There are no medals to be won in aikido, since there is no championship. But there are indicators of different levels of excellence. The grades.
The ideal would be that grading had nothing to do with comparing practitioners to one another. The advancement in grades, then, would be nothing but recognition of how far one has come on one's own path, according to one's own conditions and circumstances. In reality, though, the grades have an unavoidable ingredient of relativity. They mean little if not representing general levels somewhat relevant to all of us practicing aikido. It's complicated.
I've always felt rather ambiguous about grades. They take you back to school, where grades are primarily a measure of one's conformity. As if learning didn't have its own reward. The same thing goes for aikido. We study it not for the grades, but for the delight of actually doing it on the tatami.
So, early on I was quite pleased with the aikido tradition of having the same white belt through all kyu grades, and a simple black one for every dan grade. I even skipped the black belt, going back to the white one for several years. If people asked about it, I had the following explanation: Those who know some aikido should be able to see the level anyway. For those who can't, the grade has no meaning.
Later I was made aware that Tamura Sensei, one of the most prominent aikido teachers, always wore a white belt although he reached 8th dan (and refused the 9th). I asked him about it, and he just stated:
"It's a belt."
Still, I returned to wearing the black belt after a few years without it. That was for its advertising value. People who considered taking up practice in our dojo were more likely to do so if they saw the instructor wrapped in a black belt.
I had a similar thought process regarding grading of the students in our dojo. We might as well not, but that would sort of leave them out of the rest of the aikido world, like Robinson Crusoe on a desert island. I didn't want grades to become an obsession, but making a statement of refusing them would be just as obsessed. It would make grades -- or the lack of them -- a major trait of our dojo. That would be kind of silly.
Therefore, though with some reluctance, I have kyu and dan gradings in our dojo, trying to make sure that everyone advances in grades in accordance with his or her advancement in aikido. That's not rocket science, but it's not a piece of cake either.
As for the kyu grades, it's all pretty basic. People should learn to do the techniques -- more of them and better at each kyu grade. We have six kyu grades in the Swedish grading system (most organizations settle with five). If the students practice frequently and progress well, they get a new kyu grade every half year. That's something like three years to 1st kyu. As things go, it often turns out to be four or even five years.
Between 1st kyu and 1st dan, a year of training is a reasonable minimum. The students are usually quite fine with that, feeling some trepidation afore that black belt. Those who are too eager to wait a full year before trying for the black belt are sure to need doing just that.
In Sweden, there's a common standard of around five years from beginner to shodan -- not only in aikido, but in most other budo arts as well. A friend of mine who is a major senior in Swedish jujutsu told me that people with normal talent and normal training intensity should reach shodan in five years. Exceptionally talented ones with normal training intensity might do it in four years. The same goes for those with normal talent who practice very intensely. Someone with both the talent and the training intensity could get to shodan in three years, but that's rare and that's the minimum.
Sugano Sensei told me that he used to make sort of agreements with beginners who seemed willing to go the extra mile. They set the course for shodan in three years. Still, when the deadline approached, in many cases they had another talk, where Sugano Sensei would ask if the student might want to postpone that step a bit. Students were relieved to do so. But what was anyway won was the dedication, the strengthened motivation by having a concrete goal.
When I started aikido in the early 1970's, black belts were so rare that this change of color became too important. When people got it, they lost incentive to train. It was like they had reached their personal goal and nothing new tempted them ahead.
This still happens, but not at all that frequently, since there are so many students with black belts -- even higher dan grades than the first one. Some of the mystery and sensation of the black belt is gone, and that's a good thing. After all, shodan simply means the first level -- the start of one's pursuit.
That can be a kind of snobbery, though, as if the hard years of training before the black belt mean nothing. Honestly, there are many who train with much more dedication and progress as mudansha, than when finally becoming yudansha. Not many quit when it happens, but quite a few sort of lean back and relax, as if hardship is over.
As for the following dan grades, I think the most established mathematics for them worldwide is: minimum two years to nidan, three years to sandan, and four years to yondan. That would be at least normal talent and normal training intensity. The same applies for the following recommendation grades (in Aikikai): minimum five years to godan and six years to rokudan. As for 7th dan, there is an abrupt change. Aikikai demands a minimum of twelve years. 15 years to 8th dan. Minimum. Many other aspects are involved.
When I was young, I believed in the myth that the difference in excellence between 1st and 2nd dan is at least as big as that between the beginner and 1st dan. The same would go for the following dan grades, as if each represented a doubling of ability to the previous one. Naah.
There is a significant development expected, of course. But it's much more subtle than the abysmal difficulties overcome between 6th kyu and 1st dan. That's when the students struggle with what often seems like insurmountable obstacles, as if their bodies are simply not able to perform what's demanded of them, and their minds fail to compute the complexities of the aikido techniques. The straining journey from the first day on the tatami to shodan is when perseverance is rewarded. You stay and solve it, or you quit. Most people quit.
So, we should really take the kyu grades the most seriously. That's when the students really win over themselves, bit by bit. We would probably keep a higher percentage of this group if we showed proper appreciation of their feats.
