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Hello again ;-) My trip report begins with my visit to the Great Intergalactic Shotokan Reconciliation Convention and Trade Show of 2257 where, in an unprecedented show of unity, the leaders of the more than 22,000 governing bodies for Shotokan karate style agreed once and for all to put aside petty differences and work together to serve the needs of students. One of the more interesting agreements reached at the conference was a new way of using dan ranks to acknowledge individual progress. Going forward, it was decided that the first five dan ranks would be used as follows:
Shodan would be awarded to recognize a solid, but not necessarily perfect, understanding of fundamental techniques. Shodan would not confer expert status on the individual, but rather simply identify them as a serious student of karate with the proper foundation to work toward higher levels of skill. Nidan would be awarded to those who improved their ability to express advanced performance elements using the fundamental techniques. Whereas Shodan marked the ability to model the correct shape of techniques and some basic performance elements, Nidan would be for those who could consistently demonstrate advanced performance elements in their kihon, kata, and kumite. Sandan would be the capstone technical rank, the last rank one would actually test for, representing full familiarity with the entire Shotokan syllabus – all kihon, all kata, and all forms of kumite. Sandan would be the rank at which one would be considered an “expert” on Shotokan karate and might consider formally teaching karate to others. The ranks of Yondan and Godan would be used to recognize accomplished instructors; Yondan would be awarded to Sandans who could consistently create solid Nidan-level students and Godan would be awarded to Yondans who likewise had created a number of skilled Sandan-level students. These evaluations would be made by a panel of Godan instructors.
The esteemed assembly chose to eliminate the ranks of 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th dan from the promotion continuum, having concluded that nearly all practical ranking needs could be met with the simplified 5-step dan ranking scale.
This simplified approach to using dan ranks, it was believed, would eliminate some of the most troubling inconsistencies in standards for (and meanings of) rank. Performance would henceforth be measured against broad guidelines rather than fixed absolute standards so that testing could be adapted to individuals as appropriate. The definitions for what one should be able to do at each rank would make it very clear to everyone which instructors were maintaining acceptable promotion standards and which students might be ready to test for a higher rank.
Most interesting of all was the assembly’s decision to retain the rank of 10th dan. While 5th dan was considered sufficient to recognize those who were able to teach, talk, and write about karate in a highly accomplished way, the exalted rank of 10th dan was reserved for those very, very few who, in their actual performance of karate, achieved such a high level of mastery as to be counted among the living breathing legends of karate. 10th dan would be reserved for Shotokan’s Beethovens, Van Goghs, and Michael Jordans.
Very little detail was provided on how someone might actually become a 10th dan, but the few details that were released were quite shocking. A formal test would be required. Candidates would be selected and examined by a secret committee. Anyone at the rank of 3rd dan or higher could be selected as a candidate and if successful, would jump right up to the rank of 10th dan. Those selected to test would be notified in secret and tested in secret. Only those who successfully passed the test would be identified to the public; those who tested and failed would only be known to The Committee and those they tested with. Not everyone would be given the opportunity to test and no one would ever be allowed to retest for the rank if they failed – you either passed the first time or you would be out of consideration for the coveted 10th dan.
Wanting to see how such a strange plan played out, I used the GPS system in Rob’s time machine to take me ahead a few years to the location of a Judan examination. Here’s what I observed from the corner of the examination hall (while shielded in by the time machine’s invisibility cloaking device, of course).
Three hogtied and blindfolded candidates were brought to the empty room and freed by a masked assistant, who quickly exited and left them alone with each other. The candidates shared similar stories of being awakened in their beds in the middle of the night by masked intruders who invited them to come and challenge for the rank of Judan. After getting dressed for the exam, being secured by their unknown hosts and transported to this secret location, they were unceremoniously dumped in the examination hall together with no further explanation. As they were commenting on the events of the evening, a door at the back of the hall opened and five masked examiners entered the room and took seats at an empty table. The examiner in the center rose and addressed the group.
“Welcome gentlemen! Congratulations on being selected as candidates for the rank of Judan. Please line up.”
The examiner sat back down as the candidates took their places on line. After a brief moment, the examiner gave the first command.
