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.
- There was no need for diplomas. 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 systems, and the quality 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:
For the sake of convenience, all of our ranks are broken into two categories, yudansha (for who have completed the basic curriculum) and mudansha (for those who have not).
|Hachidan||Kyōshi / |
|Shichidan / |
Yūdansha (literally: "have-a-degree people") are those with "-dan" ranks (literally: "steps," figuratively: "degree"). These ranks are granted to martial artists who have completed a basic curriculum, and thus have a high degree of competence of a reasonable range of techniques. This is a significant achievement, worthy of being listed on one's CV or résumé.
Earning the introductory yūdansha rank (shōdan) involves completing exhausting comprehensive exam before your instructor and a promotion board (yūdanshakai), which consists of at least two shōdan-ranked members. Additional degrees, which denote 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, contribution, and promotion of the art.
Yūdansha ranking is indicated by wearing a black belt as part of their uniform. Some higher level black belts may choose to denote their rank by placing one stripe on the tip of their belt for each degree. Some masters may choose to wear other belts. 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 basics, but not mastered them; it is the karate equivalent of a high school diploma. The "shō-" in "shōdan" is a prefix that means "smaller / lesser" -- they are literally, a "lesser-dan"-- one who has achieved, but who has not made a name for themselves. The "black belts are experts" myth started in the 1950's, when there were few black belts in the US. People assumed the low yūdansha population was a result of the extreme difficulty of earning a black belt. In reality, there were few yūdansha because martial arts (and exercise in general) were not considered to be normal hobbies. Earning a black belt requires more persistence than natural talent. Martial arts are learned skills, no different than woodworking or playing the guitar. It is something that 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 schools, have additional requirements to become an instructor. Within Goshin-Jutsu, black belts can only become instructors with their teacher's verbal 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. The junior-senior (kohai-sempai) relationship is not domination. It is a mentor-aspirant relationship, rather than the exemplar-dunce relationship commonly used in the West. Seniors can't exploit or abuse their 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.
Contrary to popular belief, black belts are not required to register their hands as lethal weapons. While you may hear people who claim that they have (or 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 yet completed the basic curriculum.
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. 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 will become longer and more arduous. It should be noted that students rarely (if ever) fail a promotional exam, because a competent instructor will not offer promotions to anyone who is not completely, absolutely ready.
How to Earn Ranking Online
Never ask to be tested or promoted. Instructors will inform those who are ready. If you ask for a promotion, it becomes even more obvious that you are not ready.
- Karate is a meritocracy, and ranks are solely determined by the practitioner’s degree of knowledge and skill, and yudansha are judged their contributions to the art.
- All mudansha (non-black belt) rankings are solely determined by the head instructor; no one else has the authority to promote our students. Other black belts may only assist the head instructor with their evaluation.
- Yudansha (black belt) ranks must be conferred by a committee of three or more black belts.
- The Katusjinken Dōjō only promotes its own members -- not guests or referred students.
Learning martial arts from books 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. You may not judge your own level of proficiency, just as you cannot award yourself a driver’s license or a high school diploma