Examinations and Their Purpose
by Patrick Augé
Patrick Augé (7th dan, Shihan, Yoseikan Aikido) is the technical director of the International Yoseikan Budo Federation for North America. He started studying martial arts in 1962 in judo. He lived for seven years as the uchideshi of Minoru Mochizuki sensei from 1970. He is currently in Los Angeles. The following was written by Patrick Augé Sensei in answer to a question asked of him.
Patrick Augé, 7th dan
There are two kinds of teachings. One consists in teaching what the students want to learn; the other consists in teaching what the students need to learn. The first one stems from a self-serving attitude; the second one from a sense of responsibility. Which kind teachers select depends on what motivates them to teach. Here we will focus on the second kind of teaching since it is based on the principle of “mutual welfare and prosperity” as taught to us by Mochizuki Minoru Sensei through his lectures and example.
First, we have to put examinations in their proper context: we have a martial path whose purpose is to provide its disciples with a way to transform themselves into kind, wise, and strong human beings. With this understanding in mind, we should think about the purpose of examinations. Essentially, it must be educational, that is to say, an opportunity for the students to learn. A teacher should not use ranks/belts as a means to stimulate or reward students. This practice may work temporarily, but it sets a dangerous precedent. Soon the teacher runs out of “carrots” and starts concentrating his energy on devising an endlessly wearing-out arsenal of gimmicks. I think that the amount of energy spent would not differ much if the teacher had chosen to think and act responsibly. Ranks should never become a purpose.
So, what is the purpose of ranks and examinations?
As I understand it, a rank is the measure of a student’s level of proficiency and progress in training based on the three following criteria: shin-gi-tai (mind-technique-body), with the expectation that the student will continue to study and practice diligently. The purpose of testing is to give the students an opportunity to evaluate themselves under stress. Since aikido does not have competitions, testing is an important part of training. This testing should be supplemented by intensive practice periods such as kangeiko (winter training) and shochugeiko (summer training). As a martial path, aikido provides us with ways to train ourselves to manage daily life. Only by being exposed to stress can one learn how to deal with it. If this concept is clear in the teacher’s mind, it should be easy to explain to the students. Due to the nature of aikido, it attracts people who think with depth or want to learn how to. In my experience, I have found that most students understand this concept and show it through their behavior. It is just a matter of taking the time necessary to explain.
Here is how we operate. Budo is self-defense. This style is very rich in techniques. In order to give our students maximum exposure, we may spend a long time on a certain type of techniques and their applications, which is always preceded by practice of basics. Each student should keep a notebook in order to record whatever he finds important. We do not give the students a written curriculum. This is to discourage cramming. Basic requirements are covered during regular classes, advanced requirements during clinics. Testing should reflect a student’s regular practice. This encourages good attendance. In the long run, it makes a difference. The students must train themselves in the spirit of preparedness. If there is a certain amount of uncertainty, students will eventually benefit. Examiners are more interested in the way a student handles himself in an unexpected situation (which reveals his character) than in his technical knowledge at the moment. I want to give my students an opportunity to experience the educational value of exams, something that can be used in other areas of their lives.
We let all new students know that they can expect to be tested once a year and that it takes a minimum of seven years to shodan. Candidates are selected according to time, attendance, attitude, and progress. As they go higher in rank, students are expected to show more leadership through their example (making up for absences, dealing with sickness, injuries, personal and professional problems, etc.) both in and out of the dojo.
Less than a week before the scheduled exam, the selected candidates are invited to attend. They are reminded of the purpose, etiquette, and procedure of the exam.
Like in Japan, the exam usually takes place at the main dojo on a Sunday and may last all day. The students are examined one by one with all the teachers attending and evaluating. The exam is videotaped. Candidates to dan examinations have to write an essay on various topics. Then during the following weeks, the teachers correct the students and emphasize the particular areas that need to be improved. I review the videotape and compare notes with the other teachers. About two months later, the teachers and I meet, discuss every student’s case, and decide who is to be promoted. Then I make the comments to the students, generally during a clinic, and officially announce the results. The students are then reminded: that testing is an ongoing process and that it does not stop with the result; that they can decline the promotion if they do not feel ready for the new responsibilities; that the rank is only good as long as the students stay active (a student who becomes inactive for a year will have to start from white belt again if he decides to resume training). It may seem radical, but it has proven to be a good preventive treatment against chronic absentitis, a disease common in many dojo. We have to understand that a student who returns after a long absence and is allowed to wear the same belt as when he left sets a poor example for the other students, especially if his rank was high. Interrupting one’s training is the evidence of one’s inability to maintain priorities. Those students who have come back after a long absence know what to expect and have been far more serious the second time though the chances that they repeat the same pattern of behavior are quite high. We have been using this way for more than twenty years. It requires effort on the part of the teachers and students alike, but it is worth it.
