“Dan Inflation in the Early Years of Aikido,” by Stanley Pranin

“My own teacher, Morihiro Saito told me on more than one occasion that he skipped two ranks in his advancement to 9th dan”

stan-pranin-closeupThe other day I found an interesting article in the 33rd issue of the “Aikido Shimbun” published in March 1962. You may recall that the Aikikai Hombu Dojo began publishing this four-page newsletter in 1959. The newsletter has appeared continuously through today, an enviable publishing run of over 52 years!

What caught my eye was an announcement listing the dan promotions awarded on January 15 of the same year at the annual Kagami Biraki celebration. A number of famous names are mentioned in that list, some of them prewar students of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba, while others began training following World War II.

I have selected certain names of people that have become prominent and added the year of their enrollment by way of reference.

8th dan
Rinjiro Shirata (1933)
Hajime Iwata (1930)
Takaaki (Shigemi) Yonekawa (1932)

7th dan
Morihiro Saito (1946: 16 years to 7th dan)

6th dan
Zenzaburo Akazawa (1933)
Shoji Nishio (1951: 11 years to 6th dan)
Nobuyoshi Tamura (1953: 9 years to 6th dan))

5th dan
Hiroshi Kato (1954: 8 years to 5th dan)
Hiroshi Isoyama (1949: 13 years to 5th dan)

4th dan
Yoshio Kuroiwa (c. 1954: 8 years to 4th dan)

3rd dan
Masatake Fujita (1956: 5 years to 3rd dan)
Koretoshi Maruyama (1959: 3 years to 3rd dan)
Katsuaki Asai (1955: 7 years to 3rd dan)

If you look at the number of years of training resulting in the indicated rank, you will find certain cases where the progress of dan promotions was very rapid. For example, three years to 3rd dan, or nine years to 6th dan–as in two of the cases cited–would be considered an aberration by today’s standards.

This sort of rapid advancement, or “dan inflation,” if you like, was a common occurrence in the 1950s and 60s. The reasons have to do with the fact that aikido was a new martial art, and relatively unknown to the general public. One of the most effective means of promoting aikido were public demonstrations. When aikido was being demonstrated by so-called “experts,” it would seem odd to have people of low rank representing the art. But since aikido was new, there were not yet very many highly-ranked practitioners.

Also, in the case of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, there existed a kind of a rivalry with the rapidly expanding Yoshinkan Aikido established by Gozo Shioda. In the early years following the war, the Yoshikan school was more active than the nearly dormant Aikikai which still had bombed-out families living in the Hombu Dojo. As the separation between the Aikikai and Yoshikan was not as distinct as today, representatives of both schools would sometimes appear in the same demonstration. The Yoshikan rapidly advanced their senior teachers and standout students, and the Aikikai followed suit so as not to be looked upon in a lesser light.

My own teacher, Morihiro Saito told me on more than one occasion that he skipped two ranks in his advancement to 9th dan. There were a number of other prominent teachers who experienced the same thing. The “Aikido Shimbun” is a good source document for tracing this early progression through the rankings of well-known instructors.

As aikido became established over the years, generally speaking, standards became more stringent, and today it is not uncommon for it to take three or more years to reach 1st dan, and several more years for each dan thereafter.

If you think about it, the early instructors who were sent abroad to disseminate aikido were, comparatively speaking, still novices in the art. Many of them, however, made rapid progress because of the difficult conditions and challenges they faced in setting up dojos and organizations overseas. They may have been promoted rapidly early on, but their reputations as aikido experts were built through long periods of hard work and strenuous testing of their mettle.

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20s Comments

  1. I am glad someone else noticed this. Kenji Tomiki started aikido in 1926 and was the first 8th dan awarded in aikido in 1942, I believe. He took 16 years to 8th. That is fairly quick by today’s standards.

