RANK & POKING THE SLEEPING DRAGON
By Mark Lonsdale, Judo Training Development
Over the years, I have had the good fortune to make some great friends in the judo world. One of these, a highly respected sensei and venerable sage, has been encouraging me to begin my judo lectures and articles with a short story. He is a master of this teaching technique so I always look forward to his lectures.
So, to begin my story, no, I have never poked a real dragon, even though I would welcome the opportunity. But I have poked my share of heavy-weight judo champions – sometimes with painful results. I was also the kid who would try to pat the vicious dog. Back in my youth, when walking home from school, and in the time of dragons and giants, there was always one house that had a barking dog that would charge the fence or strain at its chain to attack passers-by. This was the house that deliverymen would avoid or just throw parcels over the fence. Well, I was the kid that wanted to see how close he could get to the dog, and if feeling really brave, try and touch it – all to the tremendous amusement of the other kids walking that route.
In most cases I was successful at patting seemingly vicious dogs. While they may bark and look intimidating, and even lunge towards you, this was just part of their defense mechanisms. When you stepped towards them they often back-off, as long as you did not enter the space they considered theirs. In reality, most dogs would rather play than bite when treated with patience and kindness. So each day I would walk a little closer and then just stand still to let them get used to my presence. Eventually, once they realized I was not a threat, they would come sniffing around for a pat on the head or scratch behind the ears. Tossing scraps of lunch meat could speed the process.
The moral of the story is that I am not scared to pat the dog or poke the dragon. This is why I have no hesitation in addressing issues and problems related to promotions – which most consider a “hot topic”, “political minefield” or “highly sensitive issue.”
Why is this, you may wonder? Is it because those in positions of power are protecting their own interests? Could it be that they have arrived at their exalted ranks without actually testing for promotion? Have they become too comfortable in the status quo? Are they all focused on making it to the next rank, or even 10th dan, through nothing more than time in grade? Is this why promotions are now conducted behind closed doors? And why is it that people become so emotional on this subject – especially when it comes to their own next (often unwarranted) promotion?
I honestly don’t know. I prefer to hang out on the mat with people who actually like doing judo and who are not insecure about their judo abilities. However, being a pragmatist living in the present, but working for a better future, I do know that the promotion process has been weakened and complicated to the point where rank means almost nothing. (See Hayward Nishioka sensei’s article, What the Hell is a Black Belt Rank). But it was not always like that. A judoka’s rank used to be an accurate marker of their competition skills and/or knowledge and technical ability. If you told me someone’s rank four decades ago, I could tell you exactly what they had endured to get there. I could also show you a list of the techniques and kata that they had done for that last promotion, and all previous promotions. It was black and white with very little room for politics and interpretations. Every promotion was done on the mat, in front of spectators, and requiring demonstrations of technical ability (waza) and kata – but that was about the same time that dinosaurs roamed the planet. I have actually received recent emails from Shodan and Nidan that have never seen a formal promotion exam for dan-grades, and this is not surprising when some judo leaders hand out promotions like candy.
I am trying to keep these articles shorter, for those of you who only look at the accompanying images, so in the next post I will expand on the subject of Terminal Rank – a term that is considered shear heresy by the “rank chasers.”