Physical Training March 2005

Kim TaylorUnka Kim's occasional column with no clever name

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Matters of Rank

Copyright © Kim Taylor 2004. All rights reserved.

If you're in the martial arts, you're likely surrounded by rank. It's a very hierarchical activity and rank matters, whether explicit in the form of kyu and dan, or some older (or newer) method of formal certification, or implied as in who walked in the door first. The subject perhaps gets more attention than it deserves, with students worrying about their next test and teachers worrying that their students won't respect them if they don't have enough rank. Let's think about the whole system for a little while and then perhaps just put it to rest.

First let's look at implicit rank. You may be in an art that has no ranks at all to give. The teacher may not have a rank, and the students may not have a rank. But there is rank, somehow. This is what the Japanese define as the sempai-kohai system and it can be as strict as any written-down ranking system. The sempai-kohai system is pretty easy to understand. Anyone who entered the dojo before you did is your senior, anyone who got there after you did is your junior. Presumably teacher has been there the longest of anyone. Now the system can be modified by certain situations. If you got to the dojo a couple weeks ahead of a fellow student who's ten years older than you are, you should likely consider  yourself his kohai. Similarly, if you start a month or two ahead of someone who goes to class 3 times a week, while you make it once a month, you should likely be considering him your sempai by the end of the year.

The main thing to remember about sempai-kohai is that it's respect based. It relies on time in, and doesn't change according to rank or skill. This is where many people get into trouble, you don't suddenly become sempai if you pass someone in rank, and certainly not if you suddenly decide  you're better than they are. Those who assume such things generally end up in trouble down the road.

So, implicit rank is your responsibility to uphold. Treat your seniors well and they'll take care of you. The system works as long as the students are respectful and mature individuals. It breaks down when classes get too big to figure out who's where, or when students get "too big for their britches".  Since it's your responsibility to figure out these relationships my advice is to simply assume you're junior to everyone until you're corrected. We'll leave it at that and move on to the more usual "explicit" ranking systems.

What is rank? Is it a certification of talent or acquired skill? These may imply two different things actually. Certification of talent means you get your rank for displayed skill, no matter when, so you may advance in rank by beating someone of higher rank in a contest. This might be something like awarding a judo black belt to a brown belt who beats a couple of black belts in a tournament, or it could be the two top students of a sword school being told to fight to the death by the headmaster to determine the successor. Certification of acquired skill would certainly have a component of testing for ability, but would also incorporate a time period as well. This time period may be required to allow students to grow in other ways beside skill, or it may be there to make sure they stick around longer to pay dues. It all depends on the organization.

I once had an instructor who defined rank as a measure of how long you'd been hanging around the dojo.

Is rank a measure of favour? In many strictly vertical organizations you will have a single person on top who dispenses rank to those beneath. In this case one might make the argument that rank will often have a large component of favouritism. If the teacher likes you, you'll get a rank. In this same vein, a rank might be given to someone who does some special favour to the head teacher, or to the art itself. Is this sort of "honourary" rank different than a "real" rank? Perhaps, it would depend on what the awarding teacher intended I suppose, but I suspect there would be a difference in that an honourary rank would not usually be incorporated into the day to day running of the school. One may create a doctor of letters and award it to a famous person but one wouldn't have that person in the classroom teaching the next day.

Is rank "political"? Most people seem to think of favouritism and sucking up when they say a rank is "political" but I prefer to define political as having to do with the organization of the school. In other words, political things have to do with the day to day running of the business, school, or country. In this case, a political rank would be a reality in any school that has people of a certain rank making decisions about the business of the school, as opposed to simply instructing the art. One could own a school and hire instructors who do nothing but teach, or one could, as an instructor, also own the school. If one is allowed to open a school and run it at a certain rank, or if the directors of an organization are those with such and such a rank, than those ranks are, by definition, political.

How many ranks are there? Here's an interesting question, and my answer is that in the practical day to day meaning of teaching the martial arts, there are only two ranks. When you can teach, and when you can award rank. These may be the same rank, as in the kendo federations where one is allowed to run a dojo and to sit on a grading panel at 5dan, or it may be separate, as in my particular line of Aikido where one was allowed to run a dojo at shodan but was not allowed to give dan ranking until one was a shihan (which at that time was automatically awarded at 6dan). All ranks before and after and between those ranks are usually meaningless except as markers of how much time you've put in. There may be situations of course where you are allowed to rank people to a certain level and no further, or where you will be paid a certain amount depending on which rank you have, but he basic idea is sound. Rank has meaning relative to something external, the permission to teach, to grant rank, or as a recommended pay scale. Ranks that don't carry one of these external meanings are simply markers along the way without much other meaning.

Now to some people, rank will be a source of pride or a tool to bash those of lower rank but this will never be a stated purpose or benefit of rank in any organization so we'll simply assume these "meanings" of rank are incorrect.

Are all ranks equal? If we go back to the "problem" of honourary ranks and consider what the problem is, we come rapidly to the conclusion that the problem is with the assumption that all rank is equivalent. Of course it is not. Students in a school with honourary rank will understand what that means and will be quite happy to accept an honourary rank for what it is in relation to the "real" rank. People outside the school who assume all rank is equal may become quite upset when they find out that the "doctor" or "master" they have assumed was knowledgeable, got his rank because he gave sensei a ride home in the rain one evening, or was simply a famous person who was attached to the school to lend it an air of importance. Another source of confusion is to assume that, for instance, kendo rank is equivalent to, say, karate rank, or that rank in Japan is similar to rank in Canada. A shodan in one place may not be comparable to a shodan in another. For example, I hold an Aikido shodan. That rank took me 11 years, and at the time allowed me to run a club independantly, to send delegates from that club to the national and provincial political bodies, and to put students forward for grades up to and including shodan. In the kendo federation a shodan (for an adult) probably comes in around one or two years in Canada depending on when you start and how you hit the once per year gradings. That shodan rank allows you to come to class and practice just like you were doing before you got it. The teaching grade, as I mentioned earlier, comes at 5dan which, assuming one year to shodan, will take you at minimum, 11 years. So in this example a shodan is not a shodan, but permission to teach comes after similar periods of study.

