Yondan examination

A few days ago, I have returned from one of the most exciting trips I had in the recent years.

In the 29th of January, I attended a shinsa in Tokyo Budokan, and passed successfully to the rank of 4th dan in naginata.

My preparations for this exam started almost 2 years ago. Back in 2021, I had 2 major problems – I didn’t know zen nihon no kata, and also didn’t have a sensei to teach me, and correct my mistakes in shikake oji and bogu. In Israel I am the most experienced naginata practitioner, therefore a creative solution was required. Luckily, Katie Roche sensei, from the USA, agreed to help me, and for more than a year me and one of my senior students – Y. Schtibel, met her trough zoom on a weekly basis, and practiced zen nihon and shikake oji under her instruction.

Another thing I did was post videos online, or at least send them for evaluation to other senseis every now and then. One might be surprised how much one can learn from a random comment here and there. Naturally – common sense is also needed. Not every comment is good, and I do double check on any correction I receive. But an open mind is a bliss in this case. 

While this was far from ideal, it gave us the needed experience to carry on, and improve on a steady basis.

Two months ago Roche sensei visited Israel for a seminar, and I was finally able to practice with her in-person. This furthered my understanding of the zen nihon kata.

While planning my schedule for my travel to Japan – I decided to come a week before the exam, in order to attend as many practices as possible. I spent several months in contacting several dojos, some trough the INF official channel and some trough private contacts. By the time I got off the plane in Haneda airport in Tokyo,
4 different dojos waited for me, and during the 5 days before the exam I managed to attend 8 practices, over 18 hours total (!)

Half of this time was dedicated to perfecting my zen nihon and shikake oji, under the detailed instructions of the daughter of Yoshii sensei (a kyoshi herself), Tanimoto sensei, Oki sensei and Suzuki sensei (not Suzuki Wataru, but another one). And of course, I can’t not to mention Kimura sensei, who got into very small details of the kata which deepened my understanding of timing and ma-ai.

The other half of the time I spent in Saitama, under the instruction of the famous Suzuki Wataru sensei, ex-WNC and All-Japan champion. The practices in Saitama were in a high school, and I had the chance to do several long non-stop practices with bogu and shikake oji. This was a different experience, as the tempo of the trainings was fast, and I had the chance to practice bogu with the sensei, his top students and also with the current regional champion, Mr. Honda.

Luckily to me, I studied some Japanese in the past and was able to communicate on a basic level. This made a big difference. What I’ll say may sound disappointing to some, and maybe many won’t agree – but one of my conclusions from this trip is this – if you want to get really good in naginata – you should spend some time studying Japanese. When the non-English speaking senseis see that you understand even a small part of what they are saying – they kindly make an additional effort to help you. Given the fact that practically none of the senseis speak English at all – you can surely see my point.
In the 29th I attended the shinsa, in the famous Tokyo Budokan.

4th dan exam is regional examination – so the number of people who were examined for 4th dan in Budokan that day was not big. But no less than 41 people attended the 5th dan all-Japan examination. All of the examinees were Japanese, with the exclusion of me, 4 people from the USA and 2 people from one of the Asian countries, where naginata is still at the beginning.

During the exam I felt fantastic. The practice of the week before gave me a big advantage, and by the examination’s end – I knew I did my best. I felt that my kata performance went particularly well. An important variable during the exam is your partner. You are assigned to the person next to you (by age). A good partner can help your performance, and a bad partner could limit it. I was lucky to have a good partner, which helped me to do the kata in good spirit.

About 35% passed the 4th dan exam, myself included.

For 5th dan, the pass rate was closer to 30%. Two non-Japanese passed: Shannon Lew and Juan Hernandez from the USA.

I would like to say a few words about my observation of the 5th dan exam.

First and most important – it may sound shocking to some but not all Japanese are great at naginata. While the general level is high – some are much better than others.
In Japan, there is a big difference whether a person started practicing in high-school, and passed through the rigorous  4-6 trainings a week program for 2-3 years or more, after which they are highly proficient, and people who started naginata later in life, like in university or in their 30s, let alone 50s-60s.

These people are good, and put great effort, but in the exam you could tell the difference of who started practicing when they were young – and who didn’t.

Also, while I can’t say about my own exam, as I didn’t see myself from the side – but from what I saw in the 5th dan exam the treatment of non-Japanese during the exam was fair. Those who passed showed a high level of proficiency when compared to those who didn’t pass – Japanese and non-Japanese alike.

Another very important note is that you must use the OFFICIAL GREEN BOOK for the preparation of the written exam. Alex Bennet’s book, even the 2nd edition, is no longer up to date, as some of the questions had changed.

So these are my conclusions:

1. Start learning Japanese. And go to Japan.
2. Practice as much as you can and don’t hesitate to ask for advice – even online.
3. If you can – go and take the 4th dan exam in Japan and don’t wait for the WNC. This was a great experience, a real eye opener for me. And certainly, the best mental preparation for what to expect in future exams. I personally feel quite confident of my ability to prepare for my next exam, 5th dan, which will be in 3-4 years, if God is willing.

Thank you very much for reading, and feel free to contact me for any question you might have. 

Gur Nedzvetsky, 4th dan.