In This Issue, we explore the differences between the various
Martial art styles' Black-belt Gradings and discover what it really means to be
a Black-belt. This issues we talk to Michael Field Sensei (5th Dan Iwama Ryu
Aikido and 5th Dan Aikikai, Headmaster of Iwama Ryu Aikido Australia) and some
of the Black-belts at his Field Aikido Centre in Melbourne.
Where does the Field Aikido syllabus come from and
who designed it?
Field Sensei: The 1st and
2nd Degree Black-belt tests are in the main what my teacher Morihiro Saito
Sensei conducted in Morihei Ueshiba (the founder's) Iwama Dojo in Japan. The
pre-Black-belt Kyu grade tests have been structured by me. The self-defence
techniques assessed are the traditional Iwama Ryu
What does your Black-belt grading involve and How long does it
Field Sensei: It goes for 30 minutes, maximum. If it takes any longer, this shows the
examinee is not properly prepared and they will be instructed to show what they
can do after another six months of training. The examiners have choices, by
which within 30 minutes they can firmly establish whether the examinee has
reached the required level.
The Bujutsu test is (to summarise) to defend
against three attacks using all of the major super-categories of Aikido. The
three attacks vary from category to category, with both the examiner and
examinee having choices. To demonstrate proficiency at Ukemi (falling, the
student must be able to take 'flying ukemi' to all the major categories of
technique. The student must disarm knife, sword and staff attacks. The examinee
must be able to defend against two attackers for a few minutes, producing six
different and well executed Aikido techniques.
earn a Black-belt from our organisation it is not possible without completing
all elements of the process. Along the way, the syllabus is revealed and drilled
into the student. Gradings are a tool the instructors use to comprehend how well
the student is taking it in. We don't give our students a written syllabus. When
a student receives an Iwama Ryu Aikido Australia 4th Dan from me, I am
acknowledging that they have mastered the entire curriculum taught to me by my
master Saito Sensei.
Are injuries common in the grading?
Over the past 20 years,
we have had only one bad injury and that student had been carrying that leg
since before commencing Aikido.
Sensei, is your school's Black-belt grading as difficult as was your
Field Sensei: I hope it's the same. Our 1st Degree Black-belt test takes about 30
minutes to complete-enough time in which to show all present that they have
reached the level. The hard work has been done in the preceding years of
training. The test is their opportunity to show all that their instructor's
decision to promote them is correct. Some few choose to self-sabotage; I do not
believe the test is meant to trip them up. It is their opportunity to show what
they can do. Our Dan-tests have plenty of choices for the examiner, so while
they only take 30 minutes, the examinee must be on top of the syllabus or they
What is the success rate among students who attempt the Black-belt
grading and how many do you promote to Black-belt each year?
Sensei: At Field Aikido,
one in 12 Students go through to at least 1st Degree Black-belt.
years, between 10 and 20 students (were promoted). Of course, this number will
grow as the student body grows larger and the years go by. In May 2003, seven
students did our 1st Degree Black-belt test. Of those, five
Could your Black-belt syllabus or training be refined or
Ullana (50, 3rd Dan): Our Sensei is always working towards our
growth and understanding of ourselves and our art and at the moment what we have
keeps everyone sufficiently challenged and inspired.
Lee Lian (19,
1st Dan): I had a set
syllabus for my Black-belt grading, from which my sensei deviated a little bit
on the day. It could easily be done without a set syllabus. I guess that would
force students to ensure they focused on everything taught in class instead of
just what was on the list, knowing that anything could be on the
Field Sensei: I teach weekly classes for Black-belts (1st Degree and above) and another
for instructors (2nd Dan and above). The instructors attend both classes.
Besides these, I teach another seven classes each week. We bring out one or more
top-line international instructors each year. I teach some seminars for others
too. I have books, films, CDs and DVDs of Morihei Ueshiba (Aikido's founder) and
my teacher Morihiro Saito, who spent more time on the mat with the founder than
anyone else (23 years). I was very fortunate to have a lot of time on the mat
with Sensei (more than any other Australian). I believe I am understanding,
executing and teaching their techniques better than before. If I'm right the
results can be seen in my current participating Black-belts. Because I am always
training myself, I believe I am understanding and executing better the
techniques that I learnt from my Sensei.
Can your students become
instructors on completion of their Black-belt?
