Last weekend (9. – 11.12.2022) I participated in the Polish winter camp for Katori Shinto-ryu in Dojo Stara Wies. This year Ulf Rott(5.Dan) was invited as a teacher for the winter camp. He was supported by Jacek Krzeszowiec(4.Dan ,Lublin), Detlef Augustin(4.Dan, Berlin), Gerry Groenemeijer(3.Dan, Akranes), Rafał Sałapski(3.Dan, Warsaw) and Mateusz Kuduk(3.Dan, Krakow).
The Polish Winter Camp has been held annually in December since 2014. The only interruptions were during the Corona lockdown. Dojo Stara Wies is a European Budo center located about two hundred kilometers south of Warsaw. The camp is up on a hill on which the big dojo stands. Around it you can find the individual Japanese-style buildings where the martial artists stay during the camp in their free time. A further down at the bottom of the hill one finds the reception and the food hall. Each small cottage was equipped with a genkan and a wardrobe, three bathrooms, a kitchen, a tatami lined living area with carmine and 3-4 tatami bedrooms for two with futons. The sauna, tea room and small lake at the bottom of the hill should also be mentioned.
When you are on the big hill you feel like you are at the end of the world and surrounded only by nature. The silence when you were alone was magical and something that I as a city dweller experience all too rarely. The first night it was even snowing and the next day everything was white from the snow, which underlined the beauty of the place even more. Although the whole camp was in a very Japanese style, there was no Japanese food on site. But that’s not a bad thing, after all, the Polish food you got there was also very delicious.
Ulf Rott Sensei put a strong emphasis (as always) on the basics. He explained in detail why we perform the techniques as we do and explained their origin from the armored fighting. At the same time, Rott Sensei was open to questions and was always available to answer the students’ questions.
The social aspect in the evening was also very nice and very important. Often people went from house to house, met friends, drank and snacked together and talked shop with each other about the martial arts.
On Saturday evening there were also extensive exams for people who wanted to dare to the 5th Kyu, but also up to the 2nd Dan. My friend Mateusz Bryla informed me that infact 28 act persons took part in the exam that day. All gave their best, but unfortunately not everyone passed. What there was for everyone was valuable feedback from Rott Sensei.
A total of 90 people participated in the winter camp, a number that is in no way inferior to this year’s summer seminar with Sugino Sensei. In total, students from Krakow, Warsaw, Lublin, Bialstok, Szczecin and Tarnow came together, plus four Germans and one Dutchman ;). If I have misspelled any name here please forgive me and I’m thankfull for the kind hospitality of our Polish friends and their commitment and passion for the Katori Shinto-ryu!(And the beer… and the ham)
I would like to express my sincere thanks to my Senpai Michael Reinhardt. He was kind enough to give me the okay to use material he uncovered during his research on the history of the Tenshinshō-Den Katori Shintō-ryū Heihō. Without his research, this article would have been much shorter. Thanks also to Anna Puntigam who was kind enough to read this article and provide me with helpful feedback.
Our modern society still has to fight against sexist prejudices: many people still have the image that martial arts and combat sports are something for men, that women are perhaps too weak and it is not even possible for them to learn the martial arts and sometimes even the women themselves do not believe that they are accepted in the martial arts. Like a good friend of mine who is now passionately practicing kenjutsu. But in the beginning she was afraid she would not be allowed to learn the sword art she had chosen. Fortunately, she was wrong and can now proudly say that she is an Onna Bugeisha. This article is intended to dispel such prejudices and to show, through the history of Katori Shintō-ryū, the important role that women have often played in the martial arts.
The source of Shintō-ryū
Many people in the sphere of kobudo are well aware of the origin story of the Katori Shintō-ryū. Iizasa Choizai Ienao, a skilled warrior, is said to have retired one day, tired of war, to the grounds of the Katori Shrine in Chiba. There he is said to have devoted 100 days to extensive training in martial arts as well as meditation and prayer. Then one night Futsunushi no Mikoto, the deity of war worshipped at the Katori Shrine, appeared to him in a dream in the form of a boy sitting on a tree. In this vision, Futsunushi is said to have given the Mokuroku Heiho no Shinsho to Ienao. A scroll containing the deepest secrets of the art of war. Based on these events, the Katori Shintō-ryū is said to have been founded.
In the background of this legend, two goddesses should not go unmentioned. Amaterasu no Mikoto and Marishiten.
Amaterasu is the most important deity within Shintoism. She is the goddess of the sun and light. One of the most famous myths about her is how her brother Susanoo offended her so much that she retreated into a cave in dismay and imprisoned herself with a powerful stone. This plunged the world into darkness and all the gods had to come together to devise a ruse to lure Amaterasu out of her cave. Her grandson Ninigi became the ruler of Japan. Niningi fathered the first Japanese emperor, Jimmu, together with the daughter of the Dragon King, making Amaterasu the ancestress of the Japanese imperial house.
Marishiten is an ancient deity originally from pre-Hindu India. There she was known as the goddess Marici and was a goddess of war, dawn and patroness of warriors with the ability to make her worshippers invisible. She was often depicted with multiple arms, weapons and three faces. From dawn to dusk she is said to have ridden across the sky on wild boars. As a goddess, she continued to be worshipped in some cults within Buddhism, reaching Tibet and China. There she took the name Molizhitian. In China, she was even adopted as a goddess by some Taoist sects. Then, when esoteric Buddhism reached Japan, she came with it across the sea as a Marishiten and took a place in the Japanese spiritual world.
Futsunushi was one of Amaterasu’s generals. At her command, Futsunushi descended to earth with Takemikazuchi to drive out the last demons, monsters and hostile spirits and to pave the way for Ninigi’s reign. Marishitens role was to train both deities in the art of war. She was their teacher. Without these two great goddesses, the Katori Shinto-ryu would not exist today in the school’s mythology.
Yamato Nadeshiko – the ideal Japanese woman
The traditional Western as well as the Japanese image of women do not differ very much from each other. The woman has to stay at home, run the household, raise the children and obediently follow her husband.
And yet, for a true Yamato Nadeshiko [大和撫子], there is something in which she essentially differs from her Western counterpart: she also had to be strong and defend the house in the absence of the man! This fact is especially underlined by the naginata, a long sword lance. The naginata proved early on to be an extremely dangerous close combat weapon. However, as armies grew larger and larger, the spear soon took over as the favored weapon, replacing the naginata. Spears were much easier to use in formations and easier to handle. The naginata did not disappear from the battlefield overnight, of course, but it stayed at home more often, and sooner or later it ended up in the hands of samurai women. As a long weapon with some leverage, it served the women well and compensated for disadvantages in strength. A small and petite woman trained on the naginata could easily strike down a larger, stronger man.
Due to these circumstances, the tradition developed that samurai women were trained on the naginata. This circumstance led to the fact that the Naginata today in Japan is also considered a “women’s weapon”. Of course, there are also men who practice with the Naginata, but culturally Naginatado is considered something “for women”.
Woman of the Iizasa family
Nevertheless, the Katori Shintō-ryū was and is run purely patriarchal for generations and the typical western practioner knows not alot about the women of the Iizasa family.
However, a few facts can be found here. Iizasa Choizai Ienao the founder of our school built his dojo near the Katori Shrine. There it stands to this day, the Hombu Dojo of the Katori Shintō-ryū. Of course, it has been rebuilt and renovated over the centuries. What is remarkable, however, is that Ienao’s wife is enshrined there with him in the dojo. Unfortunately, I do not know the name of his wife, but there together with him she is sitting next to him, holding a naginata in her hand. As the wife of a samurai that she was.
The second woman of the family that I would like to highlight is Iizasa Toi Sensei. In the official history of our school, the 18th Soke Iizasa Morisada died suddenly, without a male successor. For a time, under these conditions, the school was then led by the then Shihan with Yamaguchi Kumajiro as Kyoju, responsible for the technical transmission of the school. Later, a young man married into the Iizasa family and was adopted as a successor into the Iizasa family and installed as the 19th Soke Iizasa Kinjiro sensei, the father of our 20th Soke Iizasa Yasusada.
