Making the Grade

It's always the same; you train regularly, observe all the dojo etiquette, keep your dogi clean, pay all your fees and generally conduct yourself in a manner befitting the legacy of Doshin So. Then, despite your exceptional conduct, somebody tells you you've got to take a grading exam. That's when your long-term memory suddenly blows a fuse and everything you've learned over the previous six months is inexplicably beyond retrieval. The names of techniques take on a mysterious, otherworldly dimension that bares no relation to anything you've been doing and everything your sensei ever said in howa acquires a multidimensional metaphysical quality beyond the grasp of even the most wrinkly of sages. If that isn't bad enough, you look to your elders and betters for guidance and further complicate the condition with conflicting advice as to how to approach this neurological meltdown. Well, Sensei Russell Jenkins who, despite his obvious wisdom, is no stranger to the malaise, herein draws upon his extensive experience as examiner and examinee to guide the challenged and confused along the path of successful gradings.

TO BEGIN with, once your sensei has dropped the bomb and given you the deadline - don't panic. Your first reaction may well be to question your instructor's sanity, since it's only been six months since your last exam and in the time since you've managed to convince yourself that, despite regular attendance, you still have all the flexibility and co-ordination of an ironing board. Remember, your instructor is there to manage your progress and in doing will have to answer to Mizuno Sensei should his/her students be presented with the opportunity to grade without having first attained an acceptable standard. The fact that you are given the opportunity means that your instructor has every confidence in your success, despite what you might think.


So, you've got some work to do. When deciding where to start, take the syllabus a bit at a time. Do not try to consume the whole syllabus in one go. Set yourself achievable targets by breaking it down into manageable chunks. Perhaps, two goho and two juho techniques per session. Move on when you feel confident that you are clear on each technique and it comes as second nature without having to think about or relate to the Japanese name.

Don't try to attach particular importance to any one area of the syllabus. Everything is important. Areas that are often overlooked and left to the last minute are kata (single and pair form), kamae and unpo-ho (footwork). The latter often come up at the beginning of the grading exam and your confidence can suffer a serious blow if it comes as a surprise.

Whilst the kumi embu may seem to be an unattractive prospect, it is actually a great aid to preparing for the exam. It will cover a range of techniques from your previous syllabus, which will probably not crop up in the rest of the exam. Make full use of the freedom allowed in the kumi embu by favouring your preferred side. Look on it as an opportunity to become fully familiar with a large chunk of the exam devoid of surprises and make the best of it. Make it a showcase to express your ability in zanshin, ki-ai, hapo-moku, etc. In short, all the elements that because of nerves, might otherwise be less readily at your disposal in other areas of the exam.

Remembering the names of techniques is always a problem, but one that becomes easier over time. I think initially, if you can take on board that generally anything ending in 'nuki' is likely to be an escaping technique and anything ending in 'gote' means it's gonna hurt, then you are half way there. In addition, if you take time to expand your basic Japanese vocabulary, there is usually a give-away in the name. For example, 'juji' means 'cross' (juji-nuki, juji-gote, ude-juji, eri-juji) and 'sode' means 'sleeve' (sode-nuki, sode-dori, sode-maki-gaeashi).


To begin with, you may find yourself learning the philosophy parrot fashion. I think that initially we all probably did. However around 2nd kyu standard, in technical topics, a fundamental understanding of the why a technique works should be aimed for. As far as philosophy is concerned then try to relate a piece of philosophy to a story or event that has occurred to you. You then have a better chance of showing an understanding and relating to what we are trying to achieve.

If you're unclear about what is expected of you in the written section of the exam, take each question from your syllabus in turn and write your answer. Your sensei or senior kenshi will be able to advise as to what is or is not an acceptable answer.


In terms of the actual grading exam, having a regular training partner will always be advantageous. I have been lucky enough to have come through all my grades (except 4th dan when he was injured), with Sensei Peter Moore (I figured it would pay to pick on a small bloke). However our relationship is probably quite unique, there aren't many marriages that last that long these days. Outside the limitations of the grading exam, the big danger of a constant partner is that you become so used to each other's style and abilities, that techniques and randori etc. lose spontaneity and realism. If you don't have a regular partner you will experience a greater diversity of techniques. Ask any black belt who has been caught out doing randori with the new white belt.

Whichever way you approach revision and study, ensure that your time is spent productively. Do not be afraid to ask and question until you understand. Nothing pleases a sensei more than to see some willing volunteer for the pain stakes! If practising with your partner away from the dojo, concentrate on one or two aspects of your technique. Come away from your session feeling you have accomplished or learnt how to do a technique effectively - notice I said effectively not necessarily 100% correctly. If I move my feet slightly forward or backward does it matter if it works for me? The whole criteria is, does it work?

The Day Arrives:

Regardless of ability and grade, grading exams are apt to make you apprehensive and nervous. Don't stay up late the night before trying to cram dozens of Japanese words into your head. Have a good nights sleep and a hearty breakfast. Leave in plenty of time to get to the dojo. The exam itself can be stressful enough without tempting the wrath of the public transport Gods. Give yourself as much relaxing time as possible prior to arriving at the dojo.

Depending on the time and venue, you will usually have an hour or so to warm up and practice before the exam begins. Make good use of this. If you don't have a training partner, this is the time to find one and acquire some familiarity.