In other budo, kyu grades are marked by color changes. The total is quite a rainbow. Although I like the aikido principle of sticking to plain white until it's time for plain black, it might be so that more students would be encouraged to continue if they had the color changes to boost their satisfaction now and then.
The most significant change in aikido is when the students are allowed to put on a hakama. Different levels are applied for this, around the world. Many aikido organizations demand shodan before allowing the students to wear a hakama. In Sweden it's often allowed at 3rd kyu. In Hombu Dojo it was originally accepted from the beginning, but due to the poverty of post-war Japan it was allowed to wait until shodan, to spare the students a significant expense. Originally, it had nothing to do with skills.
When I started to practice aikido, the hakama was not connected to a certain grade. Instead, the teacher would simply tell you when it was time to get one -- if you hadn't already done so on your own initiative. Ichimura Sensei, who was our teacher at the time, told me to do so after no more than a year of practice. Of course, I stumbled quite a lot to begin with.
Although the Swedish standard is 3rd kyu for hakama, in my dojo we allow it already at 4th kyu. That's because the hakama helps very much to foster a good posture and the sense for flowing, circular movements. If students wait too long before putting it on, they may have adapted bad habits that are difficult to get rid of.
A friend of mine, Urban Aldenklint, who is a prominent Swedish aikido instructor and dojo leader, told me bluntly that I probably just demand more of our 4th kyu students -- what would be expected of them for 3rd kyu. He might be right.
I think the only reasonable argument to apply regarding the use of hakama is one of safety: Students with hakama are expected to have good basic ukemi skills, so they are treated accordingly. Therefore, putting on a hakama before managing the falling techniques is hazardous. I guess that would be somewhere in the middle kyu grades, for most people.
I have a basic principle about what grades represent, which I do believe I share with most aikido instructors. A grade stands for skills already reached, a level already passed. It's not like high jumping, where athletes try to jump higher than they normally can. It's the height they comfortably reach every time they try. That takes the drama out of it -- and the competition. At best, a grading should be a sort of ceremony where the students can show how much they have already learned and how much they have actually improved since the previous grading. It's more of a celebration than an ordeal. At best.
Regarding uke, I prefer it to be one with the grade the student is examined for. That's not necessary with the beginners, who can do the test with each others, but it becomes increasingly important as the grades go up. In dan gradings I tend to make it a firm rule. If there is not a suitable uke at the grade applied for, it should be one with the grade above that, or the grade one step below. Only if circumstances demand it do I allow exceptions.
I've seen dan gradings where people applying for shodan had a yondan uke. That just means uke decides how good -- or bad -- the grading will look. And if uke is of a significantly lower grade than the one tori applies for, it's too easy -- or difficult if uke is too inexperienced. In any case, it's not optimal. The best way to show a certain level is to do it together with someone at that level.
It's truly difficult to specify the skills demanded at each kyu and dan grade. Mostly on gradings, it's really done by comparing the students at that event, and not at all by comparing them to some absolute standard. So, if there's a splendid 6th kyu performance at the start of the grading, demands will certainly rise for the remainder. It's not perfect, but it happens.
As for 6th kyu, though -- or whatever first kyu grade is used in a grading system -- my friend the jujutsu teacher expressed it: "Everyone that moves gets the grade." It's a starting grade, mainly to give the students a first taste of this quite stressful ritual. If they've gone to the classes, it's enough that they do something at all. I don't even care if they know the names of the techniques. That will come, eventually, so it's nothing to be hung up about.
I tend instead to use the 6 kyu grading as an indicator of how our beginner classes work. It's a lesson for the teachers more than for the students.
Then it follows that 5th kyu is sort of the first real kyu grading, where some competence is actually demanded. If they have captured the difference of omote and ura, I'm fine. That's a good measure of a beginning understanding of the aikido techniques.
At 4th kyu I look particularly at their ukemi. That's because of the hakama being allowed at this grade in my dojo, as explained above. Other dojos might focus more on ukemi at 3rd kyu, for the same reason. I also like the 4 kyu students to manage some jutai, not just gotai. Simply, they should start moving with some swiftness.
To me, 3rd kyu is an interesting midway level to shodan. The techniques should be done with some skill and convincingly -- as if they are actually able to deal with attackers using the aikido techniques. They should be centered and have some confidence in what they do.
I find that students who have developed quickly up to the point of 3rd kyu on mere talent -- and some have a lot of it -- tend to bump into the wall around this time. I mean the wall of difficulties that the less talented ones have experienced since day one. The students who shine with a talent that makes an instructor think they are future super-shihans tend to give up around this level, when they are shocked to find that they, too, have to work for it. In any budo, perseverance is the real key. It has no substitute.
2nd kyu is an in-between thing, without much significance of its own. It's a grade helping to keep the dan grading off for a while longer, and giving the students something to do. They still need the stimulation of a grading every six months or so, but that's almost all there is to it. They should be more skilled than they were at 3rd kyu, their progress should be visible -- or the instructors need to reconsider what the students need, usually in the form of exciting challenges.
