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The Many Shades of Black Belt

The Many Shades of being a Black BeltIn 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.

Darren Sole - Kokyu HoWhere 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 Aikido.

What does your Black-belt grading involve and How long does it take?

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.
Kyle GillisTo 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?

Field Sensei:
Over the past 20 years, we have had only one bad injury and that student had been carrying that leg since before commencing Aikido.

Darren Sole, 3rd Dan, Throws Kyle.Field Sensei, is your school's Black-belt grading as difficult as was your own?

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 will fail.

What is the success rate among students who attempt the Black-belt grading and how many do you promote to Black-belt each year?

Field Sensei:
At Field Aikido, one in 12 Students go through to at least 1st Degree Black-belt.
In recent 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 succeeded.

Could your Black-belt syllabus or training be refined or improved?

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 Oi, 1st Dan, locks Darren's wrist.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 grading.

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?

2nd Dan Kyle Gillies in form.Field Sensei:
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 reaching Black-belt?

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 out.

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 classes.

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.

Shodan, Three-and-a-half years; Nidan, two more years; Sandan, four more years. More or less the norm.

Field Sensei:
It Should take three years, given the student does not have injury and other attendance-sapping setbacks.

Is Black-belt as important milestone as it is generally seen to be?

Field Sensei:
The general public is confused (understandably) as to what it is.
Our 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?

Field Sensei:
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 student?

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 major goal.
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.
The 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 courage.

Kyle: It means you are dedicated and have a sound knowledge of the basics of aikido.

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 change you?

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 before.

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 entirely.
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.

Field Aikido Black-belt Qualification RequirementsWas the grading difficult? How does it rate among the hardest things you've ever done?

My 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 relaxed.

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 okay.

Ullana: Life 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.

How do you think your Black-belt compares to those of other schools?

Field Sensei - NikkyoField 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.

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.

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 consider.

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.

Lee Lian: Mostly yes. Idid at the time. If my Sensei passed me, I would too.

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