Karate rankings are a 20th-century invention, created at the insistence of the Japanese, to allow travelers to display their credentials. Originally on Okinawa, there were no ranks or diplomas awarded for martial arts skills because:
- Illiteracy was a cultural norm.
- Okinawa was a small place; if you were any good, people already knew this from word-of-mouth.
Today, rankings are used to gauge your progress, or to determine one's relative standing among fellow students. Ranking does not imply a hierarchy, and the junior-senior (kohai-sempai) relationship is not based on domination. It is a mentor-aspirant relationship, rather than the exemplar-dunce relationship commonly used in the West. Seniors can never exploit or abuse juniors, because the juniors are free to leave at any time. Rank does not grant privileges; it imposes responsibilities. If you are inconsiderate to those below you, you will be abandoned, and your skill will atrophy without training partners. As such, karate ranks are more like public school grade levels, and not like military ranks.
Martial arts ranking systems, and the degree of quality which they represent, vary greatly from style to style, and from school to school. Please be mindful of this, and the fact that in the end, there are only two martial arts ranks:
|Hachidan||Kyōshi / |
|Shichidan / |
Yūdansha (literally: "have-a-degree people") are martial artists who have completed a basic curriculum, and thus have a high degree of competence over a range of techniques. Earning a "-dan" rank (literally: "steps," figuratively: "degree") is a significant achievement, worthy of being listed on one's CV or résumé.
Earning the introductory yūdansha rank (shōdan) involves completing an exhausting comprehensive exam before your dōjō's head instructor and a promotion board (yūdanshakai) consisting of at least two shōdan-ranked members. Further ranks denote a degree of mastery of the material, and are awarded by your dōjō's head instructor with the yūdanshakai's concurrence, based on your merit, dedication, and contributions to the art.
Yūdansha ranking is indicated by wearing a black belt as part of the uniform. Some higher-level black belts choose to denote their rank by placing one stripe for each degree on their belt's tip. Some masters may choose to wear other belts, as shown on the table to the right. Within Goshin-Jutsu, the title of "Master" is reserved for those ranked yondan or higher. The title of "Grandmaster" is used very sparingly to honor teachers who have produced numerous master-ranked students. All black belts are to be respectfully addressed by everyone in the dōjō -- even by their superiors (e.g. "Mr. Jones.")
Please be mindful that a black belt is not necessarily an expert. A 1st-degree black belt (shōdan) is someone who has learned the material, but has not mastered it. A shōdan is the karate equivalent of a high school diploma. "Shō-" is a prefix meaning "smaller/lesser" -- they are literally, a "lesser-dan" -- one who has achieved, but has not made a name for themselves. The "black belts are experts" myth is a holdover from the 1950's, when there were few black belts in the US because martial arts (and exercise in general) were not considered to be normal hobbies. This general athletic ignorance led people to assume that any physical skill was extremely difficult to learn. Earning a black belt actually requires more persistence than talent. Martial arts are learned skills, like woodworking or playing the guitar. Black belt ranking is something which any reasonably-healthy person can accomplish with 5 ± 2 years of focused training.
Having a black belt does not automatically make someone an instructor. Many styles, and many schools, have additional requirements to become an instructor. Within Goshin-Jutsu, black belts can only become instructors with their teacher's explicit permission. However, all yūdansha are expected to serve as assistant instructors during classes. If a student is not ready to take on some teaching responsibilities, then they should remain an ikkyū until they develop in that sphere.
Contrary to popular belief, black belts are not required to register their hands as lethal weapons. While some people claim that they have done so (or more commonly, have a conveniently-absent friend who has), this is just macho posturing. Ask these people for details, and watch them flounder.
Mudansha (literally: "without-a-degree people") are students who have not completed the basic curriculum.
Each of these "kyū" grades or levels are denoted with color-coded belts, mostly to give instructors a instant visual reminder of a student's relative skill and knowledge, and their place in the curriculum. The number of kyū ranks, and their corresponding color codes, vary greatly between different dōjō.
