Karate Ranks by Rob Redmond

When I started training in karate, the first rank that our club awarded was a yellow piece of electrical tape attached to the end of our white belts. We did not even receive the dignity of receiving a yellow belt - a belt which I have always thought looked sort of wimpy. We worked very hard to earn these first ranks and to receive our little certificates marked with the name of the school, signed by the teacher, and stamped by the little recreation center where we kids trained. We were very proud of ourselves for having received our first rank certifications.

If you know anything about how karate ranks work, you are probably smiling at this description. When students join a karate club, they start off in the kyu ranks, which are represented by belts beginning with white and usually ending with brown. Kyu means -rank, grade, class, level- and other things that are along the same lines. Kyu ranks start from higher numbers and work their way down to the lowest number. A new club member with no karate training at all will typically be ranked 9th kyu or even 10th kyu, although some teachers prefer fewer ranks between the beginner level and black belt. The last kyu is the 1st kyu - and it is awarded just before black belt.

The original belt colors taken from Judo in the 1920’s were white, brown, black, as far as I have been able to determine. There is no rhyme or reason behind the ordering of kyu ranks. I have never heard any explanation that tells why kyu ranks start at a high number and work their way back to a small number. There may be some logic to it, but I don’t know what it is.

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Karate gets its concept of ranks from the Japanese sport of Judo. When Funakoshi first brought karate over from Okinawa, he was befriended and sponsored by Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo. Funakoshi is thought to have copied Kano’s uniforms for his Judo players and the belt system he was using at the time.

The number of kyu ranks has been expanded over the years for various reasons, I believe. From what I have read, I am led to believe that originally there were few kyu ranks awarded - just three or four - that the number we have now is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is claimed that originally when the belt system was first introduced, that there were only white, brown, and black belts, and that the other colors, beginning with green, were added later as new kyu ranks were added. Maybe adding the green belt allowed the belts to be representative of seasons. White for Spring, green for Summer, brown for Autumn, and black for Winter. Who knows? Today, there are at least 8, and as many as ten kyu ranks before black belt.

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In some karate schools, a new belt is awarded with each new karate rank that is given. If the student goes from 8th kyu to 7th kyu, the belt color is changed. Other schools might use fewer belts and merely give a new belt at every other kyu rank. There is no fixed relationship that is universally accepted by all as to what order the colors should be in, nor what kyu ranks any particular colors represent. Each karate club or school comes up with their own system and uses it. Some associations attempt to enforce a standardized kyu ranking system so that the ranks and the belts are consistent between their clubs.

Some karate instructors will take electrical tape and put a loop near the end of the belt to indicate that the student is one level up from the original belt rank that they earned. Some take this practice a step farther by awarding tape loops even more frequently than there are kyu ranks to award, creating even more kyu level steps that a student can receive.

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The motivation for creating all of these kyu ranks is complicated. The most obvious answer is that people charging money for karate sell karate belts to students who pass tests. The more belts there are to sell, the more revenue the owner of the school collects from each student as they pass through the ranks. This effect is amplified by the fact that a karate school owner probably sees that the more quickly students are rewarded for their efforts, the more motivated they are to continue training. Therefore, more students training for longer paying money for more belts can mean an exponential increase in revenue from equipment sales.

The pieces of tape increase the potential for collecting fees for increasing ranks even though nothing is given but a piece of tape worth less than a penny. The costs from these sorts of promotions are nearly zero, and the school owner is able to award them in unlimited number to allow students to feel rewarded without actually giving them a new belt.

Isn't that cynical? There are plenty of karate clubs out there where this is not the case, and even though the system may have expanded due to some sort of motivation of this type, the people using it now are more interested in simply retaining students through frequent rewards than they are in increasing their take at the cash register for the belts themselves.

Kyu ranks are awarded relatively frequently to give the student a sense of accomplishment. The reason for wanting to give this sense is usually little more than not wanting students who were trained at great expense of time and effort to walk out the door because they feel unappreciated. Also, it is possible that at some point someone felt that giving only a few kyu ranks infrequently failed to provide enough granularity to serve as useful benchmarks. Whatever the reason, today it is typical to use as many as ten, number them backwards, and give colorful belts every other kyu rank or so. This is not true for the dan ranks.

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After the first kyu, the karate student is awarded dan ranks. Dan is a Japanese word that means -level.- With each successive dan rank, the level number goes up one. So the first rank is the 1st dan, and then 2nd dan, etc. These ranks go up to 10th dan. The first dan rank usually requires the student to train for a total of at least three years - but some take as long as seven years. The difference is explained by different time requirements from instructor to instructor and different standards for what must be learned.

The 2nd dan is usually given a couple of years after the 1st if the student trains hard for it. The 3rd dan can be had in as little as four years past the 2nd dan. But again, different schools have different criteria for awarding these ranks. Beyond the 3rd dan, usually the right to award the ranks is reserved by some national organization, if the karate club chooses to associate with one. Not all karate clubs do this.

In Shotokan Karate, once the 1st dan rank is received, the black belt is awarded. Successive dan ranks do not result in a new belt being awarded. In fact, the typical Shotokan method is to use a simple black belt with no markings that indicate any dan rank from 1st dan all the way to 10th dan. Some karate styles add embroidered stripes to the end of the belt, one stripe indicating 2nd dan, two stripes for third dan, and so on. Some karate players prefer to have Japanese embroidery of their name and association on their belts. Gold seems the most popular color for this sort of embroidery, although red, blue, white, and other colors are rarely seen.

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Black belts come in an astonishing array of styles. There are plain cotton belts, specially stitched cotton belts, extra wide specially stitched belts, extra thick narrow belts, and belts with special satin or silk covering. You can order belts like this from the Tokaido company and others by using online order forms to request Japanese lettering, color, and style of belt, and the belt will actually be constructed by hand custom designed to your specifications. That-s how choosy some black belt karate players are.

Especially popular among Shotokan experts are the satin and silk covered black belts. They are very shiny when new, and in a short time, they begin to wear out rather dramatically. This wear and tear is felt by some a symbol of their long years of training, a sort of badge of honor. Others find these belts somewhat pretentious and fake, since the satin and silk covered belts wear out at a faster rate than the regular cotton belts do.

These dan and kyu ranks have multiple uses for both karate players and the karate industry as a whole. Benchmarking, motivation, validation, symbols of social status, and a moderately dysfunctional credentialing system are all provided by karate ranks.

Karate ranks provide a benchmarking system for both karate instructors and karate students. The people who give out the ranks are able to organize their students quickly into groups when teaching a large class and custom-tailor the content of the class to match. By looking at the student-s belt, the instructor of a large group is quickly reminded of what he was teaching that person, and is freed from having to do what a doctor or dentist has to do: review customer data in files before meeting with them. Since karate schools cater to all levels of students, the instructor is benefited by having everyone wear a color tag for their level of development as he sees it.

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Students also get something out of this arrangement, as they are able to establish short-term goals that are attainable and strive to meet them. The belts they earn tell them that they are learning more material and increasing in skill. As each student reaches a new kyu rank, they are encouraged to find yet another waiting for them only three months or so in the future, if they try hard enough. This benchmarking function of karate ranks gives students something to look at as they progress through the various ranks. Unlike other sports, karate cannot be played by just anyone who tries to play. For example, in other sports, anyone can play but will have more or less skill. In karate, without enough skill, it is impossible to participate in bare-knuckle point sparring and kata performance competitions without injuring others or having no material to perform. The belts let the students know that they are transforming themselves from an inability to participate in the real sporting aspects to an ability to participate.

As a benchmarking system, ranks also provide motivation for students to continue training. Each time a goal is reached, the student might be tempted to call it quits, but just around the corner is yet another goal that keeps them energized to continue. Since short-term goals are much easier to achieve than long-term goals, karate ranks in the kyu range provide quick incentive to continue working to reach full competency.

The later dan ranks also provide this motivation to continue training, providing experts with rewards for continuing their training. But here, the motivation begins to become questionable in nature, especially as the ranks increase in level. Striving for further ranks might actually be somewhat counterproductive after a point. I believe that point is somewhere around 2nd or 3rd dan, depending on the person.

I feel that it depends upon the karate practitioner-s motivation - what the rank is motivating them to do. If the rank is a goal to motivate a long-time student to come back from time-off and work hard, then I feel it would be very beneficial. If the motivation is to encourage expanding horizons, learning new material, or engaging in more creative work where karate is concerned, then this motivation can also serve the karate expert well, no matter their level.

A black belt is usually worn with the embroidery facing outward. Goldish orange is the most popular color for putting Japanese characters on a black belt. Some people embroider stripes or English words on them.

