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Home > Testing > On a Shodan Test
by J. Akiyama <Send E-mail to Author>

I just took my shodan test last Saturday, and I thought I'd write up my experiences with it and leading up to it.

However, first off, I wish to thank each and every single one of you who congratulated me on my passing the test. You've all been part of my aikido training, and you've all helped me get to where I am today. Thank you all.

The Background and the Setting

From last summer until earlier this year, I'd been what you might call a "ronin" in the Bay Area. I would travel from dojo to dojo, seminar to seminar, without having any particular dojo to call "home." In time, however, I found myself starting to train quite regularly at Aikido of Tamalpais.

From early on in the year, there were a handful of shodan candidates who were working very hard on their upcoming shodan tests in June at Tamalpais. For months before the test, whoever was teaching would ask, night after night, for each candidate to come up and demonstrate a handful of techniques, perform jiyuwaza, and then undergo one or two runs of randori. The atmosphere in the dojo was great; so many people were going up for tests that everyone was working with them during class and learning with them when they got corrections. It was kind of like riding this big wave of "test energy" in the dojo. This, along with a heart to heart conversation I had with a friend up at Tam, made me want to test for shodan.

In addition, during late March of this year, I found myself coming to a decision that I would join Tamalpais and ask to be considered as a candidate for shodan testing. The teachers there were wonderful, the training was lively, fun, and challenging, and the students were friendly -- all in all, I really liked the dojo. Unfortunately, my main instructor at Tamalpais, Wendy Palmer sensei, was away in South Africa until early April. I resolved myself to ask Wendy sensei to see whether I could join her dojo and be considered a candidate as soon as she came back.

It was an interesting week when I finally asked to join Tamalpais. On Tuesday of that week, I asked Wendy sensei if I could join Tam; she was very happy to hear this, and of course said yes. When I talked to her about being considered a candidate for testing, she said although she would be able to support my candidacy as she had seen my training for about a year at that time, she said would discuss this matter with George Leonard sensei, as they both had to agree on any decision made as far as the dojo went. George sensei told me he would like to see me in his classes for the next few weeks to see where I was in my training. So, on April 7th, I officially joined Aikido of Tamalpais and took off my hakama (as was the dojo policy at the time for mudansha).

That Saturday (April 11th), Tamalpais had a Shinto ritual with two Shinto priests who came to purify the dojo. On this date, Wendy sensei and George sensei announced that Tamalpais had been accepted into the ASU (Aikido Schools of Ueshiba) association with Saotome sensei. This was great news to me; I had been training in an ASU dojo previously, and I was acquainted with their weapons system. In addition, I got to put my hakama back on (as was the association policy).

The following Monday (April 13th), we held a farewell party that evening for Richard Heckler sensei who was leaving Aikido of Tamalpais after having cofounded the dojo and having taught there for over 20 years.

I kept training at Tam with both instructors for a few weeks until one night when George sensei told me that I should fill out a shodan candidacy form and put it up on the wall. I had been accepted as a candidate for testing for shodan.

The Training

From the beginning of my aikido training, I've never been very interested in the tests themselves. During the first year or so of my aikido training, I tested four times within a nine month span of time to raise me from a non-ranked white belt to a brown belt (2nd kyu). Each time, people kept telling me, "It was about time you tested."

I didn't like tests, probably due to the feeling that I didn't want to know that I didn't know or couldn't adequately perform certain things. Some people call me a perfectionist, especially on the mat, and I was beginning to think about that.

Each year, I pick a certain trait or quality I want to work on during my training. I would think about this trait when going into class, while training, and reflect upon it after training. The first I chose was "openness." The second, "connection." The third was "self." (Incidentally, this was during the year I left my first dojo.) The one I had chosen this year was "acceptance."

In a way, I actually started to want to see myself not be able to perform things well. I wanted to experience that zone of "healthy discomfort" in which I was doing things that I could not just easily do. So, I started to train for my shodan testing not with this sense of apprehension for the upcoming testing event, but with a sense of excitement about the training itself. I sometimes told people who asked about the test, "I'm actually really looking forward to the training itself. The test itself will come, no matter what. It's the training itself that's going to make the big difference."

