5th Kyu Shihan by Jerry Akel

“The 5th Kyu Shihan will only admit to questions that fit his worldview. In his universe, everything is accounted for, including Aikido, which he has placed neatly on a mental shelf.”

Jerry Akel
Jerry Akel
I am plagued by 5th Kyu Shihans. Or rather, was plagued, before receiving my black belt. And like Dr. Bennell, I still see them, these pod people, everywhere, at seminars, at other dojo, and sometimes, close to home. They are a contagion.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Allow me to explain.

Several years ago, as a kyu-holder with some experience, I noticed a peculiar pathology, which exhibited itself primarily at seminars. The subject, namely me, would pair with an obviously new student, one with whom I had not trained previously. The new student, or carrier, would then proceed to instruct, correct and otherwise comment on my technique, despite the obvious gulf in skill between us.

I naturally attributed this to an infection addling his brain, since no disinterested observer could mistake the more seasoned practitioner. And no matter the speed with which I performed the technique, or the pain which I applied to his body, the student would feel compelled to make his critique.

The disease, therefore, is marked by a complete and total lack of awareness.

I named the condition, or more accurately the infected carrier, a 5th Kyu Shihan. The name stuck, and is, I believe, a useful shorthand for describing the disease.

Making the Diagnosis

I have come to rely on a three-part test to determine whether a student is, in fact, a 5th Kyu Shihan. Although satisfying any one condition is sufficient to make the diagnosis, it is insufficient to rule out other, more benign causes. For example, your partner may just be an idiot, for which, unfortunately, no cure exists.

First Symptom

Your partner compliments your technique. This one is tricky: I caution the practitioner here to rely on her own clinical experience. If the compliment carries with it a connotation of judgment, as opposed to aspiration, the student is a 5th Kyu Shihan.

Although it may appear a contradiction, a compliment, if accompanied by judgment, is in fact identical to criticism. Essentially, the student is placing herself in a position to judge another, more experienced student’s technique. Whether it is praise or criticism is irrelevant. The student has exhibited a sign of the disease.

Second Symptom

The student assumes a curious, if fictitious, familiarity with the leading lights in your organization. I call this infection by association. In truth, this is simply a form of the logical fallacy, argument from authority.

Here, the student professes an intimate knowledge of a leading sensei’s preferences regarding technique, or attempts to regale you with sly anecdotes from back in the day. Of course, considering that day could not have been more than two months prior, as Kung Fu Panda would have been his closest connection to the martial arts, is of no matter. The point our friend is trying to make, is that he, and not you, knows the hidden purpose behind this particular lesson. If only he were free to speak candidly, surely you would understand….

Third Symptom

A lack of humility. Let me be more specific. I am not referring to the fawning humility towards rank you sometimes see on the mat. This is a misunderstanding of the term, and has more in common with Dickens’ Uriah Heep, whose humility was in fact rooted in pride and ego. Nor am I referring to proper etiquette, or rei, which of course is expected when we give ourselves freely to our partners.

The humility I refer to, rather, is a great teacher, but one with which the 5th Kyu Shihan has no acquaintance. It is the knowledge that we know certain things, don’t know certain things, and crucially, know there are things that we know nothing about. This idea, that there exists whole categories of knowledge not yet dreamt of, is the essence of budo training. It is the quintessential empty cup.

It is also anathema to the 5th Kyu Shihan. Although when cornered, the infected carrier may admit to some questions regarding technique, the practitioner must be vigilant. The 5th Kyu Shihan will only admit to questions that fit his Weltanschauung, or worldview. In his universe, everything is accounted for, including Aikido, which he has placed neatly on a mental shelf. The answers, if not obvious, are already there, waiting for just the right moment.

Of course, he is happy to answer any questions you may have.

An Advice To My Colleagues

Although pernicious, the disease is, in my estimation, not always terminal. With practice, the afflicted soul can sometimes cast off the infection and become a fully human, fully aware Aikidoka.

As always, our best defense is vigilance.

