Martial Arts Ranks: What They Do and Don’t Mean

Introduction:

When it comes up in conversation that someone is a martial artist, it is usually one of the first questions asked: “So what belt are you?” Typically a layperson is the one to ask this kind of question, and if the martial artist answers “black belt”, the Muggle usually utters something such as, “Well, I’d better not mess with you” or “I bet you could kick my ass then, right?” Aside from the social awkwardness of having no appropriate way to respond to this comment, this situation also reveals a fundamental issue with how ranks are perceived in Japanese martial arts. While this misperception is frequently compounded where non-practitioners are concerned, it also exists at any embarrassingly frequent rate when the people in question are trainees.

How often are instructors confronted with questions about what the requirements are to “get the next belt”? How often are students most driven or most disappointed as the result of a promotion decision—either positive or negative, in regards to themselves or their peers? How often are students reminded by their Sensei that the belt is not the point of training, only to see their Senpai disassociate themselves from those who are lesser ranked?

The reality is that coloured belts are one of the most recognizable symbols of Japanese Budo, both for those who practice and those who do not. The truth underlying that reality is that the ranking system used in virtually all modern schools of Budo has nothing at all to do with tradition. Another truth that martial artists should be aware of is that black belt is an intermediate, not an advanced, rank.

The system used in Karate and a number of other Japanese martial arts is the Dan-Kyu system. The Kyu levels are represented by different coloured obi (belts). Dan rankings are represented by a black belt. There are typically seven Kyu rankings and ten Dan rankings, which means that achieving black belt requires less than 50% of the possible rankings. That’s why Shodan is actually an intermediate rank.

Before moving to a discussion of common misconceptions regarding belts and ranks, it will benefit us to look more closely at how the Dan-Kyu system evolved and why it was incorporated into Karate.

The History of the Dan-Kyu System:

Many Karate students will be aware that the Dan-Kyu system was adopted into Karate from Judo largely as a result of political pressure asserted by the Dai Nippon Butokukai[1]. In the early 20th Century, Okinawan Karate was introduced to mainland Japan by figures such as Miyagi Chojun, Uechi Kanbun, Motobu Choki, Funakoshi Gichin, and Mabuni Kenwa. However, Karate was viewed as a somewhat unsophisticated—and more importantly, un-Japanese—art. Okinawan culture is generally characterized as more laid back and accepting of ambiguity than that of the Japanese mainland. Karate had no standardized terminology, uniform, curriculum, or method of ranking at that time[2]. For it to be accepted as a legitimate form of Japanese Budo, it had to conform to established Japanese standards.

In the late 1920s or early 1930s, the Dai Nippon Butokukai, which was responsible for regulating Japanese martial arts, gave several conditions for Karate’s potential acceptance into the Budo fold. Due to political tensions with China, they had to eliminate use of the term 唐手 (“Toudi”, meaning Chinese hand), adopt a standard uniform, develop a competitive format, and implement a ranking system[3]. Additionally, they were supposed to unite the various styles of Karate to form a single, cohesive curriculum; however, that goal was never accomplished[4].

Especially in light of Kano Jigoro’s support of Funakoshi’s campaign in Tokyo, it was relatively easy for Karate to merely adopt the uniforms and ranks that were already established in Judo. Kano himself was the one who originally adopted the Dan-Kyu system from two unexpected sources: go and swimming. Historically, both Dan and Kyu ranks were systems used in the Japanese strategy game of go to show a player’s level of proficiency[5]. Kano Jigoro was the one responsible for utilizing this system to demonstrate progress through the Judo syllabus[6]. However, go players hardly put on white uniforms and tied black belts around their waist when they sat down to compete; that’s where swimming comes in.

Like other sports such as bowling or golf, there was a handicap in swimming in Japan. The various handicaps of the competitors were represented by coloured ribbons worn around their waist during practice, the highest of which was black[7]. The theory is that Kano Jigoro adapted this idea to fit the context of Judo as well, originally using black sashes to represent Dan rankings.

The first Dan rankings in Judo were given in 1883[8]. It wasn’t until 1907 that the modern gi and obi evolved to replace the sashes used previously[9]. At this time, the only distinction was between Yudansha (those with a Dan) and Mudansha (those without)[10]. The rest of the spectrum of coloured belts representing the different Kyu levels was not introduced by Kano himself, but rather one of his representatives, namely Kawaishi Mikonosuke, who introduced Judo to France[11]. Kawaishi developed a curriculum for each level and, once achieved, the series of belts that symbolized promotion within the art[12].

It was in 1924 that this practice was first used in Karate, when Funakoshi Gichin became the first Karate instructor to give black belts[13]. At this time when the Dai Nippon Butokukai was pressuring Karate to conform to Japanese standards, rather than reinvent the wheel, the vast majority of Karate instructors simply adopted the uniform and ranking system of Judo into their own practices. That was how the white gi and coloured obi became part of Karate mythos.

Misconceptions about Rank:

One of the most frequently cited pieces of rhetoric, especially from instructors, is the idea that “the belt means nothing”. In a literal sense, of course it’s true; I frequently remind my students that if they want a black belt, they can go to a martial arts supply store and buy one.  The belt itself is a piece of fabric, so in that sense it is virtually worthless.

This line of rhetoric, however, is most often used to remind students that getting to black belt—often seen in mainstream society as the end goal of training—is not the ultimate outcome, but rather a sign of progress towards the next stage of learning. This is supposed to be true, but often isn’t. I’ve seen many good Karate-ka quit once they get to black belt because all they are asked to do is teach basics, and they no longer feel challenged to do more. Done well, any Budo is supposed to be a lifelong path of growth and enlightenment, where regardless of rank or reward, a practitioner pushes him or herself to develop one step further every day. The training itself becomes the incentive to continue training.

The average person doesn’t get this far, but this kind of lifelong commitment is not designed for the average person. However, even the unusual people who make this commitment usually don’t make it right near the beginning of their training. This kind of mentality takes a long time to develop, and in the meantime, without ranks to show some signs of progress, many people who could make that commitment would likely quit instead.

The rhetoric of “the belts mean nothing” is often cited by those who are giving out belts, which makes it a somewhat hypocritical statement. I’ve thought about using the system in my Dojo where you remain a white belt for all of the Kyu rankings until you reach black belt. This would work fine for the people who are already lifers—the demographic that instructors don’t need to worry about keeping—but it would probably not work to bring new people into the fold. The lack of explicit acknowledgement of progress would likely alienate some of those who, if you feed them the belts for long enough, could transform into someone that rank really doesn’t matter for.

A second problem with the statement that ranks don’t matter is, when it’s uttered by the person doing the assessment, it undermines the value of their judgment. If a student comes to me asking why he or she didn’t receive their next belt and I respond with “the belts don’t matter anyways”, I’ve just given the student every reason to doubt my assessment. The ranks given by an instructor reflect their ability to evaluate competence. If I’m the one to award ranks in my Dojo, I definitely want to see that the students that I’ve given brown belts to are executing their techniques better than the ones stuck at green belt. If not, I need to question my own ability to discern proper technique from improper.

No matter how much we repeat the rhetoric that belts are meaningless, the truth is that they are not. They are very useful for instructors in terms of organizing a curriculum and systematizing learning for students. When I say to one of my instructors, “Today we’re working on throws and you’re teaching the orange belts,” they instantly know which material needs to be covered. Belts are a useful tool in that regard.

They are useful to students as well. Again, the caveat here is that they need to have been awarded properly. If students look at those ahead of them in line and see that, consistently, all of the blue belts or brown belts have mastered elements of the technique that are uncomfortable for them, they know what they need to learn to get to that level. If a student actually improves and receives a new belt as a result, that can be powerful motivation to continue developing habits that lead to improvement.

Often in Karate culture, we look down on those who value ranks. Of course, getting the belt is not the point. However, devaluing the ranks we are issued is also not the point. The unspoken rule of not looking too happy about getting a promotion is something I feel we need to change in our art. Because I hold my Sensei in high esteem, when he awards me a rank, I know I have accomplished something. Humility is an important value in our art as well, and should not be forgotten, but true humility doesn’t mean playing down your own abilities when your instructor recognizes them.

The Ranking Dilemma: How Honest is Too Honest?

We all know that rankings are not consistent across different styles and systems, and sometimes not even within the same organization or Dojo. We’ve all met those people we see practicing while wearing a black belt and wonder, “Who did you steal that from?” We’ve all seen students, whether our Senpai or peers, called up by the Sensei and awarded a rank and fought very hard to resist turning to the person next in line to say, “Really?” The truth is that ranking is not fair. The question I want to discuss now is whether it should be.

