Contributed by Dan Nishina*
Grading examinations at Hombu dojo are held on the first Sunday and Monday of every month. Kyu testing is held every month, while dan tests are every other month. The requirements, including number of training hours and essays, and techniques that may appear in the exams, are posted on the back wall of the dojo room. Everyone has to decide for themselves whether to test after confirming their training hours; most people tend to test as soon as possible. Preparations usually consist of asking for help from friends and acquaintances of the same or more senior ranks depending on what you want to know, practicing before or after regular classes. What people often practice are things that only appear on the tests and are rarely or never practiced in regular classes. The most common things are weapons taking, multiple attackers, and koshi-nage, as well as more unlikely (and imaginative) techniques like hanmi-handachi shomen-uchi ikkyo. Conversely, the sight of people practicing these things is an indication that they're planning to take the next exam.
Arriving at Hombu Dojo at 12:30 p.m., you'll probably find just a few people, some of them doing last-minute rehearsing for their shinsa (lit. evaluations), others stretching, still others just standing around. Testees, friends, and other observers usually have filled the back of the dojo room come one o'clock. The people up for kyu grades sit toward the rear right of the dojo, near the men's changing room. The very last people to test are the highest dan grades, who sit toward the left. The examiners will usually tell people to go easy on their legs, especially right before their own tests, but most everyone tries to sit in seiza for as long as they can.
The first, most junior, examining shihan enters through the doorway further toward the front of the room. He takes attendance, then calls downstairs, using the intercom-phone next to the doorway. The other two shihan come up a minute later, one of them carrying jo, bokken, and tanto if there will be higher dan tests that require them. Ichihashi sensei walks over to the left side of the dojo while the other two sit down near the right-side wall. The shihan who took attendance stands up, calls out the names of the testees, and points to where each is to sit to bow in for their tests. For most of the tests, if possible, people testing for the same or next highest grade will be uke. Also if possible, women are chosen to be uke for women. (A related sidenote: from 3rd kyu on, it is ok for women to wear hakama, and all of them do in fact follow this custom.) For the higher grades, starting at shodan, the shihan asks whether they have ukes decided already.
Occasionally the examiners will clarify what they want to see and give corrections. Sometimes, whether due to nervousness or simple lack of understanding, the testees don't do what they are told. The examiners are actually pretty helpfully persistent (or persistently helpful) in these cases. Also, the examiners will give directions to the ukes from time to time, such as telling them to attack faster, to take good ukemi and not simply fall down, to hang on for kata-dori-men-uchi, etc. It's also very highly likely that your ukemi is considered to be part of your examination.
Before the tests begin, Ichihashi sensei will say a little something, like "Try not to get nervous, be lively, show your best, etc". At the end of the tests, he asks the other examiners if they have any comments before making his own, usually beginning with, "This is what I say every time, but...". After the examinations on Sunday in October, he used the analogy of learning multiplication tables in school to refer to basics. If you learn them in the 3rd grade, you don't forget them in the 4th grade. Instead, you keep using them, improving and building on them. They are necessary for the things that come later. It becomes clear to anyone who has observed a few of these examinations that what the examiners are looking for isn't style, power, or even effectiveness. They say they are watching to see how everyone does the most basic elements they learned in the very beginning ‹ in these elements the above qualities should manifest.
What comprises the exams? It is a little difficult to generalize about all of the exam contents, but the nidan exam includes 2-person attack and tanto-dori, while my shodan exam in America included 3-person attack and jo-, tachi-, and tanto-dori. Overall, they do not deviate very ambitiously from basic techniques, but they do occasionally include some of the above mentioned imaginative combinations. You can sometimes hear people grumbling about being tested on material that they have never seen.
From what I understand from having listened to Ichihashi sensei, the shihan in charge of testing at Hombu Dojo, in his classes and at the examinations, if people are practicing (their basics) properly, the quality of their basics should be apparent in whatever they do, familiar or not. He seems to take it as a given that they should be able to assimilate unfamiliar material. That is, he seems to think it a perfectly reasonable challenge to learn something in a relatively short time and still expect one's more inherent qualities to show. Some teachers will do test-type material in class, such as tsuki-attacks or tanto-dori, right before or after testing, but this amounts to little more than a brief footnote about the tests themselves.
Everyone should already be practicing their basics, e.g. their turns, footwork, etc., every time they come to class. Furthermore, these are the points that the teachers actually explicitly tell us what they are looking for at in the examinations. However, in classes other than Ichihashi sensei's, I can't remember any teacher ever saying anything about, or even identifying, the importance of the basic elements in the techniques they present in their classes. Perhaps these things are already supposed to have been covered in the beginners' class on the second floor, which most people go to until about 3rd kyu or so. However, even if this was the case, most people appear to forget after they stop attending those classes. Understandably, the teachers all seem to take the importance of the basic elements as a matter of course; without those elements, they wouldn't be able to do their high level of aikido.
How much should the teachers be expected to remind us about these elements? One could argue that they are reminding us every time they demonstrate. Every student does need to take responsibility for their own practice and try to overcome these challenges, but how much of the responsibility for passing examinations and progress in general lies with the teachers and how much lies with the students?
How are the exams evaluated? I.e. what is valued? One unique circumstance at Hombu Dojo is that, there being many different shihan, the teachers who evaluate your exam may include ones to whom you have had little or no prior exposure. The official criteria seem to be the most objectively observable details, such as whether the turns are a full 180 degrees, or even how forced the throws appear to be. However the reality is that all sorts of people pass and fail, and almost each time people are left wondering, "If that person passed, why didn't this person?" That is to say, often there are inconsistencies to be found in the judging and results, and this leaves many people perturbed and uncertain about their own exam and about what the shihan are thinking.
There is always a balance that needs to be struck between the responsibilities and obligations of the students and those of the teachers. I don't think there would be any argument against the idea that students shouldn't be spoon-fed everything and that they need be willing to take on the task of crossing the gap between themselves and the teachers. At the same time, the teachers need to see to it that this gap isn't unreasonable and meaningless. We should also think about why there are tests, what benefits the experience of testing should have, and why we take tests and practice aikido at all. It shouldn't be too weak a point to say that these are surely things that each of us has to decide for ourselves.
After the last shihan has bowed out and left the room, there are sighs of relief all around. The results of the examinations are usually posted in the hallway a couple of days later. Since Kitchen Mizuno, the nearby cafe/restaurant, is closed on Sundays, my friends and other acquaintances head down the hill toward Shinjuku Station to Freshness Burger, where the smaller of the two sizes of burgers is about 3 inches in diameter, but at least they have coffee and beer.
*Dan Nishina is a student at Aikikai Honbu Dojo in Shinjuku, Tokyo, where he has trained for the past two years following graduation from UC Berkeley. An eight year aikido student, he occupies a tiny (but not the tiniest) room about five minutes from Honbu and devotes most of his time to training, while also teaching and doing translation projects. Other articles by Dan may be found in the Back Issues page of this newsletter.