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A Different Perspective On Rank

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

Non-practitioners often assume that rank in karate and other martial arts is a standardized affair, controlled perhaps by an official body located somewhere in japan. Those who train, of course, know that there’s no such thing and that a sixth-degree black belt in one dojo might not even be considered a first dan in another school.

That said, many budo organizations have worked to standardize testing among their members. If you belong to a dojo affiliated with a national or international group, chances are you have a test with specific requirements for each rank. This allows for a lot of order and predictability. You can go to any dojo affiliated with that organization and be fairly sure of the quality of the ranked students and they can be sure of yours.

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Probably most practitioners would think this a positive. It is, in some ways. However, give some consideration to an alternative perspective on grading and standardization. Classical Japanese martial arts, also known as koryu, developed somewhat in isolation from one another. Keeping the essence of your ryu secret was a considerable advantage in an age of warfare. During the later feudal period, after Japan’s long civil war ended, there was some interchange among ryu. Members of one ryu, having gained enough skill — and received permission from their teacher— might have joined another ryu. In terms, though, of how the ryu were structured, each tended to follow its own protocol for rank. There was no standardization or need for such.

And by rank‚ note that the koryu system was and is entirely different from that of modern budo forms like karate. There was no need to give someone a rank, certificate or belt to signify skill. If you were alive, that was proof of your talent. The only need for certification was to establish who had the right to teach and transmit the ryu. That’s because a ryu was considered property. (They still are.)

To address this, the headmaster of the ryu issued a menkyo. Literally, it means “license.” This is the word most often associated with written proof of one’s authority to possess and transmit the ryu, but other terms were also used. As a ryu established itself, there was a need for members to be licensed to teach certain aspects of the art. So documents were written, like menkyo, to give the owner permission to do so. In some cases, these might have been loosely bound, like a book. In most cases, they were written on scrolls imprinted with the seal of the headmaster. These were also called mokuroku (catalog) and might be simply a list of all kata the recipient could teach. Or they might be called menjo (certificates). Yurushi is the term used in some ryu; it means “permission.”

A few ryu issued a series of these licenses. A lower menkyo would give the owner the right to teach perhaps the first part of the ryu’s curriculum. As he became more skilled, a second license would be issued for him to teach the second part. Some ryu gave out no licenses at all except to the one person who had been designated to take the position of the next headmaster. “Ranks are meaningless,” some karateka insist. “They’re just dangled out there to keep students interested.”

This may be true; obvious symbols of rank have an appeal, particularly for people who are reward-oriented. It’s too harsh and generalizing, though, to dismiss rank systems as simple marketing devices. Colored-belt ranks — this is a big reason they were created — make it easier in a big dojo or organization for instructors and seniors to see the approximate skill level of practitioners they might not personally know.

However, what if your teacher, the leader of your budo organization, did personally know all the students? What if all practitioners of your art knew one another and trained together regularly? Would there still be a need or a desire for a standardized form of rank? While it’s impossible to read the future, I do wonder if the martial arts might see in this century an evolution toward smaller groups, toward less homogenization spread over entire regions and countries. Today,

many practitioners might think of Japan and its budo organizations as a kind of central authority.

MA Drills

Few of those practitioners, though, have been there or trained with the main instructors. Their sense of belonging to an art or a dojo lies with the person who actually teaches, in the building where they go regularly.

There was a time when few non-Japanese had the level of skill and experience to teach independently. As that has changed, more and more teachers are at a place where they need to take responsibility for their students. The idea that a seventh-dan teacher with four decades of experience instructing in his own dojo needs to bring in someone else to do grading is becoming increasingly odd. And pointless. How about if that teacher established the standards? He or she might decide to issue menkyo-type licenses instead of belt ranks. Maybe the teacher would decide to revamp the qualifications. Instead of students saying, “My rank is certified through the International Whatever Karate Association,” they would say, “My rank is certified by my teacher.” If a student looks bad or even mediocre, it reflects directly not on some organization but on that teacher. Organizational rank systems have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s worth considering.

Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit and type his name into the search box.

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