Dojo: Hiroshima Kokusai Dojo
Location: Hiroshima, Japan
Join Date: Jul 2001
I have been following this thread with great interest, since the kyu/dan system can be seen as the focus of many issues concerning martial arts and our perception of training. In fact I have an article half finished for the AJ web site (to follow the Touching the Absolute series, Ubaldo). Here are a few random thoughts on the subject, which tie in with some of the previous posts. Please feel free to comment/argue as you wish.
1. The dan rank can be seen as one among many possible 'objective correlatives' (T S Eliot's phrase) of a certain state, in relation to the art. In this it is no different from the Menkyo-kaiden. Thus, in parallel with the 'story' of O Sensei's general disaffection with the Butokukai, there is another 'story' which suggests that he was strongly influenced by Jigoro Kano and wanted to differentiate aikido, as a 'new' budo, from Daito-ryu. So I do not really think that O Sensei actually preferred the Menkyo-kaiden over the dan system. I do not think he cared either way (but see below).
2. When I say that the dan system is one of many possible 'objective correlatives' in relation to the art, what I am emphasising is that aikido is at base a skill and therefore carries with it the concept of linear progress. In other words, you sign up and start as a raw beginner and gradually you develop proficiency in many different aspects of the art. Of course, proficiency in the different aspects does not occur at the same rate, but, as you train and look at your teachers, you see wonderful possibilities. If you train really hard, you might approach their level. So you train hard.
The problem is that the linear aspects sometimes become too prominent and obtaining the dan becomes the goal, rather than the level which the dan is supposed to indicate. I have seen this many times and in most cases the teacher was at fault. In my opinion a teacher should be able to monitor a student's progress on several levels; certainly not just the level of actual technique. But in my experience here are very few teachers who can monitor and advise a student on these other levels: those we might call 'spiritual', for example.
3. What is the point of 'objectively' measuring this proficency (and O Sensei actually did do this)? Well, given that aikido training is a social activity, I can think of various benefits in terms of motivation, as other members have stated. For example, very many dojos here in Japan have a coloured belt system for children's classes. My experience here in Hiroshima is that children like to play (and we accept children from the age of six). They are very supple and so they learn wonderful ukemi; and then basic techniques like suwari-waza 1-kyo and irimi-nage as a kind of play, rather like kittens do play fighting. Going up through the cloured belt system is regarded as an essential part of their general maturing process. In other words, the children's kyu system matches their devekopment at school.
4. Another reason is that right from the very beginning aikido developed in relation to other established martial arts. O Sensei studied Daito-ryu and initially used the Daito-ryu system in the Kobukan. When he changed to the dan system, he gave all his senior deshi 8th dan. Why? Because this was regarded by Kano Jigoro as the equivalent of the Menkyu-kaiden and thus O Sensei's deshi were given an accepted status in relation to other martial arts. Of course, he did not really NEED to do this; he could have kept all his deshi ungraded. But he did.
5. Now, whether students want to enter the 'dan' system or not is their decision, but they cannot usually make this decision at the beginning of their aikido careers. From talking to people like David Lynch (who does not give dan ranks), I am well aware that some people think that ranks are more trouble than they are worth, but this decision is actually a 'political' judgement. I would not wish to force this view on the students who train with me before they have the experience to judge for themselves. I do this because I do not have MY OWN students, i.e., students who are MY deshi. In other words, I do not expect thet the students I teach will remain with me for their entire aikido careers. So, usually I give grades to students who train in my dojo, so that when they move on,they have an objective record of progress achieved, but I usually send a fairly objective letter to the next sensei, indicating major strengths and weakneses. I wonder if this is common practice.
Thus, I think a system of objective measurement has a place in martial arts training and the dan system is what we have in aikido.
6. When people say that O Sensei did not care about dan grades, there is a tendency to interpret this as indicating a general disregard for ANY objective measurement in aikido, but I am not sure that this is right. He followed the general practice. And to cite the absence in O Sensei's written statements of any mention of dan ranks as an indication that he did not care about these is not correct. If you study O Sensei's published writings, you will see that he is in a completely different universe. The universe is that of the Manyou'shu, Kojiki, Nihon-shoki: Japan's ancient myths. To have discused dan ranks in aikido would have been competely pointless in this context.
Anyway, such are my personal opinions and I would be glad to hear from other members of this forum, especially from those who strongly disagree with my sentiments.
Best regards to all,
PS. I do not think there is a major difference between ranks from around 8th dan upwards (actually, I thought before choosing this figure). In fact, my own rank is 6th dan, but my present teacher is only one rank higher. I train with teachers like Tada Sensei and Arikawa Sensei, who are 9th dan, but I still see a wide gulf between them and myself, and even my own teacher.
Last edited by Peter Goldsbury : 09-15-2001 at 10:01 AM.