Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Black-Belt in Judo

Last Sunday, I was pleasantly surprised to know that I had qualified for Judo black-belt (sho-dan / first level).

Why the surprise? Firstly because getting any qualification - let alone a black-belt - was never even an objective when I started my training. Secondly, in my own mind, I was merely 'partnering' a friend and more worried about making some mistake and letting him down than anything else.

The test-event itself was quite a learning experience though. So this post is an attempt to recap the whole process  for foreigners who may be interested in getting a Judo certification in the Japan.

I've been in Japan for a little more than a year now. I had approached the Judo Club at University of Tsukuba with the objective of staying fit -- something of a healthy diversion from the long sedentary hours of research-work -- and out of curiosity. The university was famous for its sports faculty and I just wanted to get an idea of the sort of training and effort it had taken to produce so many Olympic medalists in Judo.

We trained twice a week (Mondays and Fridays) with a "bonus" option of training with full-time judokas (The "Tsukuba Blues") on Wednesdays. Each two-hour session was divided into seven parts - (1) Rei (group salutations) (2) Warm-up exercises (3) practice-sparring - 30 mts. (4) Randori - random practice fights with other club members - about 10 rounds of 4 minutes each (5) Cooling down exercises (6) Salutations (7) Cleaning up the hall.

Each session was physically demanding. Sprains, aches, cramps and bloodied uniforms were fairly common but the seniors keep a sharp lookout for fights that could be getting out of hand. And the atmosphere was helpful and friendly with the more experienced folks ever-ready to help the newbies with the ropes for each kata (form) and technique.

About a month ago the club-captain suddenly asked me if I wanted to appear in the black-belt qualifying exam at Tsuchiura. At first I thought he was joking but then I understood that one of the members, Yamada-san was keen to apply and he could not appear in the test without a partner.

The captain demonstrated the nine throwing forms (Nage no Kata) that had to be presented by each pair for the sho-dan level (1st level black-belt). He also told us that each applicant would have to fight a couple of random bouts and that the test would cost a few thousand yen.

As can be seen in this video, Nage no Kata looks like some kind of stylized dance. It may look easy but it does take a good deal of practice to get the correct sequence of moves. In each pair there is a "Tori" (取りthe attacker) and the "Uke" (受けthe defender). There are nine sets of three throws each(te-waza, uchi-waza and ashi-waza or techniques using the hands, waist and legs) and each throw had to be done on the right-hand and the left-hand side ( I found the change-over particularly confusing). After the Tori throws the Uke 18 times, the whole process is reversed with the "attacker" now becoming the "defender" for another 18 throws.

We practiced hard but even until the last day of practice, I was not sure if I could remember the all moves - especially the part where there is a switching of roles from being the attacker (easier) who gets thrown around and to that of the defender (difficult).

On D-day (13 June) we reached Tsuchiura Dojo by 8:45AM. It was a large building - and quite crowded. About 150 candidates - mostly boys in their late teens thronged the corridors. The whole event was being organized by a set of sharp, supremely fit, elderly gentlemen dressed in white shirts and grey trousers. They manned the counters dispensing the application forms, clarified doubts, helped fill-in the forms, and directed each group in booming voices to the right halls - the archers stayed downstairs while the judokas went to the first floor hall.

It was apparent that foreigners were a rare sight here- I must have been the only gaijin in the building that day. But thanks to Yamada-san, we submitted the application forms quickly, paid the fees (Yen 6000), went to the locker-room upstairs and changed into the Judo-Gi. When we were about the enter the hall, one of the elders reminded us that our names had to be there on the back of our uniforms. So we went back downstairs, got our names written on white-tape and had it pasted on. Back again upstairs, everybody was now practicing until the tests started. We too found a vacant corner and went through all the moves once again.

In about 20 minutes everybody was told to line up in groups. White-belts and black-belts stood in separate rows and listened to four brief speeches about the ethics and philosophy of judo. Then the tests began with the girls and the black-belters. As we settled on the periphery, they lined up in two rows facing each other and went through the motions of their Nage no Kata. The black-belters were a pleasure to watch - especially the advanced ones facing opponents armed with 'long-swords' (katana) and daggers.

The white-belters were called to line-up next. I got up with a lot of trepidation but once the first step was taken the throws seem to flow on their own. But even though I was a passable Uke, I faltered as a Tori and my last move for Uchi-Mata was a disaster. The mistake was quickly noticed by the judges and one of them walked past asking his colleague loudly, "What do you think of this pair?" The quick reply was, "Well, just barely..." (ギリギリ).

I was disheartened and thought that both of us would be disqualified from the rest of the test. But apparently there were others who were much worse and we stayed on for the next round - the random bouts.

The group of 60 candidates was divided into two sets. The fights took place one at a time and the the members of one groups had wear red ribbon markers on their waist. When the fights started, I was struck by the ferocity with which the teenagers attacked - it was so very different from the sparring at the club! Fouls were aplenty - there was so much of kicking, jabbing, and poking that the referee was busy calling the fights to order.

I was called for three bouts - the first was with a bigger and heavier opponent; the next two with teenagers of similar or lesser weight. I lost the first one very quickly and held on for a while longer for the other two before the opponents were declared "ippon!" (winners). My partner, thankfully, did much better - he was a clear winner for one of his three fights. After the fighting rounds a few of us "runners-up" were called in to demonstrate a set of three throws each.

By now it was 12:30PM and we were told to wait for the results. After a while everybody was called in and one of the elders read out some names - about a dozen candidates who were told that they had not cleared the test and that they could collect a reimbursement of Yen 2000 downstairs. The rest - and that included our pair - had passed!!   :)

Each of the successful candidates now received a calligraphic quotation, the certified test booklet and a set of forms. The forms were mainly for depositing the certification fees which turned out to be much, much bigger than I had anticipated for the first level (sho-dan) -- Yen 19,000!!   :O

So from my experience, the black-belt qualification is more about technique, team-work and etiquette than aggressive fighting capabilities. Your attitude and conduct during the entire test-session is, no doubt, more important than the triumph of winning or the anguish of losing a couple of bouts.


Summary of Costs:
  • Annual club membership at Tsukuba-U - Yen 3000
  • Test fees at Tsuchiura Dojo - Yen 6000  (Yen 2000 is reimbursed if you fail the test)
  • Certification Fees - 1st Level (Sho-dan) - Yen 19,000; 2nd Level - Yen 14,500; 3rd Level - Yen 18,000; 4th Level - Yen 24,000; 5th Level - Yen 37,000

  • Before the test - One application form and one dojo-tournament-record  booklet (in Japanese) to be filled-in and submitted before the test
  • After the test - 3 documents - one application form (blue, in duplicate); One 'reccomendation' form and one postal-remmitance form. After making the payment, the first two forms have to be mailed to the certification centre within three weeks. 


What Does a Black Belt Really Mean? (Neil Ohlenkamp in

Nage-no-Kata on YouTube

Nage-no-Kata at Wikipedia

Nage-no-Kata - neat illustrations (page is in French)


108 school judo class deaths but no charges, only silence - Fatalities since '83 highest rate in any sport; brain injuries abound (Japan Times 26 Aug. 2010) -

"Over the 27-year period between 1983 and 2009, 108 students aged 12 to 17 died as a result of judo accidents in Japanese schools, an average of four a year. This is more than five times higher than in any other sport. About 65 percent of these fatalities came from brain injuries. This is clear evidence of a dangerous trend in Japanese schools."

No comments: