9. Dan and Kyu…and You’re Welcome!

Ranking in Budo

The subject of ranking terminology in martial arts has been repeated several times by other writers and commentators, but it bears repeating, if only because there are always new students entering the fold. If you are a beginner, the mystique of that cloth black belt around the waist of your teacher may be fascinating. Fraying at the edges, it seems a mark of the “master,” something that you aspire to gain some day as a visible token of your physical prowess, perhaps. Belt colors are the visible symbols of the dan-kyu ranking system, a tradition that, actually, is not all that old.

In what are called the “modern” Budo, such as Kendo, Aikido, Judo, Karatedo, and so on, ranks are based on the dan-kyu system. As far as most researchers can tell, the system was devised (or if not totally devised, then adapted and wildly popularized) by Kano Jigoro, the founder of Kodokan Judo.

By all accounts, Kano was quite an intellectual. As Japan rapidly modernized around the turn of the 20th Century, Kano strove to recast the traditional grappling arts, collectively called jujutsu, into a universal, systematized, and popular physical activity akin to a Western sport. Kano’s professional career was as an educator, trained at the best Westernized institutions of learning in Tokyo, and he saw much that he thought was dangerous, nonsensical, and/or backwards in the attitudes and training regime of many jujutsu schools of his time. The general public, enamored of all things Western and foreign, looked down upon these schools as being backwards and furukusai, having a rotten smell of the old. Moreover, as Kano described, many schools taught without rhyme or reason regarding their training system, bullied and beat up beginners, fought in the streets, and even engaged in bloody public matches in front of drunken audiences looking for cheap thrills. Hey…sound familiar?

Kano wanted to change all that. There was much that he felt was worthwhile in the Japanese grappling arts, and much that he thought Western sports culture could offer to the Japanese public. Thus was born his Judo, a system of sport, physical activity, and to a relatively minor level, self-defense. Kano and his top students took what they thought were the best techniques and ideas of many different jujutsu schools and incorporated them with what they thought were the scientific and logical process of Western sports and wrestling to create Judo.

Kano systematized the training into a progressive system of learning, from ukemi (tumbling) to nagewaza (throwing), to newaza (ground grappling), to atemi (striking). He encouraged the tightening of rules of contest, within his school and without, held frequent lectures to encourage not just the physical aspect of Budo, but also the intellectual and philosophical parts as well.

Kano had, unusually for anyone in any culture, a broad outlook. Kodokan Judo was his gift to the world. His top students regularly engaged in heated contests with representatives from traditional jujutsu schools. However, he continued to seek the advice and input of jujutsu teachers, and he encouraged the spread of other martial arts, such as when he supported Funakoshi Gichin’s introduction of Karatedo to Japan, and when he encouraged Shimizu Takaji to spread the art of Jo (a short staff) in Tokyo.

Well, one of the innovations of Kano’s was the dan-kyu ranking system. Previously, rankings in the old jujutsu schools were a mish mash. Different jujutsu schools would rank their students according to different criteria, and award ranks with differing names and titles. There was no national standard. Kano wanted to change that. By creating a national uniformity to Judo ranking, he probably knew that the standards could be expanded to include international ranking standards, thereby helping to spread Judo worldwide.

The older system, called the menkyo kaiden system, is really not one general, universal set of ranking. For example, my own school of the Takenouchi (or Takeuchi) –ryu ranks students according to shoden mokuroku (meaning you know the “entry level” methods), chuuden mokuroku (“middle level” techniques) and okuden mokuroku (“secret” techniques). But there is a parallel ranking system that defines what you can teach and how independent you can be, and a third system adopted from the dan-kyu system to make some sense out of this whole big gorilla.

Other schools may have other terms, such as oku-iri sho, kirikami, menkyo kaiden (license to teach based on you knowing all the methods), etc.

In the menkyo kaiden system, when you joined a school, you were a nyuumon; a student who had just entered the school. Then you trained for a while before you attained shoden mokuroku or its equivalent, which is like wearing a white belt for years until you were suddenly rewarded with a black belt.