Regarding the strain on the teacher-student relationship, I think that teachers should treat their students as parents treat their children. There are many things that a parent knows and that a child cannot understand. A responsible parent will make sure that, no matter how unpopular his decision may be, it is in the best interest of the child in the long run. Later the child will understand, and this will establish his foundation to educate his own children. This is the reason why a teacher’s lectures and attitude can make such an impact on his students, especially if they decide to become teachers later on. A teacher should constantly think of the consequences of his actions. He should avoid developing too close relationships with some students, just like a parent should not show a preference for a particular child. Making pets may backfire when the pets need to be disciplined. It also creates jealousies among the students and prepares the ground for hostilities, politics, and breakups.
Aikido history is full of such examples. If the teacher is afraid of losing students and promotes them out of fear that they quit, then it becomes a dangerous pattern. As such students get promoted to higher ranks without genuinely earning their promotions, they become less and less teachable. Their attitude sets a bad example for the group, and the teacher has to make a difficult decision for the sake of all students. It is a lot easier not to promote a student who will quit as a result of it than to wait in the hope that time will fix everything. Losing a student may be hard, especially for a new teacher, but it will help to keep many serious students later. A bad apple in a basket will contaminate all other apples; that is why we throw it away as soon as we notice it.
Also from a strictly teaching point of view (and the most important, I believe), if a student quits as a result of being denied promotion, it is the best evidence that he was not ready for promotion. Mochizuki Sensei is a man of honor, and he treats everyone as such. To him as well as to many teachers of his class, a rank means: “This is the level I expect you to reach, study, and train diligently. If you don’t, then your rank will have no value, and it will be obvious to everybody.” However, values such as loyalty have been disappearing with the degeneration of ethics (even in Japan!), and we can even see nowadays young children wearing black belts. As we have been reflecting on our responsibility to continue Mochizuki Sensei’s budo mission, we have been also observing the degradation of quality in many martial arts organizations and the disappearance of the original message. If we consider, for example, that a student may retain eighty percent of what he learned from his teacher, that he teaches only what he learned, that his own student retains eighty percent of it, that that student’s student retains also eighty percent of it, etc., what do we get after a few generations? A recreational activity? Olympic entertainment? Certainly not budo.
This is what happens when we are mainly concerned with promotion and organizational matters instead of genuinely teaching budo. This is why we must make Mochizuki Sensei and his teachers’ teachings present in our minds and actions. For this reason, we have established high standards. We promote only our own students. We strive to make sure that ranks reflect the actual level of the students. In the old days, students who joined a dojo had already received ethical training at home, so a teacher could continue on that momentum. Nowadays, a teacher must start from nothing and teach values with which most students are unfamiliar. This is the reason why Yoseikan ranks under our leadership mean that those who received them have made serious progress in shin gi tai. We have made mistakes promoting students who gave the impression of being ready but went different ways later. However those who have persevered greatly offset this inconvenience. And we are getting better at seeing the true nature of our students!
Concerning Mochizuki Sensei’s handling of examinations at the Hombu Dojo, he made sure that he would see all the students being examined. All kyu and dan examinations had to be taken at the Hombu. Shinsa (exam) usually took place on a Sunday afternoon. All shihan (senior teachers) and teachers attended and participated as examiners. Students from far areas in Japan did not mind spending time traveling to be tested in front of Kancho Sensei. They took it as part of their shugyo (austere training). After the test was over, a short clinic was given while the shihan compared their notes. Then Kancho Sensei announced the results. Sensei has an excellent memory and remembers details that few other people noticed. Every student would get a personal comment. Testing under Kancho Sensei had a special value. His comments were simple but very deep. We couldn’t forget them! He could tell a student’s personality by the way he moved.International Yoseikan Budo Federation website