What purpose does rank serve? This is not a rhetorical question, I would really like an answer that makes sense. So far I don’t have one. Rank is so deeply imbedded in the culture of the Okinawan martial arts (interestingly enough even more so in the West than in Okinawa, but that is another topic) that it is impossible for many people to conceive of the arts without it. But remember, rank in Okinawa is a pretty new thing. Funakoshi awarded his first dan rankings in 1924 and those were probably the first in any karate system. It took a while, really until after the war, before they became common in Okinawa. So they are not very old. And in all seriousness, what purpose do they serve?
Some people say that they help in teaching, letting the instructor know where the student is supposed to be. To that I reply that if your teacher does not know where you are at, go somewhere else, they are not paying attention. And if classes are so large such a system is needed you are not learning real karate anyway.
I have heard that they give people motivation for learning. OK. That may be good, for kids. But not for adults. In my opinion one of the main points of karate training is self motivation, and self discipline. If you have those you don’t need an external measure to keep going. Indeed, striving for such an external measure runs contrary to the ideals of the art.
But they are really really popular. People invest a lot of themselves in their rank. So much so that some people lie about it, switch teachers just to get rank, and do a variety of other things that say that the rank is somehow the real goal. They display it, insist on being referred to using it, and often seem to think that it says something about their personal attributes and ability, even outside the dojo.
But does it? Rank in one dojo seems to be unrelated to rank in another, at least in terms of ability. Certainly there is no universal measure of what any rank means. What about an out of shape former yudansha who has not trained in 10 years? Is his higher rank a measure of his greater ability compared to someone who has been training regularly the last 5 years? If rank is a measure of skill shouldn’t it be tested periodically and then shouldn’t people who have slipped in skill lose rank? If that is not the case (and I have never seen that done) then it is not a measure of skill. If it is a measure of time training couldn’t we just skip the idea of testing and give people a new rank every x years? That would make more sense anyway. I have literally seen a black belt get hit by a lower rank and say “you can’t hit me, I’m a black belt”. Really? Your rank now means more than the reality of training?
So rank doesn’t help with teaching, is not a real indicator of skill, and is not universal. I still can’t see the point. It seems to breed ego, and can hold people back, letting them think their rank defines what they can do along with what they should be able to do. I can’t think of any way rank makes things better, and honestly we would probably be better off without it. I have trained in arts that do not have a ranking system, or have a much simpler one (instructor and student, for example). In many ways they are clearer training environments. The only measure of status is skill, which can only be demonstrated on the floor. The teacher is the teacher because he or she can both do and teach, and because they have earned the student’s respect, not because they have more stripes on their belt, or a cool title, or some other nonsense. That makes more sense to me. It strips away a layer of obfuscation and puts it out there- what can you do, not what rank are you.
Isn’t that more important anyway?