Kano probably felt it was rather discouraging for beginners not to see visible signs of advancement until you got a black belt, so he devised several gradations of ranking leading up to the black belt, and grades after attaining the black belt. From white to the first rank black belt, you were either a white belt (no rank), or sankyu (third level), nikyu (second level) and then ikkyu (first level), progressively, with ikkyu being just before black belt. Sankyu to ikkyu were designated by a brown belt. Maybe. I’m not sure if Kano devised the brown belt or not. And I don’t really trust some web sources enough to state definitely yes or no.

Upon reaching a physical and mental level that showed you understood the basic principals of Budo, you were given a shodan (“beginning” dan), the first rank of black belt. In Japan, having a shodan is laudatory, but it’s not the big deal we in America sometimes think it is. A shodan simply means you “get it, sort of.”  So now comes the REAL training. That’s what a shodan means. You are actually only beginning the real stuff.

Subsequently, you work towards a nidan (second level), sandan (third level), yondan (fourth level), and so on.

Kano created ten dan levels, awarding juudan (tenth dan) to only the very best of his students. Very, very few Judoka (Judo players) in history have reached juudan. One of the few was the famed Mifune Kyuuzo. If you see videos of him, you may realize that his skill and teaching level was extraordinary. So juudan was a big deal indeed.

In most cases, by the time a Judo student reaches godan, his best competitive years are over and the rankings are awarded based more on technical mastery, teaching ability and contributions to the sport.

The system worked so well, and was so easy to understand, it was adopted by the newly formed systems of Kendo and Japanese Karatedo, and then with Ueshiba Morihei’s Aikido.

So the main demarcation was the shodan, or beginner’s black belt. You either had a black belt (yudansha) or didn’t (mudansha).

You will see, sometimes at seminars, some Judo teachers donning a red-and-white belt in lieu of a black belt. This belt is often worn by instructors who are godan and above, with acknowledged teaching capacity. Since a hakama obscures kendo and aikido teachers, wearing this red-and-white belt is unnecessary, and in fact, kendo teachers don’t wear a colored belt other than their usual cloth obi under their hakama to hold their jacket together.

Whence came the other various colored belts for the other kyu ranks below sankyu? In all likelihood, it probably came from the judo teacher named Kawaishi Mikonosuke, according to researchers more versed in Judo history than me. Kawaishi taught in Europe before and after World War II.

By all accounts an innovative instructor, Kawaishi felt that he needed to add more ranks, especially in the lower levels, to motivate and inspire his European students. Hence, the green, yellow and purple belts to denote yonkyu, gokyu, and rokkyu and whatever else is now used. Quite possibly, he also introduced the brown belt, but of this I’m not sure based on my cursory search online. (He was also one of my Judo sensei’s original instructors, and through that connection I think I learned very strong groundwork, a characteristic of Kawaishi-style judo.)

The thing with adding more rankings, of course, is that if you charge for ranking, you can fill up your coffers more by adding more ranks, each with a fee for being promoted. When I trained in a community Judo club, we paid a few dollars for registering our sankyu and above rank with the Kodokan. That was it. When I joined a for-profit Karate studio, I found there were a lot more ranks I had to pay for and a lot more money involved. Well, the studio had to pay rent and pay its instructors. I don’t begrudge them. But creating more ranks is a clever way to generate more income.

I have heard of some martial arts schools even expanding the ranking past tenth dan. and way past gokyu (or fifth kyu). You can get 15th dan, for example, in their schools. What they do is up to them, but frankly, in my opinion, at a certain point too much ranking starts to reek of money grubbing. What’s next? 22 and ¾ dan? 49th kyu?

So I remain deeply ambivalent about how ranking is done these days. It’s necessary to recognize the skill level of the practitioner. Officially recognized ranking also verifies that the person is in proper standing with some certifying board. On the other hand, it can get out of hand in terms of money involved, and it can also become politicized, and the worst effects can occur when you combine money and personality politics.