However, there are several documents from which it is clear that Morisada’s widow, Iizasa Toi sensei led the school in this difficult time after Morisada’s death as the 19th Soke and appears as such in a number of historical documents of that time. Among other things, she was responsible for the renovation of the Hombu dōjō and had collected money for it.
Donn F. Draeger is a famous pioneer of Japanese martial arts. He was one of the most famous US-Americans who popularized Japanese martial arts in the West. In the 60’s he also began to learn Katori Shintō-ryū under a then young Otake Risuke and is generally considered to be the first Westerner to learn the school. However, this assumption is wrong!
Olive Lloyd-Baker, born in 1902 in Gloucestershire England and her good friend Ms. Janes were the first two western students of Katori Shintō-ryū.
Ms. Lloyd-Baker came to Japan for a short period starting from mid-April 1927. There she stayed at the Imperial Hotel. Through the contact of Ms. Noguchi Utako, a member of the British Embassy, both women were introduced to Kaneko Masamitsu under whose guidance they learned Katori Shintō-ryū. They were instructed daily from 10:00 to 12:00, especially in the use of the naginata.
Itō Kikue Sensei was born on September 30, 1906 in Sawara, Chiba. The Itō family had held an important role as shrine guardians of the Katori shrine for generations. Itō Kikue sensei began her training in the Katori Shintō-ryū at a very young age under the supervision of Hongu Toranosuke sensei. Together with Sugino Yoshio Osensei she wrote on the Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū Būdō Kyohan. She probably was responsible for the chapters concerning Naginata. She taught Katori Shintō-ryū Naginata in public schools during the 1940s and retired from the affairs of the ryūha after World War II to work as an elementary school teacher.
I hope I could show by several examples that while Katori Shintō-ryū, like many facets of society, is dominated by men, women nevertheless had an important place in it and the martial arts in general. The martial arts in Japan was never a place that was closed to women, but one that was traditionally quite open to them.
Before the time of the Corona Pandemic, our keikojo gave two demonstrations every year. One in the summer at the summer festival of the German-Japanese Society of Berlin and the other in the winter at the Japan Festival in the Urania.
Many people surely have in mind people smashing bricks with their bare hands or a group of people performing the same kata in perfect synchronization when they think of the word “martial arts demonstration”. What also often exists are staged show fights including athletic gymnastics. A real show like you know it from the movies, accompanied by music to amuse the audience and to promote the own dojo.
However, such a show is far removed from classical demonstrations in Kobudo. In Japan, demonstrations began as something called honoenbu (奉納演武). These were ceremonies often performed in internal circles at shrines. The purpose was to honor the gods and the ancestors of the tradition and to demonstrate his skills before them. Only much later were these demonstrations opened to the general population.
Now here in the West we do not have Shinto shrines and our enbu are not honoenbu either. What remains the same is that the purpose of an enbu is to demonstrate the skills of the dojo. And this throughout, from the youngest beginner to the teacher. It should reflect the full spectrum of skill in a dojo. So nowadays the purpose of an Enbu is not to amuse or impress the audience, but rather to have a stressful training situation for the members. It is practically training with spectators.
Giving an Enbu is nerve-wracking. The environment is unfamiliar, often forcing you to work at an unfamiliar distance. The ground is uneven and in the grass you can often trip over a stone or branch. When performing on a stage, you have to deal with getting bright spotlights in your face. Also, children and teenagers are often merciless in commenting and ridiculing what they see there. This all contributes to an increased adrealine level which often leads to mistakes. The art of a good enbu is to be able to react appropriately to these mistakes, so that in the best case they are not noticed by the untrained eye of the audience.
From my own experience I can say that it is quite valuable to make the experience of an Enbu as a participant. It forces you to be more relaxed in front of an audience, strengthens your self-confidence and teaches you what it is like to be in an unknown situation. Of course, I’m still a little nervous before every Enbu, because every performance is different.