For 1st kyu I have a simple rule: it's a shodan in every aspect except some additional routine. Like a very, very fresh shodan, being on the level but not comfortably, not completely confident on it. It should be clear that the student can manage a shodan grading soon, just by adding a bunch of training hours. Things are on the right course and the next stop is already visible ahead.
I still prefer that they wait a year before trying for shodan. That quantity of training is likely to add the routine and accompanying confidence.
Shodan is where the student should be familiar with the whole aikido curriculum: all the taijutsu techniques done on all the basic attack forms. I don't demand good knowledge of for example jodori and tachidori, although it may very well be there, nor do I want to test them on taninzugake, not even futaridori. Some things should be saved for later. They may need to show tantodori -- although in reality that's one of the most challenging things in aikido. I use it mainly for them to have something more to do than what they already did at their 1st kyu grading.
In Japan, shodan is really kind of a beginner's grade, since they have so many high grade teachers. But in the rest of the world, people with shodan are often used as instructors. Therefore, it's important to use the grading also as a kind of inspection of their attitude to aikido. There should be some maturity.
That's mainly revealed by how they treat their uke. If they are careless or maybe even brutal in the effort to succeed with their techniques, there is something seriously wrong with their attitude. This is more important than the skills they may show. I've found that all the Japanese shihan I've dealt with over the years are very firm about this, too. People should not excel in aikido at the cost of their training comrades.
At nidan, the students should show significant progress since shodan. That seems self-evident, but there is always a risk of stagnation after shodan, as if the ordeal is over and the rest is vacation. They should show that they still have the drive to polish their techniques and further their understanding. One could say that they should give the impression of experienced yudansha with a continued urge to improve.
At nidan I can also test the students on jodori and tachidori, although lately I've found this to be infrequent -- probably because of my own preferences rather than as a pedagogic conclusion of some sort. I do like them to show futaridori, both gotai and jutai. That's the new thing for this grade, so that the students can feel they get to show something more than at the shodan examination.
Aikido should head for taninzugake, and that takes time. I don't really like to see students struggle with multiple attackers at kyu gradings or at lower dan grades. They have little chance of anything but failure, which sends the wrong signals. I keep it simple: two attackers at nidan, three at sandan and four at yondan. That's enough. Anything else may be spectacular but rarely impressive.
Actually, it's very rare that I see convincing taninzugake, whatever the grade of the one trying it.
Sandan is sort of the last grade of basic aikido. The students should be very accomplished with all the basic techniques even in high tempo or against complicated attacks. Their performance should show authority and a competence exceeding what they actually need for the test. They should be very centered and the techniques should be very convincing. At the essence of a good sandan grading is the impression that this person is doing aikido as a path for life. It's someone you'd be comfortable to call an aikidoka.
At sandan testing I make sure not to pinpoint each technique the student should do. I want to loosen it up, allowing free choice of techniques and so on, to get the student going and thereby showing the full scope of his or her capacity. They should sort of put on a show. That's even more the case at yondan. I only demand very specific techniques when I sense there can be a gap in the competence, something needing to be examined more.
It becomes ridiculous if you ask at a sandan examination to see katatedori ikkyo, omote and ura, as if these things might be lacking in the student's portfolio.
Nishio Sensei had an interesting way of doing dan gradings. He allowed the students to make their own program and just told them when to start and when to stop. Many fell into the trap of thinking this was much easier than having to do specified techniques, one after the other. But this form was very revealing. Ambitious students got in way over their heads with fancy techniques they didn't master, and any flaw in attitude towards aikido became immediately evident. I found that this way of doing it worked just as well as the more common method -- and it was more fun for everyone involved.
So, I hope it goes on among Nishio students and others. It's a method that contributes to enriching the aikido world. I don't do it, because as a representative of the Swedish Grading Committee I should conform somewhat to the standard expected of us. But I miss it sometimes.
As for yondan, in aikido (Aikikai) it's the last grade you can be examined for. The rest of them are recommendations. Therefore, I regard the grade as one where the student should show his or her own aikido emerging. That's a wonderful thing about aikido. It becomes your own, and you express it in a way that is increasingly unique. That's as it should be. So, the yondan examination should reveal and explore what kind of aikido the student will bring to the table.
It's the starting signal of the student taking over the responsibility of his or her further development. At this point, they should manage fine without a tutor, although they certainly will continue to learn from their seniors (and, ideally, their juniors as well). So, yondan is all about personality. The technical skills should already have been explored at previous gradings. Now it's time for the artist to emerge.
Stefan Stenudd is a 6 dan Aikikai aikido instructor, member of the International Aikido Federation Directing Committee, the Swedish Aikikai Grading Committee, and the Swedish Budo Federation Board. He has practiced aikido since 1972. Presently he teaches aikido and iaido at his dojo Enighet in Malmo, Sweden, and at seminars in Sweden and abroad. He is also an author, artist, and historian of ideas. He has published a number of books in Swedish and English, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the latter are books about aikido and aikibatto, also a guide to the lifeforce qi, and a Life Energy Encyclopedia. He has written a Swedish interpretation of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, and of the Japanese samurai classic Book of Five Rings. In the history of ideas he studies the thought patterns of creation myths, as well as Aristotle's Poetics. He has his own extensive aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido