I have previously alluded to a consequence of having high standards in our gradings. Standards that are higher than what they should actually be. That consequence is grade inflation. I’m not referring to people obtaining a higher grade than the one they should have, I’m actually referring to the opposite. Many people have a grade much lower than they should have.
The unfortunate thing for these people is that the keys to unlock the door to the one they should be are always held by someone else. You need a higher grade to promote you to the next one.
Now grades shouldn’t matter. In many ways the grading system that we have is not a good one. In others it really is. This post isn’t about the merits of how ranking works in aikido, it’s more about some unintended outcomes.
A Geographical Split
As was mentioned in February’s post the standards seen for grades in Japan are much lower than they are elsewhere. I have no empirical evidence for this other than the first hand accounts of people who’ve gone and trained there, and the impression I’ve formed of aikidoka that I’ve met that have graded there.
For the sake of argument let’s accept the premise that grades in Japan (specifically shodan, because that’s what most people care about) are a lower standard than elsewhere. That means that non-japanese aikidoka have inflated the standard of the grade. What we’re dealing with now are shodans that should be nidans( or sandans). First kyus (and lower) that should be wearing a black belt.
Unfortunately this inflation is not universal. One person’s first kyu is another person’s second kyu. A large part of this stems from the problem that there are no actual standards to the grading system. There is no list of things that must be accomplished at each grade. Every organisation has a grading syllabus, but I’ve never seen a description of what that entails. It might say that shomen uchi ikkyo omote must be demonstrated, but that’s all. There are no notes that indicate collapsing the arms would result in a fail for example.
Without pass/fail criteria the test essentially becomes an opinion poll. Very few people can give you actual specifics of what they would consider a pass and a fail for any given grade. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if there were less aikidoka. In a smaller pond it’s harder to hide.
The argument goes that you stand on your skill level, people can tell what grade you are by how well you do things. I don’t place much faith in that argument though. Sometimes it’s really obvious but often times it’s not. Especially if you are training with people from a different style. It doesn’t even have to be much of a different style. Aikido is a beautiful art to watch, it flows incredibly well and with good ukes it really is like watching a dance.
When you have to merge with your uke on the fly though it gets messy. It’s not as neat and clean as we expect it to be. This happens all the time at courses. It’s not unusual. If you’re watching a nage as they do this then you probably lower your opinion of their expected grade. All because they’re from a different style.
When I was nidan I went to a dojo near my new house. There were several and I was trying them out. I trained in this one for about a month but eventually stopped and went elsewhere. Their style was different enough it felt like I was back at 2nd Kyu level. I had a choice to make, radically alter my style to theirs and keep training there, or find somewhere else. If I were a kyu grade I’d just have changed my style, but I wasn’t so I took option b. That’s not grade inflation though, that’s just stylistic differences showing the myth that you can tell a persons skill level by looking at them.
Today the issues caused by stylistic differences are mitigated enormously for me. I have many more years training under my belt and can adapt much easier to a different style. There may still be the odd stutter on the first attempt though, because it’s a different focus, something new, but it’s never as pronounced as it was.
A Higher Standard
Without a defined set of criteria that is universal there is a tendency to insist on a higher standard because you don’t want to be thought of poorly when your students go somewhere else. Unfortunately everybody seems to think that so everybody inflates their standards.
This is a bizarre contradiction. If you remember from the previous post there is a disconnect in how long it takes to get a black belt and what it’s supposed to mean. This is where that contradiction becomes incredibly apparent. As I understand it, in Japan a shodan genuinely is a beginner level, outside Japan it is not. The grade inflation we encounter illuminates the lie that, ‘shodan is a beginner belt, it doesn’t mean anything’, because the standard to get one has become very high.
I can think of several reasons for this to have occurred. The simplest being that students travel. They go to courses, they visit other dojos, they train in other places. Most instructors are quite happy for them to do that. Subconsciously, or even consciously, there is a desire to have both your students and yourself well thought of. The students essentially represent the instructor, and everybody wants to be well thought of. Having a higher standard for a grade will automatically promote that.
If a student tells people that they are a 2nd kyu and when you observe them you think they should really be a 1st dan then you automatically consider the standards in their home dojo to be high. The opposite is also true, if the 2nd kyu would only be considered 4th kyu in your dojo then you consider the standards at their home dojo to be low. This is just human nature. We make direct comparisons. The fact that there is a grading system really doesn’t help here. It promotes an automatic referencing and therefore hierarchy that we can observe. As social animals we need to establish where new people fit into our ‘tribe’ and this is a really simple way to make a fast judgement on that.
As an example one of my students moved away and went to a new dojo. They explained that they had trained before, and where. They were greeted with looks of scepticism but nobody said anything. After some time and some training it transpired prior to my taking over several students had previously come to train at this dojo. Those students had not performed well and essentially needed to be taught everything from scratch. My student had performed quite differently to that. The point is that an opinion had been formed and had been applied to my student before anyone had seen them train. Reputations carry and nobody wants a bad one.
They Don’t Mean It
A second reason is that people are lying when they say grades don’t matter. It’s rather like a Netflix queue. We all have films in there that we have aspirations of watching. Some arthouse film or similar that we keep telling ourselves we’ll watch, right after we’ve seen the latest MCU movie. We tell ourselves one thing, but we actually do another. Secretly, most of us believe grades actually do matter, we just don’t want to admit it out loud. I’m quite happy to. I’m quite willing to openly admit that achieving shodan is a really big deal for my students. It’s a big one for me too when they get there.
Another possible cause is the old adage of what goes around comes around. The person awarding the grade had to go through a lot and be a high standard when they received their grade, therefore you have to go through it and be a high standard as well. I really hope this one isn’t true though I’m certain that for a large number of people it is. This is a really unfortunate one because it means a cycle is being perpetuated without anyone considering that it’s time to get off the merry-go-round.
No Way Out?
The most tragic thing is that there is virtually nothing that can be done about grade inflation. You could ignore it and award students grades based on a lower, more realistic standard. If they ever go anywhere else their grades will be discounted and they’ll be made to grade to a lower level than they are. Alternatively you could inflate your grades so that you can disregard those of anyone that comes to your dojo while forcing them to accept your students at their grade. That’s an incredibly petty act though which is entirely self serving and just feeds into the system. The logical outcome of that is even higher grade inflation.
I think there may be a way to at least alleviate the problem and I’ll detail that in the next post.
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