5th Kyu - Shihan

Jerry Akel

from blog of
”Aikido Center of Jacksonville”,
December, 3rd 2009

I am plagued by 5th Kyu Shihans.

Or rather, was plagued, before receiving my yudansha. 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 yukyusha 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 anectdotes 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 practioner 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.