Regular dojo practice with co-operative training partners is almost entirely devoid of stress. Grading exams are a rare opportunity for examiners to see how you apply what you have learned under more stressful circumstances. Whilst this is by no means akin to a street fight, it is nevertheless an ideal opportunity to practice heijo-shin. Remember what you have done. Only you know how much work you have put in. Be confident and take your time. All examiners have been there themselves and appreciate what you are going through. Remember, even if at this late stage you remain unconvinced about your ability, your instructor thinks otherwise.

The most important piece of advice is never give up. If you find yourself making a pigs ear of something don't collapse in a heap of laughter - that is the worst thing you could do. Bring yourself to kesshu-gamae, rei to each other and start again.

Make the techniques realistic - if you lose contact with your partner that you are attempting to pin make sure you apply some form of atemi, i.e., kick or strike them before separating.

It is most important that the techniques you are asked to perform are practicable and realistic. We have all seen the 4th kyu grading where the partner seems to have a sudden attack of vertigo when gyaku-gote or ude-juji are applied. Of course it is important that at an early stage you assist a partner all you can but that does not mean falling over at the slightest or earliest opportunity.

While practising techniques repetitively in the dojo, we generally tend to pay less attention to zanshin between attempts. Do not let this happen in the grading exam. Maintain eye contact and show continuous observation of good distance and stance between techniques.

If you are taking a dan-grade exam, you will probably be doing so wearing 'do' (body protectors). If so, make sure that you make full use of them. They allow for more positive contact and a lack of such will therefore become more evident to the examiner.

Confusion Ensues:

You are no doubt used to hearing your sensei give instructions in Japanese. However, pronunciation can vary from one instructor to the next, to the extent that simple instructions can appear entirely unfamiliar. Whilst there's always the possibility that the pronunciation was perfect and you've simply forgotten what you're being asked to do, the result is the same and it can be a seriously stressful moment. One of the funniest things I have seen at a grading was when Mizuno sensei was going along a line of white belts, asking various bits of philosophy etc. "Count 1-10? What is 'left' in Japanese? What is 'start'?" etc. He came to one very nervous student and said to him "Seiku?" The student said, "Ku". Sensei repeated himself saying, "No? seiku". The student again said, "Ku". At this point I was sat at an adjacent table trying to see through the tears of laughter that were beginning to form in my eyes. Needless to say this charade repeated itself a few times before I intervened and explained to the student that sensei required him to recite the creed, and not just say, "Ku".

Whilst it is hoped that things would never get quite this sticky, don't panic. Simply stop, rei, and politely explain that you do not understand the instruction. The examiner will usually be possessed of sufficient experience to understand the problem and make it clear enough for you.

Avoid shuffling from hidari to migi when preparing to do any technique in the exam. Unless instructed otherwise, the defender should decide hidari or migi and the attacker should adopt the appropriate stance to deliver the correct attack. If your partner appears to be adopting the wrong stance, tell them. Whilst it's not a good idea to express such hesitation, it is preferable to dancing around between tai-gamae and hiraki-gamae only to follow with the wrong technique.

Kumi Embu:

During the kumi embu should you or your partner get lost, although it is not a good idea, it may become necessary for one of you to name the next technique. This usually results in memory being restored. You will however likely lose a couple of marks, but style, presentation, timing, distance, zanshin, etc all have their part to play, so there is every opportunity to recover. The worst thing one can do is to allow your head to go down - never give up. Big ki-ai will dispel nerves and impress examiners. If your partner presents you with the wrong attack or grab, I would favour breaking away and repeating, perhaps changing your own stance once or twice hoping that little light in their brain will come on.

Nerves are always going to be a problem in the exam situation, however the best way to overcome or control nerves is to prepare. If you go into an examination fully confident with whatever is asked of you, then it will go a long way to combating the nerves. In addition, one of the most obvious symptoms of a nervous state of being is shallow breathing. This is why we practice chosoku and ki-ai. Use chosoku and ki-ai to overwhelm the characteristics of nervousness and the rest will take care of itself. It may be of some comfort for 4th kyu examinees to know that you still get the nerves at 5th dan. However, for some bizarre reason it just doesn't seem to matter that much.


Do not pad out if you do not know what you are talking about. After the examination there is still considerable work to be done by the examiner in marking all the papers, especially if it is a big grading. We do not want to sit and read repetition. However three lines on why So Doshin established Shorinji Kempo is not acceptable. Generally on most questions it is possible to write at least one side of A4 and certainly with most questions 2 sides. When I sent my homework in for 5th dan for one question I wrote forty-six pages of A4 on one question (baffle them with science I say). If at anytime you are unsure of what is required then you must ask until it is clear to you.

Shorinji Kempo is unlike any other martial art I have ever come across. Prior to Shorinji Kempo I trained for 4 years in judo. There were three members of the British team at the club where I trained. For 4 years I trained in karate (1964-69) when karate students were required to register with the police as being in possession of a dangerous weapon. Judo, Karate and Shorinji Kempo are all excellent defence systems in their own right but all no match for a gun. The whole point about Shorinji Kempo is how you behave in private and public life and what you do about it. To be an effective member of Shorinji Kempo and a productive member of society you must and should take action. Mastering oneself, overcoming one's fears and weaknesses is paramount. Grading examinations are an ideal opportunity to put this into practice.

In conclusion, don't look upon grading examinations as an opportunity for the BSKF to put you to the test, rather an opportunity for you to put yourself to the test. Not to see how good you are compared to other kenshi, but to see how good you are compared to yourself of yesterday.

Last modified: Sunday, 13 Jul 2014 12:24:42 PM

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