The set Omote no Iai in Katori Shinto ryu is a set of “crouching” techniques for drawing the sword. This kind of Iaijutsu for me is the hardest part of Shinto ryu, physically as also mentally. Especially for the longest time doing these techniques correctly wasn’t possible for me. With my heavy weight the burden on my heart and knees was for a long time too much so that for one or two years I only could practice them standing up.
Now after losing something around 20 Kg it is finally possible for me to start practicing them correctly again. Of course it is still hard for me to do them so I alternate between the crouching and standing version. But for now it is a start again. My goal for now is to be able to jump again from this crouching position
Kenjutsu[剣術] is a term that translates simply to sword technique. Many may also have heard the term Kendō[剣道]. Kendō, translates to: The way of the sword and is as a term today used primarily for modern Japanese fencing. Kenjutsu, on the other hand, is used for the sword techniques of the schools of Kobudō[古武道]. While these schools share some amount of fundamentals, the techniques and strategies taught in them are sometimes very different. Therefore, kenjutsu should be understood primarily as an umbrella term rather than a stand-alone martial art. There is no such thing as “the” Kenjutsu, but only Kenjutsu of different schools.
This pluralism goes so far that there are traditionally other school-specific terms for the sword techniques of the individual school. In the Katori Shintō-ryū[香取神道流] taught at Kobukai Berlin, the traditional term is actually Tachijutsu[太刀術]. In the Tatsumi-ryū[立身流] it is Tōjutsu[刀術]. The attentive reader may have noticed that both terms, Tachijutsu and Tōjutsu use the character Tō[刀]. Today’s more common Kenjutsu, however, uses the character Ken[剣]. Japanese characters can be read in different ways therefore 刀 can also be read as Katana and 剣 can also be read as Tsurugi. So there are two completely different characters for the term sword.
This is because the characters originally meant two different types of Japanese swords. Tsurugi are the swords used in Japan well before the time of the samurai and were probably imported from China. They are double-edged and straight. In contrast, the katana, the famous samurai sword, is a curved sword with only one edge that is also classified by many as a saber. A convincing explanation why people nowadays speak of “tsurugi technique” when they train with a katana might be found in the mythological and religious significance of the sword in Japan. At the time when the origin myths of Japan were written down the katana did not exist yet, warriors used tsurugi as swords in them. So did the kami[神], the deities and spirits of Japan. And it is said that fencing is an art taught by the kami. And by using the term kenjutsu, they tried to emphasize this mythological, religious context. Which plays an important role in the Japanese self-image. As one of the three Imperial Regalia is also the Sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the grass cutter.
In the Katori Shintō-ryū, kenjutsu is practiced in various contexts. The Omote no Tachi[表之太刀] set, for example, is said to deal primarily with fencing in armor, and Gogyō no Tachi[五行之太刀] in comparison deals more with fencing in everyday clothing. The signature move of the Shintō-ryū is the maki uchi. For the maki-uchi, the blade is not raised above the head, but is placed on the left forearm and struck from that position. The rationale for this is that the ornamental fittings of the kabuto, the helmet worn with the armor, hindered the samurai to attack with a powerful sword strike reached out from behind the head. A Bokutō[木刀], a wooden sword about 1m long, is used as a practice simulator. In the Shintō-ryū, a tsuba[鍔], the guard of the blade, is not added to the Bokutō, as hand protection as the student should not get used to rely upon or get accustomed to it. The full curriculum of the Katori Shintō-ryū includes basic drills, as well as advanced and “secret” techniques for fighting with the longsword. In addition, as an advanced student, techniques for using both the short and long sword simultaneously are practiced, as well as advanced techniques with the short sword.
If you are new to Budo you simply think Swords are cool. Soon you will hear different names like Kendo, Iaido, Kenjutsu, Battodo, Shinkendo and other stuff. It can quickly become quite confusing for a Beginner. So here is a little glossary to help you.
Kendo and Iaido
Kendo literally means the way of the sword. It is a term used for the modern Japanese Fencing where you wear a protective armor called Bogu and a Bamboo Sword, called a Shinai. Most people train it mostly as an incredibly challenging Sport. But there are also a few old School Teachers instilling some Aspects of their Classical Fencing/Kenjutsu Training. Today’s Kendo stems mostly from the Itto Ryu Schools, especially Hokushin Itto Ryu.