My own iai sensei, the late Ohmori Masao, was highly ranked by the All Japan Kendo Federation. That gave him political power to shield me, I found out, when there were some xenophobic voices in the iai world that wanted me and other foreigners out of Iaido. On the other hand, one of Ohmori sensei’s own teachers, Oei Masamichi, never held a Kendo-sanctioned dan rank. Yet, because of that fact, Ohmori sensei viewed Oei sensei, who passed on the once-secret Tosa province art of Eishin-ryu iaijutsu so it could become the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu, as a superlative teacher who did not bow down to partisan politics. In addition, he held the greatest respect for his contemporary, Iwata Norikazu. At a certain point, I read that Iwata sensei decided that he wouldn’t seek any higher rank from the Kendo Federation. He would simply teach anyone regardless of affiliation, as long as they were interested in learning. Without the need for ranking and approval or disapproval by any governing agency, he is free to teach whoever wants to learn from him.

Not seeking ranking, in those cases, freed such teachers from being beholden to certain political bodies that govern ranking. While in general such bodies are good for maintaining standardized levels, as I said, sometimes when co-opted by the wrong individuals, the whole system can be distorted to serve money and personalities. By circumventing ranking, teachers with established and unassailable credentials like Oei sensei or Iwata sensei sidestep those pitfalls.

I am not recommending that everyone abandon ranking, however. I am simply stating notable exceptions to the case, and these two teachers can be considered as being so good, they were “beyond” ranking. Kano also envisioned, probably, that the whole concept of the juudan in Judo originally was that at that point, you were beyond ranking entirely. Not many of us other mortals can claim such skill and teaching level.

Thus the “tradition” of the black belt and dan-kyu system is relatively new. It began with Kano Jigoro at the turn of the 20th Century so it is about 100 years old. –Not that old, considering that various forms of the menkyo kaiden system goes back maybe some four centuries-plus.

A friend of mine who does research in karate history has also told me that prior to the 1900s, Karate apparently had no Japanese-style ranking system. That makes sense, since Okinawa, the birthplace of Karate, was originally its own kingdom, separate and apart from Japan proper. And, the dan-kyu system, as explained, was actually taken from Kodokan Judo and applied to Karatedo much later in time as part of the Japanification of Karatedo.

So what, you may ask, was the ranking system of ancient Okinawan Karate? Well, my acquaintance thinks there weren’t any. If you were good, people knew you were good, and that was that. Word of mouth spread quickly in a small country like the Ryukyu kingdom. Practice would be performed bare-chested, in loose trousers, without any belts or other forms of visible ranking. The teacher would observe your training and when you attained a certain skill level, he would tell you to go study with his best friend, who specialized in another set of kata. Circulating among the different karate masters and gleaning the best of all of them, you eventually became a master in your own right and were recognized as such because everyone else knew your skill level. Then you began to teach others. It’s a simplified description, but in any case, in “ancient times” your level in Karate apparently wasn’t decided by the color of a cloth belt.

More or less, the same free form, communal method of teaching was embedded in other Okinawan arts such as sanshin (the stringed banjo-like musical instrument of Okinawa) and Okinawan udui, or dance. And just like Karatedo, all that changed under the influence of Japan, when the Ryukyu kingdom became annexed as part of Japan. So now you have distinct, separate schools of Okinawan dance and sanshin, with teaching licenses and rankings bestowed by certified teachers.

Where do you stand in all of this? Well, you stand with whatever your school and system does in terms of ranking. No more, no less, unless you run away and make your own system. Then you can do whatever you please, I suppose.

If I demystified the whole “black belt” mystique, then my job is done. Ranking, as a guide to your level of skill, should not be the primary goal of your training, else you get too wrapped up in the ranking and color of that cloth belt around your waist and not the true goal of the ranking, which is to indicate mastery of training; mentally, physically and spiritually.  A black belt, after all, means nothing if the rest of your life is a shambles, or if it doesn’t help you develop health, happiness and inner peace. There is no profit in attaining a black belt if you end up a vicious, narrow-minded thug. You may have gained a colored cloth belt but lost the world. One needs to have some perspective regarding the black belt and ranking in martial arts.

As the late actor Pat Morita said in the movie, “Karate Kid,” his belt was from Sears Roebuck and he used it to hold up his pants.