Dojo: Aikido Center of Jacksonville

Categories: Contributed

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9s Comments

  1. I noticed this a looooong time ago, and it is one of w list of things that drove me away from seminars, and to some degree, Aikido itself. What i really struggle with is someone who is unwilling to take ukemi, and sends the message that the technique you’re doing just isn’t quite good enough: this is always done in a slow, non-dynamic situation, and their likely justification is that you have to be able to do it slow to do it effectively fast. True and not true. The reality is that punching the uke in the face and taking his mind away from your technique would open many doors, and perhaps cure some of the assholism occurring.

  2. If 5th kyu is bad, 3rd kyu is insufferable. I know I must have been. It’s a bit like how everybody’s kid is brilliant. They’re learning so much so fast at age 3, how can they not be? At the kyu levels the lessons are so physically tough they have to be important, important enough to share emphatically. But after spending decades with this stuff, and nobody else in my acquaintance much caring… it’s a reality check.

    Yesterday I shared the idea being spontaneous across the continuum of nage waza, ukemi and kaeshi waza. Now, you’ve had 24 hours to internalize that so you must be ready for sutemi waza… 😉

  3. Nice article and a phenomenon we have all experienced. I will offer, however a counterpoint, and perhaps a related syndrome. Please note, I am not trying to invalidate your very astute observation or say you are exhibiting the Syndrome below. Your article just put me in mind of my own observations.

    Counterpoint:

    If you are attending a seminar or dojo in a style to which you are not accustomed, even a relatively low ranking member in that particular system might be wont to make a comment as to your execution of the technique not being what the Teacher showed. This may come REGARDLESS of the obvious skill with which you executed your version of the technique, and to my mind is completely appropriate under the circumstances.

    The Grass is Never Greener (or the Belt any Blacker) Syndrome:

    There is that Aikidoist that loves to go to seminars with all the Luminaries and any visiting Sensei/Shihan, but will continue to execute every technique EXACTLY HOW HE/SHE WAS TRAINED AT THEIR OWN DOJO. Perhaps they will get very indignant when corrected by anyone from a 5th Kyu Shihan to a 6th Dan Shihan. It makes me wonder WHY such practitioners go to seminars or other dojos if they are not willing to pay attention to what is offered.

    For sure, it is one’s absolute right to discard any teachings after the fact, but it seems at the very least polite, and possibly illuminating to TRY to see if there is any value that can be taken away which may fit into or enhance one’s own practice.

  4. Just another arrogant black belt, with a fragile ego that can’t be full in himself, so he has to degrade his underlings. In a joking manner, but still a turning up of the nose.
    I know some one might say “it’s just a joke”. Whatever. Just like all the ego driven things Trump says is “just a joke”. Within humor is a seed of truth, and this truth speaks volumes about a very small person. Love your juniors. Take care of them. Don’t judge them. You were what they are once…maybe you still are.

  5. Thanks for your article Jerry. This is the reason why when I teach classes, one of my rules is: If you are not a black belt, and you aren’t asking a question, then you shouldn’t be talking.

  6. Bravo !
    Having encountered this multiple times , I have fallen into the “what if” trap with these carriers to the detriment of my personal experience at a seminar.
    I have witnessed an antidote though, as one of these “denizens of doubt” attempted to correct a guest Shihan instructing at the seminar.with the following “I didn’t feel any power in your technique Sensie … So a Full blown Take Sensie Iremi nage insured… And cured the carrier. no other symptoms were noted at that particular seminar.
    Throw hard, throw fast.

    Ernest

  7. Perhaps a necessary laugh for higher ranking students. 🙂 I wouldn’t say the “5th kyu shihan” is an unhealthy phase to go through; sometimes I think it’s a necessary path to self awareness. And as always, I try to remind myself there is a lot we can learn from beginners. <3

  8. Bob makes an excellent point.

    Are you practicing at someone else’s home dojo or seminar and bringing your own dojo’s aikido with you?

    I have trained with some excellent aikidoka. In my opinion, the absolute best of the the best are the ones who could adapt to whatever sensei was teaching and perform it well even if it was completely different than what they teach at home.

    Why be so bothered at what a 5th kyu does and says? They’re just beginners. Let it go and humble yourself to consider the possibility that everyone offers a lesson of some kind. 🙂

    I love beginners. They teach me so much about my own aikido and the variety of human responses that exist.

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