There are rankings that are awarded based entirely on merit. These usually involve a talented athlete, someone in peak physical condition, at the age when they can perform magic with their bodies. These rankings, usually no one can question; the ability of the recipient is absolutely obvious.

There are rankings that are awarded somewhat on merit, and somewhat on loyalty. Perhaps the person has some flaws in their technique, but because the instructor trusts the student’s work ethic, it is easy to believe that he or she will correct the errors before too long. Maybe the student has been stuck at the same rank for a while, so it’s due time for a promotion, even if there are some rough edges. It’s like the number five in math—the Sensei chooses to round up.

There are also rankings awarded entirely on loyalty and effort. These are the tough ones, because this is the situation when the student does everything the right way, but the results don’t come. This is the student that the Sensei looks at and says, “I wish you were better.” The student is loyal, hardworking, and dedicated enough to show up to train on his or her birthday or wedding anniversary. Physically, the student is probably not showing true signs of progress, but the student has put in enough effort that there should be. The Sensei looks for reasons to promote the student, in many cases seeing what he or she wants to see. This is how incompetent people get black belts.

Attitude and effort are important in Budo, but I think virtually everyone would agree that there has to be a baseline level of physical competence associated with each rank. A black belt should not be a consolation prize. The question is what you do with students who do everything the right way, but somehow get it all wrong. Do you tell them that they may never achieve the aptitude they hope for?

I had a student that was stuck at green belt, and had been for many years. Again, this was a dedicated student who was training more often than many of the students I was promoting above him. It can be hard not to take these things personally. This student had plateaued, and there were no signs that it was going to get better any time soon. I told him, quite frankly, that he may have reached his maximum physical competence within martial arts, but I also reminded him that if he enjoyed training, if it gave him benefits for his health, if he liked being part of our club and supporting what we do, then he should continue training as an end in itself. He never came back to the Dojo.

I could have given him a loyalty rank and moved him up to the next level, but that would have been a slippery slope. One day we would have the same conversation about his black belt, and when you compromise once, it can be hard to know where to draw the line. Even though this student had trained for probably a decade, he still hadn’t understood (or perhaps couldn’t accept) that the training is the point of training, not the belt. I don’t know if anything I said or did would have been enough to convince him otherwise.

Conclusion:

I think we’ve spent long enough in our art trying to convince people that the belts aren’t a significant aspect of training; they are conspicuous enough that denial is not an effective option. We need to acknowledge their importance—the ways in which they both help and hinder progress in Karate—in order to fully transcend them. We need to allow ourselves to enjoy receiving new ranks, but also recognize what they truly symbolize. We need to get to the point where promotions can be enjoyed for what they’re worth, acknowledged, and then used as a base for the next step. It doesn’t make any sense to dwell on a highway sign that just reminded you how far you still have left to go. 


[1]McCarthy, Patrick.Classical Kata of Okinawan Karate.Ohara Publications, 1987. Pg. 20.

McCarthy, Patrick. Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, Volume B.Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 25.

[2]McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 20.

McCarthy, 1999. Pg. 25.

Lowry, Dave.The Karate Way.Shambhala Publications, 2009. Pg. 11.

Florence, Richard. “Koshin-Ryu: The Rebirth of Okinawa’s Kojo Family Martial Arts”. Journal of Asian Martial Arts. Vol.10, no. 4.Via Media Publishing Company. 2001. Pg. 23.

[3]McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 20.

McCarthy, 1999. Pg. 25-26.

[4]McCarthy, 1987. Pg. 20.

[5]Lowry, Dave. The Essence of Budo. Shambhala Publications, 2010. Pg. 101.

[6]Lowry, 2009. Pg. 38.

Lowry, 2010. Pg. 101.

Cook, Harry.Shotokan Karate.Page Bros, 2009. Pg. 419.

[7]Cook, 2009. Pg. 419.

[8]Cook, 2009. Pg. 419.

[9]Cook, 2009. Pg. 419.

[10]McCarthy, 1999B. Pg. 26.

[11]Lowry, 2009. Pg. 38.

Lowry, 2010. Pg. 101.

[12]Lowry, 2010. Pg. 101.

[13]Nakaya, Takao. Karatedo History and Philosophy. JSS Publishing, 2007. Pg. 112.

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