My kendo 2-dan exam in Japan

2nd dan to Stajano Francesco 2nd dan to Stajano Francesco

with my captain Tsuruma-san, putting on men before the exam On Sunday 27 October 2002, I earned the rank of second dan in kendo. So far I have taken all my kendo examinations in Japan, at the Saiwai-ku sports centre in Kawasaki (although I was no longer living there at the time of the 2-dan exam). What follows is a personal account of what was for me a very special event.

First, the format of the exam. This depends to some extent on where it's held: in Kanagawa prefecture, the one covering the city of Kawasaki, 2-dan requires two one-minute fights, a written test about kendo theory and a display of the first five kata. (But in neighbouring Tokyo, for example, I'm told that seven kata are required for 2-dan.)

The written test is usually considered the easy part by the candidates, since a list of possible questions with their official answers are sent to dojo leaders a couple of months ahead of the exam. In my case, though, it was the hardest, because my Japanese is still very basic and certainly way too poor to write an essay. The grammatical patterns I understand are rather limited and I couldn't even parse (let alone rephrase) the model answers without extensive help. However, as I did for shodan, what I could do was to study, understand and then learn by heart all the model answers, and "recite", or rather transcribe, the appropriate ones in hiragana (Japanese phonetic characters) at the exam. To ask to be allowed to with Masegi-san at the Komukai year-end dinner
party answer the questions in English would have felt like cheating (after all, what's the point of proudly grading in Japan if one can't even follow the Japanese procedure) so I spent the previous month studying the three model answers, of which two would be selected on the day. I could never have done this, though, without the precious help of my friend Masegi-San (3-dan) who, as he had done for my previous exams, carefully prepared a four-way study sheet for me with the questions and answers in kanji, hiragana, rōmaji for good measure and finally English translation! I am also grateful to my many other Toshiba colleagues whom I recorded reading out the Japanese text to help me memorize it. Last but by no means least, my thanks for this endeavour go to my special friend and personal Japanese teacher Ōshima-san, who conscientiously went over all the model answers with me a further time, giving me literal translations of every word of every sentence and patiently answering all my questions about the underlying grammar that held them all together. This process of learning the model answers word for word was lengthy and sometimes frustrating, but I found it beneficial: it marginally improved my Japanese, it etched into my mind some important kendo principles as expressed by senior kendo masters, but above all it was an application and reinforcement of the I-can-handle-any-shit-coming-my-way kendo spirit.

The three candidate questions were:

  1. Explain the difference between ZANSHIN and HIKIAGE.
  2. Explain KAKEGOE.
  3. List the five KAMAE and briefly explain them.

I spent many evenings learning to recite the answers and almost all my waking time in the trip to Japan (including the ride to the airport) practicing to write them down in hiragana. Apart from getting them right, speed also mattered—at the exam for shodan I finished several minutes after everybody else, which was a cause of embarrassement. I got to the point where I could write down all three answers in just over 20 minutes—still a bit slow but almost acceptable (this also gives you a rough idea of the amount of text I had memorized: it took 3 or 4 minutes for a native Japanese speaker to read it all out loud).

I got to my hotel in Kawasaki on Friday evening, having left Cambridge on Thursday afternoon and having attempted to pre-condition away the 8-hour jetlag by gradually shifting to Japan time before leaving (crazy idea but it almost worked). On Saturday morning at 09:00 I met my master Naganuma-sensei (6-dan),with Naganuma-sensei the dojo captain Tsuruma-san (5-dan) who trained me daily taking me from beginner to first dan in one year, and half a dozen of other friends at the Toshiba dojo, who graciously accepted to devote that morning's session to special training for my exam. A little kihon, a little ji-geiko and then many simulations of the exam procedure, to get all the details of the protocol just right.