Iaido means something akin of the way to react correctly and is used for Dojo that practice sword Drawing associated to mostly the Schools of Muso Shinden Ryu, Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Tamiya Ryu. Modern Iaido is organized like Kendo in the Forms of Federations. These Federations will rank their practitioners with help of the Seitei Kata. These modern standard Forms encompass Elements of the different Iaijutsu Styles but give the examiners a Tool for grading the Students. As in a modern Federation at least in the higher Grades you do not get tested by your own Teacher, but by People of the Federation, that may come from a different Style of Iaijutsu. So, a Student of Iaido today will firstly learn the Seitei Kata and will also keep practicing these Techniques for grading before he will learn the original Techniques of his Style of Iaijutsu. Iaido today is practiced with Iaito and Shinken. Beginners often will use a blunt Sword simulator made from an aluminum alloy. While more experienced Practitioners can use real Blades.
Jutsu vs. Do, a heuristic
You will have noticed that I have already used the terms of Kenjutsu and Iaijutsu without explaining them. Let us make it simple: Kenjutsu just means Sword technique. And Iaijutsu just means Sword drawing.
The old Japanese Martial arts also known as Koryu Bujutsu used these names to describe parts of their Curriculum. For example, the School I am a Member of Katori Shinto Ryu teaches Kenjutsu, Iaijutsu, Staff Techniques, Glaive Techniques and a lot more. So, if somebody uses the Terms Kenjutsu or Iaijutsu it is a good heuristic to think about older Styles of Fencing and Sword Drawing, that are not part of modern Kendo or Iaido Federations.
There is not THE Kenjutsu or THE Iaijutsu. There are still hundreds of different Schools of Koryu Bujutsu that teach you how to handle a Sword each in a slightly different way in a different context. And Kenjutsu and Iaijutsu are just smaller parts of a bigger Picture that is the School/the Style. Old School Martial Art Styles are more individualistic and smaller in scope of members. With more individualistic I mean that most of the time you will be ranked by your Teacher directly or the Teacher of your Teacher. Not by a panel of Strangers that will give you a Rank from a Federation.
Last but not least
Then there is Battodo and Battojutsu. The terms are associated with Toyama Ryu and Nakamura Ryu. Batto means literally Sword Drawing. These Schools stem mostly from the Sword Teachings of the Toyama Military Academy. In times of Japanese Militarization there were many conscripts that did not have experience with Swords or Martial Arts. The aim of These Style of Martial Arts was to teach soldiers/ future offiziers how to correctly Cut with a Katana as part of their modern military Training. While Battodo also teaches Kata of Kenjutsu and Iaijutsu it is mostly famous for its huge emphasis of Test cutting, called Tameshigiri.
The last Term I mentioned is Shinkendo. Shinkendo, meaning something akin from “Serious/real Kendo” is a Martial Art founded by Obata Toshishiro. His Sword art is heavily influenced by Battodo and mostly popular in the United States where Obata became famous as an Actor.
I was 10 years old when i got my first Personal Computer. With twelve i had an internet connection. And soon i discovered chat-rooms and forums about a bunch of different Topics.
At the same time around i started to train in martial arts. And soon i would seek out forums exactly about this topic. Where i would go head to head with a lot of people who trained far longer than i was alive at that time. But if you are young and been hit by puberty, of course you know more than some smuck old dude. And so i went there to write down all of my huge knowledge and theories about martial arts, self defence and how stuff should work for the whole world to see. (on another note: yeah not much has changed today xD )
My head was regulary washed left and right in rigorous online Discussions there. You practically could say i grew up fighting with strangers on the internet! And there was only one aim. DESTROY YOUR OPPONENT IN AN ULTIMATE PWNAGE MOVE FATALITY!!!!
I learned a lot through online discussions. They helped me discover great sources in form of literature and or second hand anecdotes of far more expierenced people. And soon i would become one of the old dogs of the german internet Budo Community. A proper Internet Weekend Warrior and expert. Or how one of my Senpai told my: a fucking huge budo nerd.
