FACE to FACE with KEN COTTIER Sensei
This was the second interview that I had with the late Ken Cottier
Sensei; it was conducted on the move, literally. Parts of it were
recorded while we were in a moving car – in Taipei, in 1999. It
centred on only one issue.
This interview, excerpts of which first appeared in the 2000 issue of the
Kuala Lumpur YMCA Aikido Club Magazine is published in full for the
RK*: To what extent is grading important in Aikido?
KC: I don’t think too much importance should be placed on
Gradings. It upsets me that there are some people for whom the only
purpose in Aikido is to be graded ... to keep going up the Grades, I don’t
think this is the right attitude. I always say to my members to relax - to
enjoy Aikido - grades come with time automatically - grades will come
through the years.
The other point, is I think an important point. On many occasions,
people have said to me “Oh, I’ve been a 1st kyu for 3 years or so” OR “I’
ve been a 2nd Dan for 5 years”. But it depends - it’s not exactly the time
you have held a particular grade - it’s what you’ve done during those
years, you know.
You can have student A who has been 1st kyu or whatever for a year
but student A has practised 4 times a week - practised very diligently and
is very serious about his training and ….then you may have student B
who comes for class once or twice a month and even then he is not too
serious about training - so here are 2 comparisons - they are totally
And so after 1 year student A can be well ready for the next Grade
but student B may have hardly any progress since he last took a Grade.
So there are many factors.
RK: Even if a person is rushing it ... absence of technical proficiency
KC: Yes, that is true but proficiency as you say, would show but I’ve
had people always pestering me to try and take the next grade. And you
point out to them ‘no, no’, they’re not ready - And then they will come
back and say “well, I’ve been such a particular grade for 1 year”.
And then you point out to them, yes but as a teacher I’m not always
aware of how much practice they’ve put in, how much training, and you
don’t always have a chance to evaluate everybody. So at times you think,
“ok well ok well, let them try”. But the point is, it’s wasting time - it’s
wasting time of the Examiner.
RK: Is there anything wrong about people who are ambitious who
want to come up very fast and because of that they turn up for practice
very very often with a view to achieving that end as quickly as possible -
is there anything wrong with that?
KC: No, there isn’t anything exactly wrong in that. I do have to say,
though if people constantly are pushing for grades - there is nothing
wrong with that - the only thing is, I don’t like a situation where the main
purpose in Aikido is to get to Sandan or so ... as quickly as possible. It
should be much deeper than that.
There is much more involved than that. And also, if they are in a
small Dojo, say for eg. they are Nidan or so, they should also be
concentrating on assisting Beginners and encouraging them ... not I think
to have a selfish attitude to purely consider yourself ... and another point
that comes up is ... what has surprised me so much through the years, it’s
surprising through the years ... people cannot evaluate their own ability.
I know there are a few such people you know I am not going to
name them obviously in fact at times they can be intelligent people they
can have a good education ... but that doesn’t seem to come into it.
I am not speaking of ability in AIKIDO. I am speaking of evaluating
their own ability. Well, for eg., I’ve had people that have been pushing “I
want to take a grade - I’ve been a particular grade for so many years”.
They have no coordination, their timing is wrong, everything is
wrong they don’t know their left foot from their right foot - they have to
work so much harder - and at times I think, “Why can’t they realize this,
why can’t they see that they are not of the standard of even people below
RK: Is it possible to be objective in evaluating one’s own abilities?
KC: Yes, you can be objective. You think you are God or do you think
you have a reasonably good concept of people evaluating your ability?
Over the years, or what I know the Hombu, if I was eg. 1st Dan and
sometimes if I was practising with another 1st Dan, you know at times I
would be aware that he was so much better than me or at times I would
feel that I am doing the same technique as him but I am using power or
he is moving much more gracefully than I am - I feel that in my own case I
could effectively evaluate my level.
But I’m saying it’s surprising to me that some people just can’t see ...
they don’t compare with others and yet they are still insisting on being
graded - pushing to be graded.
I don’t think people should push too much - as I said before esp.
when they are getting into Nidans and Sandans and so, people should
not even speak of ... the Sensei of course should know that person’s
ability. I mean, I have on occasions done this in Hong Kong. “On next
grading, you try for such and such a grade”...
RK: So, it wouldn’t be fair to assume that for Nidans, Sandans,
Yondans, pure technical ability is the sole criterion for grading?
KC: No. I don’t think so, I stress also ... the only place I have ever had
a Dojo is in Hong Kong, I’ve never had a Dojo anywhere else. I’ve been
involved in Aikido in Hong Kong for over 28 years and during that time,
there are 36 members who reached Dan grade level through me. And in
that 36 Dan grades not one of them has ever broken away or formed his
own Dojo - over a period of 28 years. Now some have dropped out - no
longer practice - and some have left Hong Kong.
But I am very proud of the fact that not one of them ... it could still
happen ... I’m very proud of that fact. If I am giving Dan grades, it’s not on
ability, it’s character as well. In a small area like Hong Kong, a Dan
Grade in the wrong hands can do a lot of damage.
RK: Like how?
KC: For eg. a Dan Grade can go down the road and open a Dojo
and start teaching. There is also the money aspect of it - all over the
world and start self-promotion, promoting themselves the next thing these
people are 4th and 5th Dans. Nobody knows exactly how they came by
them. And lot of this goes on unfortunately.
And the next thing it can even be then - “you train regularly with me,
you’ll be a Black Belt in a year, but there is a lot of money involved”. I
mean, a black belt and a Hakama on a person can do a lot of discredit
and can discredit Aikido They can do damage to Aikido but when I say
that, not for eg. In Japan where there are hundreds of them because after
all, a First or Second Dan is not very significant at all in Japan.
But in small, little countries where Aikido is spreading rapidly
throughout the world, a Black Belt can be rather significant. And in fact,
some people feel that that is the ultimate - the Black Belt and Hakama. I
give a lot of consideration to the person’s character - the person’s
Also, if I know a person is attempting to take Shodan, Nidan or
Sandan, I watch how he interacts with others on the mat. Now particularly
if he is a big powerful fellow, I always observe as to whether people are
afraid of him, and whether other members avoid him and if I see that I
feel that is not good.
RK: Sensei, do you do Dan Gradings?
KC: Why yes, I do Dan Grading in Hong Kong
RK: Good character and good technical ability. Would it safe to
assume that once you have picked a person to take a test, it is highly
unlikely that you will fail them?
KC: Highly unlikely because I know these people so well. I see these
people a couple of times a week. I test them. I know them. Even before
the Grading, I wiill think to myself “yes, this fellow, I think he is worth
Nidan”. So I will give him Nidan.
But since I left Hong Kong 2 1/2 years, it’s not quite the same. I’ve
just been back 3 days in Hong Kong before coming here. I go back and
then I’m only there for 2 days I will go to Philippines. I will give exams on
19th December in Hong Kong. I don’t know what their standard is - it has
been a year or more.
There are 5 Yondans in Hong Kong and we have 7 Sandans and
then the Nidans and Shodans. There have been a few exceptions where I
have thought to myself ... “yes, this fellow I think he is well worth such and
such a grade”... and when I come to test him, he’s lost it totally, gone
completely to pieces, lost control and I have failed him. So they are
occasionally the exceptions nervous and whatever.
The lower the grade ... the more we expect them to be jittery and
nervous. But as they start to go up the grades ... when we’re getting to the
likes of Nidan and Sandan level, then they should be calm and in control.
* (Interviewer: Raymond Kwok)
Cottier Sensei reflecting........
| Cottier Sensei performing
Nikyo on Interviewer at the