Aikido Kobayashi Dojo

Aikido, My Way.

Part 4 Kobayashi Dojos' Test

Not just in Aikido but also in all budo there are people who are concerned about rank – kyu and dan (white, brown and black belts) ranks.  When I first started practicing, there were no kyu ranks.  If you practiced regularly, Kisshomaru Sensei might suddenly tell you that you’re now a shodan and give you a black belt. There were no tests every year on January 15th at the New Year’s celebration, when Kisshomaru Sensei would gather everyone and announce the promotions for that year.  If there are few people practicing, that custom worked.  I recall that the testing system began around 1958.  There were tests twice a year, then three per year, this was a “special favor” to us uchideshi.

What that means is that in the past, the uchideshi would take ukemi from whoever was testing, so whoever had money would take us out for a banquet and feed us delicacies we ordinarily wouldn’t eat, because we always took clean beautiful ukemi that made them look good. After awhile the people who couldn’t afford the feeds caused some trouble and gradually, the custom of uchideshi as uke was forbidden and testing evolved into what we have today.

At Kobayashi Dojos kyu ranks tested after being enrolled for half a year.  In the beginning individual dojos conducted their own tests, but it seemed that everyone was supportive to anyone taking tests because everyone was a friend and wanted to see each other pass. So we ended that test system and began to reserve Hombu Dojo in Shinjuku to hold the tests for all dojos.  At that time, we established a system in which the shihan from individual dojos would gather and set the testing standards, and then all of us would serve as judges for the testing.

The first test in Hombu Dojo saw more than half of applicants fail.  That’s because the test in the individual dojos was just pro forma, with a fake understanding that everyone would pass. The sudden switch to a strict testing system caused many to fail the test, but instead the overall level rose to meet the higher standards.

The various dojo shihan complained when so many of their students didn’t pass that they were losing face.  So many objections from members poured in that we even had dojos threatening to resign from Kobayashi Dojos.  But I insisted that we needed to preserve the stricter standards.

The second test we held at Hombu was the worst with the subsequent testing also being difficult. But from the third testing, the individual dojos’ shihan and instructors finally came to understand my goal and afterward the situation eased up considerably.

The result was that the overall level of ability improved under one set of standards and there were fewer differences in the way techniques were done.

Recently over 200 students gathered to take the tests. With supporters and observers in the room, there are a lot of people, so we have to reserve Hombu Dojos’ 2nd, 3rd and 4th floor dojos just for the adult tests.  It is hard work.

Junior high school students begin at 8th kyu, while college students begin at 7th kyu.  At the test, these 8th and 7th kyu students really stand out.

Gathering everyone at Hombu Dojo for the tests has resulted in some problems.  With 200 people testing each time, tests are administrated on 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors of Hombu simultaneously. Beginning at 1pm and lasting until nearly 6 o’clock, they take a lot of time.

There has been trouble with junior high school students coming from local dojos and disappearing in Shinjuku to play videogames.  They tell their parents they flunked the test.  We had many calls from parents when their kids didn’t return home and it was ten at night.  So we decided that junior high students would take the test through 6th kyu in the block dojos.

Occasionally there are incidents during tests. Once a guy taking his nidan test got cut on his forehead during tantodori and blood gushed down his face. We called out if there was someone who could help and among the observers was a fireman who was trained in first-aid.  He made a bandage and stopped the bleeding.

We’ve had people who’ve taken ukemi for others, then when it came time for their own test they were too strained and couldn’t move. We also had worries about spinal injuries when taking ukemi.  Talking openly with test applicants helps them become a little more relaxed about ukemi.

No matter what dan someone is testing for, there’s bound to be tension. I’ll give you an example. A person taking his 4th dan test in the kumitachi suddenly couldn’t move. After a brief moment he said, “Me? Didn’t I do that next?”  The dojo was filled with the sound of laughter.

Testing Requirements

I have been asked, “What sort of requirements are there for tests?”  We change the requirements in Kobayashi Dojos every year.  Aikido is expanding to many countries today.  In every country where there is a Kobayashi Dojo, they use standards we’ve set for the dan and kyu ranks.  A test is like practicing in front of others.

  1. Are the clothes neat and clean?  Is the name written clearly on the gi border?
  2. How do you answer when your name is called?  The attitude, the way of bowing, how the ken and jo are properly carried.
  3. Are the techniques and the weapons performed at the expected level?
  4. How is the posture and movement?  How is the posture during the throws and the pins?  Are the legs relaxed?  The position of the hips is most important, but the hand and feet positions are also important. Most people are aware of the attacking hand, but forget about the other hand. Being aware of both is important.
  5. Intensity is extremely important.  In practice the partner doesn’t resist and allows throwing in order to develop the technique.  Technique alone is easy; mental and spiritual intensity is more difficult.

All of these points are used in evaluating the tests.  Of course, among the teachers, there are individual variations and different ways of grabbing and positioning.  During the test, the judges are not the individual’s teacher but senseis from other dojos.  Ordinary practice conditions aren’t recommended at the test, so each test is a kind of demonstration.  However, because the people testing range in age from junior high school students to seventy year-old men and women, careful consideration is given to the differences.

People with all kinds of handicaps will come to practice if you teach a long time.  Some people can’t move well, and some are missing an arm or leg.  However, everyone tests together.  These handicaps are taken into account when evaluating pass or fail.

I hear questions about why some people can’t pass even though they did the techniques with a great deal of energy.  Some people were so upset when they failed they even quit.   We have no power over these reactions.

More than thirty years ago, three Kobayashi Dojo members who I had been teaching all flunked at the test. “Sensei, what are you teaching us?”  I reflected on this deeply and went to a barbershop and had my head shaved.   It was a rare situation in which all of the applicants were nervous and couldn't perform the techniques but….

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