Karate rankings are a 20th-century invention, created at the insistence of the Japanese, to allow travelers to display their credentials. Originally on Okinawa, there were no ranks or diplomas awarded for martial arts skills because:
- Illiteracy was a cultural norm.
- Okinawa was a small place; if you were any good, people already knew this from word-of-mouth.
Today, rankings are used to gauge your progress, or to determine one's relative standing among fellow students. Ranking does not imply a hierarchy, and the junior-senior (kohai-sempai) relationship is not based on domination. It is a mentor-aspirant relationship, rather than the exemplar-dunce relationship commonly used in the West. Seniors can never exploit or abuse juniors, because the juniors are free to leave at any time. Rank does not grant privileges; it imposes responsibilities. If you are inconsiderate to those below you, you will be abandoned, and your skill will atrophy without training partners. As such, karate ranks are more like K-12 public school grade levels than military ranks.
Martial arts ranking systems, and the degree of quality which they represent, vary greatly from style to style, and from school to school. Please be mindful of this, and the fact that in the end, there are only two martial arts ranks:
|Hachidan||Kyōshi / |
|Shichidan / |
Yūdansha (literally: "have-a-degree people") are martial artists who have completed a basic curriculum, and thus have a high degree of competence over a range of techniques. Earning a "-dan" rank (literally: "steps," figuratively: "degree") is a significant achievement, worthy of being listed on one's CV or résumé.
Earning the introductory yūdansha rank (shōdan) involves completing an exhausting comprehensive exam before your dōjō's head instructor, and a promotion board (yūdanshakai) consisting of at least two shōdan-ranked members. Further ranks, each denoting a degree of mastery of the material, are awarded by your dōjō's head instructor with the yūdanshakai's concurrence, based on your merit, dedication, and contributions to the art.
Yūdansha ranking is indicated by wearing a black belt as part of the uniform. Some higher level black belts may choose to denote their rank by placing a stripe on their belt's tip for each degree. Some masters may choose to wear other belts, as shown on the table to the right. Within Goshin-Justu, the title of "Master" is reserved for those ranked yodan or higher. The title of "Grandmaster" is used very sparingly for teachers who have produced several master-ranked students. All black belts are to be respectfully addressed by everyone in the dōjō -- even by their superiors (e.g. "Mr. Jones.")
Please be mindful that a black belt is not necessarily an expert. A 1st-degree black belt (shōdan) is someone who has learned the material, but who has not mastered it. A shōdan is the karate equivalent of a high school diploma. The "shō-" in "shōdan" is a prefix meaning "smaller/lesser" -- they are literally, a "lesser-dan" -- one who has achieved, but has not made a name for themselves. The "black belts are experts" myth is a holdover from the 1950's, when there were few black belts in the US because martial arts (and exercise in general) were not considered to be normal hobbies. This general athletic ignorance caused people to assume that any physical skills were extremely difficult to learn. Earning a black belt actually requires more persistence than natural talent. Martial arts are learned skills, no different than woodworking or playing the guitar. Black belt ranking is something which any reasonably-healthy person can accomplish with 5 ± 2 years of focused training.
Having a black belt does not automatically make someone an instructor. Many styles, and many schools, have additional requirements to become an instructor. Within Goshin-Jutsu, black belts can only become instructors with their teacher's permission. However, all yūdansha are expected to serve as assistant instructors during classes. If a student is not ready to take on some level of teaching responsibility, then they are to remain an ikkyū until they develop in that sphere.
Contrary to popular belief, black belts are not required to register their hands as lethal weapons. While some people claim that they have (or more commonly, have a conveniently-absent friend who has) done so, it is just macho posturing. Ask these people for details, and watch them flounder.
Mudansha (literally: "without-a-degree people") are students who have not completed the basic curriculum.
Each of these "kyū" grades or levels are denoted with color-coded belts, mostly to give instructors a instant visual reminder of a student's relative skill and knowledge, and their place in the curriculum. The number of kyū ranks, and their corresponding color codes, tend to vary greatly between different dōjō.