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If, however, the rank is used to motivate the karate expert to toe the company line, continue to stick to a fixed curriculum and promote a particular dogma, then I think less of it. Especially if the motivation is hoped to encourage the karate expert to engage in promotional activities for a corporation, non-profit or for-profit, raise funds, or otherwise direct and drive recruiting efforts. When these sorts of activities are the kinds motivated by the karate rank, then I find myself losing interest, because such motivation is perhaps intended to subvert my natural drive toward independence.

Some karate enthusiasts find that the karate rank system provides them with not just a system of benchmarks and motivation, but also a form of psychological validation and confirmation of their own competency that they may have lacking in other areas of their lives. Many in the karate community have found themselves parented by fathers who give little praise, working for companies that consider them like a number, or serving in other thankless capacities. Perhaps some of us feel that we are insecure in our self-image and wonder if we are truly considered competent by others. What a relief and a huge boost it can be to such a person to receive validation from their karate instructor that someone expert in something finds us not just acceptable, but worthy of a reward.

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I think this can be both a very healthy experience and maybe a little unhealthy for me depending on my reasons for doing it and how self-aware I am of my own need for this sort of confirmation. We could all use a slap on the back, and achieving a particular karate rank we set a goal for can be a big boost. Being accepted into a group of people that we respect can also feel very good. I feel better about these sorts of things if I am aware they are going on, and I do not allow my need for this acceptance and confirmation to cause me to make myself vulnerable to manipulation. For example, I might want my next rank so much that I am willing to violate my own values or stand by while the leadership of our group, or the group itself, engages in an activity or repeated behavior that I was raised to believe is abhorrent.

Confirmation and validation are not, in and of themselves, bad things, I think. Not as long as I am aware of the effect they have in my life. And, my willingness to give them up in defense of myself or to separate myself from people who-s values do not meet my standards, despite my desire to be loved and wanted by them, tells me that maybe I am OK doing this. This is a complicated and very personal set of internal feelings and psychological processes going on for all sorts of reasons. No two people will have exactly the same experience, but so many of us come to karate training, I believe, because we are a little insecure, that it cannot be ignored that we might be a bit hungry to be accepted onto a team. Maybe a little too hungry?

When I say insecure, I do not intend to insult my readers by suggesting that the desire to take up karate lessons should necessitate a straight jacket, although perhaps in my case that might be accurate. Rather, I merely point out that people who are free from fear in their lives usually do not work as hard to strengthen and empower themselves in all the various ways that karate is thought to enable, and perhaps people who have more fear might be more attracted to it than say to weightlifting, jogging, biking, aerobics, or other activities which lack a component of -power over others.- Recognizing this in ourselves does not necessitate that we throw our karate training out the window, but rather that we simply be aware of this dynamic and work to be mentally awake when our hope for future ranks causes us to do something inappropriate or remain silent when speaking up is called for.

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Karate ranks, after all, are symbols of social status. We like to think of our karate ranks as being carefully designed symbols of pure physical skill, political power, social acceptance, teaching ability, refereeing ability, and rank examination authority, but they are not. Karate ranks really are symbols of social status in a way. While karate performance ability might be the largest criteria used, really any karate rank is a contract between instructor and student. Should not the person bestowing the rank say that on a particular day, this particular person was able to perform to this level of skill and no more? That is little more than a fantasy, I'm afraid.

In reality, a karate instructor looks at his club of students, and considers them in comparison to their previous skill perhaps more than he compares them to some supposed objective standard. He also tries to imagine their potential, which is little more than more enlightened supposition - but still merely speculation on his part. He might also compare students to one another, and prefer the more skilled performers to receive higher ranks. But that is not all karate instructors consider. They also consider the students who bring value to them. Politics is in everything, and the higher the karate rank in question, the more likely that group social status is at work. Note that the 9th dan is rarely given to a man who is now more skilled than he was at 5th dan. Instead, it is awarded to a man merely for growing older, more famous, and more beloved.

This effect can also be seen with the 10th dan rank. It is usually awarded posthumously. My instructor, Katayama Hitoshi, used to joke that this rank should be called The Dan of Death, because everyone who receives it is either already dead or dead within days of receiving it. Clearly the 10th dan is not related to skill. At what point do ranks change from certification of pure skill (8th kyu) to social-engineering (10th dan)? I believe that point is usually after the 3rd dan in the case of many associations. However, I am heartened that some, most notably the ISOK organization, are offering karate rank certifications without any strings attached. Hopefully this kind of behavior from karate associations will become more widespread and people will come to realize that a karate association is very much like the consulting firms that offer support and certification for other sorts of activities. Membership and continued participation in activities and ranks need not be tied together that way.

