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What does Shodan mean?

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The literal translation of the Japanese word “Shodan” (初段) is “first level”. In Aikido this corresponds with the point when you receive your black belt (and hakama for men in Aikikai). The real question is “what level of ability does Shodan represent”, which is a much harder question that I certainly do not profess to have the answer. However I find myself contemplating this subject as I am faced with the possibility that I may be allowed to take a grading test for Shodan at Aikikai Hombu Dojo in just under 5 weeks (see Update below). Here are some of my thoughts about what Shodan means to me, and whether I should take the Shodan test, which is a much harder decision than I would have expected.

Shodan = Black belt

For me the words “black belt” conjure up the image of an “old master”. I think this probably stems from my childhood. I didn’t do martial arts as a kid, but I remember wanting to try karate after watching The Karate Kid (I was 10 when it came out). My image of a black belt is basically Mr Miyagi!

‘Pat Morita as Mr Miyagi in Karate Kid (photo courtesy of wikipedia)’

I have since come to know that in aikido, and in many martial arts, there are many “levels” of black belt (typically from 1 up to 9). Shodan (初段) is literally the “first level”, and thus you are very far indeed from being a master. In fact, I’ve heard it said that once you reach “Shodan” you are finally ready to start learning! But where do you draw the line?

What level am I?

It’s hard to classify a level of aikido, but I would describe it as follows.

I started aikido in Tokyo in August 2008, so February will be 2 ½ years. Over that time I guess I have averaged about 3.5 hours per week (I averaged just under 4.5 hours per week in 2010, but I was training more than when I started). So that would put me at roughly 400 – 450 hours of class time. Is that really enough to qualify for Shodan? I seems quite low to me. It certainly depends on the individual, and while I’m not too old (36) and in reasonable shape, and I’d love to think that I’m better than average for my amount of experience, it’s safe to say I’m not especially talented at aikido.

I think I have a reasonable “knowledge” of the basic techniques required for Shodan – I can perform the techniques when the teacher calls the name, and believe I generally perform the techniques “correctly” (i.e. I don’t move the wrong foot, or in the wrong direction). In fact I know multiple variations for many of the basic techniques (e.g. I can demonstrate at least 3 variations of katatedori shihonage omote, based on different teacher’s styles). There are definitely techniques I’m not good at, and most weeks I still see techniques that are new to me, but those are almost always advanced techniques outside the scope of the Shodan test.

However, is that the only measure of Shodan – whether you know the techniques? I don’t think it is, or at least, I don’t think that it should be.

What about jiyuwaza, which is also on the grading test? I know I need to work on this a bit. I’m at the stage now where I no longer freeze up, but the number of techniques I know is not large and sometimes I can’t recall all of them mid-practice, so I tend to repeat techniques. This is natural I think, and something that should improve with more practice.

Are my techniques any good? That’s much harder to gauge. I find a massive difference in whether my technique feels good (at least to me) or not good, depending on my uke. In particular I often struggle when working with beginners (e.g. 4th or 5th kyuu), and with more advanced students. A lot of the time with beginners I feel like my technique is not causing them to move in the correct way, so I feel like I have to “force” them, which I don’t think I should really have to do (and am not willing to do because I don’t want to cause any injury). I know they don’t know the techniques, but IMO there’s something wrong with my technique if they aren’t “compelled” to move correctly. With advanced students or teachers I get the feeling that my technique is only “working” because my uke is co-operating with me. Again, I understand that this is part of aikido, and there has to be a certain amount of cooperation, but when I am faced with a “strong” uke my technique often breaks down.

Overall I would say that while I “know” most of the techniques required for Shodan, I often get the feeling there is something “not-quite-right” about my technique, and usually I’m not sure what I should do to fix it. There are certainly times when this is due to my timing and/or ma-ai being slightly off. But I suspect the real issue is that I don’t really know how to break uke’s balance (especially with a really hard or soft uke). More specifically, I think it’s because I often can’t tell whether I’ve broken their balance or not, let alone feel the point at which it breaks, so it’s hard for me to learn to consistently break the uke’s balance.

The positive side of this is that I’m mostly past the point of simply memorizing the techniques (i.e. the sequence of movements), now I have to learn how to do the techniques well, and to some extent learn how to feel the techniques, as well as trying to understand the principles behind the techniques. I still have a long way to go, but I can at least see some of the progress I’ve made.

Is that acceptable for someone who is Shodan? I don’t know.

What standard of Shodan?

