One of the most interesting conversations this writer has encountered over the past years is the question of testing. Some have believed that testing should not be part of Aikido, or even any martial art. A person should practice the Art for the love of the art and not to obtain rank or promotions. Others have felt that testing is an integral part of the process when learning a martial art.
This is an interesting question from many standpoints. Those who feel tests are not necessary often have the opinion that tests “soil” the purity of a martial art. That is, that any martial art should be learned simply for the sake of learning it. That there should be complete and total satisfaction from the time spent on the mat experiencing the art first hand and not from testing or seeking a rank.
The other school believes that being tested is a way of demonstrating that you’ve accomplished a level of learning and can demonstrate this under pressure. And there is pressure in any martial arts test or examination, as with any test at school or college, or anywhere else. How many of us have had sweaty palms walking into our local DMV office to take a written driver’s test. And I am sure we all remember that first driving test too?
The truth lays a little bit with both sides to the question, but perhaps more with the testing side than with the non-testing one. Always one should feel no pressure to test. Yet, the truth is that this unfortunately happens in some dojos. “You are ready.” This often said from an instructor to a student informing them that the instructor feels they are ready to test. Yet, a student should always have the option to say, “No, and thank you. I don’t want to test.” Or, “Thank you but I don’t feel I’m ready yet.”
The truth of the matter is that a test takes time out of your life. It involves that commitment of time, and a level of preparation both on and off the mat. In many dojos a commitment to test requires six months to a year of extra time on the mat preparing. This is time spent before or after class with training partners and senior students learning and practicing over and over the techniques required for the rank that the candidate will be tested for.
In Japan, before World War Two, rank was a less structured and formal process. One at a certain level of achievement was given a teaching certificate by their Sensei, acknowledging that they had mastered a certain level of competence. The certificate was given after many years of training. There were often secret techniques that were included with the knowledge passed from teacher to student. Once one had a teacher certificate, they could open their own school or dojo and teach what the master had taught them.
When the martial arts began migrating to America with G.I.’s returning from Japan after World War Two, a change had occurred in the post war environment. Japanese teachers allowed to begin offering martial arts classes again, those who were cleared by the Occupation Authorities (O Sensei was one such teacher), soon developed a system of rank and a codification of standardized techniques for the Art. As a result, the transmission of the martial arts to America involved testing for various beginner ranks (kyu) and then higher black belt ranks (dan).
This systematization helped Americans and in the other countries these martial arts spread with understanding the arts they were studying. It meant that basically a technique would pretty much be the same whether one was training in Los Angeles, Kansas City, Atlanta, Chicago or New York City, or even London, Moscow or Tel Aviv. And rank and testing served a critical purpose. It allowed the instructor or teacher to know what the student’s level of achievement was. This was easy within one’s own dojo as an instructor. But with visiting students this could be a problem. Students when signing in had to designate their rank.
Another very real part of this question is what comes with rank? Rank denotes a certain level of proficiency in the art. But rank is not just the color of a belt. It is also how one performs and moves on the mat. So, in reality one could come on the mat and say, “I’m such or such a rank.” But if their techniques and ki (energy) did not correspond to their claimed rank, then the instructor and probably the students would know something was not quite right.
The question of testing or not testing is in the best circumstances a dialogue between sensei (instructor) and student. Both should have equal say and have the ability to listen to each others insights, concerns and wishes. If it is not, the whole purpose of testing and of a test has been defeated. Then it is either the sensei’s ego or the student’s at play and not the true spirit of Art manifesting.
Whether you test or chose not to test, please enjoy your time on the mat and know that you are doing something positive and good not only for yourself, but for your fellow students and your family, friends and your community.