  2. Hello Stan,

    I think there should be some thought about the level of the people you practice with and the number of other arts people may be proficient in. I believe a number of these people held multiple dan ranks in other arts. Judo, Karate, Jujutsu, Iaido, and Kendo were all long established. It seems to me that if you have become proficient in two or more arts, then the third and subsequent arts are usually picked up quicker. Also when you practice one on one with people who have already been doing something for a decade or more, then they will push you along and show you detailed nuances much faster. When you couple both of those thoughts with intense, frequent practices, then rapid advancement would not be so unusual. This is what I found. I think many places here in the States have no idea of the level of practice in old dojos in Japan. Places that think they are intense and hardly break a sweat are kidding themselves.

    I used to judge a good practice by whether my gi bag felt like it was welded to the ground when I went to pick it up. If your gi and hakama are fully soaked you may have a gallon or more of sweat in there. I had one night when we stopped and I noticed I was really sweating a lot. I held out my hand and there was s steady stream of sweat running off my little finger. Another way to judge is when the sweat running down your face tastes like fresh water. All the salt is gone. That’s some good koryu. You don’t need a shower cause you have been washed by the misogi.

    Tom Huffman
    Gainesville, Florida

  3. Your point is well taken. People like Shoji Nishio and Morihiro Saito had considerable experience in arts like judo and karate and were older. Some of the younger uchideshi entered the dojo when 18 or 19 and may have only had a smattering of high school judo training. If you look at some of the old film of these folks before their departure at Japan, you’ll get an idea of their level.

  4. I agree that in the day aikido seemed to be a sort of graduate school. I’ve had good people come to me, but the vast number of beginning aikido students in the USA have little background in martial arts.

  5. I concur. Today’s twice weekly practice sessions don’t come close to the 6 and sometimes 7day training sessions many had in the sixties and early seventies. Not to mention continuing training with broken arms and or fingers.

  6. I wanted to chime in with something that was mentioned in the previous post. I certainly find the article very interesting, but in my opinion it is certainly hard to compare yesterday’s training to our training of today. Most classes span about an hour or so today +/-? Aikidoka of today, usually dont spend more than 3-4 days a week training, if they are lucky. These masters of today, seemed to have trained intensly for 6-7 days a week with multiple hours of one on one training by founders of the art. Aikido roots are nothing new…they derived from Aikijutsu which was practiced by many at that time, not to mention Judo and others. I spend 4-5 days a week training because I truly enjoy it and I spend hours reading books to better myself but I will most probably never reach the level they have because paying mortgages and raising kids will not allow for it. Life today very seldom allows for this type of training, but there is nothing better than seeing someone who is proficient in their skill set. This makes you look at things differently and maybe understand the adversities we also face today, although different, certainly they are barriers from allowing us to progress more rapidly. I enjoyed the story and thank you for sharing this article.

  7. An interesting exercise would be to view some of the early surviving films of the instructors who went abroad. It was partially having viewed a great deal of footage that prompted me to come to the conclusions I have.

  8. I’m wondering about the X years till Y-Dan numbers you are giving.
    Example: Katsuaki Asai (1955: 7 years to 3rd dan)
    Does that mean 7 years in total or 7 years from 2nd Dan to 3rd Dan?

  9. One source says 1940, which is rapid – but he died an 8th Dan, while Tohei was given 10th and Shioda was given 9th. Tomiki did have a post with the Imperial Family Staffers and training the military at the time of his 8th Dan promotion, that might’ve been necessary for him to hold his post.

    There is an instructor, Suenaka Sensei, who says he was training in Okinawa and wanted to open a dojo there. He was told by local authorities he needed a menkyo Kaiden, which O Sensei allegedly filled out on the spot just so the school could open. Maybe this shows some validity for the story.

    What would be the reason for those promoted more slowly?

  10. I noticed something else about Tomiki Sensei’s promotions that I thought was worth mentioning. He joined O Sensei in 1925 and received a Judo Godan at the same time. In 1940 he becomes the first 8th Dan in Aikido. He never became a Judo 8th Dan until 1971. Different standards, or politics of two teachers?

  11. Time spent on the mat learning from highly qualified instructors in end is the absolute key. I took a seminar with a Shihan from Japan who had been doing aikido as many years as me. The difference? – I trained 6 hours a week. He trained six hours a day.

