Why do we have ranks?

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?

13 thoughts on “Why do we have ranks?

  1. Hi, I believe the strong influences of the military during the forties, fifties, sixties and beyond dominated the karate dojo on Okinawa. The military pressed the issues of rank since their entire system is about ranking and hierarchy, etc. So goes my theory. Give the customer what they want seemed to be the way then and more so now.

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  2. Hello Charles, I think you have a point. Given that the push towards using a ranking system started with the introduction of karate into Japan in the 20s, the desire of the Butokukai for karate to have some sort of ranking system to be recognized, and the proliferation of titles and ranks in the pre-war years, I think the pressure of the military simply exacerbated an existing tendency. In looking at the profound emphasis on titles in karate once it moved to the US I think the military influence cannot be over-emphasized. Particularly in the improper use of Japanese titles and terms like kyoshi, soke, and sempai I see a reflection of a strict universal rank structure. What seems to be lost on most here is that teaching titles like kyoshi are not used in conversation in Japan- I would refer to a 10th dan as “sensei”. I would also NEVER use a title in reference to myself, no matter what rank I was. The nature of terms like sempai are also lost here- they are not ranks, but relational terms, so that same 10th dan is a kohai (junior) to a fellow who started training before he did, and a 4th kyu is sempai to the new 6th kyu. Again, the term is rarely used in conversation, and is never a title. The military however has a strict universal rank structure- a corporal is a corporal no matter who he is talking to- and rank structure determines a variety of rights and responsibilities, as well as status. The proliferation of terms like kyoshi, shihan, etc. seems to me to be a way to differentiate teachers by title- a shihan is senior to a sensei, a kyoshi to a renshi, etc.. Seems very odd to me, and again much more about ego than training.

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  3. Hello Charles, thank you. I do think ego is a rather large component of the proliferation of titles and high ranks. Unfortunate, but certainly not confined to the karate world! Please feel free to use my reply, and I do appreciate you wanting to use proper citation, and asking first.

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  4. Hi. I think the issue of rank in Karate became important when Karate was introduced in Japan. In Japanese culture it is extremely important to be aware of your relative status in society. Kano introduced the colored belt system in Judo and I think it was reflective of a need to have a visual cue so that everyone understood their relative standing in the Ryu. Funakoshi borrowed the practice because he understood that standardized ranks would help the Japanese accept the Okinawan art.

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    • Hello Bill,

      I think Kano introduced ranks for a variety of reasons, though the ones he wrote about were primarily pedagogical, not status-based. He actually included no colored belts for mudansha, just white and black belts, and later added the red and white belt for higher level yudansha. I think you are right though about acceptance by the Japanese- at the time belts were adopted the Okinawan karate community was pushing to get karate accepted by the Butokukai as a “real” martial art, and two of their requirements were adopting a uniform (which karate did not previously have) and a ranking system, which it also did not have.

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  5. Hello,

    Well, I have to tell that the dojo I go, is a small one, and the sensei really doesn’t teach for money, and really all contribute to the local rent, and the rest we try to buy things for the dojo.
    The ranks for us, are important in the point that we achieve some objectives, like the performance of the katas, ability in combat, and physic resistance. But, the training, except for the katas, are the same to all, the intensity can vary but are the same to all. I really don’t know if its the same in other dojos or not.
    To me, the respect to the superiors, that have more time training, and specially to the sensei, is really important, because they are trying to teach you at the same time that they train and learn.
    But the problem is that some people take the rank, and think that are better than the rest, or let the pride go above the logic. Or many people go to learn karate to show himself, and win to all the others, that kind of attitude, I think, that must be suppressed. The real objective to train is to improve yourself, not to be the best in the dojo, or to show in front of the beginners.

    Is really important that the sensei teach that to the students, the value of the humility, because if you don’t have humility, you can’t learn from the sensei or the others in the dojo, even if they are from low ranks that you.

    Here in Uruguay, many dojos, and styles have many kyuu color belts, or for example, red with lines, or red with stars, for taking money. Even there is a “Karate for Kids” here, that really is Taekwondo, kids with 10 years and black belt.

    Thank you for reading, sorry for my English.
    And Happy New Year.

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  6. Hello,

    Well, I have to tell that the dojo I go, is a small one, and the sensei really doesn’t teach for money, and really all contribute to the local rent, and the rest we try to buy things for the dojo.
    The ranks for us, are important in the point that we achieve some objectives, like the performance of the katas, ability in combat, and physic resistance. But, the training, except for the katas, are the same to all, the intensity can vary but are the same to all. I really don’t know if its the same in other dojos or not.
    To me, the respect to the superiors, that have more time training, and specially to the sensei, is really important, because they are trying to teach you at the same time that they train and learn.
    But the problem is that some people take the rank, and think that are better than the rest, or let the pride go above the logic. Or many people go to learn karate to show himself, and win to all the others, that kind of attitude, I think, that must be suppressed. The real objective to train is to improve yourself, not to be the best in the dojo, or to show in front of the beginners.

    Is really important that the sensei teach that to the students, the value of the humility, because if you don’t have humility, you can’t learn from the sensei or the others in the dojo, even if they are from low ranks that you.

    Here in Uruguay, many dojos, and styles have many kyuu color belts, or for example, red with lines, or red with stars, for taking money. Even there is a “Karate for Kids” here, that really is Taekwondo, kids with 10 years and black belt.

    Thank you for reading, sorry for my English.
    And Happy New Year.

    Like

  7. Hello Andres,

    Thanks for your comment. It sounds like your dojo runs much as ours does here. I think you are right about people taking rank too seriously, or use it as an ego boost. While I can see that it can also act as a marker to show improvement, I wonder if that is necessary. Respect for ones teachers and seniors, and increase in ability, do not require rank of any sort. I practice classical Chinese martial arts which have no rank, and there is very clear respect. There is also very clear understanding in the training group of who is improving. I find it clearer, as you have to meet everyone where they stand, as individuals, not as a specific rank. There is no excuse of rank if you are being disrespectful of anyone, and no opportunity to gain status but through developing the respect of others. Many karate dojo, hopefully ours included, share this environment even with a ranking system, I am just thinking that the ranks actually make it harder to develop true respect

    cheers,

    Fred

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Greetings:

    Well said! Personally, I feel rank is very over rated, grossly abused, and sadly the primary focal point for the majority of practitioners. I have always liked student and teacher, no other level. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough for people today. Thanks again for your article and being willing to share your thoughts.

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