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March 25, 2017

Modern grading systems in Judo: does it produce better citizens?

I recently read a Facebook entry by a judoka who had witnessed a poor dan grading contest with the BjA. The poster was suggesting that since his organisation no longer has contest for grades until shodan, the quality of the competition had decreased. The comment raised, in my mind, some interesting aspects of grades in judo.

My understanding of the BJA change to non-contest kyu grades was basically that it worked for the French, so perhaps it might work for the British. The idea is that contest experience is gained with full participation in kyu grade competitions. Yet this has not happened. The flaw in this concept is that the British Judo scene is neither as big or as vibrant as that of the French, but I think when we look at the Judo skills of those competing for shodan, there are more fundamental questions of coaching and grading to be looked at.

Not too long ago I witnessed a shodan grading at a BJC event, where several hopeful 1st kyu engaged in the sort of scrappy judo that I think the Facebook post was referring to. To my pleasant surprise I heard the grading officer speak to them at the end, where he said that those competing had not listened to his requirements as a grading officer: he had said that the duty of those attempting to gain their dan grade was to showcase their ability to do judo, he further said they all failed in that task, so notwithstanding the results, he would be grading no one. I thought that decision and its explanation was both brave and correct.

It was brave because the results requirements of the grading are written down and this grading officer, a 6th dan, had jettisoned them. It was correct because to wear a judo black belt an individual should have been trained to have produced judo, not just to be able to win a scrap. The decision echoed a conversation I had with the late Hosaka Akinori, Sensei, a Kodokan 8th dan, who when I asked him told me I should grade people on their ability, not on their results.

On one level, those young men (and sometimes women) fighting for their dan grades and failing to display any judo of note are not to blame for their failings. I am not convinced, either that the system is. Different organisations have different grading systems, yet many seem to come up with the same issue of fighters not being able produce the style of judo that is admired across all organisations, a style that displays the spirit of Kodokan Judo.

It is, I guess, a natural tendency for judo practitioners of kyu grade to chase their grades, to aspire to gain their black belt, but by simply looking at the grading syllabus and working out which hoop they need to jump through, they sometimes miss the point of their training. If you are working to a competition it is natural to organise your training around that date, but for overall development, the calendar should really be put to one side, or at least handed over to the sensei. In the hands of a sensei (and note I use the title sensei here, not coach) the schedule is written differently, because a sensei should be looking for and helping to develop a variety of aspects of a judoka’s persona other than being able to win a scrap: the ability and willingness to be competitive against a variety of opponents of differing skills and sizes; humility; breakfalls, indicating an attitude of attack that is facilitated by the knowledge that a failed attack will not be self-damaging; a desire to help those of lesser ability and respectful learning from those that know more; etiquette, understanding and displaying the manners of judo, so that victory is not marked with fist-pumping, respect is shown across the board.

Some of the aspects of a being a true judoka may seem archaic and in the rush for grades get left behind. Modern grading syllabi of all organisations that I have seen facilitate the down grading of a sensei to the role of a coach, who allows themselves to be governed by the thrice-yearly grading schedule. This has happened to such an extent that the Chair of a large organisation told me that there is no time for any coach to be a sensei these days. That is fundamentally wrong.

Scraping, fighting, is at the core of the activity of Judo. It always will be, judo is a fighting art. But according to the founder of Kodokan Judo he was in the business of producing better citizens. By narrowing down Judo to a results business we reject that principle.

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