|Shudokan Dojo, Osaka, Japan. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.
Last November I took a rank test in All Japan Kendo Federation Jodo. Getting ready for my test in November I spent a week in Osaka training several hours every day with my teachers. I didn’t know if I was ready for the test or not, but a week before the big day we started daily practice. By the end of the week I felt like I might have an outside chance of passing. Matsuda Shihan, Morimoto Shihan, Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei had all worked hard to drag me up to the level needed to pass the exam.
The test was held at the Shudokan Dojo on the grounds of Osaka Castle. The dojo was reserved for the testing for the whole day. My friend Bijan and I got there early, but we still didn’t beat Iseki Sensei. He was waiting for us when we arrived. We registered, found a spot to put our gear and then got changed. There were a lot of people testing, including 12 for 4th dan and 5 for 5th dan. We started warming up and practicing on the floor where the test would be just to get used to the space and hopefully calm down a little.
As time passed before the test more and more people, both test takers and spectators, arrived. Bijan and I had lots of support. Iseki Sensei and our training partner Fujita San was there. My friend Tadokoro Sensei came to cheer me on. I was surprised and honored that Fukuma Sensei came as well. At 90 years of age, he is still strong and active and training jodo regularly. Everyone seemed to have at least a few supporters.
The test committee consisted of five 7th dan teachers. To pass the test, you had to get a passing mark from at least 3 of the 5. There would be 2 pairs demonstrating at a time in front of the judges. Each person had to demonstrate both the tachi and jo sides of 5 kata with randomly selected partners. The five kata required were different for each rank being tested for, but they had been announced months before the test, so there was plenty of time to prepare.
The test takers were called to line up by rank, and we were issued numbers to wear so the judges could identify us. The numbering also let us figure out who our partners would be for demonstrating the tachi and jo sides of the test. My partner for the demonstrating the tachi side was a tall gentleman about my size and age. Fo demonstrating the jo side, I was partnered with a small women who appeared a few years older than me. Once we figured out who we would be partnered with for each demonstration we grabbed our partners and started practicing together to get comfortable with each other.
The tall gentleman and I adjusted to each other without too much trouble. We had similar reach and power. We ran through the kata so he could get used to me as his tachi and I could adjust to his jo. The lady and I didn’t mesh as well. I was having trouble shrinking my technique to fit her, and she was having difficulty adapting to my stride. We kept at it though and started making progress towards working well together.
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While we were doing that, apparently the judges and organizers were watching us, because at some point one of the organizers pulled us aside and told us they were changing the partnering a little. The lady got paired with someone closer to her size, and I was partnered with someone closer to mine. The rule is that you take whoever they give you as a partner, but it seems they didn’t want to make adjusting to your partner too large a hurdle.
My new partner was a bit smaller than I, but quite a bit larger than the lady I had been working with. My now former partner seemed relieved not to have to work with me, and I’ll admit I was glad to work with someone who was easy to adapt myself to. We started practicing right away because there wasn’t much time before the testing began.
Not long after this we were called to order again, and the testing began. It started with the lowest rank being tested that day, ikkyu, and would finish with the 5th dan testing. This meant I got to see everyone else test before my turn arrived.The ikkyu candidates demonstrated kihon techniques and the their designated kata. Then the shodan candidates did their designated 5 kata, both jo side and tachi side. Then all the nidan candidates.
I kept looking at the clock and wondering how we would get everything done by lunchtime. I’m sure my friends could all tell my mental state by how frequently I looked up at the clock. Bijan and I were both eager to take our tests and be done. I’m sure my blood pressure went up steadily while other people took their tests and the hands on the clock sped around.
The sandan candidates filed onto the floor, two pairs at a time at a time, and demonstrated their designated 5 kata. Then the head tachiai, the person calling out the directions for the testing called a break for lunch. I really wanted to get this over with, and now we had a hour for lunch. Because Shudokan Dojo is on the grounds of Osaka Castle, there are yakisoba and takoyaki stands next to it serving all the tourists. Those of us who had not packed hearty lunches, like me and Bijan, bought some yakisoba noodles or takoyaki squid balls and headed over to one of the castle walls where our friends and teachers and fellow dan challengers were gathered eating and sharing treats with each other.
We sat down with everyone and somehow started to relax. It was refreshing to be out of the dojo and not counting down the people ahead of us who had yet to test. For those who think that traditional Japanese budo teachers have to be tough and stoic and never smile, this would have been a shock. All our teachers and friends had brought extra treats to pass around, and everyone was laughing and joking. When the cameras came out, the smiles got wider and and laughter got louder. I’d needed this more than I knew. I’m sure I had wound myself tight watching everyone test all through the morning. The smiles and laughter gently eased a lot of the tension out of me.
