20 years since shodan – reflections on gradings, mastery and imposter syndrome

Shodan Certificate in Aikido

Today (5th August 2021) marks twenty years since I first graded to shodan (the first black belt grade) in a martial art. It might come as a surprise to many non martial artists that there are multiple black belt grades, and that a black belt does not represent the end of a journey but more of a proper beginning.

I dug out my shodan certificate recently when I realised this milestone was approaching. It was carefully stored in a filing cabinet since I’d taken it out of a frame when I replaced it with a nidan (2nd dan) certificate. That was a mistake, but probably born out of the circumstances.

I started training in aikido on the 16th August of 1999, with a bit of a rocky start, but eventually I built up some momentum and attended all the classes and weekend courses I could, taking up iaido as well at the same time. I was probably taking instruction from around six people in two martial arts, which generally was a good thing, as I learned that different people had different talents and approaches some of which my own personal style resonated with more than others.

In the August of 2001, I was at the Summer School of our Aiki No Michi association in Galway, intending to grade for 1st Kyu – which is the last grade before the black belt grades. My uke (partner) for the main part of the grading, was a gentleman I’d never met before but in much the same position. We were grading alongside those who were challenging various black belt grades and the late Alan Ruddock sensei led the grading, under the watchful eye and opinions of the late Henry Kono sensei. About half way through the grading, Alan made some comment that while he knew we were grading for 1st Kyu he just wanted to watch us for a bit longer. I can remember thinking that I couldn’t consider the possible implications of that and so I just decided to carry on as if it had not been said.

The grading continued, and eventually we each did our minute or so of multiple attackers, I think with six each. It’s something of a simulation obviously but there are real challenges in dealing with six people when you are already pretty tired and you’re trying to land each person in a safe spot.

Afterwards, as Alan announced the results I was stunned that he’d decided to award me with shodan rather than the 1st Kyu I was attempting, and I was in excellent company with many friends who had been grading for shodan that year. The result however, was that I had an even bigger slice of imposter syndrome than many people who first get their black belt. At the same Summer School I interviewed Alan and Henry, and when speaking to them about grading Alan made some comment about how when one gets to black belt you realise you still don’t know that much yet – and I feel he looked pointedly at me when he said it. It provided quite a bit of relief. I told myself many times that Alan had a choice not to award me shodan, but still the feeling of uncertainty persisted.

Just over a year later (18th August 2002) I obtained my shodan in Muso Jikiden Eishen Ryu Iaido in Leeds, England, under a panel led by the late great Nishimoto sensei, though Iwata sensei’s name is on the certificate. I remember that grading keenly – it was a very hot day and drips of sweat fell on the wooden floor when we bowed in at the start. That shodan certificate has stayed on my wall.

But when I got my nidan in aikido a few years later I replaced my shodan certificate in the frame. I think nidan had been important to me to reassure me the shodan had been legitimate, but in retrospect it was a terrible mistake to remove that shodan certificate from the frame and from the wall. Obtaining that grade from Alan Ruddock remains one of the most important moments in my life. So I have placed it freshly in a new frame to go back on a wall somewhere, and today will be a good day to do that.

Shodan Certificate in Aikido

Incidentally my yondan (4th dan) certificate in aikido signed by Anita Bonnivert sensei is on my wall, having seen Anita’s aikido I was very honoured to receive that grade, and I’ve just realised my nidan (2nd dan) in Iaido (from Stephen Bentham et al.) has no certificate on the wall, so I have some homework to do checking the dates and details of that – it was a long time ago.

Martial arts are about a lot more than physical technique, the suffix “do” on the end of many traditional Japanese martial arts means “way” (as “tao” in Chinese). They usually have a deep culture of mental introspection. I have certainly learned a lot about myself in the last 20/22 years, and a lot about other people, and a lot about human interaction in both physical and non physical spaces. I’ve applied a lot of that learning in many other facets of my life.

A lot of us wrestle with imposter syndrome. I sometimes feel that it’s a good sign to do so. It can be linked to our expectation of “mastery” as a destination, but the concept of do/tao is that mastery is a continuing journey and never a destination. This concept is explored in a lot of detail in George Leonard’s book: “Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment”, and I’d really recommend this book to anyone interested in the challenges of self improvement in any sphere.

Gradings are funny things, and I’ve written more about them elsewhere, they shouldn’t really define us, but they do mark important milestones on our continued journeys and so they are worth remembering and celebrating.

Grading in the Martial Arts

dan-kanjiLast week Donal and I got involved in answering some questions about grading from folks in our aikido club. I thought I would put some of my thoughts here. Other people’s thoughts will vary and I’d welcome other perspectives in the comments.

These are perspectives on grading in Japanese martial arts, but particularly aikido. They of course have analogues in other martial arts and even other human endeavours. But they may not. Most Japanese martial arts have black belt or Dan grades, and white or other coloured belts or Kyu grades leading to that point.

In a lot of cases when people are wondering about grading, they are wondering about the path to the first “black belt” grade or shodan, so that will be my main perspective, but many comments are general.