  12. Regarding the years required by somebody to acquire X. Dan: it might be worth mentioning, that Katsuaki Asai Sensei (7 years from to 3. Dan) started at Aikikai Hombu in 1955 at the tender age of 14, which is, to my knowledge, quite unusual. Also, as far as I can tell, he was the only one actually “sent” by Hombu (or more precisely, asked by K. Ueshiba Doshu) to go abroad to setup an Aikido organisation (!967, Germany, as a 4.Dan at the time). All the other (at least the “european”) Shihan (Tamura Sensei, Tada Sensei, Noro Sensei, etc.) went to the respective foreign countries (France, Italy, Spain, etc) for their own personal reasons.

  13. Going from memory, I believe the first dan rank was given in 1940 by the Kobukai Foundation (forerunner of the Aikikai). This was during the war period and few students were at Morihei’s Kobukan Dojo. I don’t know if a kyu system was implemented at the same time. During this period, the Japanese military government pushed for standardization among the country’s martial arts. Morihei’s Aiki Budo was for a time under the umbrella of the government-controled Dai Nippon Butokukai.

  14. A person who practices 4 days a week will undoubtedly have greater mastery on the techniques than one who only practices 2 days a week. Having that said, from Kyu 7th to 1st degree black belt, which will have greater mastery? Not all practicioners are cut from the same cloth. As such, there should be exceptions for skilled practitioners to promote faster as long as they meet the minimum requirements of techniques they must have mastery over.

    Further, Dan promotions are overrated. The Dan system was never a good system for martial arts to begin with. In most arts today, 3-5th Dan is considered a master of the art and thereafter you are only recognized as having a huge number of years of teaching experience to be honored by. However, there are many 7th Dan’s with greater years of experience than some 8th Dan’s, what is the fairness in that?

    You could say that gifted teachers deserve greater Dan rankings than others but then that makes the current Dan system even more unreliable for martial arts recognition on mastery and teaching experience. If it was up to me I’d remove the Dan system and limit the rankings to 1st black belt as showing mastery of the basics, and then the next level is master of the advanced arts and the art in general from a knowledge, experience, and execution of techniques factor. Master of the art could simply differ from 1st black belt by having the aikido name in Japanese on the belt and the words master in japanese characters as well. After that no more Dan levels.

    To honor teaching experience in terms of years and effectiveness, simply use the 3 categories already defined and accepted by most organizations in almost all arts but not tied to Dan rankings: teaching assistant (1st degree but must teach under a master level practitioner), teacher (fully qualified instructor capable of awarding 1st degrees), and finally teacher of teachers (one with enough years of mastery and teaching experience that can be a part of a council that awards mastery level belts and teacher of teacher level certificates of recognition. Following this simple system will do away with a lot of the unfairness and controversies of the Dan system.

  15. Forgot to add to my previoys reply, anyone that desirous for recognition by the association based on years of experience could receive a simple certificate that says, you’ve taught 10 years, 15 years, or whatever. That way, no Dan system is associated with teaching experience in terms of years. People in modern educational systems arent recognized as being more capable than new graduates. The only distinct factor is years of recognition by peers and your effectiveness in your teaching that separates you from the rest.

  16. There are any numbers of issues subsumed into a dan rank.

    Loyal adherence to one instructor is a plus for promotion. That yields the “stovepipe” problem. If you study with a 3rd generation teacher, and in each generation the teachers absorbed 90% of their teacher’s material, that would mean a new student would have access to about 3/4 or the original material. Cross pollination would help alleviate that, but is not particularly well rewarded in advancement.

    Seniority is important, of course, but as my friend Scott Berg suggests, seniority doing what? If you’ve been teaching three classes per week since you were a shodan 20 years ago, is that the same as mixing it up with the masses for the same time? So you have thirty years experience. Is that one year thirty times?

    There is no doubt that today we have teachers with more seniority. The question is whether they are any better than, or even as good as, those who for all sorts of reasons were advanced more quickly 30-40 years ago.

  17. Joseph Gomez, your points about grades and tripartite levels have parallels with levels awarded in traditional Japanese arts. There are widely varying terms, but basically practicioners have three levels of initiation: often called shoden chuden and okuden or hiden. If one wanted to go off and teach, often a teaching licence or a full transmission (kaiden) was given. That’s about it. Personally, I think it’s a much better system.

