Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Making It To Black Belt - Passing the Shodan Examination

I hadn't mentioned on this blog that in addition to shooting and scuba diving, I'm learning karate for self-defense, exercise, knowledge, and because you get to associate with a truly great bunch of people.

I began as a white belt four and a half years ago and was introduced to Shido-Kan Shorin-Ryu Karate by a co-worker who was a Sixth Dan (sixth degree black belt) in that style. So I went to the dojo in Birmingham and met Sensei Menders who at the time was a Seventh Dan and is now an Eighth Dan in Shido-Kan. I enjoyed the people, enjoyed the workouts and decided it was the right fit for me. For additional practice I also went to the Clawson dojo, which is part of the same association and has the same curriculum, and again, a bunch of great people. Clawson is run by a husband and wife team, both of whom are Sixth Dan. In short, I always had incredibly great teachers throughout this journey.

Four and half years later, after progressing through the kyu ranks from 12th to 1st, it was time to test for 1st Dan Black Belt.

For a few months I had been regularly traveling to Lansing to visit the hombu dojo as part of the pre-test requirements for Michigan students. The hombu dojo is the headquarters of the North American Beikoku Shido-Kan Association and is headed by Hanshi 10th Dan Sensei Iha. Yes, Lansing is the home of an international karate cultural treasure from Okinawa - Sensei Iha.

At each visit I would work with the dojo members there and perform katas, kumite (partner drills) and bunkai (kata application, typically in groups of five people) in front of Sensei iha and other seniors. They would make suggestions and expect you to incorporate those suggestions for improvement into your technique before your next visit. Then you would either be cleared to test or not.

The Black belt tests are held only three times a year before the board of examiners, and July is the largest of the tests. After lots of practice, I was cleared to test.

The test was on Thursday night, starting at 6 pm and held in a hotel conference room in Lansing - a lightly carpeted floor over concrete which made break-falls really fun. On the upside the floor gave you excellent footing for your stances during kata, kumite and bunkai.

The examining board is composed of Sensei Iha and his senior instructors and heads of various dojos and the members are Seventh Dan and above. In other words, you're doing your test in front of about 400 combined years of karate experience - they've seen it all, they see all that you do, and you sure as heck can't fake it, you've got to make it and do your best.

The candidates for Sho-Dan (1st an) were called forward first, then the candidates for Second, then third, then fourth and there was one candidate for fifth, each to perform three senior katas. There are five senior katas - Passai Sho, Kusanku Sho, Passai Dai, Kusanku Dai and Chinto. Until the night of the test you only know that you will do Chinto, the other two Katas are drawn at random and everyone does the same three. For kata it is you alone in front of the board and a roomful of spectators. Each of us was given a number and I was number five. This was the order in which we were to stand, take our place on the testing line and do the katas.

So I was able to watch the first four candidates go up, and then I rose and was about to walk onto the testing floor, only to have candidate number 6 stand up and head onto the testing floor. This is a problem, considering the testing sheets are in numerical order so they were about to grade her on my sheet! That would be bad. The test was paused, the sheets were sorted out and the test proctor was a tad irate, but then we were instructed to state our names as we came up to avoid further mix-ups.

I then went up, stated my name, announced each kata, and did them to the best of my ability. Having just sprained my right ankle in late June,it still hadn't fully healed and it made the test even more interesting than I preferred. I avoided any kata-strophes and did a pretty good job. I then sat down and got to watch the rest of the candidates. Some were amazing, some not so much, and a couple of candidates had to repeat a kata after messing it up, but they managed to redeem themselves.

The we were paired off in partners for kumite drills, then into groups for bunkai. My kumite was really good, and three of the four bunkais were great. On the last and most difficult bunkai, Passai Sho, I started in the middle and did it nice and smoothly. When on the outside I had a couple hiccups with the technique but managed to get through. One fun part of the outside of this bunkai is the final sequence - you step forward right and throw a high right punch, which the person in the middle intercepts and then pulls down as they advance and sweep your leg - which results in you doing a forward roll. If you do the roll wrong you're going to land on either your face or your back like a sack of you know what. My roll was happily excellent and I ended up on my feet right where I was supposed to be.

The test took three hours and at the end they announced that I and the other testers had passed the examination. I was then called up, thanked Sensei Iha, and then Sensei Menders tied on my new black belt.

The Clawson dojo testing group gathered for a picture marking a successful test:

I also had this picture taken with Sensei Menders and Sensei Iha:

I was wiped from the effort but extremely happy. Passing that test was the best feeling I've had in quite a long time and the culmination of lots of time and effort. My first black belt ever. I got it while I'm still 40, which was a personal goal and it was a very proud moment. Now, as a First Dan I am not a tough-guy or anything like that, it simply means I'm fit to be a student of karate and can now really start learning what it is all about.


Scott said...

You've been in Lansing and you never called?

You could have come over for dinner or something!

Congratulations, Aaron-san. I have another friend who got his black belt several years ago, and I know it is a proud moment that you work very hard to achieve.

ProudHillbilly said...


Murphy's Law said...

Took you long enough to post on it, but great job!

MSgt B said...


"kata-strophe" *facepalm*

Murphy's Law said...

@ MSgt B: Yeah, he does that.

Aaron said...

Scott: I was pretty tied up with the test and then the training seminar - I was pretty wiped that weekend.

PH: Thanks!

ML: Ya, what can I say, by the end of the weekend I was so wiped I was doing Passai Ow! rather than Passai Sho.

MSgt B: Thanks, and yes, I have my moments and do rather enjoy seeing that people actually read and appreciate the finer puns, uh points...

Six said...

Congratulations Aaron!

Mcgyver said...


Keads said...