There in these kind of Internet Communitys i would also get to know people who didn’t took the truth all to serious. People who claimed to be the last Grandmasters of ancient Martial Arts they had secretly learned from their japanese Teacher. The teachers name and his in most cases family art were huge secrets in the past, thats why nobody heard of them until the western Master decided to open up his school for the public. But when these kind of people where asked for sources and explanation they started to get annoyed and offended. They started to ramble and told new stories with so much details that soon would be proven to be nonsense.
I talk of course of Gaijin Ryu. Gaijin is the japanese Word for Westerner/Barbarian/Alien. Or in essence non-japanese. And a Gaijin Ryu is a term used for schools that try to emulate japanese Martial arts without any proper expierence by the “Master” of such Art. Most of the time these Masters are mentally ill and have just a basic training in some form of Karate or other Gendai Budo. But what they share is that they have a Story they tell themselves and their poor and ignorant students.
There was a time where i lived for humiliating and defeating these Scam Artists with Passion. How could they dare to tell such lies? How could they sleep in the Night? How could they disrespect my beloved Martial Arts so much?
I was disgusted by them. And i wanted to destroy them, forcing them to their knees apologizing in the dirt before me! I would spend hours with doing research. Analysing their different Statements. Stalking their trail on Social Networks and other creepy shit.
Until i noticed that these kinds of activities made myself vile and disgusting. How could i develope so much hate for a fellow human being? Well i have to confess: I was not satified with myself. I would leash out against them ( and as old habits die hard sometimes i still do today) and let out all my frustrations against them. It feeled so good to be on the “right” side of the argument.
And then i noticed sometimes i hurt people. Not everybody deserved all the dirt i would throw at them. And i burned bridges with other people because of my behaviour that could have been a fruitfull exchange somtime in the future. Just because i had to satisfy my own ego.
Today this behaviour Trait that sometimes still shows it’s ugly head is something i am quite ashamed of. That doesn’t mean that Scammers, Liers and other kind of Fakes shouldn’t be critized, they should! But … don’t use it as excuse to let out your own negative urges.
When you stare at the darkness, the darkness stares back into you.
I want to be honest with y’all. I’ve cried in the Dojo multiple times in my years of Training. Nothing big, i thing most of my mates didn’t even noticed it when it happened. But… sometimes the training of Budo can be so difficult that you have to cry. No not because you had an accident. Not because you got hit. It’s when when you realize that you suck more than you thought you would. Sometimes Training can be so frustrating that you want to throw your Training dogu away and leave everything behind you. And still, the next Training you still show up at the dojo to suck a little bit less.
Budo Keiko is really hard. Even with a good teacher it is still hard. Your Body doesn’t move like you want it to move. And when you copy your Teacher and could swear that you did everything the way he did, you most of the time did it still wrong.
Sometimes it feel like you make progress at the speed of a tortoise. Or sometimes you feel like you are getting worse.
And this is the part that makes budo Training so valuable. Budo no Keiko is a form of Shugyo[修行]. It’s a journey of discipline to master onesself and to overcome ones own ego.
Showing up, and doing it again even if you feel frustration and dispair in overcoming hardships. And the if you feel like you actually made progress, it is quite sweet of a feeling. But this you only can expierence by standing up and showing up again.
Sometimes we cry, sometimes we smile. But we will always stand up again.
Many (normal) people are thinking that a Black Belt means you are a Master. This is not true. Originally the Black Belt meant that you have the basics down and you can start the real Training now.
You receive your black belt when you reached the rank of first Dan, Shodan. This means roughly translated first step or beginner rank in japanese. Before that you would have gone through the kyu levels. Which can be translated as “classes”. Atleast in most western Dojo. In Japan many Dojo only bother to test Kids for Kyu levels, to keep them motivated. That’s also the original reason for the multiple belts in different colors.
This System, the dan-i System, got popularized by Kano Jigoro the founder of Judo. He himself adapted this type of System from the board games of Go and Shogi. There this System was used to determine how much of a handicap the better Player would have to overcome against a lower ranked player to keep it exiting and a challenge for both.