  18. Rank and skill will tend to correlate but skill is not causative of rank. This can be seen in the military, from which the martial arts draws its rank structure. At least that’s what I reckon and this is why:

    Private = Unranked
    LCPL = 5th Kyu
    Cpl = 4th Kyu

    Sgt =3rd Kyu (Sgt enters the previously ‘forbidden’ Sergeants’ Mess.
    3rd Kyu enters the previously ‘forbidden’ Advanced Class (in some Aikido styles)).
    WO2 = 2nd Kyu
    WO1 = 1st Kyu

    Lt = 1st Dan (Lieutenant is on the lowest rung of the Commissioned ranks which are held to a higher level of responsibility than the Non-Commissioned ranks. He carries a sword as opposed to a rifle and wears different headdress and accoutrements.
    A 1st Dan is on the lowest rung of the ‘Black Belt’ ranks which are held to a higher level of responsibility. He wears a hakama)
    Capt = 2nd Dan
    Maj = 3rd Dan

    LtCol = 4th Dan (A Lieutenant Colonel can become the Commanding Officer (CO) a battalion which is the first ‘Unit’ that is not merely a ‘Subunit’. The CO of a battalion has considerable autonomy in how he trains and runs the unit within the parameters of higher command’s objectives and the unit’s role within the Army.
    A 4th Dan can become a sensei and run a dojo of his own (in some styles of Aikido). A dojo’s sensei has considerable autonomy as to how he conducts training and runs the dojo within the wider style/art.)
    Col = 5th Dan
    Brig = 6th Dan

    Maj Gen = 7th Dan (A Major General can command a Division/A 7th Dan becomes a Shihan (in some styles of Aikido)).
    Lt Gen = 8th Dan (A Lieutenant General can become Chief of Army)
    Gen = 9th Dan (A General can become Chief of Defence (Army, Navy, Air Force))

    Field Marshall = !0th Dan/Soke/O’sensei (Field Marshall is a position that is not filled unless a major conflict arises of a high order of magnitude such as the World Wars. Even then the position tends to be honourific rather than a command position).
    O’ sensei was arguably akin to a Field Marshall in that he was not heavily involved in running the organization.

    The Aikdido/Military similarities listed above only begin to scratch the surface. Notwithstanding that I should say that I understand that not all forms of Aikido have these exact structures i.e. some wear hakama from 5th Kyu or 3rd Kyu or even 2nd Dan. I know that not all run advanced classes to the exclusion of ‘juniors’, and that in some styles/circumstances a 1st or 2nd Dan may become a sensei running a dojo. I also understand that some use the term Shihan, some don’t and some use it before 7thDan. The rank structure and its characteristics shown above are from my experience and from my understanding. My exposure to ‘martial arts’ includes Military Unarmed Combat, Judo and several forms of Aikido (Jack of all, master of none).

    I also understand that the Army rank structure although linear from Private to Field Marshall is not as simple as that because Officers start from the rank of Lieutenant and move up from there; whilst Enlisted soldiers start from the rank of Private and can only progress to WO1. There are ways to jump across from Enlisted to Officer but suffice it to say that the structure is not strictly ‘continuous’ as it is in quasi military organisations like the police (or Aikido). My experience in the military, which I have compared structurally to martial arts, is from the Infantry Corps of the Australian Regular Army. This very closely resembles the British Army structure from which it was derived. In other countries, although there is some variance regarding ranks and roles, they are all fairly similar.

    There is sometimes rank inflation in the Army too. It is usually done for expediency and can be at the cost of weakening the integrity of the structure somewhat. I have seen it occur first hand at both ends of the rank scale but it is not a common occurrence and thus is limited in the damage it does to the organisation’s integrity.

    Sometimes, the best soldiers (martial artists) are the slowest to progress due to a number of factors. So, you are always going to have disparities between skill/competence and rank. Don’t sweat it, rank is not what’s important. When you stop thinking rank is what’s important in others you will stop worrying about other’s perception of you according to your rank. It is a limited and flawed (and unoriginal) structure used help organise and disseminate an organic reality – Aikido.

    My two Bob’s worth



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