“Hidari zenkutsu dachi, gedan barai. Hajime!”
Left forward stance with a left down block. The candidates all moved as instructed, waiting for the next instruction.
“Shizen tai. Yame.”
Return to natural stance. Finish.
The center examiner rose again.
“Thank you gentlemen. You will be notified of the results.”
The candidates looked at each other, puzzled. The examiners rose as a group and exited through the door they had entered through just a few moments earlier.
“That’s it?” said the first candidate.
“I guess we screwed up something” said the second candidate.
“Who knows – I just want to go back to bed!” said the third candidate.
Fascinated, I started up the time machine and punched in the coordinates to take me ahead to see how the candidates made out.
The first two candidates both received elegant, hand delivered envelopes by a neatly uniformed courier the morning immediately following the test. Inside, in the most exquisite calligraphy, was a note with a single word. “No.” They understood that they had not passed the test. A quick trip in the time machine later that day revealed that neither of them, although they both continued to train and teach for many years after the test, ever understood why they failed the 10th dan examination.
The third candidate received an envelope as well. His note simply read “Congratulations.” Mystified, he looked up at the smiling courier and asked “but they stopped us right away – we weren’t even given a chance to take the test!” The courier introduced himself as one of the examiners from the previous night and offered to explain.
“When the standard for Judan was originally considered, it was agreed that this rank must be strictly reserved for those special individuals for whom the combination of impeccable fundamental form and essential performance elements come together in the most natural and effortless way.”
The candidate slowly shook his head. “I understand. But we weren’t allowed to perform kihon. We weren’t allowed to perform kata. There was no kumite…”
The examined smiled again and interrupted. “If you understand how we defined what Judan means, then you’ll understand why we test the way we do. If one really possesses the skill we’re looking for, then they will express it in everything that they do – especially in things that others dismiss as unimportant! The test began when I said ‘please line up.’ How you moved across the room to take your place was observed. Your posture, your eyes, the form of your stance, the way your arms hung at your sides, your alertness, your readiness, your composure, your confidence, your presence in the room were all observed while you were lining up. At this point the test was one-third of the way over and all we had done was given you the command to stand still!”
The candidate looked at the examiner, stunned. The examiner chuckled.
“When we gave you the command to move, we wanted to see how many things you could control simultaneously and how natural that control appeared. How you initiated your movement, how you controlled your posture, how you generated speed and power, how you maintained balance and made your stance. Everything you ever learned about performing karate could be seen in how you performed that single movement. And you did this without knowing that we were looking for it – it wasn’t artificial, it wasn’t intentional. It was simply you performing your karate. You unselfconsciously infused your movement – and the stillness that followed – with the sum total of what is essential to good karate. Moving into the forward stance with the down block was the second third of the test; standing still in that position was the final third of the test.”
The examiner continued, “While most people can manage to demonstrate some performance elements some of the time, and maybe improve their ability to demonstrate a few more key principles when they know what the judges are looking for, only a few can manage to simultaneously demonstrate most of the key principles. Even fewer can ever demonstrate all of the key principles simultaneously. And even fewer yet can reliably, naturally and consistently demonstrate all of the key principles. Those people are who get recognized as Judan.”
“So the five of you who examined me are all Judan?” the candidate asked.
“No. In fact, you are the first Judan. We’re all Godan.”
“We’re experienced teachers. We know what a Judan would look like, even if we can’t honestly consider ourselves Judan.”
“So what do I do now?”
“You keep doing what you’ve always done, and we’ll showcase you as an example for others, a template of excellence. You’re proof that what we’re all striving for – coordinated, integrated performance – is achievable. In our modern 23rd-century utopian society, karate’s original purpose – self defense – has very limited value. It’s too easy for a punk to get a laser pistol and, well… never mind. Instead we try to control dozens of variables in our physical and mental condition while performing karate; karate defines the framework and relationship of the variables. We all need a standard to hold ourselves against, a name for the condition of perfection we measure ourselves against. That’s what Judan represents.”
With my head spinning, I revved up the time machine and sped back here to share this incredible story with all of you. I’ll let you digest all of this and then I’ll share the real prize from my travels through space and time: the list of performance elements!
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