So, here are some thoughts that may or may not be useful.

It’s all made up

First thing is first. All martial arts are man made systems and someone appointed themselves in charge. Those people then graded other people and are often above the grading system themselves, or are 10th Dan. From a certain point onwards there are conventions obeyed, mainly that people can grade only to a certain level beneath them or in committee. People will have a certain lineage that you can consider. So how seriously people take it, is a matter of perspective. The same is true for legitimacy. You will have to make your own mind up, sorry.

This isn’t intended to be insulting or offensive. The same is true of just about every system, they are man made, their authority is derived from a mixture of tradition and peer review. You will have to decide if it matters to you if your grade is recorded in a particular dojo in Japan.

Get grades from someone you respect

As a result, I think it’s important that you grade from someone whose technical form, philosophy and personality you respect. Or if not, you can ask your own questions about the legitimacy of your grade.

Grade doesn’t matter, except when it does

Grade is fundamentally unimportant, but nevertheless grading can be a useful process to guide and measure learning and progression. If you don’t care about grade, there’s no problem with that as such. Sometimes grade is necessary – it is often impossible to arrange insurance cover for training when the instructor is not at least a shodan.

However, gradings absolutely can guide and accelerate your learning, as well as measuring it.

You may reach a point where your own feeling about your own progress needs no external guidance or validation, which is great, in many ways.

EDIT: So I got some good feedback from some people that I should warn readers that lots of martial arts people take their grades very seriously and expect it to alter the way you interact with them both on and sometimes even off the mats. This is very true. Be cautious. I’m also not suggesting you shouldn’t respect the grades of others, far from it. I’m trying to suggest in this section that you should be cautious about taking your own grade too seriously.

Grade doesn’t change you, except when it does

When you finally get shodan you will have to come to terms with just how much you don’t know, and the fact that you are the same person you were the day before. This is true for all grades. Grades can improve you only as a side effect, as you have actively learned to obtain them, or that they allow you to move forwards again.

They can also change you for the worse, if you think they are about dominance over others, or they make you less aware of your own learning, or otherwise complacent.

Shodan (black belt) does not mean expert

Most people outside the martial arts, and quite a few inside, think that the first black best grade, shodan, means “expert”. Not only is this not true, it is far from true. All other Dan grades come from the Japanese numbering system, nidan (2nd Dan), sandan (3rd Dan) and so on. Instead of ichidan (literally 1st degree), the word used for the first black belt grade is shodan, which means “beginner’s degree” or “beginner’s step”.

This is really important, you shouldn’t see shodan as some sort of unattainable level only possible for experts. It’s intended as a foundational level at which point your basics are sorted out, the stabiliser wheels can come off and your journey really begins anew.

Here is the embarrassing truth, the Japanese describe Dan graded students collectively as yudansha, which more or less means, “those that have dan grades”, wheras kyu graded students are mudansha, “those that do not have dan grades”. So it is expected that most serious students will progress to Dan grades.

You don’t need to start with amazing intrinsic skill, you don’t need to be really smart, you don’t need to be amazingly young or fit, you need to be consistent and focused and actively learning.

Not everyone will get Dan grades by any means, but that is mainly because people don’t want to, don’t think they can, or miss some of the points I suggest here (and probably many others too).

The process is often uneven between people

The personal journey and battle of each individual is different, so you will often see curious decisions in terms of allocation of grade. You have to trust the person doing it to have the right motives, see above.

I once read in a great essay, I wish I could find it, someone saying that shodan (the 1st black belt grade) stretches from 3rd Kyu to 3rd Dan. I.e. there are shodans with questionable technical competence, and others who are exceptional. Obviously there isn’t a 0.99 Dan or 1.25 Dan, but the process has to try and accommodate the different levels of achievement seen.

This wikipedia article also makes the same point.

The process is often uneven between arts

Different arts will have different expectations for shodan. The “syllabus” requirements for a shodan in Iaido are smaller than many arts, and practised in many clubs every single class. You may need careful attention over many months or more in other arts even to see the whole syllabus. On the other hand, Iaido may require written theory tests for Dan grades which can be rare in other arts.

This has consequences, see more below.

It shouldn’t be about ego

It’s not really supposed to be about you feeling awesome, but of course people legitimately feel a sense of achievement upon obtaining a grade, but then it should be settling back down to work, remember, shodan means you have dragged yourself onto the first step.

Try and obtain grades to compete against yourself, not others. On the other hand, some people will shy away from grading from a less obvious pride; they are afraid to fail. This is not a good reason not to grade.

Masakatsu agatsu : ???? : “true victory is self victory” was a favourite expression of Morihei Ueshiba Sensei.

It’s not up to your instructors

I can’t say this enough. It’s not up to your instructors to get you to any given grade. It’s up to you. Yes, you need competent instruction, or most people do, but you have to walk the path. That’s what the do means in aikido or iaido or whatever.

Learning and teaching in the martial arts is much the same as in other endeavours. Someone will do a lot of teaching, but you have to do a lot of learning. It usually goes in both ways, but one direction is more prominent. By being active learners, you also help your instructors to learn themselves. Remember they are students too.