No! But some are invited
to participate in our Trainee Instructor Course when they near their 2nd Dan
Test. Generally speaking, in Aikido we have a number of Kyu levels
(pre-Black-belt levels) then potentially 10 Dan (Black-belt) grades. The Shodan
(1st Degree) is the first Black-belt. In Japanese, the character Sho is
the same as that used for 'primary' in primary school (sho-gaku). A Shodan to us
means someone who has the skills and attitude to train and practise Aikido
seriously. They can do the basics: They can defend, give powerful attacks, use
the sword and staff, and fare well.
Their bodies have been conditioned by
years of careful training under qualified instruction.
I've never heard of a
Shodan teaching in Japan, but it does happen here. To become an instructor at
Field Aikido you must complete eight kyu grades and 1st and 2nd Degree
Black-belt levels. This will take at least five years.
Can they instruct before
Field Sensei: Over the years, in remote areas, students
of mine who were not Black-belts have started their own dojos so they can
practise. Generally speaking, I've been positively impressed by their efforts.
It's a very difficult path for them, as the instructor cannot give them as much
assistance as those who can train with him day in, day
Does instructor-student contact and further learning slow down after
Black-belt (or instructor) level?
Field Sensei: In our organisation I think it speeds up.
Those instructors I've trained become more emphatic with me and each other. We
are in constant contact on and off the mat. When an instructor takes all their
opportunities to participate and learn, They can progress very well. For example
on the mat they have more opportunity to practise: they teach their own
students; they do Instructor's, Black-belt and Weapons
How often and for how long have you been training before reaching
Black-belt, and is that the norm?
Kyle (26, 2nd Dan): Four Years, three or four times a week.
Twice a week seems to be the norm.
Darren (37, 3rd Dan): Four Years, attempting to maintain two
classes per week. I did go off the rails a couple of times in this period.
Thankfully my Sensei put me back on track.
Ullana: Shodan, Three-and-a-half years; Nidan,
two more years; Sandan, four more years. More or less the norm.
It Should take three
years, given the student does not have injury and other attendance-sapping
Is Black-belt as important milestone as it is generally seen to
Field Sensei: The general public is confused (understandably) as to what it is.
students see some of what we instructors do and decide they want to be able to
do such things too. So becoming a Black-belt is as important as the instructor
has the calibre to make it.
Lee Lian (19, 1st Dan): Personally, no. I feel that the student
should be at a Black-belt level well before the grading. So for me my milestone
came a couple of months before the grading, when I felt my technique had
improved a great deal. That was a personal milestone. The actual grading itself
is more a milestone for everyone else.
Does the grading look mainly
for an indication for correct self-defence outcomes or the spiritual and
disciplinary outcomes of what students have done?
At Field Aikido we
practise all three disciplines of martial training: Bujutsu (the self-defence
techniques); Budo (the skills to make good martial decisions) and Bushin (the
search for self through meditation). The self-defence techniques are the easiest
to assess and can be done on a chosen date. For Budo we can set essays,
speeches, talks, ask questions, get students involved in brainstorming
situations, watch their behaviours over the years and take not of whether or not
the student respects the dojo rules. In Bushin we can provide the students with
meditation techniques and the opportunity in class to practise. Much of what we
do cannot be directly tested at a given place and time. It is an ongoing process
of self-developement for both instructors and students. Often it involves a step
forward followed by a half step back.
What does it mean to be a
Black-belt and what qualities should the grading aim to instil in the
Field Sensei: The journey through the kyu grades along with the Shodan test, in our
programme, at least demonstrates to the student that they are able to undertake
the mental, physical, emotional, and social workload necessary to achieve a
For those who have done nothing equivalent in the past, this is a
definitive achievement. They now know the recipe for successfully achieving
goals; that is, choose well, persist and calmly trust in the result.
Black-belt means that (the student's) instructor knows they are a Black-belt;
that he believes they will not use what he has taught them for poor reasons;
that he expects them to do good and well in life. To live and die with
Kyle: It means
you are dedicated and have a sound knowledge of the basics of
Darren: Responsibility. My training took on a whole different feeling. For so
long I had looked to my seniors for direction and assistance with my training.
Now my role was to continue to look to my seniors guidance but to also try and
provide direction and assistance to my kohai.