The training for shodan testing was short for me -- just a little over two months; some of the other candidates had had the test in mind for even more than six months. During both April and May, I trained about five days a week as well as any seminars that came my way. In that time period from mid-April until the shodan test, I went to 19 days' worth of seminars as well as training about four times a week at Tam.

The great thing about the test training at Tam is that the candidates all receive a lot of attention. Wendy sensei would also ask the candidates each night if they had any particular technique they'd like to see her vesion of. Also every night, each canditate would be pulled up to perform a handful of techniques, demonstrate jiyuwaza, then be sent into randori with three attackers. Although I didn't have much problems with jiyuwaza itself (as I'm pretty good with the flowing stuff), I did have trouble with some of the techniques (eg the series from yokomenuchi, ushiro ryotedori, and katadori) and randori, especially with the change of dojo and the fact that I really dislike the minutiae of technique oriented aikido (as opposed to principle oriented aikido).

I was challenged, all right. From going over the basic techniques such as ikkyo from yokomenuchi and katadori to learning the basics of randori, I found myself really having to accept what I didn't know but also (and especially) to accept that which I did well. The former allowed me to focus on things I needed to work on, while the latter provided me with a recognition of my own strengths; I've always had trouble with complimenting myself for things I do well, and it's been tough to recognize my "positive" side of things. Now I feel that inasmuch as an art such as aikido will inevitably point out one's failings, you shouldn't forget to recognize one's strengths, either.

So I went and worked on certain techniques. I went and asked one or two people after each class to just go through "the series" (ikkyo through yonkyo) with me without comment. I went through walking drills for randori, and asked many of the yudansha for their approach and interpretation of randori.

Overall I felt training for the test was great. It really pushed me as far as being in a challenging learning environment, and I feel that such training is a necessary component to a shodan exam. I can now appreciate some of the aspects of drilling techniques as another way of learning about oneself.

The Test

The test fell on June 20th which is considered to be the longest day of the year by some. That date was also the Saturday on which a week-long aikido retreat at Dominican College in San Rafael was to end. Rather than spending my last week before the test in a mad rush to cram everything I didn't know, I decided to stay on-campus for the entire retreat, not attend any classes as Tam (which was about ten minutes away from the camp), and just do aikido. About the only things I worked on during camp were the five kumitachi and six kumijo for ASU with my weapons partner, Monica. We went over them a few times each day, just so we knew each other's movements and rhythm.

I think perhaps the best thing that happened to me at camp was training with and getting totally pounded for an hour by Ikeda sensei (7th dan, Boulder Aikikai) during training during Nadeau sensei's class. This experience really let me put things into perspective. If I could readily survive an hour of ikkyo and nikkyo with a shihan who was, indeed, pushing me to and past my edge, a 25 minute test wasn't going to kill me.

There were six of us being tested for shodan: me, Justin, Andrea, Brian, Tom, and Joe. Four of us were in our twenties to early thirties, so that made for a spirited group of tests.

After the hour long class at the San Rafael camp in the morning, I ate brunch on-campus then got to the dojo early. During the camp, I had aggravated my right shoulder slightly so I took 600 mg of ibuprofen to counteract its inflammation about an hour and a half before the test. (I'd been doing that for a few days prior too, during camp, a few times a day as advised by a doctor-friend of mine at Tam. Whether the ibuprofen worked, or it was mostly psychosomatic, but the shoulder is feeling much better tonight.)

To be honest, I really don't remember the test very well. Much of it is a blur, kind of like the scenery you'd see if you ride on the bullet train. Some of the quickly passing scenes somehow stuck in my mind, but I can only mostly remember the "general gist" of the faraway scenery of how I was feeling through the test. (I'm hoping to get a copy of a video tape of the test which, with the new hardware that I now have in my home computer, I'm hoping to digitize and put some portions up on the web for download.)