Now within a single art the grades can also vary. I remember being a 3rd kyu in Aikido and having a visit from a Japanese University delegation including several sandan students. I remember very clearly the surprise I felt when I dumped a 3rd dan directly onto his head during one technique that I thought was pretty basic. It was only later that I found out that the Japanese students had never seen that particular class of throws, and that the sandan didn't have any more time in practice than I had. In Japan the teaching grade was definitely not shodan.

What about oku iri sho and menkyo kaiden? In the last few years there's been a "koryu boom" with some people in the west studying old systems and talking about the pre dan-kyu ranks. Does this mean ranks are no longer "equal" in yet another way? I don't think we really need to worry too much what we call a rank. It has meaning or not depending on what the school says you can do with that rank. At some point the rank will mean  "you can teach" and at some point the rank will mean "you can give rank". Perhaps it will even mean "you get paid more now".

Let's look at what makes up a typical rank, what considerations may be taking place when a grade is given out, no matter what you call that grade or what system you use. It's important to remember now that rank is granted by a particular organization for particular reasons, and the rank will be awarded depending on the aims, goals, and stated philosophy of that organization, as well as for a more nebulous reason usually defined loosely as the "good of the group". Rank is not something that is awarded in the same way universally, there is no independant rule-making body that oversees "black belts" world wide.


First and foremost, and especially at the junior ranks, a grading is a test of technical ability. Can you perform the techniques you are required to demonstrate, and, perhaps, do you know the academic material you are supposed to know? If you meet certain minimum requirements, you will be awarded the next rank. This is the most basic consideration for rank and is more or less universally accepted. Those at the lower end of the scale (who are not yet involved in teaching or in the running of the organization) will tend to assume this is the only legititmate condition of rank. I will propose three more criteria to give everyone something more to think about.

Teaching ability

As a student hits the "teaching rank" the ability to teach may now be considered when awarding rank. This may or may not come into play at the defined "teaching rank" depending on the student. For instance, in a large dojo with lots of higher ranked students, it makes little difference whether or not a student can teach when he hits that rank. He isn't going to be teaching all that often anyway, so he may be passed on technical ability alone. On the other hand, a student who is going to be doing the major amount of teaching in a group that is isolated from higher ranked instructors will have his teaching abilities taken into account no matter what rank he is challenging. These teaching abilities may even become more important than his technical abilities since this is the more important quality to the health of the organization.

Rank by ability doesn't always imply the ability to teach.

Get alongishness

Here is where the "political" accusation starts to fly. "They gave him that rank because he sucks up to the top guy!" While this may in fact be true, it should be obvious that if one is going to be involved in the real political life of the organization, in the decision making process, it is to the best interest of the organization to have people who can get along and agree with the aims and objectives of the organization. Why would a group promote someone to a position of power who will cause dissent and perhaps destroy the organization? When these things happen creative ways to isolate that person from the decision making process have to be invented, with varying degrees of success. Best to promote those who will get along. This doesn't always mean that the upper ranks will be "yes-men" by the way, a smart organization will promote everyone who can operate within the framework, and encourage different points of view. What will be best though, is a leadership that looks first to the good of the organization, people who can, when necessary, put aside personal feelings for the good of the group.

Rank by ability doesn't always imply the ability to administer the organization.

Do we need that rank in that place?

Finally, any organization has a duty to expand or at least present the opportunity to expand to its membership. There are very few organizations that survive on a program of the status quo. Members leave and die, replacements must be found or the organization shrinks to non-existance. With this in mind, an organization may take into consideration the "political" need for a certain rank in a certain geographical area. Just as someone may be given a teaching rank (or simply be given permission to teach at a lower rank), someone may be given a more advanced rank on the consideration that it's good for that area to have that rank available.

On the other hand, someone of perfectly adequate skill, and time in practice, may not achieve a senior rank for the simple reason that the organization doesn't need that rank at that time. The rank may cause problems with the "Get alongishness" factor for instance, or it may create a gap in the smooth transition from lowest to highest ranks.

Rank but no ability? Please note that none of these last three factors has to be invoked when considering a challenge to a rank. The committee and the organization will decide for themselves what they need and that may simply be a demonstration of ability. These other factors are ones that may be used in certain circumstances or at certain ranks as the organization sees fit. It is also important to note that these other factors would rarely be taken into account by a mature, stable organization at the lower ranks, those would always be technically based. This means that in most cases, even if the other factors are taken into account when giving a grade, the candidate will have a certain basic skill level, having passed through the lower ranking system. The exception to this could come in a brand new organization, or one that is trying to expand rapidly while giving the impression of being old and established. In this case the ranks might outstrip the skill levels, but it would be a rather risky thing to set up. An intelligent organization will ensure that its instructors and its leaders have the requisite skills to bring along the future generation of students and leaders.

These aren't all the factors that could be considered in Rank, but they should give a rough idea of the various complications that can occur when we start worrying about who's above and who's below us in the class.

The bottom line? Rank isn't important to your practice, you aren't any better the day after your test than you are the day before except that you've had one more practice.

Kim Taylor is publisher of EJMAS and a maker of bokuto, you can see some of his work at

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Physical Training March 2005