On 18th February 2011 I took my test for shodan (初段 – black belt) at Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. I took the test along with 8 other people at the end of the winter semester of the ‘Aikido Advanced Gakko’ (合気道学校上級課程). The test was overseen by Katsurada Eiji Shihan (桂田英路師範 6th Dan), and Kobayashi Yukimistu Shihan (小林幸光師範 7th Dan). On 25th February 2011 I received my shodan certificate from the Doshu Ueshiba Moriteru.
‘Wearing my black belt and hakama to training for the first time’
As I wrote in my previous post What does shodan mean?, I had some reservations about taking the test, but I’d been training 4-5 times a week since August last year as preparation anyway. For the month before the test I increased that to 5-6 days a week. The official requirement for the shodan test is 70 days training after 1st Kyuu, and by the time my test arrived I had reached 106 days. I would have liked it to be higher.
My only experience with shodan tests before my own was watching the December 2010 grading at Hombu Dojo. In my previous Kyuu tests for the Aikido Beginners Gakko and Aikido Intermediate Gakko we had been given a list of the techniques we were required to perform, but for the shodan test we were not given a list. Instead we were expected to do be able to do any technique that the teacher called out. Like the “regular” test ours would be in two parts. In the first part the teacher calls a technique, for which we are expected to perform omote (left and right), and then ura (left and right), repeating until the next technique is called or we are told to stop. The second part is jiyuwaza (自由技 – free technique), where the teacher calls one of the possible “attacks” (片手取り, 両手取り, 諸手取り, 正面打ち, 横面打ち, 後ろ両手取り) and you are expected to perform a variety of techniques, preferably without repetition.
I didn’t really have a good strategy for passing the first part of the test. I probably should have been diligently working my way through the Aikikai text book to make sure I studied all the techniques, but for some reason I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. My approach, which I knew had the potential to backfire badly, was just to train as much as possible, and if I didn’t know the techniques by the time I took the test then I would fail!
On the other hand, I did end up with a clear strategy for my jiyuwaza, although it took a while to develop. Following advice I’d received when taking my 2nd Kyuu test about a year earlier, I started by making a list of the techniques I would do. Initially I just listed the techniques I knew for each attack. The lists were quite different depending on the attack, and most of them only had about 4 or 5 techniques (I’d covered the “grasping” attacks for my 2nd Kyuu and 1st Kyuu tests so they were a bit longer). The first few times I practiced jiyuwaza for the “strike” attacks were a disaster. I could only recall a handfull of techniques, so I’d freeze up quite often while thinking of the next technique I could do. After a few attempts I got slightly better, but still far short of what I would call acceptable. This was obviously my weak-point, and I knew I had to do a lot of work before the test.
I started fleshing out the lists with techniques as I covered them during classes, and at the same time tried to make the lists more consistent. I found that I had often grouped techniques together in pairs, and extending this idea made the lists easier to remember. Even though it would make it harder, I decided that I wanted to do each basic technique only once (no variations), hoping that I could show more diverse techniques. Even with only a week to go before my test I was still quite unhappy with my jiyuwaza, I could only seem to remember the first half a dozen techniques from my list. As the test approached I spent more time doing “image training” – running through the list in my head.
Both the ‘advanced gakko’ teachers had a huge influence on my approach to jiyuwaza. I was deeply inspired by the videos of Kobayashi Sensei’s embu demonstrations, which I’ve watched many many times, so much so that I decided to start with the same sequence of techniques that he often uses in demonstrations. I was also strongly influenced by Katsurada Sensei’s approach to jiyuwaza, which he demonstrated to us in the weeks before the test – no hanging back waiting for uke to come, be “assertive” (for example, for katatedori clearly “offer” your hand to be taken by the uke).
‘With my teachers Katsurada Shihan (left) and Kobayashi Shihan (right) after the test.’
Training in aikido is not really possible without a partner, and I owe thanks to all the people I trained with leading up to the test, but two people in particular.
The first is Sonobe san, who very kindly agreed to be my uke for the test, even though it meant he would be uke for three people. Sonobe san’s ukemi is outstanding, and training with him is a real pleasure. Sonobe san also made a special effort to train with me in some of the 3rd floor classes Hombu Dojo in the weeks leading up to the test. 園部さん、本当にありがとうございました。
The second person is Nakano san, who also took the shodan test. Sonobe san was her uke as well, so by asking Sonobe san to be my uke I took away some of her practice time with him. In addition, I was very fortunate to train with Nakano san a lot in the weeks leading up to the test, especially practicing our jiyuwaza. I’ve been training with Nakano san since beginners gakko, and her ukemi is superb. She has clearly been the outstanding student in the gakko classes, and it’s always great to train with her. 中野さん、本当にありがとうございました。
‘With Nakano san (left) and Sonobe san (center).’
The day of the test
I arrived at the dojo about an hour before the class was scheduled. I was the first of my classmates to arrive, which surprised me. It was quite cold, about 12 or 13 degrees I think, so I started warming up straight away. It was actually nice to be there alone, although I was a little too tense to really enjoy it much. A couple of the other students taking the test were the next to arrive about 15 minutes later, and we discussed how we were feeling about the test. Other students gradually filtered in and people started practicing, the dojo returned to it’s normal lively state.
