thoughts on rank

Since this weekend my sensei made it more-or-less official that she wants me to start training to take my godan test at the next opportunity, it seems appropriate to begin this new blog with some thoughts about rank in the study of karate.

As with much of the framework of contemporary martial arts, the dan and kyu ranks as we know them today in Japanese arts were invented by Kanō Jigorō, the founder of judo, in the late nineteenth and earth twentieth centuries. (The system is possibly based on a ranking system from the game of go.) Going back before that, in the older Japanese arts there was a menkyo, or "license", system, and also the shogo system of titles for teachers (renshi, kyoshi, and hanshi). Some aspects of the menkyo and shogo systems survive to the present day, but in Japanese karate they are secondary to the kyu/dan system.

In Okinawa, there were no ranks or certificates or licenses. After all, for many years karate training was carried out in secret; it wasn't until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that it emerged from the shadows. While many karate teachers came to Japan around that time, the guy who gets most of the credit for founding Japanese karate (probably deservedly, though as a student of a student of a student of a student of his, I'm biased) is Gichin Funakoshi. Funakoshi seems to have hit it off with Kano -- they were both educators -- and adopted judo's training uniform (gi) and the kyu/dan system. My understanding is that Kano awarded Funakoshi a godan (fifth degree black belt) ranking, which is why that rank has a special significance in karate. While each style handles things a bit differently, ranks above godan are sort of considered honorary, more about one's contribution to the art than technical merit.

In a typical modern Japanese karate system, there are ten kyu levels: one starts at 10th kyu, jukyu (typically denoted by a white belt) and works up to 1st kyu, ikkyu. The highest few kyu ranks typically wear a brown belt. Around this level, a student is regarded as becoming a serious practitioner, an eventual candidate for black belt. A brown belt should look like if they hit you it would hurt, and if you tried to hit them, they would have a decent shot at not panicking and either getting out of the way or blocking and countering.

If the student continues to train and progress, eventually they will be promoted to shodan -- "beginning rank", denoted by a black belt.

What? Black belt is a beginning rank? Yes. It signifies the beginning of one's advanced training. Just as we refer to a high school or college graduation as a "commencement", a beginning, so shodan is an entry into a broader world. It means the student has a firm foundation on which to build.

About eighteen or twenty years ago, when I was a brown belt, I remember being in the locker room at the Y after class when two boys around ten years old walked in. One of them poked his buddy and pointed at me. "Look, he's a brown belt. He's almost done." Well, all these years later I'm not done yet -- thank goodness!

So in Japan, a black belt isn't the big deal it tends to be to Americans. I have heard that many people who join their college's karate or judo club will make shodan by graduation.

Stick with your training past shodan for two or three years and you'll reach nidan, "second rank". Another three years or so and you might make sandan, "third rank".

Sandan is about where things get interesting. You're talking somewhere in the neighborhood of ten years to get there. Around that level you start to become more responsible for your own progress, figuring out your own relationship to the art and not just riding on your teacher. In some schools it is the level where one is considered qualified to start teaching on one's own. An honest sandan ranking will get you respect in Japan.

There's an idea I've heard -- I don't know where it originated -- that an instructor should be able to promote someone to two ranks below them. While this isn't the rule in Seido Karate (all dan promotions go through our Honbu, our headquaters), it is a decent rule of thumb to think of a sandan as someone who could train a student up to shodan level, could teach someone to have a firm foundation.

In Seido, to get beyond sandan one has to be teaching. Yondan, 4th dan, carries with it the title Sensei -- teacher. (Also, written but not spoken, the designation Renshi, from the shogo system. That's what the red kanji on a yondan's gi says.)

That's about as much ambition as I've got. I love teaching, and I wanted to reach yondan so that my students would have a genuine and authorized Karate Sensei as their instructor. I took my yondan promotion in 2006, and have not really been gunning for anything higher.

But when we visit Honbu, each grade lines up by how long they've been at that level. Suddenly I see that the folks who promoted to yondan a year or two ahead of me have taken their godan promotion.

If it was just up to me, I feel like I've about reached my level of incompetence . The Peter Principle -- in any hierarchy, people will be promoted until they reach a position they are not competent at -- would seem to apply to martial arts. A great shodan will get promoted to nidan, a strong nidan will get promoted to sandan, and so on, until the student reaches a level where they aren't mastering the material. I don't really think I've mastered the yondan material (hell, there's sandan kata and drills I still need lots of work on); I've got enough to practice and investigate to keep me occupied for the rest of my life, without putting any more hash marks on my belt and picking up another kata or two to work on.

But my training isn't just about me, or even about me and my students. It's also about my sensei, and about the World Seido Karate Organization. I have to think that, if I can honestly achieve the rank, having another godan around would be useful to my sensei and to the organization.

So: ganbatte. I will do my best.

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