Lee Lian: A Black-belt grading should give the
student a sense of achievement and a sense of closure of one part of their
training to take a new step. A Black-belt grading is about showing yourself and
others what you have learnt and have yet to learn.
Did your Black-belt grading
Kyle: Yes, definitely. I'm a lot more confident with myself.
Not really. I was very
proud to have achieved my Black-belt (Shodan) and was pleased that my Sensei was
also happy with my performance as his student.
Lee Lian: It inevitably changes one's place and
role in the Dojo. In a Way, I feel that I have to train better to honour my
rank, but I have felt that way after all my previous gradings. In other words,
my Black-belt grading changed me in the same ways as had all the gradings
Ullana: Every milestone in life changes us, for good or bad. My Black-belt
happened because Sensei said he was ready to grade me. So I trained and trained
some more so I wouldn't fail. I remember getting home after my Shodan test and
falling asleep from a mixture of exhaustion, excitement, celebration, and
absolute amazement that somehow I had succeeded, only to wake up in a momentary
state of panic that I may have dreamt the whole thing and missed my grading
My 2nd Degree Black-belt also happened because my Sensei said he
was ready to grade me. So I trained and trained, but this time I knew I wouldn't
fail if I only concerned myself with how to succeed and trusted in what I'd
learned. I was in a car accident a couple of weeks before grading and couldn't
train up as I'd have liked to, but one of the things I had learnt was how to
persist through difficult times; how to remember who I was and focus on what was
achievable. I was beginning to understand how to be.
My 3rd Degree happened
because my Sensei decided that was what (level) I was. I am somewhere a little
beyond what I was, but have not reached what I will be. As I face the challenges
of the future, I have my life in perspective. I can clearly see my mistakes as I
strive to correct them. This process of growth afforded me through the existence
of my Sensei as he treads his path, and I attempt to follow.
grading difficult? How does it rate among the hardest things you've ever
Shodan was more nerve-racking than anything and was probably the toughest thing
I've ever had to do, but I was very comfortable doing my Nidan; a lot more
Darren: Very difficult. I had taken on challenges before that were either
physically challenging or mentally challenging. This was the first time I had
taken on something that required physical stamina, a calm inner state and the
ability to trust in my Sensei and myself that the outcome would be
is full of challenges, and each grading exemplifies life.
Lee Lian: The grading itself was one of the easiest
things I've ever done. What I found hard was the period leading up to the
grading. Ten months before my grading, I'd just come back to training after a
few months off due to injury and illness. One of the hardest things was coming
back and watching my peers prepare for grading and having a lot of the senior
students expecting me to be at their level. The greatest challenge was
overcoming the rustiness and great lack of confidence in my technique. I think
that because I was so determined to get my form back, I ended up being very
prepared for the grading.
do you think your Black-belt compares to those of other schools?
Field Sensei: I am satisfied with it, as I know my
Black-belts are at least equivalent to those from my Sensei's Dojo in Japan.
International instructors who have taught seminars here have all commended my
Black-belts for their on-the-mat level.
Darren: I have attended a friend's Taekwondo
Black-belt grading before and he an Aikido grading before (Field Aikido). His
comments were that the culture and respect that was maintained throughout was to
be commended. He also noticed a considerable lack of ego around the Aikido
grading. I had observed the opposite at his gradings.
Lee Lian: From what I can gather from friends who
have attained Black-belts from other schools, our gradings are more
'well-rounded' than those of other schools, as it tests additional skills such
as public speaking and essay writing.
Ullana: If I know who I am, I can recognise
everyone else. I only need to know who my Sensei is, who his Sensei is, and so
on. I need only look at the relationship with his teacher, and so on. I do not
need to rate myself against anything other than that; it is more than enough to
Do you feel you earned you Black-belt?
Darren: This is a difficult question. I'm always
asking myself, could I have done that better? I try to look forward more,
particularly after my Black-belt grading, and accept the fact that not
everything in life is perfect.
Lian: Mostly yes. Idid
at the time. If my Sensei passed me, I would too.
Ullana: Whatever weight and responsibility Sensei
has given me in the past, tells me that he is testing me now in the present, and
I must always be mindful of that. As my Sensei he needs to see if I can carry a
weight without dropping it, if I can breath new air without becoming
intoxicated, if I can grow and develop in a positive manner. So yes, I have
earned my Black-belt, but I must keep on earning it forever