Testing for Sankyu (Part 3)

[Continued from yesterday]
and the only thing I felt certain of now was that I didn’t know what was coming next.
What came next, of course, were contact drills. But rather than full-on kumite, which a karateka of my rank should be tested on rigorously, Hanshi asked Lis and I to move through several prearranged contact drills back and forth. Yes, we were full force with our movements. Yes, we lightly touched the chest, legs, and face. Yes, we did take downs. But no, we did not ever engage in true sparring and, in fact, Hanshi chose to run this section of the test more like an informal class drill. Not being able to decipher why Hanshi did this or what his energy and expectations were, I found it difficult to know precisely how formally to engage in the drills.
Not too much later, Nate and the others arrived in time for adult class. Hanshi asked Lis and I to stop our drills, the entire class bowed in, then Hanshi had Nate step out do go through kimenokata (self-defense and take-downs) drills with me. I managed my way through these but did not do my best, faltering my step-slides and grips on more than one sequence. I won’t tell you how many times I had to repeat the straight shoulder grab because I can’t remember. Up. Down. Grasp, strike, step, twist, take down, punch, arm bar. Repeat. Repeat again only better. No. You’re dead, you hesitated. Repeat again. Not quite. Repeat again. Etc.
Kumite matches would have been appropriate at this juncture, as the yudansha were all there and this is a part of every test. Yet Hanshi did not have me engage in sparring It was difficult not to take this omission personally, as I’ve been asking for more sparring training since I know it is my weakness and I’ve had very little opportunity to practice (and will have even less once I move). Hanshi’s attention was drawn, instead, to the two white belts who were due to also test that evening.
As the white belts stretched and chatted, Hanshi presented me with my certificate and belt, offering a genuine smile, hug, and back slap. I wanted to run off the mat, but managed my best poker face. Of course I felt grateful, but I also felt as though I failed myself. The question with a belt test is not “Will I pass?” because Hanshi only tests us when we are ready. The question is only, “Will I do the best I can do?” For me, on that night, the answer was no.
For the next hour, I stood to the right of the white belts and studied their movements as they tested. I was careful not to lock my knees but I certainly could have used a splash of water and, oh yeah, that snack I’d packed so many hours prior. I stood mostly silent, offering critique when called upon and support where necessary.
Later, Hanshi told me that in Japan they call the rank of sankyu (brown belt) the dropping off point because so many people drop out once they get to this level. “But I prefer the other view,” he said.
“What’s that, Sir?”
“Trias’s view,” Hanshi said. “The view that brown belt is the point of no return. You’ve made it this far. You’re clearly on the path. You’ve proven yourself. Now there’s no turning back.” (The lineage of our Shuri-Ryu system is: Motobu, Matsumora, Hsing, Trias, Pachevas, and Hanshi.)
“Thank you, Sir,” I said.
At that point Lis pulled me aside and reminded me that when you’re tested, your test includes more than just your performance that evening. She told me that if I knew I didn’t perform my personal best, I could bet Hanshi knew it as well—but he passed me anyway, because I have the time in, because I bring my spirit to class, because I train hard, and because—on better days—I might actually look like a brown belt karateka for a glimmering half-second.
Lis’ insight was priceless, and came paired with a card and bottle of wine from a mutual friend of ours. The entire evening I’d had their support right there within arms reach, but I couldn’t seem to conjure it due to the assumption’s I’d had in my own mind about how the evening would take place. Caught up in the mind, the body has trouble synchronizing. Caught up in emotions, the spirit has trouble seeking clarity.
Point taken.
Next week? Hanshi says he wants to teach me a new form with the sai that has 85 moves in it. My response? “Yes, Sir.”
Showing 2 comments
  • Exploratrice

    Hey Katey – I just want to say that this whole Sankyu story is incredibly strong. The directness of the tone and the internal & external details made me feel like I was right there in the room as you tested. And the 3-part structure makes the story "land" in a way that a single entry would not have. There's a palpable perseverance and self-awareness beneath your in-the-moment frustration – though you never use those words, which gives the presence of those qualities even more impact. Awesome job. Now the question is, who's gonna publish it? (I bet there's a martial arts journal or three that would be very interested…)

  • Darla Biel


    Thanks for sharing this intense testing experience. I'm glad we had a chance to see each other in Seaside and look forward to hearing more about your adventures.

    All best,

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