I would just like to quickly share my thoughts on this. Many students, after reaching the level of sho-dan, decide that it’s the end of a journey from there and they are now experts in Aikido. At least in our dojo and under Shihan Yamada, this is not the case, it merely indicates an understanding of the basic techniques and movements of Aikido. In other words, the pure physical aspect, which is why under the Aikikai Hombu grading system, there is only limited randoori (free-style) for the sho-dan test.
When I got my sho-dan in 1999, I was told by Shihan that this was just the beginning. It means you are now a beginner and this is where your real journey starts in Aikido and I couldn’t agree more. My Aikido has a long way to go before I see myself as truly proficient but only after I achieved my sho-dan was I able to start exploring what Aikido was to me beyond just going through the techniques. In fact, I had to relearn much of my Aikido.
After sho-dan, you explore balance, how techniques flow into one another and each technique’s use and place. One of the pinnacles of Aikido is to achieve a level where you no longer think of doing a technique but it just flows out according to the circumstances without thought but merely out of a body reflex developed from many years of training. I think all of us at Seishinkan are still learning and striving for this goal.
Of course there are dojos in the West that see Sho-dan as an expert level belt which is what the common perception of a black belt is. Therefore some of these dojos have testing requirements are a lot more stringent with their 3rd kyu tests being similar to Aikikai Hombu’s Sho-dan test. The gap decreases between the two as the dan ranks go up but the sho-dan disparity is probably where it is the greatest mostly due to the perception of what a black belt is in the west. There is nothing wrong with either approach either but it’s worth making the distinction between the grading system adopted by Aikikai Hombu and others.
At the end of the day, we reiterate that at Seishinkan, we are not too concerned with belt ranks hence why we adopt an only two color belt system (white, black)( which has the added benefit of saving money in buying a belt after every upgrading and reducing the risk that the belts leak funny colors out on your gi! :P) The upgrading system is there as a benchmark and for those who wish to achieve recognition but it’s by no means the only indication of true understanding of Aikido. For example, I feel Desmond’s understanding of Aikido is better than mine, and my new rank of san-dan does not change any of that. Even now, I’m constantly learning new things even from my ‘juniors’ and I think it’s important to realize that everyone can teach you something regardless of rank.
This doesn’t detract from the achievement Zachariah has achieved today and we all wish him a big congratulations. We look forward to seeing you on the mats :P…or else…we’ll implement a ‘rite of passage’ just for you!
PS: This doesn’t mean we should stop bugging Desmond to go for a long overdue upgrading.