What is Rank?

Before discussing rank and belts we must understand their purpose and place in the martial arts. Until the 1900's, rank did not exist in any visible form beyond the skill of the karateka. The novices, disciples, sempai, kohai, sensei, renshi and shihan (both words indicate "Master", which we will discuss later, or "Teacher's teacher") were distinguishable only by their level of proficiency, both in the dojo and out. Belts were not needed except to hold the kimono or gi closed, and most training (at least in warm weather) was done shirtless, anyway.

In the early 1900's, Kano Jigoro (pictured at right) of Japan began a form of jiu-jitsu suitable for competition and randori (free fighting). In order to organize his teaching approach and to more evenly match the competitors, the white, brown, and black belts were introduced to denote the skill and knowledge of the jujitsuka. He named his art JUDO, exchanging the "jitsu", referring to techniques and the art, for the "do", meaning a way or a path.

This change of suffix indicated a shift in the purpose of the training, from fighting methods to a system designed to build character and enlighten the practitioner.
So when Funakoshi Gichin came from Okinawa to Japan to represent Okinawan karate, he eventually adopted a belt system similar to the one used by his friend and erstwhile sponsor, Jigoro Kano. After the Meiji restoration, it was prudent for Okinawan people to adapt to Japanese culture as a matter of survival. It was under the new name of "karate" and with the new belt system that Okinawa's To-de was introduced into Japan's public schools and universities. Since that time, as various arts have evolved so have the belt rankings of the arts.

On Okinawa, though, it was not until the mid to late 1950's that any belts were used as a ranking structure, as they preserved their To-De (China hand), or Uchinadi (Okinawa hand) in its original form, rather than the forms altered for public instruction through the educational system.

Finally, as the arts came to America the belt rankings began to change. Americans, as a culture, lack the inherent patience and introspection of the Asian cultures. As a result, more and more belts and levels were added to satisfy the American desire for rapid recognition and immediate results. While there really are no shortcuts to skill in karate, the numerous belts serve to motivate the short attention-spanned Americans. There are now typically seven to ten "kyu" or beginner levels of belts. Following are some examples of the numerous belt systems. (I use here as examples the ones with which I am familiar through my own training, though there are countless variations):

TAE KWON DO- white, yellow, green, blue, purple, red and/or brown, black.
KENPO- white, yellow, orange, purple, blue, green, brown, black.
SHOTOKAN- white, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, black.
SEIDOKAN - white, green, brown, black

Most of these and other systems have intermediate levels marked by stripes on the different colored belts, (i.e. green belt followed by green belt with a stripe), and three degrees of brown belt; 3rd degree brown, 2nd degree, and 1st degree, then black belt. This makes ten levels of "kyu" before black in many modern karate systems. The 10 kyu levels balance against the commonly accepted ten "dan" levels or grades of black belt.

Even in the black belt ranks there has been an evolution. Funakoshi himself only held a fifth dan, and that was rather arbitrarily awarded in order for him to have a teaching level rank that would be comprehended by the Japan Martial arts commission, the Nihon Butokukai. It is through politics and propaganda that the current 10th dan rank evolved. Even now, skill alone is only the prime factor up to the 4th or 5th degree black belt levels. Skill, while still a factor in ranking, is combined with politics and age for most promotions from 6th to 7th degree. Politics and age alone are generally the only factors in promotions from 8th to 10th degree. The highest-ranking Shotokan man in America before his death, Ozawa Shihan, received his 8th dan from the uncle of the Emperor of Japan, not from a karate board or organization. Now granted, it is a prestigious source for promotion, but there was no testing board or martial arts examination involved. It was based on Ozawa's immense contribution to karate and his longevity in the art. Professor Cerio received his Soke (founder) rank of 10th degree from a board of founders, the American Board of Soke. (This board is just one of many such organizations set up for the express purpose of granting rank recognition to advanced Martial Artists, or those who wish to proclaim new and individual styles.)

Granted, all of these men needed to possess legitimate and tremendous skill and knowledge, but a promotion from 7th to 10th degree has less to do with that ability than with time and political recognition. Many, indeed most, judan in America are self-proclaimed as such or else are elevated through time by their own students or peers, and by their achievements rather than by any governing board or body. Such is less frequently the case in Asia where direct appointments are the norm. All of this is intended to put into perspective what rank is and what rank is not.

Rank, as we have seen, is not consistent from style to style, nor even within styles often times. As a result, many false presumptions are made about a karateka because of the belt he wears. Many yellow belts even get an inflated sense of ability. Why? When one is praised and recognized he feels good. He should feel good, but how good? With only one to six months of training at yellow belt, or even a black belt with two to four years in a discipline that can take a lifetime to learn, how should one act? Should he not be more humble than proud at the realization of all there is yet to learn? This is why in Shaolin there are no belts. The only levels are student, disciple, and master. No awards of ranks or belts. They simply are what they are. Within the Buddhist community there is a ceremony for becoming a disciple or a master, but it is more a religious ceremony of commitment than anything martial arts related. (See Shi De Cheng.)

The belts cater to the ego. Yet they can also serve a functional purpose. Just like being a freshman, sophomore, and so on in school, colored belts are stepping stones toward a graduation of sorts, or the black belt. But when one leaves high school, life has just begun. College is a must in today's world. Four more years, then a master's program and a doctorate perhaps. Even the Ph.D. must continue to research, publish, and instruct in order to keep up in a changing world and indeed to maintain the credibility of his credentials. The belts are, or should be, a reflection of this educational model, to some degree.

The benefits of using belt rankings are that it provides a tangible goal for students to work toward, as well as establishing a reference point for hierarchy within a system. It also simplifies the teacher's job to be able to look at a belt color and know that student's grade and what to expect or what to teach that student that might be commensurate with his level.

The negatives are the multitude of abuses that belts open up. Many instructors use the belt systems as money making scams, selling "Black Belt Programs" locking students in to a financial commitment of thousands of dollars, or simply charging outrageous fees for each little step up the ladder of rank. Picture $40 or more per test for 10 kyu levels, plus the $100 to $500 dollar black belt fees, and the financial incentive becomes apparent. The power trip that senior students or instructors often engage in are facilitated by belt ranks. The ego boosting instead of humility development that often occurs is encouraged with the injudicious use of the belt ranking structure. As a student progresses, he should be more humble, but wearing a higher belt color, such as the black belt, often has the opposite effect. Brown and black belts often feel they know everything (like teenagers talking to their parents), when in reality, the journey to mastery and beyond is lifelong in the martial arts.

Rank is nothing neither more nor less than a step in the training. Whatever level you attain, it is a mere checkpoint on the never ending quest for self-discovery, self-improvement and martial skill. If ever one becomes a "master", to claim that title is contradictory to possessing the title. To say, "I am a martial arts Master" flies in the face of the humility and true sense of one's station in relation to all of humankind that the rank of master should imply.

Not all black belts are equal. Not all karate is equal. Not all masters are equal. The only real test is how one lives his life and seeks to improve himself and his world with the knowledge he has gained. Belt colors and titles and all the rest are just trappings and adornments, useful within their sphere, but meaningless at the same time, since everything is relative. Judge by the individual, not the belt color or the name of his style, and you'll avoid the pitfalls and reap the benefits of the true martial arts.

Click to open gallery: