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.

5. When it’s time to quit

Budo should be fun! A student enjoys sake through a lotus stalk after hard practice.
Budo should be fun! A student enjoys sake through a lotus stalk after hard practice.

I’ve previously written about joining a classical Japanese martial arts.

But conversely, there are times when you should quit a budo.

This sounds like heresy, right? Maybe it is. But at a certain point in time, you may stop and think, “What the hell am I doing? I’m not enjoying myself, I’d rather be (insert a pastime here), and I’m hurting too much after practice.”

That’s when it’s time to reassess your goals and personal feelings about your martial art. Sometimes careful reflection rejuvenates your commitment. Sometimes, if you take a long, hard look at the physical, mental and emotional toll a budo takes on you, it may be time to leave. Okay, you may think of yourself as a “quitter” and you forego rational and logical conclusions and continue to beat yourself up mentally, physically and emotionally. Let up, bro. There are other things in life besides the dojo.

This sounds antithetical to promoting the martial arts, but I’ve left a couple of schools myself and feel better for it. So I “quit.” Hey, I’ve still got a happy life and a decent job. That’s the more important things that matter more than a pastime, be it budo, golf or playing bridge on Saturday nights.

To start with, you have to go back to why you joined a budo in the first place. Hugh Davey (Shudokan Martial Arts Association) and I were sitting in front of a cheap Japanese restaurant waiting to be seated and we conjectured that if all you wanted to learn was how to defend yourself, most moderately athletic people could learn that in a few months, give or take a week or so. So then what comes after that. Between the two of us we had close to 50 years’ worth of martial arts backgrounds, and yet we figured that nothing more really comes out of it if self-defense is all you’re looking for. Learn how to punch, kick, gouge eyes and knee a groin, and the rest is pretty much learning about the mindset and strategies of personal self-defense. You don’t need to perfect a front kick for years to defend yourself adequately. So we concluded that folks like us who continue to practice for decades are probably two shakes short of crazy.

On the other hand, if you enjoy budo practice for other intangibles, such as the physical exercise, the body dynamics, the camaraderie, the philosophy, the history, the sheer FUN of doing it…then you continue budo…Until these don’t become fun any more.

Several reasons may therefore impel you to leave. If it’s the physical exercise, then if you conclude that the physical training is hurting you more than it is helping you, you’re basically beating up on yourself. You could pull back on training and realize you’re not a twenty-something anymore. If that’s impossible given the training requirements of the style, then you may consider leaving so as not to water down the training system.

When you get older, your body ages and weakens. Age has its advantages but as a middle-aged guy, let me tell you, what it does to your body sucks. So you may have to forego training simply because your creaking old body can’t take the punishment anymore. No shame there. We all get old. Football players, for example, age really fast. You don’t see many 50-something-year-old professional football players still in the first ranks of the pro leagues, do you? The body can take only so much punishment from a contact sport like football before it simply gives out. Ditto extreme sports like rugby, boxing, pro wrestling, and so on. The lifespan of athletes in those competitive sports tend to be rather short. Why wouldn’t competitive judo and karate be different?

When I was in my mid-20s, I started graduate school. I was holding down a part-time job to pay the bills and I loved martial arts so much I was training in karate, aikido and judo at the same time, all the while jogging several miles a day. My body fell apart eventually and I realized overtraining was a bad thing. (D’uh!) I had to concentrate on getting a degree so I scaled back my training. By the time I finished graduate school I was getting close to 30 years old, and my schedule didn’t allow the freedom anymore to train as hard, and besides, my body was already aging. I had to focus on only a couple budo that I could do that wouldn’t hobble me when I needed to go into work. Doing competitive judo and karate, and then doing hours and hours of aikido simply was not physically possible for me anymore. So practicality forced my eager hand to scale back on training.

Another problem may arise when political and interpersonal dynamics become messy. A dojo is a place for training, but to keep it going, you need structure. The dojo needs to have a teacher, it needs to be part of a system of budo, and oftentimes, the technical system is held together by an organization. The organization can be big, such as a national group, or it can be an independent dojo run solely by the teacher. In any case, the political and social structure of the dojo may turn sour. Rather than subject yourself to that kind of emotional and psychological anguish, you may rightfully decide to leave.

There was one aikido dojo I used to train in that didn’t feel quite right. Instead of helping each other, oftentimes students who were senior to me (in spite of having trained in aikido for some four years prior, I donned a white belt to practice at this place) tried to beat on me or poke me when I was trying to work slowly on a technique. It took all my self-control not to side kick or punch out those students  in reaction to their snitty jabs because by then I had all those years of aikido, a dan ranking in karate, and a dan ranking in judo.

But where did that snotty attitude come from? It came from the senior teachers, who had a problem with their self-esteem. Soon enough, I began to understand the dynamics of the place. Some teachers hated other teachers. They were jealous of their ranking and spent a lot of time maneuvering to put other factions under their power. It was not a happy place. Eventually, I left. I didn’t want to deal with those off-the-mat politics. Later, I learned that the head instructor finally left and set up his own dojo because he was disgusted with the politics as well, and a huge split fissured the remaining teachers into two parties, with each side threatening to sue the other side in civil court. Do you need that kind of b.s.? I would hope not. Luckily, living in Hawaii the were always alternatives to training at that really spiritually draining place.

There was a karate group I used to train in where the physical training was excellent for young folk. It was intense, physical and challenging. However, over the years I was training, the whole system slowly began to focus on tournament sparring, something I had very little interest in. But I was just one of many low-level black belts. If I didn’t like what the head instructor was doing, then I couldn’t really challenge him on his decision to focus on tournament play to the detriment of everything else. It was his dojo. So I left.

As for judo, I enjoyed it immensely as a young man. But the emphasis in many judo dojo nowadays is on competition, especially since it’s now an Olympic sport. The intensity of keeping up with national-level competitors for me was too much when I had to also work and go to graduate school.

Did I wimp out? You could say that. On the other hand, I had reached a level where I was training with folk from the US Judo Olympic team. They could wipe the floor with me when it came to stand-up randori, but due to my training in Kawaishi-style judo, I managed to hold my own and even tie them up in matwork. And in karate and aikido, I had excellent instructors and trained with a number of very good karateka and aikidoka in the day.

It was just that the politics, emphasis and personalities made things very uncomfortable. And so, because I didn’t HAVE to do it for a living, when it ceased to be fun, I left. After over a decade of training, I walked out the door and never returned.

Although I still miss judo randori, the beauty of doing karate kata and the smooth flow of aikido, I don’t miss the politics and the wear and tear it took on my body. Your experience might be different, of course. One of my friends teaches Okinawan karate and he spent years researching the roots of karate, traveling to Okinawa to study under the best teachers of his system. If I were younger and not involved in what I’m doing now, I’d study with him. His style is wonderfully technical, powerful, and is doable even for older people. When I “retired” from competitive judo, I still helped out with a children’s judo dojo to enjoy being thrown and tumbling around with the kids, until my work schedule precluded that. And I find that my early aikido training really helps my current jujutsu training.

In the end, however, I left. I quit. Yes. I was a quitter.

But I was lucky to have stumbled into other martial arts that seemed appropriate for my lifestyle, personality, work commitments and locations. I eventually began a study of tai chi chuan and classical Japanese martial weaponry. Then I spent some time in Japan and began my lifelong study of iai and Japanese kobudo. Lest it sounds like I was hopping from style to style, I remain somewhat amazed that I have been in the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu iai system and the Takeuchi-ryu Bitchuden kobudo for some 24 years now.

The head instructors I met impressed me as teachers and as human beings. The political structure of both organizations were bearable, i.e., they pretty much left me alone and rarely asked anything of me. I’m a cranky old guy and not being asked to do a lot of organizational stuff was a real plus for me. The fellow students I met were accommodating, friendly and helpful. There would be an occasional jerk, but not more so than what you would find anywhere in any endeavor. Moreover, as I aged into my middle ages, I found I could still train without falling apart physically. The training for iai and kobudo could be structured so as to take into consideration my oncoming physical senility. So I stayed.

If the groups suddenly turned into a crazy cult that worshipped Brillo Pads, would I leave? In a heartbeat. I love training. I love budo, but it’s a PART of my life. It’s not my whole life. It enhances my life, makes my life richer, and enhances my health and sense of well-being. I enjoy it a lot. Training in budo gives me a lot of personal satisfaction, health, poise and stress relief. Once it becomes a drain, once it becomes a negative in my life, once it becomes a weird sucky cult, I would quit.