5th Kyu Shihans

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.

40 thoughts on “5th Kyu Shihans

  1. You seem to attract these sorts of people… I don’t know what it is, but you seem to attract a lot people that annoy you. Have you ever thought about why that is?

  2. Just to be clear, no part of my discourse is modeled after any of our students.

    It is an amalgam of four or five incidents I’ve experienced over the years at seminars.

    Feel free to add your own symptoms in the comments.

  3. One of your best articles 🙂 I find that the Frequency of this syndrome is inversely proportional to the individual’s age… Don’t you?

  4. Very good, dichotomy. We have a fourth symptom.

    I’ve also noticed that gender may play a role, though not how you might expect. When the subject and carrier are male, I’ve noticed an increase in symptomology. Perhaps the infectious agent interacts with testosterone?

    As always, research continues.

  5. Whats the saying…

    Give man alot of knowlege and he is wise, give man alittle knowlege and he is a fool.

    something to that effect…

  6. I think you may be mistaken when it comes to gender. You see, I’ve noticed that men tend to be highly competitive with each other. More specifically, men of a certain personality type. (see myers brigg to identify which personalities are prone to intragender competition) in my opinion some of what you experience might be at the hands of some one trying to establish masculine dominance over you. With that said, women play a simular game, just not as direct in nature. Their fifth kyu shihanism might go utterly unnoticed to men who aren’t used to dealing with our back handed ways. For example, a fifth kyu shihan lady is far more likely to tell others in her peer group about how she “had to teach you everything” at a seminar, rather than confront,what she deems inadequacies, directly.

  7. Otto Pollack’s “The Criminality of Women”…

    “women are not less criminal than men, but, in
    fact, their significant criminality goes largely unreported. Women in society are allowed to “get away with
    murder” so to speak, because they are, by nature, more deceptive and crafty than men, and therefore can
    avoid detection and arrest. they are by nature more efficient in their lying and conniving”

  8. Something seems fishy about that source, DK. What is the quality of his evidence? Is it anecdotal?

    I’ve found that generalizations really aren’t that accurate or useful, unless they describe something fairly mundane.

  9. lol its ok Jerry, its anecdotal from an article I had to read in one of my classes about the gender gap in criminality. Its not meant to be taken literally

  10. Hi JD.

    I intended the post to be tongue in cheek, at least in tone. Obviously, I failed. Ah, well.

    I certainly don’t think myself as having any special skills. On the contrary.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment.

  11. Mikel,

    Thanks for the link. I read the comment. Ouch.

    I really intended the post to have an element of humor to it. Again, my fault completely.

    It’s funny. I really do consider myself a beginner, (as my fellow students can attest). I can see, however, how this post makes it seem otherwise.

  12. ironic…the guy comments about respect and threatened egoism…yet is so willing to break someone’s nose…

    very aiki…

  13. This is a bit restrictive.. 5 Kyu Shihans are bad? What about 4 Kyu Shihans? What about shodan shihans? The higher the rank, the worse it gets.

  14. Speaking of aikidojournal, I like this nidan’s statement on the matter;

    ” Some of the guys I trained with as a white belt felt they automatically knew more than I did at every rank. But that’s OK. If he is working on my technical flaws and I am working on my technical flaws, that’s twice the practice for me and none for him and all to my benefit. I’m kind of selfish that way.”

  15. I attest to Jerry’s attitude. He takes my 5th kyu questions, no matter how idiotic, while maintaining a sense of friendship.

  16. Thanks, MM.

    Went to Whole Foods today for the Christmas party. Then went to Fresh Market. I ended up at Publix for the platters! 🙂

  17. Pingback: 5th Kyu Shihans | The Martial Arts

  18. I’ve taken a whole new approach to 5th kyu shihans: I listen to what they have to say. Why? Quite simply because my technique isn’t perfect either. I find it arrogant to think that a beginner may not have any valid points. After all, they only try to do good. They finally start feeling that they are doing something correctly (being aikido practitioners, we all know how frustrating the first few months or even years can be). Why would we deny them that joy by telling them how wrong they are and how we know it better because we outrank them? Encourage them instead of looking down on them. People need a sense of accomplishment in order to keep going, especially those with low self-esteem.

    Look at it this way: if you put yourself in a position of (technical) superiority just because you outrank your partner, you automatically assume that you have nothing to learn anymore. Hell, why not promote yourself to 13th dan then, if you’re so perfect? Rank is really quite insignificant and only serves to give the wearer a sense of personal accomplishment (“well done, keep it up!), not superiority over everyone below you (“you have now been granted a black belt, making you better than anyone ranked lower than you”).

    If there is one good way of testing your technique, it is training with beginners. They don’t have their reactions programmed, they will react the way they think is best. If they escape out of your technique, or manage to block it, it’s not their fault, it’s yours, no matter your rank.

    Also, being annoyed at people is draining too much of my energy; I try to avoid that as much as possible, and just have fun at trainings. Who knows, that 5th kyu shihan might be a really nice guy, and possibly a new friend!

    Remember: you might be better in aikido than him, but there are areas where his knowledge dwarfs yours. Respect for each other is everything.

    Just my two cents.


  19. Maarten,

    I agree with you. I intended my post to be tongue in cheek (i.e., not true to life).

    Thanks for your comment.

  20. People are taking this blog too seriously.
    Why does it warrant opinion, moral high grounds, insightful verbiage etc etc?

    Why can’t people just shrug and giggle, without fear others might not be inflicted with their wisdom ??

  21. Thank you Maarten, your advise is foolhearty in light of the situation we are refrencing. The situation is a 7th kyu who doesn’t know the differance between a break fall and a forward roll decides to teach a 1st kyu how to do Ikkyo. In short, they don’t know what they are talking about… It really doesn’t matter what they think the technique should look, feel, or be like. By your logic, we should pull random people off the street to critique all our shihans so they can get some fresh prospective.

    The ranking system isn’t perfect, and some people know more than others, but the reason we have it ( I say this because I honestly think you may not know why at this point) is so that only people who know what they are talking about are teaching in order to promote technically good Aikido. When is the last time you had a 7th kyu teach in your dojo (assuming of course that you train in Aikido and are not just a huge Steven Segal fan)?

  22. A yellow belt told me one time that my roundhouse kick sucked…so I broke his nose…that will teach him to critique me on my superior fighting skills..

    Oh wait…I was supposed to listen and understand where he is coming from…how arrogant of me…

    …get the joke?….

  23. Dichotomy, while I appreciate your spirited defense, let’s remember to be courteous to our guests.

    Since this conversation has appeared to run its course, I’m closing comments.

    Again, thank you for all the replies. It was an interesting experience for me.

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