The Iaido Journal  May 2001EJMAS Tips Jar

Judges, groveling and getting home: Brief thoughts on an iaido grading in Tokyo

      Chris Gilham

      I still havenít figured out if judges in Japan are manikins or the animatronic robots that you see in Disneyland attractions.  Judges in Japan display no emotion. They donít smile or frown, wince or grimace. They certainly donít wipe their brows or stretch their collars. They act nothing like Judge Judy or the judges Iíve seen in criminal courts.*  In fact, after seeing Japanese judges, Judge Judy looks like a babbling idiot. She seems more like a freaked out chicken than a person with the power and authority to pass judgment on people.

      Then again, after four years of careful observation I think the television news stations in Japan all have and use the same video clip from a Japanese court. The Japanese government doesnít allow cameras into the courts and so, when TV stations report on news involving the courts, they pull out the government produced court video.

      Iím fairly certain Iíd been seeing the same video clip for four years: the judges look the same, and they never move, not an inch. Itís bizarre really, because it looks as if absolutely nothing is going on in the court, not even in a mocked up court video for the TV stations.

      But just recently Iíve come to think that maybe I have been seeing different video clips. After my fourth Iaido grading in Tokyo, at the Tokyo Budokan, Iím certain that all judges in Japan look and act the sameólifeless.

      Several times a year the Tokyo region holds the shodan to sandan gradings. There are usually heaps of Iaidoka testing at once, about 400 people per grading. In a large dojo hall, about the size of a high school basketball court, ten judges sit stone-faced for hours on end. They sit so straight that right angled rulers could be made from the perfect angles the judgeís backs and butts make. Itís hard to catch these people blinkingóEven when the odd participant drops his scabbard!

      Five judges for every five students is the grading norm. The five grading students have six minutes to complete five forms from the standardized set, with an option to do one form from their koryu school as well. Rows of participants line up, sit, grade, and wait for their test results. The shodan group is always the largest, with about 200 participants. They finish in about two and half hours, including a short ten-minute break for the judges, which Iím sure the judges need. Almost immediately after the shodans are finished the test results are posted. Everyone is given a number, and if their number is listed on the huge white sheet posted after the grading, then they have passed. The nidans and sandans follow the same routine.

      I was one of 68 grading for sandan that day. In fact, because of the odd numbers, I and one other Japanese woman were the last to test that day. When we finished the crowd applauded. For a flashing moment I thought they were applauding us, but I soon jumped out of my narcissism and realized they were clapping because the grading was finally over.

      Before my actual grading I took advantage of the opportunity to watch the other participants and the judges. This was when I made my discovery about judges in Japan. I could have been seeing different court video clips on TV for sure! Really, Japanese judges, in general, are the same: These folks made the Easter Island statues look energetic.  Stonehenge is like a rock party in comparison.

      You have to give the Japanese credit though. I like the idea that a judge keeps full control of emotions and thoughts during the grading. This way all the participants Ďfeelí as though they are getting equal treatment. But who knows what happens in the Ďsenseií rooms behind the judging wall. During the breaks the judges probably drop into the room saying things like, ďDid you see that idiot drop his scabbard?!Ē Or, ďThese people make me want to cry!Ē Maybe they all sit in the back room the same way they did when judging: Silent and stone-faced. Either scenario, Iím not sure if Iíd want to be a fly on the wall in that room.

      Personally, I really enjoyed watching the grading this time around. After having been all over the place, training and showing different teachers my iaido, Iíve gotten used to the Ďdemonstrate in front of othersí situations. I remember all too clearly my shodan grading. I donít know how I passed, but I did. My hands shook terribly through the whole thing. I was so nervous that I couldnít control my facial expressions very well either. But then again, in the Tokyo gradings for shodan to sandan thereís one general rule of thumb: Most participants pass the gradings, not because they are Ďgoodí or Ďproficientí at iaido, but because they can get through the motions. Thatís about it. The mental focus and Ďspirití that we strive to understand and control in iaido is emphasized in later gradings, or so I believe. This doesnít mean that shodan to sandan participants arenít capable of that mental focus. There are always a few among the four hundred who really show an excellence in their iaido. I hope Iím one of them, but Iím not sure.
Another part of the gradings, and one that I really noticed this time around, was the amount of groveling in the sidelines.  I saw so many students kissing so many butts that it actually bothered me. But then I thought about the purpose of the day. If a participant passes her grading, it is her obligation to immediately thank her teacher. Naturally, there was a lot of bowing in the dojo that day. Out of 400 people, only two-dozen or so failed.

      Itís funny that after four years in Japan Iíve finally made some serious observations about the place. Shaking hands in our society is one of the most visible signs of the emphasis we place on individual rights, liberty, and equality among people. In Japan the bowing and groveling is the direct connection to a class society, based on rank and file that still exists today. The more I reflect on my experiences in Japan the more I realize how this class structure can rigidly define, control and restrict peopleís lives. In western society we respect people for their worth, and that worth is based on merit. Our respect goes only as far as it is earned, and usually not past that. In Japan it matters not so much on merit as it does on seniority, and the respect that must be given is excessive, to the point of blind groveling. I guess Iím trying to say that Iím tired of seeing blind obedience all around me. On many occasions I gave that same kind of Ďworshipí to my own teacher, and others. Now, enough is enough for me. I would like to give measured, earned respect where it is due. Does this mean I can never truly understand a martial path? Some will reasonably argue yes. In my mind though, Iíve sought and continue to tread upon an honest and sincere path.

      Miyamoto Musashi and others write about the supreme duty to oneís lord. Movies portray this duty as heroic, to the point of virtue, but Iíve come to see that it is merely a powerful, and unnatural, control on other people. Sure, the Japanese live in harmony, but not without heaps of stress. Perhaps this stress, that underlay the very fabric of Japanese relationships, is one of the main reasons I have returned to the west.

      Now, Iím not picking on the Japanese. Iíve got pages of mental notes concerning us westerners and our selfish, single-minded ambitions. This talk about judges and gradings has simply given me the opportunity to write on this Japanese observation of mine.

      In the end I passed my grading. Honestly, I knew that if I didnít drop my sword on the floor Iíd probably pass, which should not be misconstrued as arrogance on my part. If youíve ever seen the gradings in Tokyo, you know exactly where I am coming from. More importantly, the grading was an excellent time for me to reflect on iaido as it relates to my life in Japan. I knew then that I would be heading home, thus bringing to an end a major chapter in my life. I still have grand feelings about many things Japanese, but I also understand Japan in deeper ways than I would have had I lived in the country for only a year or two. For now, my iaido life in Japan is over and I look forward to a new life, including an iaido one, in western society. Besides, I have just got to see how western judges look during an iaido grading!


* I have never been accused or charged of a crime. Several years ago I was a volunteer for the Ministry of the Crown Attorneyís Office. I was a member of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program. For one year, once a week, I sat in on a full day of criminal court.

TIJ May 2001