In any case, the point is, it is up to you, if you want to achieve a certain grade you need to work actively towards that goal.

Understand the syllabus

This seems obvious, but you should be looking at your organisation’s grading syllabus and actively ticking things off, become aware of what you know, and retain that, and start identifying what you don’t know. This can be where grading really improves progress rather than measuring it, it provides a signpost as to where your attention should be. This is not to say you should ignore other instruction, but when the class covers something you know you need for your next grade, it’s time to really focus.

For aikidoka in Aiki No Michi dojos, the syllabus is here. Print it out, make it yours. Ask your instructors questions relentlessly, help to improve them too.

Ask questions, take notes

Keep asking your instructors questions, and you may find it useful to put things down in a notebook, take photographs or videos. Please ask permission in those latter cases and don’t distribute these without permission.

Take Correction

It’s a bad sign when you are not corrected by your instructor. It may mean you have reached a point where she or he finds it hard to correct you, or it may be they consider it pointless. Listen to correction and try hard to genuinely work to fix your problems.

The frustrating thing for both students and instructors is that your problems may persist for a long time, you may keep hearing the same advice. Sometimes it takes quite a while for the penny to drop fully, but try with sincerity.

But think for yourself

If you meet an instructor who tells you never to think for yourself, it is probably a good idea to run for the hills. Be respectful, but never stop thinking. You are also your own instructor.

Correct Yourself

It is not for nothing that Alan Ruddock Sensei picked these words for his Aiki No Michi‘s grading book:

“I want considerate people to listen to the voice of Aikido. It is not for correcting others, it is for correcting your own mind.” – Morehei Ueshiba Sensei

This phrase is worthy of deep contemplation. In many ways it reflects the whole essence of aikido, concentrate on sorting out your own problems rather than those of other people.

Be wary of instructing others when you are not teaching the class. If you are training with someone more junior, and if your dojo and instructor is happy with this then be willing and open to kindly and compassionately help if asked, or even politely offer. But you should always concentrate on your own problems.

Be watchful and mindful of your own practice. Remember, it is your responsibility to improve, with the help of your instructor and other senior (and junior) students. Even when training with students who are junior in technical skill, be mindful of what your errors are.

But don’t show it in your face. Save it for a conversation afterwards. Wincing when you make an error is a terrible thing in the martial arts. Why tell your opponent you have messed up? They may not know.

Your training becomes your practice

What you repeat, and what you try to do, becomes your ingrained practice. This is the point of course. Don’t be lazy, don’t be easy on yourself.

And therefore, be mindful not to stop techniques to request another go, always try to keep going or do something else except where this would risk injury to you or others.

You have to train to be as you wish to be, diligent, and mindful, upright and vibrant. Fake it till you make it – a dangerous expression, but the point is you can learn to be confident and calm.

Zanshin and Reiho do not come later

Regardless of your stage of technical ability things like zanshin, the awareness of things around you, should be practised from day one. This is true for etiquette; you may not know all the fancy Japanese words and gestures, but sincerity is more important than accuracy.

You will need some Japanese vocabulary

Having said that, you will need to get your head around the Japanese language used in class or gradings. Start soon.

It’s not all about the body

Martial arts are physical, but they are also mental, it is the way that your mind works that will shine through the movements of your body. Working towards calm and assured practice is for me, the hallmark of the difference between 1st Kyu and 1st Dan. Both should know all the relevant techniques, the shodan should show greater composure under pressure, and deal with errors gracefully.

Having said that, it can be vital to understanding to feel and not just to see, since sight can be deceptive. Ask your instructor to throw you to feel what is going on.

It will take as long as it takes, but…

When people spot a black belt on you they often ask how long you have been training, what they often mean to ask is how long will it take them to get a belt like that.

The time it takes varies from person to person and art to art. But one thing is for sure, if you don’t start walking along the path actively and with mindfulness, it will take you a lot longer, or more likely it will never happen, especially if you have already decided at some level within you that you aren’t capable.

Much has been written about how working to get grades faster makes it take longer. Yes, that can be true, as I wrote in this older article, you cannot be unrealistic either. You can’t be in the present while your mind is always on future grades. As in so many things it is about balance, after reading Allen Baird’s book, his use of language helped me come to a realisation how important the middle point of assertiveness is, between passivity and aggression to aikido practice. This is true for grading as well.


We are all students, those who teach and those who do not. We are all practising to improve. You need to do so with dedication, patience and motivation. Build momentum, keep improving. Polish all the impurities away.

It doesn’t matter how much you do everything else suggested here, if you don’t practice. Remember that practice isn’t just in the dojo with formal instruction. You can practice exercises at home. Even iaidoka can practice body movements without a sword while the kettle is boiling, you can practice zanshin and body movement all day long.

These are just some thoughts, I hope that they may help you. Just remember your instructors are on the same journey, help them to help you, and train with sincerity and mindfulness.

Remember these are my opinions, you should interpret them with care and speak to your own instructors.