The rank of hachikyū (8th level) is conferred upon everyone at birth. All other mudansha ranks are granted at the sole discretion of the head instructor of the student's main dōjō. Usually, this occurs upon completing a comprehensive exam before the head instructor. As the student progresses, additional material is introduced, and these exams become longer and more arduous. It should be noted that students rarely (if ever) fail a promotional exam, because competent instructors will not offer promotions to those who are not completely, absolutely ready.
How to Earn Ranking Online
You can't. We will never confer ranks to anyone who has not consistently trained with us in person. There have been many martial arts correspondence courses released over the years, and their graduates have invariably been vomitously awful. We would not want to embarrass ourselves by having our names and reputations associated with any such individual. This website is not, and was never intended to be, a home study course. This is a reference guide for our dōjō's students.
Home study courses fail because small mistakes are never pointed out and corrected, and become ingrained in the student's muscle memory. Students then have to unlearn these reinforced mistakes if they study with an instructor later on, and thus must work to reach the level of blank-slate new person. By not training with an instructor, they become worse off than those who never trained! Home training rarely provides the "pressure cooker" environment of sparring, the matted floors needed to practice many waza involving takedowns, and the general core-hardening that comes with a ruthless taskmaster overseeing your exercise.
Learning martial arts from books or videos is like learning a foreign language from books. There’s no way of telling if you’re pronouncing things right without someone to correct you. To learn from books, you need to be able to honestly appraise what they cannot give you as well as what you can learn from them. To make students as tough and hard as concrete, they need the Portland cement of an instructor's feedback.
In general, never ask instructors to be tested or promoted, since it demonstrates that lack the requite self-awareness. You are unable to judge your own proficiency level, just as you cannot award yourself a driver’s license or a high school diploma.
Contrary to what you might believe, having a black belt does not impress people. This is not 1956; there are ~15,000 martial arts schools in the United States, not including small clubs which meet in church basements, community centers, and university gyms. Black belts are now as common as Burger King managers. There is no central governing body for martial arts. While there are some rank-granting organizations which are regarded as official, those groups aren’t subject to oversight -- they draw their legitimacy from common consent.
There is no reason to buy a martial arts rank to indulge your Walter Mitty power fantasies, because there is nothing stopping you from buying a black belt from an online catalog right now. Be warned -- buying hammer won’t make you a carpenter -- buying ranks online will still mean that you're terrible at fighting, and no one will take you seriously.
How Karate Ranks are Regulated
They aren't. Anyone can print a rank certificate and buy a uniform and declare themselves an instructor. This occurs more often than it should -- the world is full of people who dislike working yet still want respect. This plan works as long as there is no one who tries to call their bluff. Fortunately, these frauds are being exposed with greater frequency. These challenges and their resulting public shaming are not a form of bullying or macho posturing -- it's more like industry self-regulation.
Becoming a martial artist is like becoming a seamstress -- you apprentice yourself out to a master, who supervises your practice. If your master isn't any good, then you won't be either, so it pays to shop around. There's no regulating body overseeing seamstresses, but there was never a need for one -- if someone couldn't sew well, they wouldn't last in the free market.
While there is no central governing body for karate rankings, the following standards and practices are generally accepted, and should be strictly followed for ranks to be considered legitimate:
- Karate is a meritocracy, and ranks are solely determined by the practitioner’s degree of knowledge and skill. Yūdansha are additionally judged on their contributions to the art.
- All mudansha (non-black belt) rankings are solely determined by a dōjō's head instructor; no one else has the authority to promote our students. Other black belts may only assist the head instructor with their evaluation.
- Yūdansha (black belt) ranks must be conferred by a committee of three or more black belts.
- To ensure quality control, instructors cannot confer ranks which are equal to, or greater than, their own.
- Ideally, only one person holds the rank of jūdan, who then awards the rank of kudan to one heir-apparent, who is automatically promoted to jūdan upon the previous jūdan's death.
- This basically never happens, anywhere in the world, and leads to much in-fighting and politics which adds little value and only drives people apart.
- If a jūdan dies without naming a successor, the board of black belts (yūdanshakai) becomes a collective de facto leader, and can grant jūdan ranking at their collective discretion.
- The Katusjinken Dōjō only promotes its own members -- not guests or referred students.