Martial Ethics Feed

182. I Wanna’ Be 85th Galactic Dan

The world turns, times change, nothing stays the same, 2 steps forward and 3 steps back, and turn in circles.  Sometimes change is not progress and certainly not for the better.

Lately I’ve been noticing blogs by other Sensei and dojo about a decrease in promotional standards aggravated by an increase in big-time promotions, so this must be the new thingie’ in Budo-politics, a new fad maybe, all trendy and such, kinda’ like hair styles.  However, I can sadly tell you is that it’s actually nothing new and has been around for a while, decades maybe if not longer; certainly as long as I’ve been around.

With that said and as jaded as I am sometimes even I can be surprised by a blog such as the one I read recently which said that a high rank went inactive from his organization for a time and when he came back to re-start training they apparently said, “Buddy, friend, hey guy, alright-alright, welcome back, good to have you ……. but we’re dropping your re-entry rank by a few so even though you still know the material we’re just going to punish you for …… whatever.  Just look at it as character building as you learn that humility we keep talking about to the white belts.”

I’ve been around on the mat for about 50 years now and that was the first time I’d heard that one for a couple of reasons.  First, I wouldn’t be surprised by a bill for the missed time in not paying membership fees (but this was way beyond that) and second, why did the guy accept being busted in rank?  Neither I nor most of the people I know would take that from anyone as it is an insulting slap in the face and clearly shows that the organizations standards weren’t that quality-based to begin with.  And third, the last time I heard of anything like that was when someone was required to resign (read: forced out involuntarily, hit the highway buddy, get lost).  In that case he was not allowed to rejoin and not only his membership, but all his rank was effectively cancelled, the demand was made to return all his certificates and scrolls, which of course made him a true ronin in the classic sense.

What do you say to a group in any martial art that basically promotes (or “un-promotes”) based on whether you take a hiatus from training?  Doesn’t that mean that they don’t actually have standards at all and instead promote based on who you are, or how much money you pay, or who’s in charge this week, or did you do something they didn’t like such as asking out the Sensei’s best girl on a date?  After all, you knew the material when you were originally promoted to “whatever dan” so did you somehow forget everything since then as if you never knew it to begin with?  And if so, then why were you promoted back then, thus necessitating the downgrade today?

What I’ve normally seen in the ‘verse of entropic budo (as the classical traditions are lost) was how my old organization handled it; both the initial high requirements for promotion and then the degradation of standards that came later.  When I first joined as a “nothing belt” I was given a list of promotional requirements which included both the required time in grade (actively training mind you and not just holding up the wall) and the technical standards to be performed.  One of those was that to make Yondan I had to know all the kata including basic, intermediate, and advanced.  When I say all then I mean all.  I had to literally know the entire system including all the Koryu work, and all rank beyond that was based upon increasing levels of ability, deepening understanding of life, the universe, and everything, along with teaching experience. 

I guess one could call that “Dynamic Promotional Performance”, or in other words you already know the technical requirements of the entire ryu but now you must demonstrate increasing levels of expertise every time you step on the mat to do an embu or teach a lesson and, do it consistently at that high level over a very long period of time.  This standard was almost like judging in gymnastics where they score on both your historical performance and your putting on a good show today in order to prove that you’re not simply a flash in the pan; that long term consistency proving up your comprehension and deep understanding and ability in the fundamentals.

At some point in the entropy of the universe (and the standards of my old organization that I eventually resigned from) all that changed.  People began to be promoted by what member dojo they came from, who their Sensei was, how long they had been practicing (or not practicing at all) and whether the Kaicho (head of the organization) liked them. 

Money came into play as I was told by one of my deshi (students) of his friend in another state (also in my old organization) who had stopped training 2 or 3 years back but was told it was now time for him to be promoted to the next higher rank for the small but tidy sum of several hundred dollars.  Obviously, the promotion was based on “time hanging around” and writing that check (damn, if only I had known that good handwriting would get me there faster I would have spent more time practicing my cursive).  As a friend and fellow Sensei I currently know and train with described it, “He (the Kaicho) became a merchant and forgot he was Samurai class”.  Money just corrupts so many things and needing to make a car payment is not a good excuse.

The other issue that arose and that played a part in my eventual resignation was the day that a 6th dan in a karate school applied for membership in the organization.  He was immediately promoted to 6th dan in Aikido under the guise of “Anyone who reaches 6th dan in any martial art is also 6th dan in Aikido because the principles of all martial arts are the same across the board”. 

No mention made of actually “knowing” the kata or the technical standards came into this transaction or that some karate principles may differ from some Aikido principles, only that he (karate Sensei) had multiple dojo in his business model with a few dozen students and that my Aikido Sensei could enroll all the karate students in his organization and promote them.  Can you smile and say, “Lots of membership and promotional fees to take care of?"  Well …… I thought you could.

The moral here is that as organizations and their management age, things can change and at some point, you may have to decide.  In my case I had already reached 7th dan before the creeping degradation of standards and of reaching for the Yen (and the dollar) became too outrageous.  Younger players, not knowing what I had witnessed over my 25 or so years with that organization stayed and, in some cases, they were promoted on actual knowledge and ability since they were honestly committed to the study.  Others rose in rank to ridiculously high dan levels with no real or true ability shown with the resultant underlying conflict between the two groups raring it’s ugly head on occasion.

So if you decide at some point to reach for 85th Galactic Dan (and get your lifetime membership in the “Obi of the Month Club”) then now you know how to do it.  Just go look for that “special” Budo organization and be sure that you have your checkbook sticking out of your shirt pocket so that they can see it when you walk in the door.  However, don’t expect the rest of us to do anything but bust you down in rank if you want to join a real Budo organization and we happen to be sitting in the admissions office.  After all, there are more legitimate rationales for “de-promoting” someone other than simply taking a vacation.

L.F. Wilkinson Kancho

The Aikibudokan

Houston, TX

December 15,2021

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