The Non-Importance of Rank in Karate

Disclaimer:  The following article may ruffle some feathers since it addresses rank in karate.  These are my opinions which are not right or wrong, they are just opinions.  You may agree with them and you may not.  Both are ok.  Please feel free to comment and give your opinion on the topic.

I’d like to discuss the importance of rank in martial arts and eventually the non-importance of rank in the martial arts.  I am going to break this down into 3 categories: colored belt, black belt, and master ranks.  The importance of rank in each category is different.  There are some overlapping concepts, but each is unique in its own way.

White belt is typically the first rank in karate
The first rank in karate is white belt

Colored Belt

Rank in karate is at its most important at the colored belt level.  A student is just starting out and needs a rank promotion system for various reasons including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Defined curriculum; student knows what techniques are expected of them
  • Feeling of progress; student gains confidence by demonstrating proficiency at a certain level
  • Goal setting; student has something to shoot for and sees other students of higher rank as something to aspire to
  • Honor bestowed upon by instructor; student demonstrates not only technical aptitude but also characteristics that are not as easily defined such as respect, honor, loyalty, and integrity.  This becomes more important as a student progresses through the higher color belt ranks.
Black belt is often the rank in karate most strive to achieve
Black belt is often the rank in karate most strive to achieve

Black Belt

Rank in karate still has significance at the black belt level although the reasons for it starts to change.  The black belt level rank promotion system is needed for the following, not limiting, reasons:

  • Feeling of progress; student gains confidence by demonstrating proficiency at a certain level
  • Goal setting; student has something to shoot for and sees other students of higher rank as something to aspire to
  • Honor bestowed upon by instructor; student demonstrates not only technical aptitude but also characteristics that are not as easily defined such as respect, honor, loyalty, and integrity.  This becomes more important as a student progresses through the higher color belt ranks.
  • Instructor hierarchy/experience; students begin instructing and gaining experience.  A first-degree black belt and third-degree black belt differ greatly in teaching ability and overall knowledge, which is apparent to just about everyone who sees them.

Did you notice that I omitted ‘Defined Curriculum’?  This was not a typo but rather an intentional omission.  At the black belt level, curriculum is not defined.  It takes many years to go from level to level in the black belt world but if you check the written requirements to achieve each rank it is very limited.  This is because there are so many more non-technical, impossible to define characteristics needed to be a higher-level black belt.  In addition, these things vary from student to student.  How do you define the required dedication, attitude, and character needed to be a 3rd dan?  It can’t be easily defined in writing, but a good instructor can spot it a mile away and be able to guide their students on their individual path to getting there.

A master's rank in karate means different things to different people
A master’s rank in karate means different things to different people

Master Rank in Karate

In Tang Soo Do, a master rank in karate is typically 4th Dan and higher, although this may vary depending on the organization.  It is at this stage that I feel the significance of the rank starts to get a little cloudy.  In my opinion, the importance of the rank is for the following reasons:

  • Honor bestowed upon by instructor; student demonstrates loyalty, dedication, and has gained experience under the instructor’s tutelage. 
  • Instructor hierarchy/experience; student’s knowledge and wisdom grow exponentially through experience over many years of teaching many students.  Students begin teaching others on the ways of being an instructor.
  • Necessary to continue the growth of an organization; if an instructor does not advance in rank, the students cannot advance, and the reasons outlined above in the colored belt and black belt sections do not apply.

At this level, there is little additional, concrete new technical curriculum.  It goes without saying that there should be improvement and wisdom gained as one advances through Master’s ranks but it is not easily quantified.  If anything, one’s technical ability starts to diminish due to age and years of hard training.  The majority of the additional learning is at the individual’s discretion with less coming from direct instruction from the individual’s teacher.

Now, here comes the controversy.  What does one do when their instructor passes away?  Add to that, they do not have any students remotely close to their rank?  Should they continue to be promoted simply for being active for a required amount of time?  Hmm…  I don’t claim to have the answers to these questions, that is well above my pay grade.  I just wanted to pose the question as I have thought about it a lot over the last few years.

Call me old school but if your instructor passes away, in order to advance in rank at the master level you should:

  1. Get a new instructor

and

2. Put in the time with that instructor

OR

  1. You have a student or several students who are ready for advance rank promotion and your rank in karate is limiting them

and

2. You have put in the time and dedication well above the minimum standard

I received my 4th dan rank from Grandmaster Jae Chul Shin.  I had trained under him for many years and when I earned that rank, I felt pride in myself as well as gratitude for him.  He passed away in 2012 and Grandmaster Robert Beaudoin was named his predecessor.  I knew of him, but I did not know him.  He did not even know of me (to no fault of his own).  I decided I would try as best I could to forge an instructor-student relationship with him.  

Over the years he started to get to know me, but it never felt like he was my instructor.  I would receive my 5th dan rank under him and although I was proud of the achievement, it did not feel the same as it did before.  Something was missing.  As I got to know him better, I started gaining much admiration and respect for him.  He passed away earlier this year, 2020.  I wish I could have gotten to know him better.

Now I find myself without an instructor or mentor.  I question if I have the emotional capacity to put in the time and effort needed to begin the process of forging that lifelong relationship all over again.  I could advance in rank by putting in my time in any number of martial arts organizations.  However, I know in my heart it would feel even more empty than my previous rank promotion.

So, until I meet the criteria I laid forth in this article for achieving higher master rank, I will remain at my current rank and I am perfectly fine with that.  My experience, knowledge, skill, and ability will continue to improve through rigorous training, studying, research, and through the guidance of my peers.

I will end this article on one final note.  Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern karate, died at the age of 88 after a long and extremely dedicated life in the martial arts.  What rank was he?  5th dan (he was awarded 10th dan posthumously).  I think that sums it up quite well.

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