Iaido has a different grading system than other arts. We don’t have a belt system; our belts are simply to keep our hakama up and our katana in the right place.
How do we do ranking in the dojo? You just know who’s ranked higher than you are and line up appropriately. If you don’t know, you err on the side of them being higher than you. Within ranks age also plays a factor. If needed, seniority can go as granular as the day you first came to the dojo to train.
That being said, the ranking system is:
Ikkyu – 1st Kyu
Shodan – 1st Dan
Nidan – 2nd Dan
Sandan – 3rd Dan
Yondan – 4th Dan
Godan – 5th Dan*
Rokudan – 6th Dan
Shichidan – 7th Dan
Hachidan – 8th Dan
Kudan – 9th Dan
Jūdan – 10th Dan
So in essence we go from white belt to brown belt and skip the ranks that are in between in other arts. I believe this is because we swing swords around and even someone who hasn’t done the art extremely long can kill someone with a sword, thereby making them more dangerous than the average inexperienced martial artist.
There are waiting periods between each rank. Between No Kyu and Ikkyu is up to the descretion of the sensei. Every other level has a minimum waiting period as follows:
Ikkyu to 1st Dan = 6 months
1st to 2nd = 1 year
2nd to 3rd = 2 years
3rd to 4th = 3 years
4th to 5th = 4 years
5th to 6th = 5 years
6th to 7th = 6 years
7th to 8th = 10 years
From what I’ve read on various forums, Kendo has eliminated the 9th and 10th Dan rankings. Given that Iaido is part of the same organization (at least in Canada) and there is no information about wait times between ranking, Iaido has either done the same thing or votes on those ranks. In the time of the samurai, 9th and 10th Dan were voted on by a committee. Times have changed considerably as we don’t have swordsman as a profession, so the idea with the elimination by Kendo is partly because it’s inconceivable to think that someone studying the art today could ever get to the level of proficiency that was seen in ancient times. Allowing no one to go beyond 8th Dan is partially about respecting the history and lineage of the art and partially about realizing that today the highest levels are all about the same in skill as each other. There’s also the likelihood that there isn’t enough higher ranks to vote on awarding a 9th Dan.
All this to say that I recently went to my first Iaido grading. The Ikkyu written exam asked me to label the parts of the sword and explain some techniques. For the practical portion I had to perform 5 Zen Ken Ren kata of my choosing. I chose Mae, Uke Nagashi, Morote Tskui, Sanpo Giri, and Ganmen Ate.
The night before the exam, I had trouble getting to sleep. The day of the exam I felt a mix of low level excitement and terror. For months I’d been told things that would cause me to fail like dropping my sword, stabbing myself, not getting back to my line, looking at a judge, sloppy clothing, poor sageo control, exiting or entering the dojo and/or floor improperly, forgetting katas, doing katas out of order, looking around the room, bad footwork, running into others while doing my kata, not going down to one knee in the katas that require it (especially mae), etcetera. Add to that the nervousness of my friends who were also grading, them thinking I was crazy for choosing Uke Nagashi, and I was a little scared. My sensei posted a “Keep calm and do your Iai” meme, which was nice. Just go and do my kata to the best of my ability and stop thinking about the other stuff.
We got a little time to practice beforehand. There is an observation area right near where I was practicing. This was a little unnerving, but I thought back to my days in the theatre.
So what happened?
Well, I was in the 3rd group of my rank challanging for Ikkyu. This meant that I got my testing done early, but it meant that I spent a lot of time in the testing room waiting for my turn. I was standing behind the chair of the person who would be going up after the person who was already on the floor. I tried to look mainly at the wall above the judges as I didn’t want to watch others do their kata and worry that I wasn’t as good as them. When it came time for me to sit in the chair, it was hard to sit properly as we were told we had to sit very erect and on the edge of the seat. My thumb was growing numb, my hand was sweating, and I worried I would drop my sword, so I used my other hand to help hold it. This meant it was technically further in my lap than it should have been, but I figured that was better than dropping it and making a bunch of noise.
My etiquette went okay. I had to tuck my sageo twice instead of once to make it neat. Etiquette was a difficult thing for me to learn for some reason and I definitely don’t think I’m close to mastering it, but at least I’ve improved considerably in that area.
During the kata, I tried to take my time and get my sword and feet in the right places. I didn’t forget my kata or skip things, but I couldn’t focus on counting my steps back to the line. I went back slightly further than necessary, but in the higher levels that tested after me, someone failed for being in front of the line.
I completed my kata and etiquette in 5 minutes and 23 seconds. We had a time limit of 6 minutes.
I can grade again in 6 months except that the next grading opportunity is in 5 months and the one after is in one year. I’ll be challenging Shodan next December barring any unexpected circumstances that prevent it.
The worst part of the whole thing was standing in the room behind the chair and sitting in the chair. The rest was just doing Iai.
– Roy Iaidoka, Ikkyu