Kendo San-dan 三段


Right on track. After passing the ni-dan test two years ago, I’ve been able to continue practicing and learning more about the Japanese martial art of kendo. And last weekend, I was able to pass the 3rd level of dan, san-dan, in kendo.

According to the sensei giving the test, I am the first foreigner to pass this test in Gifu. Breakin’ boundaries! Though, that title obviously comes with some caveats. There are plenty of other foreigners living in Japan that have passed this test, and are way higher rank than me. They just don’t live in Gifu. If Gifu had a higher foreign population, someone would’ve passed this test long ago. It’s more a sign of foreign folk living in more remote areas of Japan.

I was certainly nervous going into the test. I understood everything that was required of me, but I wasn’t sure if I could do everything perfectly and correctly. I don’t think I would’ve been able to pass if it wasn’t for my new job working at Takayama Nishi High School, and practicing kendo with the students, especially the 3rd year students, nearly every day for the last two months. It was really rewarding taking the same test with those students, and all of us passing.

Passing the test with my 3rd year high school students is also very apt because I feel like san-dan level is analogous to high school level proficiency and knowledge in kendo. Passing san-dan is like graduating high school in kendo. And, in a few months, the 3rd year students will actually graduate high school.

Dan Levels

I previously remarked that passing ni-dan just felt like a stepping stone. San-dan was the true next test. But, after talking with some people about it, I don’t think that’s exactly true. In fact, I think the high school analogy works pretty well. The 1st grade kyu, or ikkyu, is equivalent to elementary school proficiency. 1st grade dan is like the beginning of junior high school, and 2nd grade dan is completing junior high school. 3rd grade dan is completing high school. After completing high school, you’re an adult in kendo. Fully proficient in kendo.

The next level is 4th grade dan, which could be thought of as completing college. You are now a full professional in kendo. Kendo is no longer just something you did, it is something you do. You have proven that you are kendo. With the next grade, 5th dan, it’s like completing a masters or a phd program. You are not only a professional kendo practitioner, but also a specialist in kendo. Typically, 4th and 5th grade dan are the lowest levels where one leads their own dojo or has a sensei status within their own dojo.

Beyond that are 6th, 7th, and 8th dan. These levels are only awarded on a national level. A practitioner is now nationally recognized as a master in kendo. Even though kendo is a life of continued study of the art, most lessons are learned through teaching others, and contributing to the martial art as a whole. You are now a master that others look up to.

Anyway, I think this is a pretty good comparison.

Having passed the test of adulthood in kendo (3rd grade), the next step is becoming a professional in the martial art (4th grade). Apparently, people consider this the next big step. Probably because of the age requirements. 4th grade dan is the first level only adults can take.

In Gifu, 4th and 5th grade dan tests are only done twice a year and with everyone in the prefecture. Up through 3rd dan, the proctors travel around to different regions several times throughout the year. It’s a much bigger deal with much fewer practitioners taking the test.

But, for me, that’s in 3 years. It’s not enough to simply "cram" for the test starting 2 months in advance. I need to continue practicing throughout these next 3 years and retain the ideals of my current grade so I’m able to reach beyond it. Thankfully, I work at the perfect school and live in a great town to make this happen.

Update: March 1st

Today, all of the 3rd year students graduated from high school. We also received everyone’s certificate for completion of 3rd grade dan back in November, so they were able to get them before they left officially left school. It’s very fitting (though also convenient) to get them today as I consider passing san-dan as the equivalent of completing high school.

I got my certificate, too. :)

Having now mastered the basics of doing kendo for myself, 4th grade dan and up is the study of being able to instructor others on the best ways to do kendo and guide them on the right path while sharpening your own skills. And as high school students graduate, they continue to university and college and do exactly that with either kendo or their own profession.