organisation works well with trouble-making, lazy or selfish people at the top. Why would those currently at the top, promote those who will make it more difficult to manage a volunteer organization. Now, those who have experience with volunteer organizations are laughing, I can hear you, but we’re talking theoretically. The “politics” isn’t really supposed to be part of the judging criteria, and should play no role up to 5-dan which is the last “technical” grade where you are judged on what is written in the book. From 6-dan you need to show the sort of qualities that are, frankly, suited to allow you to get along with others in the organisation: dignity, calmness, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, generosity, being a good role model. In short, some very “political” qualities.

For that matter, simply having too many people at the top makes things unwieldy, so achieving a top grade in one place where there are few people of the highest rank might be more difficult than another place where there is a shortage of that same top rank. Is this fair? And if so, for whom: the challenger or the organization? Unfair for one, necessity for the other perhaps.

For a more extreme example of what some would call “politics”, I’ll use my own case as a 7-dan in iai who took all his gradings in Canada. It has been suggested to me that my grading was somewhat less legitimate since I did not take it in Japan. But, I reply, all my grading was done under panels made up of visiting Japanese 7-dan or 8-dan. Ah, but aren’t they are obligated to pass you since you invited them to Canada? Perhaps, I say, but I suspect the panellists might not appreciate the suggestion that they could be bought for the price of an airfare, especially since we always work them hard at our seminars. So between that and the jet-lag, they were usually pretty irritable by grading time.

Regardless, perhaps I should have done my grading in Japan anyway. I graded in Canada because I wanted to grade to 7-dan in there. It’s important to me that we did it, and I’m quite proud of that. However, let’s look at the foreigner who goes to Japan to grade. He gets passed because he’s “needed back home” at that rank so that he can promote the arts. Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps that’s a consideration. How do we find a fair assessment for our poor 7-dan?

A person who lives in Japan and grades will experience no such special consideration as the foreigners at home or in Japan right? Perhaps, but we’re talking about the nasty politics (in this case, the gossip and backbiting kind) so what of the powerful and connected teacher whose students always seem to pass? Is he really such a good teacher? Perhaps.

You can fill in more of these cases as you wish, but to return to my own case, perhaps I was indeed passed to my current rank, not for a plane ticket, but in a related way, because I am a major organiser and a “founding figure” in my local organisation rather than because I am of 7-dan quality. If that is true, is it really a problem? Perhaps you know people who you suspect were similarly favoured for their efforts rather than their skill. Think seriously about what they do, does their “unearned” rank damage the organization?

Now, if I did think it was a problem, and if I felt my rank was granted for something other than my skills at iai, I would still not offer to give my rank back. My teachers put me forward and other teachers felt I should have the rank, is it my place to second guess them?

Rank and Gradings under the FIK structure:
Grades are awarded within each country and recognised across all FIK member countries. The assumption of that recognition is that grades should be equivalent, so the solution is to train the judging panels outside Japan so that everyone who sits a panel understands the grading qualifications. Having undertaken many judging seminars I see the merit of this and absolutely support the efforts. The second part of “the solution” (there appears to be a belief that there is a problem), however, is to become extremely strict on the makeup of grading panels outside Japan. This, frankly, I don’t agree with. The result will be to damp down grading advancement outside Japan dramatically, not because there is a lack of skill in the membership, but because of an inability to assemble a grading panel. I fully agree that those outside Japan are capable of the same skill as those within. I also agree that judging panels worldwide should be looking at the same minimum standards for rank, but policy changes in the last few years and some that are rumoured to be coming have made the existence of any panel at all much more difficult.

That means the arts will begin to shrink as those at the top retire or die off and are not replaced. The rank structure will collapse or be replaced by something else (which is, in fact what the extended kyū grades are currently doing).

Here I would like to suggest the problem outside Japan is not lack of equivalence in each rank, rather it’s a lack of rank. Rules designed for a country with a full rank structure are not a good fit for a country with no higher ranks at all. There is some difference between FIK and AJKF rules for gradings, but the FIK rules are being tightened rapidly and it will slow progress and growth outside Japan.

Before going into my next suggestion, perhaps I should again point out my attitude to my own (perhaps dubious) rank, and my unconcern about it. I suggest that a “recognized grade” need not mean one that is equivalent. If a 7-dan from the West is not equivalent to a 7-dan from Japan (and ask any Westerner (or Japanese) if any Western grade is equivalent) what is the harm? That Western 7-dan is not likely to move to Japan and teach or sit grading panels, so there is no danger of dragging Japanese iai down. Having a rank that is too high for your skill level is a disadvantage to tournament competition rather than an advantage, so again, where is the harm? Could we not just assume that the higher ranks in any country other than Japan (where higher ranks abound) are somewhat political? That the higher ranks are those who are leaders, who are teachers, who are doing the job nobody else before them did.

This is, of course, not a comfortable idea for those inside or outside Japan, so perhaps we could instead move to a class or a range of considerations rather than an absolute criteria? If a person of a certain rank would be somewhere above the worst person of that rank in Japan, could we not say “good enough”? If that is the case, and here we return to the real problem, could we not lighten up on the judging panel requirements somewhat if the results do not stray outside the range in Japan?