One thing that I did do, especially during the ikkyo through yonkyo series at the beginning of the test as well as other times when I had my uke in a pin was to take a deep exhalation outward while pinning. I've seen a whole lot of yudansha tests (I think about 60 or so when I counted once) in various schools and organizations, and the comment I most thought to myself for the person testing was, "Slow down!" With this in mind, I made it a point to use my breathing to slow things down when I could. I'm pretty sure this made a difference physically as well. Point here: you can create "pauses" in your test during times like the pins in which you can breathe. Breathing is good.

When I was practicing the kumitachi and kumijo before the test, I made sure to practice slowly and methodically, although I could have very easily have done them all much more intensely and quickly. Whenever I was uchitachi in the kumitachi in the test, for instance, I made it a point to settle for a second before initiating the attack. During the kumitachi and kumijo during the test, I tried to show each movement for what they were and not make it into a meaningless mishmash of flailing sticks. At the conclusion of each weapons exchange, I made sure to settle back down into "center."

The one thing that worried me as far as techniques went were the koshinage. I realized that I didn't practice any of them for the test as the day approached, so I went and started to use visualization exercises in the days before the test to figure out which koshinage I wanted to demonstrate. Chuck Gordon, you should be proud to know that I performed one of the koshinage you taught at San Antonio (the one from ryokatadori). To tell you how "in the moment" I was, I have no idea who my uke was during koshinage.

I found dealing with some of the bigger uke pretty tough. Jeff from Aikido of Berkeley is over six feet tall, very muscular (used to do competetive rowing in college), fairly flexible, and quite skilled in aikido -- in other words, a good uke. This made for some not-very-effective kotegaeshi on him, but I now know what I can work on in the days ahead. Imagine that -- learning something during your shodan test. (Facetious comment, of course. I learned tremendous amounts during the test, as this review probably shows.)

I don't really remember how my knife techniques went, but I seem to remember using the "standard" techniques like gokyo, rokkyo, and shihonage quite often. I think I had to improvise once when I messed up and I seem to remember having to use the knife for a second to back uke up to reestablish maai after one of my take aways; I'll have to check the video tape to see how it looked.

Randori started out a bit differently than I expected, with George Leonard sensei asking for me to start out in seiza, sitting away from the three uke, with my eyes closed. We'd done this once during his class, but never expected it during the test. When he called out the first uke's name, I was to turn around and start the randori. All in all, it went about as well as I though it would; I got caught up near the end, but I don't think anyone had a clean and perfect randori. I guess we all still could use some more practice in this.

Kokyudosa was kokyudosa. by that time, I was quite wiped, and I just let my body perform the movements without much "mind" involved. Kind of like just taking a natural "breath," huh?


I started my aikido training back a little less than four years ago. I spent a little under three of those four years as a brown belt, so it'll be an interesting shift for me to start wearing the black belt.

There were seven tests all together that day with me right in the middle at fourth. Although we started at 2pm, the tests took about 25 minutes each and the last test ended at around 5pm. Monica gave me a Bu Jin black belt (one of those really wide ones) that she bought from Ikeda sensei at Summer Camp; it'll be interesting wearing a totally crisp belt, and I'll have to see how it feels to have a different sized belt underneath my hakama obi.

Andrea, one of the new shodan students, held a party at her house that night at 7pm. Almost all of the candidates and many of the uke were present as well as Wendy sensei and George sensei. We had a nice potluck dinner, danced a bit, and had some good conversations. I ended up staying over at a friend's house in San Rafael so I didn't have to drive all the way home.

All in all, it was a pretty good day.

PS: I wish to thank all of my uke who came up for me during my test: Justin, Jeff, Monica, Chris, Suzanne, Jim, and Patricia. Also, my thanks goes out to my friends who came out to see my test, including Janet, Michael, Seth, Mark, Dorian, Wayne, and Erik. Lastly, special thanks from my heart goes out to Ti for being there for me.

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