Each aikido organisation must define it’s standard for grades, including Shodan. But there is quite a bit of variation, even within Aikikai. There are some interesting issues with testing for Shodan at Hombu Dojo in Tokyo.

Firstly, it is very possible that the teacher grading the test has never met or even seen the student taking the test. There are about 20 Shihan that teach regularly at Hombu, but most only take one or two classes a week. Even if you happen to regularly attend the classes of the particular teacher grading your exam (usually the senior teachers), most classes are attended by so many students that it’s not really possible for teachers to get to know individual students very well. Thankfully I have been lucky to take the “aikido gakko”, which have smaller classes, so my school teachers know me and are well-placed to judge my ability.

Ukemi is not an actual requirement of the test. I happen to think that ukemi is an extremely important part of aikido. Shodan candidates at Hombu will often be called up as uke for students taking kyuu tests on the same day, but it’s possible some students aren’t called up, so some students will pass the Shodan test without demonstrating any ukemi skills at all (remember the teacher may not have ever seen the student). Again, thankfully my teachers are well-placed to judge my ability to take ukemi (in fact I often take ukemi for the teachers).

The Shodan test at Hombu is generally only around 15 minutes, which isn’t super demanding physically.

There’s the stuff that’s just not taught at Hombu. There’s randori – this is only introduced at the 2nd dan level, but even then it’s only 2 people. I have zero experience with randori. There are also weapons techniques, or rather the complete lack of them. In some schools there is just as much to learn for the weapons techniques as the unarmed techniques (e.g. Iwama style). And tobiukemi (breakfalls) aren’t taught at Hombu at all, so most students won’t be able to do those. What happens when a black-belt from Hombu Dojo shows up at another dojo or seminar, and can’t do any weapons techniques, can’t do randori, and can’t take breakfalls? While I currently have no means of learning weapons or randori, I have actually started training one night a week at another of the aikikai dojos in the hope of learning tobiukemi (with some limited progress so far).

Finally, there just the number of days required between gradings. At Hombu it’s 70 days training since 1st Kyuu.  At many dojos the requirement is higher, and in some there is even a minimum time-period, often 1 year. By the date of my potential test I expect to have trained about 100 days. I would have liked it to be more though.

It sounds almost sacrilegious, but I believe black-belt test at Hombu is actually easier to pass than at a many other dojos. However I suppose I shouldn’t really be worried about that so much. I’m training at Hombu Dojo so I should pay attention to the requirements that Hombu Dojo have set.

An unexpected opportunity

When signing up for the “advanced gakko” I had assumed I would only be able to take the test after a full year, not a single semester. Six months between getting 1st Kyuu and Shodan just seems too fast (even training 4 or 5 days a week), and had figured it would be about a year before I could take the test.

However towards the end of last year there was talk amongst the students of my gakko class about who would sit for the Shodan test. A couple of my sempai started encouraging me, saying that if I had the opportunity to take the test I should. Somewhere along the line I started seriously considering it, and it seems so did quite a few of the other students taking the class for the first time.

To be honest I still think I would be much better off with another 3 to 6 months of training before taking the test. What’s the hurry after all? Shodan is just the first step on, hopefully, a long and very interesting journey. It’s just one arbitrary grading, albeit one with very visible results. What matters is to keep training, and keep improving. Years from now it’s not going to matter if I got my Shodan after 2.5 years or after 3 years (which is still quite quick IMO).

So why even consider taking the test?

I have reasons for wanting to take the test in February.

Gakko – I would get to take the test with my fellow students (and friends), a couple of whom I’ve been training with since October 2008 when we entered Aikido Beginners Gakko together. I would also have the privilege of having one of my sempai from the class as my uke. And finally, assuming I passed, I would receive my Shodan from my Gakko teachers (Katsurada Sensei 6th Dan and Kobayashi Sensei 7th Dan) whom I admire and greatly respect. I’m not sure I’ll be able to take the gakko again next semester, so this may be my only chance.

Ego – I realise I should let go of this, but I desperately want to wear that black belt and hakama. I want to be able to train on the 3rd floor of Hombu Dojo without feeling like everyone’s avoiding me because they don’t want to partner up with the white-belt beginner (I’m sure this is mostly my imagination, most people are great partners). I want to be able to train when the teacher restricts the techniques to black-belts only.

Why The Heck Not – if the teachers agree to let me take the test, why not take it? If I’m not ready then I would hope they’d either tell me not to take the test, or fail me!

So will I take the test?

If I can’t take the test, then so be it, but I think that if I am given the opportunity then I will take it. Either way I will keep training!

Update: I took the test on 18th February, 2011.