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But the motivation to earn karate ranks might be a little thin amongst many after a particular point. While great satisfaction can be had from earning a black belt in terms of self-esteem and realization of long-term goals, the transfer value of that karate rank is low. Transfer value is the value that something has to others - the value can be transferred from one setting to another. An item with a high transfer value is recognized as valuable in diverse settings. For example, if you are a medical doctor, that credential can bring prestige and credibility to many things that you might have to say on many topics, and people in various communities and organizations will find the credential very impressive.

College and university diplomas also have high transfer value, depending on the topic that was studied. The MBA currently is seen has having a high transfer value, as are PhD-s in various subjects. A college degree in basketry or studies of various forms of activism is seen has having much less transfer value. Your fez from your local lodge probably has much less transfer value. Things you would be ashamed to add to your resume have very low and perhaps no transfer value.

And that brings up and interesting question: Should I put my karate rank on my resume? My resume does not have my karate rank on it. I feel that many view my participation in karate to be indicative of being a little strange or perhaps even dangerously interested in violence. I have heard others express concerns over resumes that have karate rank and participation listed on them. Perhaps participating in the Boy Scouts looks better, although their stock seems to be in decline these days, unfortunately.

As karate rank has a low transfer value, the real value of it is mainly to the person receiving it and the person giving it. It does not really serve as a valid credentialing system. You might meet someone who is a 6th dan karate expert, but what does that mean? Did he get it for skill in competitions, coaching, refereeing, giving examinations, bringing in lots of new recruits, helping out with association functions, volunteering for service, or simply as a reward for continued toeing of the company line and being politically powerful due to charm and having many followers? You don’t really know.

Furthermore, I believe it is self-evident that no two human beings are exactly alike, and therefore, as explained my article on Platform Dependency, even within a karate club, two people’s performance of Shotokan karate may vary from one another greatly. Certainly any two people of the same rank side by side do not have the exact same skills. Are they to be compared to one another, or to some objective standard? How can we have an objective standard for karate ranking when people are so different from one another that when they both try to do the same thing using the same set of instructions it comes out looking different? This subjective component to karate ranking further damages its credibility as a valid credential that can be viewed as an objective assessment of skill.

That's why I wrote that it is a moderately dysfunctional system of credentialing. As someone who does not know you, I really cannot put a lot of stock in your karate rank as being something that speaks well of you for a particular reason. That-s not how I expect a good credential to work. Karate ranks essentially amount to motivation to continue training, which looks suspiciously related to motivation to continue paying and obeying. It looks worse and worse to me as the rank gets higher.

The Eagle Scout Award, which used to have huge transfer value, is now on the decline thanks to political polarization and negative publicity aimed toward the Boy Scouts of America organization’s policies.

When I last operated a karate club, we had a box filled with belts. I used to give belts to students from the box. Maybe the belt was new, or maybe it was someone else’s recycle for the purpose of keeping costs down for everyone. I eventually gave up the practice of giving out certificates that looked like they were Japanese parchment in favor of very nice plaques with engraved lettering on them for black belt ranks. I ended up giving nothing for the kyu ranks. I didn’t really see the need for it.

I tried to separate out many of the factors that ranks might represent in my club. For example, I tried to limit the impact that rank had amongst the students by functioning as the sole coach of the club and not really employing my senior students for coaching duty. Since the club did not require a hierarchy using this method, the more advanced ranks lost some of their social status. There was political resistance to my doing this, and I was not able to continue running the club long enough to really push this particular concept forward to see what would happen, but I note that millions of children and adults play lots of sports without receiving colorful belts, certificates, and other symbols of social status or credentials and enjoy them quite a bit. It seems to me that karate ranks, while perhaps providing many benefits, might provide just as many downsides depending on who is using them and to what purpose.

Karate ranks are probably here to stay. Once used for a long enough period, a dogmatic practice such as this will hardly be abandoned as there is pressure from those who have invested in their own ranks to maintain the status quo and not devalue or disrupt the system that they perpetuate. I can understand this feeling amongst them, and fortunately for them, this article is unlikely to cause a major upheaval in the karate world concerning rank. But I do hope that you remain open to possibilities and consider the potential ideas that I have presented here if not to abandon the system wholesale, perhaps to improve upon it in subtle ways.