Kendo grading in Japan, especially at the low dan levels in which several hundred candidates must be assessed in one morning, is a highly optimized chain-factory operation and all the details are precisely specified to avoid wasting any time. For example, for the fights the candidates are broken into groups of five and then each entrant does two one-minute fights: 1-2, 2-3, 3-4, 4-5, 5-1; at the end of a fight, say the first, the outgoing (1) and incoming (3) candidates both face the one who stays (2) and bow to him/her at the same time, thereby "saving" one rei per candidate. But everyone involved must be ready and be in the right place on the correct side ahead of time (especially Mr. 1) or the whole thing becomes a mess. So we practiced all this protocol several times, with the sensei ensuring my familiarity with the behaviour of both the "external" (1) and "internal" (2,3,4,5) members of the group, as well as dealing with exceptions such as what to do if the referee stops you. I can't even begin to explain how thoroughly and caringly the members of the dojo looked after me in preparation for the exam—as they also did for a whole year when I was living there.

After this practice it was time for kata. I did the five kata with the sensei, in both roles of course, and he corrected a number of details; then I practiced them again with almost every other member until they were satisfied.

At the end of the session I collected, folded and packed my equipment. Although standard practice at the Cambridge dojo, this was unusual for the Komukai dojo because in ordinary circumstances we have the luxury of being able to leave everything to dry in the hall itself or in the adjacent changing room, conveniently to find it there the next day.

the tenugui from Kurihara kendo club That morning I also received a special present. My Toshiba friend Kubo-san (3-dan), on top of being one of the most regular members of our daily practices at the Komukai dojo inside the company compound, also practices kendo at the Kurihara dojo near his home. At his invitation, I have visited the Kurihara dojo on several occasions. Every one of those times the leader of the dojo, Morikawa-sensei (7-dan), has always been extremely generous towards me: despite my being the lowest-ranking with Morikawa-sensei adult kendoka in the hall, he always treated me like a VIP guest, gave me more than my fair share of ji-geiko time with him, pointed out what I should do to improve, treated me to very fine Japanese dining after the trainings, and even gave me his own shinai! I now proudly use it for suburi every morning (never for fights, of course—even though the power emanating from it would focus my ki much better than when I use my own shinai, I obviously want to keep it in one piece).

Morikawa-sensei's yoroi-goteWell, as if having already given me his own shinai and the Kurihara tenugui were not enough, on another visit to his dojo Morikawa-sensei offered me his precious yoroi-gote! This is a special kind of kote fashioned after the traditional samurai armour—an old-style piece of valuable craftsmanship. I am told by my Japanese seniors that it is now almost impossible to have a pair of yoroi-gote made unless you are 8th dan, because the know-how is being lost. And he gives them to me! Can you imagine how happy I was at this?!?

Before actually giving them to me, though, he wanted to send them in for maintenance to have some minor blemishes repaired. Kubo-san took care of that, so on my previous visit to Japan I saw the yoroi-gote but didn't actually get them. Now, though, Kubo-san had brought them back. There they were, perfectly restored, beautifully majestic and full of the spirit of a 7-dan who honoured me with his friendship. Of course these would be the ones I would wear at the exam the following day—together with the red "zanshin" tenugui from Kurihara!

After the Saturday morning session at the Toshiba Komukai dojo, five of us then went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch, with Naganuma-sensei insisting on treating me. More kendo advice over the course of the lunch, as imaginable. And, here too, from the members of my own dojo, I was made to feel like a VIP guest, and my success in the exam the next day seemed to be the most important business of the whole kendo club! You have no idea how supportive and encouraging they have always been to me. It is thanks to this atmosphere that I have been able to progress so quickly in kendo.

I spent the afternoon in my hotel room trying to shave down a few more minutes from my hiragana handwriting times. At some point I took a break from that and dismantled and neatly sandpapered my shinai. Then more writing practice until the evening. At peak performance I managed to get down to some 5 minutes per question, with no mistakes except in punctuation.

at the bus stopThe following morning, going to Kawasaki station to catch the bus to the Saiwai-ku sports center, I met a bunch of teenagers going to the same exam. The sports hall opened at 09:00. I was there for the opening, kendo examinees waiting for the hall to open with gazillions of high school children queueing in front of the doors. This helped put things into perspective: 2-dan was a big deal for me, but here in Japan the exams for 1, 2 and 3-dan (the ones that took place that morning) are stuff people do before even going to university...

