Category Archives: Shinkengata

EMS and the Godan Test

One Sunday afternoon, during my most recent trip to Japan, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Dr. Hatsumi. During our conversation, Dr. Hatsumi was discussing the relationship between medicine and Budo. Soke observed that we can learn much about Budo by studying the healing arts, and vice versa. One of the ladies who was assisting with translation was a doctor of internal medicine. Since Dr. Hatsumi is himself a doctor, I asked her to relate an observation that I had while recently teaching a CPR class.

When someone is unresponsive, and their heart is beginning to die, the heart typically goes from normal sinus rhythm to a rhythm called ventricular tachycardia, to a rhythm called ventricular fibrillation, and finally to asystole, or the heart completely stopping. When those of us in EMS, use a defibrillator to attempt to save one who is unresponsive, by shocking them, we are in fact, for a brief moment, stopping their heart.

Essentially, in order to save their life, we must be willing to take their life, so that their heart may have a chance to restart normally while it still can. I know full well (and I teach my CPR students) that if I do not take this action, the heart’s rhythm will gradually decay and they will die — with no chance of being saved. 

I think that this is much like the godan test. The doctor, who was translating for me related this thought , in very scientific terms to Dr. Hatsumi, who completely agreed.

So what does and AED, EMS and all of this have to do with the godan test?

In the not too recent past, and throughout most of  the history of our art, the godan test was given with a real sword. Today the test is nearly always given using a shinai  (or bamboo training sword). While the students sitting for the test can demonstrate their ability to pick up the intention of the attacker and to move out of the way, I believe the test has lost some of its true edge, both literally and figuratively.

There are many people who take numerous attempts to pass this test. Perhaps they are unprepared or should not be there for the test in the first place. In the old days, there was only one chance. It was literally a matter of life and death! It was a leap of faith. It was a test of the student’s ability to let go and completely trust a feeling from the void to save his life (call it sixth sense, a connection to the bujin, the force,  whatever).

There is a sanshin, or group of three, involved in the godan test process. The first of course is the student who is taking the test. The second is the person who is administering the test. The third, less obvious person, is the teacher who recommends that the student sit for the test.

I wonder how many of the countless students at the fourth degree level would have been willing to take the test, if the test were given with a sharp blade?

I wonder how many 15th degree black belts, including myself, would be willing to risk killing somebody, if they had to give the test with a real blade?

Most importantly, I would expect (or at least hope) that there would be far fewer teachers who would sponsor their students for the godan test if there was a significant chance that the student might die.

As a 15th dan, I have given this test but never with a real sword. However,whenever I am asked to give the test, I do so with the understanding that even the shinai, if used properly, could injure the student.  But  if I am not willing to make the cut as if I am attempting to kill this person, do they truly have the chance to pass this test and be reborn to the hidden side of our art? Or is it a test in name only?

Perhaps all Bujinkan instructors, myself included, need to seriously consider whether a candidate would be sitting for the test if a real sword were being used. I would assert that if the answer is “no”, then the student should not sit for the test, just because a less dangerous sword is being used.

There is one huge difference between cardiac arrest and the godan test. The person lying on the ground who is unresponsive did not have a choice to be there. When I am called to the scene, I do not have a choice to help them or not. We as teachers in the Bujinkan do have a choice. We are not required to, nor should we, put somebody up for the godan test unless we truly believe they could pass the test if it were being given as in the original manner.

And if an arrogant fourth dan wants to sponsor himself for the test, as has occasionally happened in the past, I say “unsheath the real steel” and show it to them. Let’s see if he still has the guts… Perhaps this kind of “pre-test” would be enough to keep it up real !