Why do we bother with them? Why does a non competitive martial art continue to use gradings and their reward, a promotion followed by a certificate as a measure of achievement? It doesn’t take much effort to realise that there is a massive disparity in quality between one person and another. It seems not all Dan grades are created equal and some Dan grades are possibly more equal than others. I have heard many individuals within their respective organisations get quite worked up as to why certain people have been handed a particular rank, whether it be a Shodan or Godan or higher. Many feel aggrieved that “so and so is now this rank” while “I should have been given that first” or that “so and so simply doesn’t deserve it.” It is no secret that if you play your cards right within the main established structures like the Aikikai and their affiliates that you will likely work your way up the grading system and achieve high ranking status. Does having gained such status necessarily indicate understanding and quality I wonder? Some undoubtedly are but many others? Once more the arguments within these groups suggests that there is as much dissatisfaction about gradings and who deserve them as there are happy campers who just take it as it comes. There is a decline in the quality of Aikido and how gradings are used and gained has undoubtedly, I believe, contributed towards this.
From a personal point of view I have had a varied history in my own travails concerning gradings. My training began outside the “formal” organisations and I had attained 2nd dan in Aikido prior to joining Chiba Sensei in San Diego. That status was questioned by Chiba Sensei soon after my arrival in 1985. “What did I get and from whom?” He asked. I quickly replied “Alan Beecham promoted me.” “By what authority?” he continued. I smiled and took pleasure in saying “His authority!” After some mulling around he came out with it, “I recognise your Shodan but not your Nidan”, quickly followed by “It’s not your teachers fault regarding your gradings.” I wondered whatever fault was that? So I had just been demoted to a 1st dan and had to accept this if I wanted to make any headway with him. I didn’t really have much time or thought to decide if this was unfair or unjustified. I had recognised his authority immediately, he was the master teacher in his own dojo and it was obvious he was using that authority right now. There was so much going on for me to adjust to at that time so I just went with it, rolled with it. I could have said no but it didn’t seem worth the effort and besides if I didn’t like it and it bothered me that much I could always leave. Instead by accepting this I would get a lot of attention.
It was 2 years later in Santa Cruz and in front of over 200 people when I would skip a grade and go for my 3rd Dan. Joining me were Yahe Solomon, Mike Flynn and a student from the Berkeley dojo, Bob Street. Shibata Sensei from Hombu dojo was a guest teacher, Yamada Sensei from NYC was also visiting with some of his senior students to pay his respects to the guest of honour, Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei, the head of the Aikikai. He was accompanied by Yokota Sensei a contemporary of Shibata, who would assist the Doshu. All in all a big deal. I passed with the teaching committee, together with Chiba Sensei throwing praises all over the place. I wasn’t particularly happy or unhappy about this. If anything I was just relieved that it was all over. The pressure and expectation had been immense, the spotlight intense and yet it could not compare with what Yahe was dealing with. As the Uchi Deshi and also being the youngest there would place more on him than most could handle.
In the British Summer Camp of 1988 gradings were held all the way up to 3rd or 4th Dan. After the usual meetings with the teaching committee, Chiba Sensei happened to pass by the student dorms where we spotted each other. He came over and wanted to know what I thought of the gradings that had taken place earlier that day. I didn’t hold back and said what I thought to be true, which was that no one showed any understanding of what was required. When asked if I would pass anyone, I said no. The next day I would deliver the same message to the teaching committee itself, a request made by Chiba Sensei. It was not well received, the argument being that comparing these students to the standard set by Chiba Sensei was unfair. I thought this a moot point as what I saw was a patchwork of poorly executed moves that showed little understanding. Chiba Sensei agreed.
Eventually I would be promoted to 4th Dan in 1990 when I was formally accepted into the teacher training program as an Uchi Deshi. It would turn out that it would be the last, with no more gradings or ranking handed to me over the following years. Since then I have seen many students start their training, gain promotions and ultimately go past me. Some even to the status of Shihan or purportedly, mastery. Personally the gradings in themselves hold little value to me and the titles less so. Then there is the cost to register these which is not good for Aikido and something that undoubtedly the Covid pandemic will highlight. I have been asked by several people why I don’t join the main groups and get the “rank I am worth?” At least from a business point of view it would make sense, wouldn’t it? The argument would go that presumably people interested in training would see the higher rank and gravitate to you rather than a lesser rank. Except that most or at least many of the 6th Dans I know are not getting much in the way of foot traffic and so that reasoning is incorrect. The world has changed and with the advent of Google, YouTube and Social Media Aikido has not done well it seems. One thing is for sure, a 6th Dan or whatever Dan no longer carries with it the weight conferred to it. The only real time I thought of it was for my own students. It would allow them to work their way up and get recognition when they go to seminars or if they should set up their own dojos one day. To this I concluded that if you cannot assess someones quality without documentation then you cannot assess quality. No piece of paper will ever indicate how well someone has trained. We and I mean all of us have to be sincere in how we see ourselves and others.
To highlight this point, it was in the mid 90’s and I was teaching in Shinmeikan in west London when Juba Nour visited me while touring Europe. Juba was Chiba Sensei’s first Uchi Deshi from the early 80’s. He had just resigned from his dojo in New Haven, a dojo he ran full time for 10 years. He asked to join in a class one evening which I agreed to but mentioned that I had no spare hakama for him to wear. During the class his nature was to turn on the juice. On the mat he is ON, his amplifier set to 10 with no dial from 1-9. A great spirit and talent. The people there however, saw him as a rough junior and treated him that way, to sort him out for his “attitude.” The senior teacher training that day decided to reign him in. The teacher and the other Dan grades instead got roasted for their effort. Later I explained that he was one of my juniors from my Albuquerque days with a lot to learn. The pretence ended when one of the established members had arrived for the next class and recognised him. Many had heard of him through the Aikido grapevine and his power started to make sense. A naughty prank on our part one could argue but it exposed the inadequacies of the ranking system. Not even the seniors saw Juba for what he was. They saw a man with no hakama, a white belt, a junior. So they asserted themselves in a way that they wouldn’t if he was a Dan grade but they underestimated him and over estimated themselves. This isn’t unusual. Surely we have to cultivate an “eye” for this and recognise what a visitor, a new student or a beginner brings into a room?
From time to time I still ask what the meaning of gradings are? What is their purpose or how can they be used positively? I could have stopped using them many years ago and almost did. Looking at Yoga and dancers, seeing people who were every bit as dedicated to their activities, yet they have no rank. There is none, there is “just” practice. Ultimately I chose to keep grading. They were great tools to be used effectively but not for the sake of it. Regular training takes precedence and as a student approaches a particular level the time to grade arrives with it. As a teacher I have already a good idea where a student stands. The grade itself has many purposes. It puts the student on the spot, in front of their training colleagues or during a seminar and exposes them. We don’t have competition in Aikido, no contests that put you in that type of position. So we need tools to help create a challenge. It is good for dojo morale. It shows juniors what they have to rise up to and their seniors that they are working effectively together. Failing a grade can sometimes be more effective for someone’s development than passing them. In the end they represent a flag post, a milestone along the way.