On entering the hall, the names of all the entrants were written on tiny vertical strips pasted along the walls. Near the end of the list (I think we were sorted by age) I found the one with my name in kanji—number 257. my number is 257 The highest number in that row was 261, but there were another 20 or so extra candidates (whose number was prefixed by K) who were there only for the kata, having failed it in the previous session six months before. We all wrote our numbers on our three o-dare (zekken removed) with a piece of chalk.

Tsuruma-san and Niikura-san (x 2) during the long wait for my turnFirst, they examined all the 1st dan candidates, which were the vast majority. This went on until about lunch time. Then they did the 2-dan and the 3-dan ones in parallel. There were about a dozen judges, split among two independent exam areas along the length of the hall. My number wasn't called until after 13:00. For all this time it was wait, wait, wait—but I had plenty of kendo friends who had given up their Sunday to come and support me for the exam. It was fantastic! The dojo captain Tsuruma-san was there from 09:00. Half a dozen others trickled in over the next couple of hours. You haven't seen team spirit until you've been at the centre of this kind of experience.

Anyway, at some point it was finally time to get ready and lined up in rows of 5 for the fights. I was in the last group of the 2-dan candidates and, being 257 out of 261 I was the "number 1", the one doing the first and last fight of the group instead of two consecutive ones. I very carefully put on my men, tightening the chō-musubi (bow knot) in the prescribed manner so as to prevent it from coming undone, as per the written test I memorized last year for the shodan exam. I neatly arranged the himo. My captain rechecked the neatness and flatness of the back of my keikogi. Everything was perfect. And I waited for some more until our group had to get up.

261 (left) against 257 (right)At last, my first fight—257 vs 258. And, shame and embarrassement, after the first couple of clashes my men came off and I had to request a break! Argh! I was so frustrated. So I went back in seiza and, acting as dignified as I could, I removed men and redid it again, even more tightly and carefully. With hindsight, the probable cause of this disgrace was that that morning, to honour the special occasion, I made the mistake of shampooing my beard (something I don't usually do) which obviously made it shiny, thereby causing the chin rest of the men to slip in a way that wouldn't usually occur. Grrr! Anyway, after resuming the fight I wasn't quite heijōshin (calm in the face of adversity) so I didn't perform at my best in these remaining fifty seconds; still, I managed to keep my back straight and score a couple of passable men.

I pass the fighting stageI did regain some composture by the time of my other fight, the one against Mr. 261; but I had also become even more aggressive, as I couldn't stand the idea of losing the exam over a slipped men! So I attacked with very strong spirit, strong kakegoe and powerful zanshin, definitely overpowering my opponent and dominating the situation, although my technical level wasn't really that good—too stiff and full of tension, and with too little variation. Anyway, a decent fight overall. As I left the match area, I felt I had done ok, and I also got some thumbs-up from my supporters.

Since my group was last, at least I didn't have to wait for long for the result. Of the whole batch of 2-dan candidates that had been fighting for the last hour or so, the judges wrote the numbers of those who passed this first stage on a large poster, which was then on display for a couple of minutes. Sure enough, I was in. Great!

the written testFor the written test we all went back in the match area, we lined up by number and were given a sheet of paper each. We wrote our name and number, spaced ourselves out, lined up again and finally sat in seiza. Then one of the judges wrote the two questions on a blackboard and read them aloud with his microphone: they were the first two of the list, the ones about zanshin and about kakegoe. One of the referees came up to me to check that I understood what to do, then left. I started writing frantically, with no hesitation but hoping that I wouldn't overrun, covering the whole page in my primitive-looking hiragana. I was too busy writing to pay any attention to what was happening around me, so it was with delight that I found that, on completing my second question, I was not last! There were still several other people writing. Wow! I got up from seiza and went to the judges' desk to hand in my sheet. I waited for a while behind another candidate who was talking to them; then, when he left, one of the judges asked me something in Japanese that I couldn't understand. At my puzzled look another judge asked me if I spoke English (yes...) and whether I needed an explanation about the questions. No, I said, I only wanted to hand this in, so I did and I left the exam area.