The teachers arrived at 6:30pm (the normal class start time), and we were informed we would have about 25 minutes of “free practice”, and the test would start at 7pm. The test would be taken in 3 groups of 3 people (jiyu waza would be performed individually). When the groups were announced I was the first name called. I was actually quite happy about that, mainly because I wouldn’t have to sit in seiza for 20 or 40 minutes before taking my test! I took one last opportunity to go through some techniques with Nakano san.
The test part 1 – techniques
Just before 7pm we were instructed to move to the rear of the class. With little-a-do, myself and the other 2 people in the first group were called to take out places out front, closely followed by our ukes. After bowing to shomen and our uke it was straight into the first part of the test.
I remember parts of the test quite clearly, but overall it’s a bit like trying to remember a dream. Mostly I remember my mistakes, of which there were quite a few, but thankfully mostly minor. My worst mistake by far was when I did only omote for yokomenuchi shihonage. I can very clearly remember Katsurada Sensei’s voice; “パーカーさん、裏もやってください！” (Mr. Parker, please do ura as well). I felt so embarrassed (恥ずかしかった！), but quickly changed to ura. Thankfully I had no time to dwell on it as we quickly moved on to the next technique.
The first part of the test went for approximately 10-12 minutes. The following is a rough list of the techniques from my test, as best as I could recall about 6 hours after the test (I couldn’t sleep). There may be some techniques missing, but I believe it’s fairly accurate (I’m not so sure about the order though).
|suwariwaza shomenuchi ikkyo
|suwariwaza katadori nikkyo
|suwariwaza shomenuchi sankyo
|suwariwaza shomenuchi yonkyo
|hanmihandachi katatedori shihonage
|hanmihandachi ryoutedori shihonage
Note: The second and third group of students performed roughly the same set of techniques, however there were some small differences. They were both were asked to perform ryotedori ikkyoinstead of morotedori ikkyo, and at least one group was asked to perform yokomen uchi ikkyo.
Looking back at it, the list of techniques was roughly what I expected (ikkyo through yonkyo in both suwariwaza and tachiwaza, gokyo, hanmihandachi, and a few others taken from a mix), and concentrated on the kihon (基本 – foundation) waza. I expected more ushiro ryote techniques, given how much time we’d spent on them during the gakko classes, but I was thankful that there weren’t many!
The test part 2 – jiyuwaza
Following on from the main technique part, it was time for jiyuwaza, and I was first-up.
Katsurada Sensei called shomen uchi (正面打ち), which was one of the attacks I’d concentrated on the most. I managed to remember the order of my techniques, and I tried my best to be assertive. I messed up the start of my kotegaeshi, entering too deeply and without a proper tenkan, so I had to adjust mid-technique which probably looked terrible, but the other techniques went smoother. To my surprise Sensei called 止め (yame – stop) after just 6 techniques.
Next up Sensei called katatedori (片手取り), which was the other attack I’d concentrated on. It really seemed like my lucky day. Once again I tried to be assertive, almost to the point where it felt like I was chasing my uke around the room! This time I got through about 10 techniques before the call to stop.
Then I was told to take my place with the other students and the next candidate was called to perform jiyuwaza. I couldn’t believe it my test was over!
The other candidates
After my test I got to watch the jiyuwaza from the other 2 people in my group, and then the entire test for the remaining 2 groups (6 people). It was great to watch, and everyone seemed to do quite well, especially for the first part of the test.
‘With five of the other shodan candidates (25th Feb, after graduation).’
Special mention goes to Takeshita san, who had suffered an injury to her ribs about 4 weeks before the test, and was unable to train for most of the lead-up. Despite the fact that she was still in pain during the test she battled throug, and did a great job. Very inspiring.
‘Takeshita san with her uke Watanabe san.’
The jiyuwaza seemed like the hardest part of the test for everyone, I wasn’t alone there. Katsurada Sensei asked the second group to perform yokomen uchi jiyuwaza instead of shomen uchi jiyuwaza. Nakano san, who was first up in that group, handled it quite well given how unexpected it must have been. One candidate in the last group was so nervous that even though the first attack was shomen uchi he kept lining up in gyaku hanmi, which obviously made the techniques difficult, and you could see him trying to figure out what was going wrong. After a short time Katsurada Sensei told him to stop, saying to move on to katatedori, and that he would come back to shomen uchi after that. Thankfully the katatedori jiyuwaza went okay for the candidate, he calmed down a bit and his second attempt at shomen uchi jiyuwaza, this time from ai hanmi, was much better.
The ukes all did a great job. Sonobe san was amazing. It must have been tough taking ukemi for 3 shodan tests in a row but yet he made it look easy.
After the test
We were asked to take our places at the rear of the dojo, and the teachers excused themselves from the room. After a few minutes they returned, and announced that all 9 candidates had passed the test!
‘With my uke for the test, Sonobe san.’
That evening was also the dinner for the end of the Advanced Gakko semester, so we left the dojo quite quickly and headed to the restaurant. It was a great night, lots of fun.
We received our black belts the following week, as a gift from the other students in the Advanced Gakko.
‘With Nakano san after receiving our black belts.’
The graduation ceremony for the ‘advanced gakko’ was held one week later, we received our Shodan certificates from the Doshu Ueshiba Moriteru and officially became yudansha (有段者 – a person with a dan grade).
‘Class graduation photo with the Doshu.’
Reaching black-belt is truly just a beginning in aikido. I know I have a long long way to go, but it’s nice to feel like I have at least made a start. Now back to training…