Saito sensei is a hachidan. In kendo terms this basically means a god.
In his earthly guise he is the dean of the Modern Martial Arts Department at Sendai University. He is also teaching kendo there, both as a general course as well as to students who learn it as their main subject. However, what matters is that he is a hachidan.
Kendo, like other modern martial arts (i.e. gendai budō, such as karate, judo, seitei iaido, aikido etc.), uses the so-called kyū/dan (級/段) ranking system, as opposed to menkyo ranking, used in many traditional koryū styles. A beginner starts as mudansha and works his or her way up the kyū grades in a descending order (in kendo from 6 to 1) and then enters yūdansha upon successfully passing the shodan (the lowest of dan ranks) exam. Kendo actually doesn’t use any manifest indication of a person’s rank, but in styles that do, dan ranks wear the (in)famous “black belt.” Somewhat contrary to the popular perception of a “black belt” as an expert in possession of superhuman martial skills and prowess, in most styles shodan simply means that the person in question has acquired a basic competence of the mechanics and technique of a particular style or art in question.
From there on ranks start to increase and currently go up to hachidan (i.e. 8. dan) in kendo, but this again may vary in different schools and styles of other martial arts. As could be expected, the further one progresses the harder it becomes to achieve a subsequent rank. In Japanese martial arts there is usually a strict time limit between different dan ranks – generally the same number of years of continuous practice prior to the grading attempt as the grade that is aimed for. In kendo, the grading exam itself remains exactly the same throughout dan ranks – there are two matches (with an exception of hachidan, more about that below), and kata. However, the requirements for passing get stricter with every grade – a typical pass rate for 5. dan exam that I will be shooting for later this year seems to hover around 20% recently. However, hachidan exam is the real deal. With its average pass rate of about 1%, it is the ultimate eye of the needle that only the select few are ever able to pass. And mind you, those 99% that fail are not average joes from the street, rather than people who have typically practiced for at least 30 years to have reached the 7. dan through increasingly stringent selection. Also, hachidan exam has two rounds of matches instead of the usual one – in the first one 90% of candidates get eliminated, which means that to pass the second round one has to demonstrate his best kendo against the opponents who are already best among the best. There is not a single soft spot among those who make it there, and yet nine out of ten of them will fail.
Saito sensei had cleared it to the second round five times before he finally got his hachidan, and it is not unheard of for people to go on trying the exam for decades. Given what it takes to succeed, the level of respect paid to those who have made it is hardly surprising. Every year about 10 new people pass the exam, which apparently keeps the number of hachidan more or less stable at around 500 persons. Those five hundred are there at the absolute pinnacle of the art, and each and every one of them has earned it with a lifetime of hard work and dedication.
Crossing swords with a hachidan is therefore always an honour. It can also be a pretty terrifying experience. It feels like facing a stone wall – there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. All the things that are easy when fighting against lower ranks or even your equals are suddenly incredibly difficult. There is a tangible threat and menace radiating from a hachidan sensei that will make you waver, and of course this is exactly what they dine on. As soon as you flinch, let your guard down, or simply try to catch your breath or regain your posture, they will take a step forward and strike. I once saw a video on youtube of Shoji Teramoto, a 2009 world champion and several times Japan champion, being run into wall by Ishizuka sensei (here, look at around 9:20 mark), and then realised that it will quite simply never end, no matter how good you are.
If you want to see me mowed down by Saito sensei, the video is below.
However, at the same time it is incredibly useful to practice with a hachidan. It is the ultimate test of your kendo and all your weaknesses will be mercilessly laid bare. Of course, no hachidan can alone improve your kendo – this is for you yourself to do. But they can certainly tell and show you what you need to work on. I take a long list of remarks along with me as I leave Sendai tomorrow.