Later, while the judges were marking the answers, I saw from a distance that one was half-laughing and calling the others to see the piece of paper he was holding; and the others were then laughing too. Written in phonetic hiragana instead of kanji, like first-grade primary school children do, and in what must have looked like the handwriting of one, I can imagine the dialogue my writtten test triggered: "have a look at this; you know, the guy who wrote all this stuff is the gaijin who couldn't even understand your question..."

nihonmeFinally, the kata. Once again I was in the last group, so I had a chance to see plenty before me. They were done in batches of 5 pairs. We were all arranged in columns of 5, and repeatedly one of the referees assigned the roles of uchidachi and shidachi to two of the columns, which were then forwarded to opposite sides of the exam area. The five pairs ran the kata along parallel lines and were required to make some effort to stay in sync, while judges from both sides assessed the performance. I could see several rather poor kata, with people cutting at the wrong distance (I mean seriously wrong) or with the wrong timing or sanbonmeeven making actual mistakes and asking for permission to redo the kata again. I thought the standard was a bit low.

When my turn came, I was again in the last group, which had only three pairs. I was in the middle pair, with the role of uchidachi. My partner was also an adult, perhaps a few years older than me. From the sonkyo it looked as if he knew his stuff, which of course pleased me since he was supposed to follow my lead. And so it was: ippon-me went very smoothly, with good timing and good distance, and I could see an imperceptible nodding from him at the end of that kata, as if he too were saying "I'm glad I've got a competent uchidachi, let's keep this up". So we did a neat nihon-me and sanbon-me, and at the end of the sanbon-me the referee "in the field" (as opposed to the ones at the judges' desks) came to me from behind, touched my keikogi and told me "chotto matte kudasai", please wait a little. Why? I checked to my sides and both the other pairs were still in the middle of their sanbon-me. How come? Had I been going so fast? It certainly didn't feel so: I think I had kept a slow and dignified pace. I only realized later, during lunch, on seeing the movie shot by one of my friends, that actually both of the other pairs had made a mistake during their sanbon-me and restarted it while we were completing ours! That's why we had finished first, but I had no clue at the time. Anyway, once everyone was back in place I took hassō-no-kamae for yonhon-me, we did that smoothly too, and finally—with evident confidence from both sides—gohon-me. We were pleased when we saluted each other in sonkyo, and the first thing I did after leaving the exam area was to go and congratulate with my partner. My friends came around and said it was a good kata, predicting that I had now passed.

with other pretty kendokaWe then had to go back in the exam area, sitting in seiza, when the judges called out a few candidates to talk to them personally. These were the ones who would have to redo their kata at the next exam session, and there were many fewer than I would have imagined (at least for 2-dan standard—I thought they'd be much stricter). Finally the poster went up again, this time with the final "pass" results, which included my number. After that it was a matter to queue up with all the others to pay the required 7,000 yen for the calligraphic certificate that would be forthcoming in a few months, and to get the small receipt certifying that on 27 October of the 14th year of Heisei I earned the rank of nidan.

with my Toshiba Komukai friends...As we were all happily commenting the performance and congratulating other kendoka, one of the judges came to my captain and told him that the panel congratulated me on the kata, one of the best of the day, and was impressed with the written test. Of course there's always an element of extra politeness towards the foreigner in all this, but it was nonetheless good to hear.

By then it was about 14:30 so, after a few celebratory pictures, I got changed and invited all my friends to a restaurant where we had a late but delicious Japanese lunch. Then I went back to my hotel, exhausted but happy. As my seniors repeatedly reminded me during the meal, the appointment is in two years for my first chance, after the prescribed delay, to attempt the 3-dan exam.

Text and pictures © Francesco Stajano 2002

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