What Lies Beyond Rank?

As our dojo has grown, so has our community of senior level aikidoka. We’ve been fortunate enough to have many yudansha (black belts) join our family from other parts of the aikido world.

With a number of recent additions, we published a list of active yudansha so we can all get to know our dojo’s senior practitioners better. Although we all line up according to rank as a matter of ettiquette, we challenge ourselves to look beyond it in the dojo.

Rank is important. It reflects dedication and accomplishment. But it’s only one attribute. Viewing each other through a one-dimensional lens of “rank” may cause us to miss important things about each individual’s unique experience and strengths.

Some Insights

Akira Okada

Akira, 3rd dan, is technically ranked lower than the three 4th dans that train at Ikazuchi Dojo. However, Akira has more aikido history than anyone in the dojo – including Matsuoka Sensei, our Chief Instructor. Akira received his shodan in 1969 from a Sensei named “Ueshiba.” His shodan and nidan tests were conducted by Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba and he received his 3rd dan in 1978 from Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei. Akira has been on the training floor of Hombu Dojo when Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido (“O-Sensei”) was doing demos. I believe he’s the only aikidoka at Ikazuchi Dojo that’s actually seen the founder’s aikido in person.

Akira Okada (right in middle row) in the late 1960s.

Akira Okada (right in middle row) in the late 1960s.

This is what was going on at Hombu Dojo when Akira was training for his shodan.

This is what was going on at Hombu Dojo when Akira was training for his shodan.


Billy Vincenty

Billy is our most junior black belt. However, in hand-to-hand combat, Billy would flatten at least half of our yudansha within 5 seconds. Billy grew up in the streets of Brooklyn in the 1970’s where he began the study of Shotokan karate as a necessary self-defense skill. He has over 25 years of karate experience and was already a seasoned black belt by the start of the 1980’s.

By the time he walked into Ikazuchi Dojo with a white belt, he’d already deeply internalized some of the most important foundational concepts of the martial arts – shinken shobu (life or death attitude), maai (distance and timing), kuzushi (balance breaking), and zanshin (continuous presence and awareness).  Now, as a shodan, Billy’s ability to project power with his throws and atemi are far beyond his ranked aikido level.

Billy Vincenty (right). Already a veteran Shotokan Karate black belt in 1981.

Billy Vincenty (right). Already a veteran Shotokan Karate black belt in 1981.


Anastasia Shuba Ikazuchi Dojo

Anastasia Shuba

At age 23, Nastia is our youngest instructor. However, if we need to develop a group of total beginners, she’s our go-to instructor. In the last year Nastia has logged more training hours than any of our instructors in the capacity of teaching fundamental movements to beginners. She helped develop the curriculum that became the foundation for our aikido fundamentals classes, she’s supported instruction at Blizzard Entertainment, and she leads our aikido program on the UCI campus (and does so more successfully than I ever did). It will take some of our instructors 6 years to log as many teaching hours as Nastia did last year.

Seek That Which Lies Beyond Rank

There are amazing stories, history, and capabilities behind all of our black belts. Each one has their own superpower. We encourage our students to learn everyone’s unique story and strengths and seize the opportunity to learn from them.

We respect and value rank and status, but challenge ourselves to see beyond it in our dojo, workplaces, and circle of family and friends. The potential to unlock learning and insight from those around us is vast. It’s something we strive to tap into. We believe it’s the aiki way.

What’s your perspective? We’d love to exchange ideas on the subject.

Special thanks to Aikido Journal for use of the photo of Morihei Ueshiba and Kisshomaru Ueshiba from 1967.

Categories: Leadership

There are 5 comments

  1. Joe Puliti

    I enjoyed reading your blog. I trained with Matsuoka Sensei many years ago in the Tenshin days. This sounds very much like a reflection of the humility of one of the finest Sensei’s (Matsuoka) I have ever had the pleasure to train under. If I did not live so far away, I would be training with you. Hopefully, a visit in the near future will happen.

    Throughout the years I have partaken in many Dan tests. A great deal of them at Segal Sensei’s ranch in the days past.

    However, it was Isoyama Sensei who gave me the perspective on rank that I hold now. We are all learning always. We learn when we attend class be it as the instructor or the student, Sempai or Kohai. Aikido is a way of life, not just a martial art. I believe that Matsuoka Sensei and your dojo represents this philosophy and it is good to see.

    1. Josh Gold

      Joe –

      Thank you for the feedback. The foundation of our culture and thinking is most definitely based on Matsuoka Sensei’s example. We feel very fortunate to have him as our Chief Instructor.

      I hope you’ll be able to visit us as some point in the future. I’d love to have the opportunity to train with you, learn from you, and hear some of your stories!

  2. Bruce Justham (1st dan)

    Is this the same Akira Okada who taught in Tallahassee in the mid 70’s? I was one of his students at the Tallahassee DoJo and have often wondered where he went.

      1. Jeremy Heiker

        Funny coincidence. I’m with the Florida State Aikido club and had a “new” student come in this evening who had begun in ’73. He told us a bit about the era and sensei Okada, which led to me looking him up.

        I’m glad he’s still around. You too, Bruce. I’d like to let you both know FSU Aikido is still going strong, apparently in the same gym’s tiny basement room. Go Noles!

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