After lunch it was just the 4th dan and 5th dan tests. There were twelve 4th dan candidates in 3 groups and five 5th dan candidates separated into 2 groups. When the testing started back up, they called all the 4th and 5th dan candidates together. While the 4th dan candidates lined up and walked to the test area, the 5th dan candidates lined up and sat in chairs directly in front of the test floor facing the judges on the other side of it. From here we had a great view of the 4th dan tests, though I admit I don’t remember much of what I saw at this point. I was cycling through the 5 kata that were designated for my test. The 5th dan test consisted of the ZNKR Jo Kata 8-12.
As the 4th dan challengers finished up, they moved us to ready chairs next to right of the test floor. I was the youngest in my group, so I was up first. This meant I would demonstrate tachi and then cycle around to do the jo. My partner for this portion of the test and I walked out onto the floor as we had been instructed, arranged our extra weapons at the side and waited for the direction to begin. The first kata, Tachi Otoshi, went well I seem to recall. The opening for the next kata I very nearly blew. To be sure I did the right kata in the right order I was focusing on the initial attack, which is a cut to the upper arm. I was launching straight into the attack when I realized I hadn’t done the awase with the jo yet. Somehow I managed to turn the premature attack into a simple matching with the jo, though I don’t believe anyone missed it what had actually happened. I’m very sure the judges all caught it.
After that big hiccup the kata went smoothly. At least, I don’t remember any other major stumbles, though there were a few minor errors of timing and spacing. Being that my partner and I had done the kata together for the first time that morning, I’m not surprised. We even got through all of Ran Ai without any mishaps. If there is a kata where things will go wrong, Ran Ai is it. It’s several times longer than any other kata in the ZNKR syllabus, providing plenty of chances for me to screw up. Somehow, I didn’t.
My partner and I finished and waited for the tachiai’s direction to leave the floor. I carefully left as we had been taught, and picked up my jo while my partner exchanged his jo for a tachi so he could do the tachi role with the next candidate. Doing those 5 kata at that level of intensity had left me flushed, sweating and breathing hard. I worked at getting my breathing and my mind calm and relaxed. Since I wouldn’t need it again, I put my tachi down at the corner of the mat and circled back around the test floor to chairs on the right where candidates waited until it was their turn to demonstrate. I set down and watched the next couple of demonstrations, but I don’t remember anything except that the head judge looked terribly severe.
Then it was finally my turn to demonstrate the jo side. I tried to walk out with presence and dignity. At the very least I managed to not trip over my hakama. The tachiai called out the commands to begin. My tachi partner raised his sword, and I held my position in tsune no kamae. I waited for tachi to approach and when he came in range I began my movements. I’d go into more detail, but I think I was too busy testing to remember much. I do recall being shocked to realize while doing the zanshin on our second kata that everyone in the room was watching us. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but this was the very last test segment of the day, and the other group of challenging for 5th dan had already finished. There was nothing else to do but watch us. Somehow I made it through the last 3 kata without any significant hiccups, even with the realization that so many people whom I look up to were watching.
We finally finished the last cut and strike of Ran AI, managed our bows and exited the floor, again, without tripping over my hakama or my feet. It wasn’t a perfect test, but nobody looked like I had embarrassed them, and no one tried to offer me condolences, so I figured it was ok. Pass or fail, I had already accomplished my real goal, which was to not embarrass my teachers with a weak test.
All the test challengers changed out of their hakama and got drinks. We sat around chatting and discussing the test conditions while the judges went off to discuss the tests behind closed doors. After a week of intensive preparation it was a relief to be done and not have to think about it for a while. Even if I didn’t pass, it would be 6 months before I could try again.
Eventually the judges finished their meeting and posted the results. Somehow I had managed to present an acceptable demonstration, and the judges passed me. I was so relieved and excited it took me moment to remember to check to see if Bijan had passed as well. He had! All our sweat and sore muscles for the past week paid off in wonderful exhaustion. After receiving congratulations from everyone who had helped us prepare, and all our friends who had come to cheer us on, we hurried over to the officials’ desk to take care of the registration paperwork. All that was left was to wait for the official rank certificates to be issued and mailed to us.
Now it was time for the best part of the day. Everyone we had come with gathered at a nearby restaurant and we celebrated.
A couple of weeks ago, I repeated the experience. I was in Pennsylvania for the AUSKF Jodo Shinsa. I arrived a few days before the shinsa so I could prepare myself. The day before the shinsa the group of us who were taking part all gathered together so we could review things and make sure we were all on the same page. We spent the day reviewing the kata together and preparing ourselves.
The next morning we got up and spend more time running through the kata and getting ready. Before the test we reviewed the test procedures; the proper way to bow, the proper way to enter, and how to present ourselves with dignity. Then it was time for the actual test.
We bowed in, walked onto the floor and took our places. The test went smoothly. I didn’t hyperventilate, or trip over myself or otherwise make myself look like a fool. There was one significant difference between this test and the one I had passed in November. This time I was judging the tests. It felt almost the same though.