Kano didn’t implement this System because of shits and giggles of course. He had a quite solid reason. In most martial Arts dojo before the dawn of Judo the teacher would have known every single Student of his personally. He would know their skill level, strengths and weaknesses. There was no need for Rankings as the dojo and Ryuha were so small in Students that everybody very well knew everybody else quite well or atleast has heard of them when they were from another Branch.
But that changed dramaticly with the dawn of Judo. Judo with a lot of backing from political power behind it was implemented in most Schools and Universitys to install the values of Bushido into the japanese people from young age. Dojo, Study Groups, School and University Clubs popped up fast everywhere in Japan. Kano got so many new Students in such a short time with different expierence Levels that a new System was needed to evaluate them and to ensure a safe training enviroment.
He needed to discriminate between people who had the basics down and could already Fall safely after being thrown, these were the first Dan Rankers. And the people who could not and had to master simple basic techniques, the kyu grades. This was easily marked through a white Belt for Beginners and a Black Belt for people who could train safely without a lot of supervision. And over time this ranking System became more sophisticated. As similar as in the original Board Games your Dan Rank would mirror your fighting strength you would have proven in Randori practice and official shiai(matches). When a Shodan would throw enough people regulary that were ranked second Dan he soon would be promoted for example.
When you would open a Dojo in Japan, only holding the Rank of Shodan you wouldn’t attract many Students. More likely people would just laugh at you. Of course not in your face, i mean come on it is Japan. But behind your Back. In Japan roughly with a Sandan you would be considered as a kind of “Junior” Teacher. Most people would only dare to open their own Dojo with atleast the Rank of 5th Dan. And to be considered a real Master(Shihan or Hanshi) of your Martial Art you would need atleast a Rank beginning with 6th Dan and the approval of your organisation.
So… how did we end up in the West with this wrong understanding of the meaning of the Black Belt?
The american Soldiers after WW2 came back from Japan with some Training in Karate, Judo or any other Martial Art. As they were Training regulary they got promoted quite quickly and got their Black Belt.
Then, after coming back they would open their own Dojo with themselves as Masters. Far away from their original Teachers they with only the first or second Dan would have to be the Master. And with this the picture of the Blackbelt as sign of mastery was forged in the western mind and propagated by Movies and other form of popular media.
When you started your Training at this time in the West, Black Belts were rare. And those people with one in the Dojo would obviously teach. But in Japan this situation is quite different. There where even the modern Gendai Budo have a far longer History it is quite normal for people to see many Blackbelts, 3rd, 4th and even 5th and 6th Dans Training in their Dojo. The Senpai in those Dojo are not your typical Brown Belt, no they are probably 4th Dan. And the Black Belt for itself is nothing special.
Also while in the West most modern and “proper” Organisations will only give you a Black Belt after around 10 years of Training when you have shown enough maturity.
In Japan it is quite common to get the Shodan/first grade Black Belt already after 2 to 4 Years of regular Training. As it isn’t seen as a rank of Mastery, there is no big need to prove your maturity. Even kids can get a Shodan in Japan. And no, they don’t train in a McDojo.
So what is the truth behind the picture of the Blackbelt as the Rank of Mastery? Well this is just my opinion of course. But in my view it was simply because at the Beginning there were no real Masters of these Arts in the West. Of course with the Exception of Teachers who were send from Japan to the west especially with the reason to teach.
But these were rare. The first western Pioneers basicly were just a bunch of Amateurs who get the basics down, atleast when we view it in the big picture. This should not degrade their important work of course. And many followed the path further and developed into real Masters over time. But some others were not, and those were the ones who would put the black belt by itself as the sign of mastery and promote this misconception to blow up their own ego.
I bought a new Iaito and I think it is pretty sweet. My old one was a Kurin Steel Iaito I bought from one of my Senpai. It was a little to big for me, but i trained with it for the last ten years. My new Iaito is a Tozando Seiryu Iaito with a Higo Koshirae and a Sakura Theme from Ninecircles. Who wants to see the offer from Ninecircles for it can see it here: Ninecircles: Tozando Seiryu Series, Higo Koshirae