The rank of hachikyū (8th level) is conferred upon everyone at birth. All other mudansha ranks are granted at the sole discretion of the head instructor of the student's main dōjō. Usually, this approval is granted upon completing a comprehensive exam before the head instructor. As the student progresses, additional material is introduced, so these cumulative exams become longer and more arduous. It should be noted that students rarely (if ever) fail a promotional exam, because competent instructors do not offer promotions to those who are not completely, absolutely ready for them.
How to Earn Ranking Online
You can't. We will never confer ranks to anyone who has not consistently trained with us in person. There have been many martial arts correspondence courses released over the years, and their graduates have invariably been vomitously awful. We will not embarrass ourselves by associating our names and reputations with any such individual. This website is not, and was never intended to be, a home study course. This is a reference guide for our dōjō's students.
Home study courses fail because small mistakes are never pointed out and corrected, so they become ingrained in the student's muscle memory. Students then have to unlearn these reinforced mistakes if they study with an instructor later on, and thus must work to reach the level of blank-slate new person. By not training with an instructor, they become worse off than those who have never trained! Home training rarely provides the "pressure cooker" environment of sparring, the matted floors needed to practice many waza involving takedowns, and the general core-hardening that comes with a ruthless taskmaster overseeing your exercise.
Learning martial arts from books or videos is like learning a foreign language from books. There’s no way of telling if you’re pronouncing things right without someone to correct you. To learn from books, you need to be able to honestly appraise what they cannot give you as well as what you can learn from them. To make students as tough and hard as concrete, they need the Portland cement of an instructor's feedback.
In general, never ask instructors to be tested or promoted, since it demonstrates that you lack self-awareness. You are unable to judge your own proficiency level, which is why you cannot award yourself a driver’s license or a high school diploma.
Contrary to what you might believe, having a black belt does not impress people. This is not 1956; there are ~15,000 martial arts schools in the United States, not including the small clubs which meet in church basements, community centers, and university gyms. Black belts are as common as Burger King managers. There is no central governing body for martial arts. While some rank-granting organizations are regarded as official, those groups aren’t subject to oversight, and draw their legitimacy from common consent.
There is no reason to buy a martial arts rank to indulge your Walter Mitty power fantasies, because nothing is stopping you from buying a black belt from an online retailer right now. Be warned -- buying hammer won’t make you a carpenter, and buying ranks online won't make you into a fighter, so no one will take you seriously.
How Karate Ranks are Regulated
They aren't. Anyone can print a rank certificate and buy a uniform and declare themselves an instructor. This occurs more often than it should -- the world is full of people who dislike working yet still want respect. This plan works as long as no one calls their bluff. Fortunately, these frauds are being exposed with greater frequency. These challenges, and their resulting public shaming, are not bullying or macho posturing -- it's more like industry self-regulation.
Becoming a karateka is like becoming a seamstress -- you apprentice yourself out to a master, who supervises your practice. If your master isn't any good, then neither will you, so it pays to shop around. There's no regulating body which oversees seamstresses, but there was never a need for one -- if someone couldn't sew well, they wouldn't last in a free market.
While there is no central governing body for karate rankings, the following generally-accepted standards and practices should be strictly followed for ranks to be considered legitimate:
- Karate is a meritocracy, and ranks are solely determined by the practitioner’s degree of knowledge and skill. Yūdansha are additionally judged on their contributions to the art.
- All mudansha (non-black belt) rankings are solely determined by a dōjō's head instructor; no one else has the authority to promote our students. Other black belts may only assist the head instructor with their evaluation.
- Yūdansha (black belt) ranks must be conferred by a committee of three or more black belts.
- To ensure quality control, instructors cannot confer ranks which are equal to, or greater than, their own.
- Ideally, there is only one jūdan, who confers the rank of kudan to only one heir-apparent, who is automatically promoted to jūdan upon the previous jūdan's death.
- This basically never happens, anywhere in the world, and causes much political in-fighting which drives people apart.
- If a jūdan dies without naming a successor, the system's black belts organize to become a collective de facto leader (yūdanshakai), which can grant jūdan ranking at their collective discretion.
- The Nanatsuboshi Dōjō only promotes its own members -- not guests or referred students.