Dojo: Aikido Center of Los Angeles
Location: Los Angeles
Join Date: Apr 2002
Mr. Zahir, many thanks. I have thought about your question all day and I really do not know how to answer your question correctly about how ranks were given out 30-35 years ago. I was very young then. I started very young and received my 1st Dan at a young age. In those days, there were very few instructors and dojos. Only a few years previous, O'Sensei had introduced Aikido into Hawaii and a few Aikido dan holders moved to the West Coast to teach. In those days, Koichi Tohei was in control of the West Coast as Head of the Shihan Dept. of Hombu and his influence was very strong here. His Aikido was a little different from other instructors from Hombu. I found this out more clearly when I went to Japan for training. In those days, Tohei Sensei had what he called the "7 basic techniques" and the "50 basic techniques" and one had to master these to go through the kyu grades to 1st Dan.
In those days, O'Sensei was synonymous with Aikido. O'Sensei was at a level quite above such materialistic matters as ranks and gave them out freely to students and friends. In Japan, this is the priviledge of a great master and never questioned. However, Hombu Dojo itself was very strict about Dan rankings.
Just like today, there were two groups - one who were very obsessed with ranks and promotions and another group which minimized the importance of ranks. However, as a very young person then, like everyone, we dreamed of one day taking the test and receiving our Dan grade from Hombu and being allowed to wear the black belt and hakama. It was so exciting to see our name on a certificate from Japan with O'Sensei's name on it. When I was in Japan, however, I followed the custom of only wearing a white belt, taking off my black one. I still wear a white belt today over 35 years later as a habit.
One difference between then and today is that the ceiling to promotions is much higher today. In those days, training outside of Japan - the highest we hoped to ever attain was 4th Dan. Local instructors could reach 5th Dan. Instructors here from Japan were 5th Dan and 6th Dan. Today, Japanese instructors outside of Japan can reach 7th and 8th Dan. Non-Japanese (meaning not trained in Japan at Hombu) and head instructors here can reach 7th Dan, maybe higher. . . . .
I remember when I was studying under various shihan that almost all agreed that testing needed to be improved and made more fair. We all tried to work out various methods of testing and this has always been a big problem - what is the best test? We could, in my day, never figure this out.
Essentially, one must learn everything - all techniques! One problem is that if you decide a certain number of techniques for each grade - students begin to limit themselves to practicing just what they need for their next promotion. The other problem is that the teacher is then required to limit his teaching to what his students must learn for their test. If a teacher teaches various areas of Aikido without happeneing to touch on what a particular student must test for, it is not fair to the student. The other problem which occurred is that instructors had various interpretations of each technique. As an example, I remember many years ago that many were confused with yokomenuchi kokyunage tenkan because there were a specific three that were required but there are many, many techniques which can fall under this name. . . . . This occurred in many areas. In another example, for instance, there are many ways to execute nikyo or shihonage depending on the teacher. One teacher says this way is right, that way is wrong. Another teacher may say, this way in effective, that way is useless and doesn't work. . . . . . This has always been a difficult problem. Nowadays, with more organizations, each one decides their own way of what is right and wrong. . . . . . . . As in the past, the fact of more organizations do not expand the range of experiences for the student (as everyone seems to assume) but will narrow the range of interpretations of techniques which changes depending on where and who and under what group you are training under. One technique or interpretation may be acceptable in one group but another group may decide that this is ino good and their way in better - I have seen this very, very often in the past.
One of my old teachers found 36 ways to execute shihonage. I teach five ways of shihonage depending on which is best under which attack and what circumstances as I understand it. I would like to teach ten different ways but I feel sorry for my students. . . . especially if they have trouble just learning one way. It is the same with many techniques which can vary so much with each teacher and group.
Also, Aikido techniques have evolved. I remember long ago when the Japanese teachers first came over here, kotegaeshi didn't work too well because everyone's arms over here were longer than Japanese. Tenchi-nage and irimi-nage was diffcult because people in this country were so much taller and on and on. When I first learned ikkyo (very long ago), we used to jump up and come down with our knee against the opponent's elbow. We don't do this anymore.
Anyways, I think that the only fair way is that it is a matter between teacher and student - this is changing because today many students go around everywhere and do not have just "one" teacher. I watch and instruct my students everyday and know them very well. At the same time, however, I have to trust the recommendations of my assistant instructors in other areas and rely on their good and honest judgement. Without Trust, no system of testing or ranking will be fair.
Ranking is by nature very subjective and only the opinion of the instructor giving the rank at the time. I have seen many students do well in practice and do very badly on a test. I have seen very talented and technically qualified
students who are very strong and skillful but I somehow feel that they will abuse their rank and position. . . . . There are some students who try so hard but will never be as good as a 20 year old athelete. . . . . but have good personality, good discipline and attendance, helpful in the dojo, good to the other classmates. I would rather have a student who has developed a great attitude towards Aikido of lesser skill than a very skillful and strong student who has a very bad attitude or his arrogant and abusive to others. I remember a conversation I had with Guro Richard Bustillo of JKD and Kali, a good friend of mine. One time we were talking about skill and strength and effective techniques and how to judge a student. 20 years later, we had the same conversation but changed our attitude and agree that the most important aspect a student must develop in training was Attitude. However, if that student goes to another dojo, he will be assessed on his skill, not his attitude. . . . . Does this mean, we just create killers and death machines, in the dojo? Hahaha!
In any dojo, there are all types of people of all circumstances. Each student must be judged on individual merits. A student of meager talent who gives 100% is more valued in my book than a very talented student who only gives 20% to his training. I see this a lot in Aikido. I dream that all my students are all atheletic, strong, flexible, quick to catch on to the techniques, good attitude, can pay thier dues on time, blah, blah, blah, blah - yes, I am dreaming! No! A teacher is required to balance the human element of each individual student with the intention to promote him in his life and his art in every way, positively and constructively, and, at the same time, preserve and pass down the art without compromising or distorting it. This is the duty, I feel, of all teachers and something we must wrestle with each day in class. Ranks, so easily abused, must be handled with honestly and fairness with each individual and this may not follow some hard and set rule.
When I was young, I took piano lessons from a world class concert pianist. She had trained in Europe and had performed all over the world in the most prestigious concert halls. However, at that time, she just taught young people like me to make a modest living for herself. When she played, it was not very good and limited herself to teaching. She had developed severe arthiritis in his fingers and could no longer play well, but she was an excellent teacher in every way and her skill was without question and I really respected her.
When I was very young, I had one Aikido teacher who was not technically the greatest in skill, but was a very fine gentlemen and scholar and I always respected him for that and learned a great deal although it wasn't really shihonage or ikkyo. I think it is easy to say we should do this and that and tests should be like this and ranks should be like that. But when you get down to the "dirty" work of teaching students each day and everything else that is involved in getting a student to move somewhat correctly and make him understand a little about Aikido is all about. . . . . we are making and breaking rules minute by minute!
I should also like to add finally, O'Sensei was at the spiritual level where he thought all people, everyone in the whole world, was a 10th Dan in Aikido. Most of us are not at that level of understanding and what a headache it was for Hombu to straighten that out into real, world terms! Our thoughts on ranks is nothing where O'Sensei was at. . . . . . and we should keep that in mind. . . . . . what a world this would be if each one of us thought so well about the other person as O'Sensei did!