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Articles Home » 剛柔流 Editors Commentary » Grade Rank & Titles Part 1
Grade Rank & Titles Part 1

Long ago I started arranging this series, after having learned a quick lesson the hard way [I was, as you might call it, "reminded of my teachings"] about how and when speaking to or in reference to your seniors. In other words, I was smacked in the head. 


References for Grade and Titles

In Japan, when you address someone formally [Keigo], you should always start with the family name first and then whatever honorific designation [title] succeeds. The correct context of speaking to your Sensei should be phrased as "Hirano Sensei, "Douglas Sensei" or “Kikuchi Sensei” or just “Sensei”. Only in Westernized countries has the mistake been made to call teachers “O'Sensei Brad”, "Shihan Victor", or “Soke Broc”. Another common ‘Western only’ mistake is adding the formal title grade of said instructor to their title. “Hanshi Dave”, “Kyoshi Richard” or “Renshi Dan” are incorrect and in Japan might be regarded as ignorant or even defiant. I know - you are not in Japan however if you are going to practice Japanese Karatedo, it should be clarified that the language of Karate is Japanese. In utilizing Japanese terminology, it is appropriate to learn how to properly address others, either your peers or your seniors, properly. In Japan, Titles such as those described are use as spoken word mostly when or after people die! Yamaguchi Sensei was never referred to ‘Yamaguchi Kaiso as you might notice until after he was no longer with us, and the same goes for “Chojun Miyagi Kensei [Sacred fist].

 

An example that strays; my own Kobudo Sensei [Oshiro Sensei] has written instructions on his walls advising students to "bow and say oss" [Oss, which is another article all together] as well to what to say to "Shihan" in properly addressing him. Oshiro Sensei is as legitimate as they come, and in all honestly I refer him Sensei and I've yet to ever be corrected. Another example is my Hombu dojo in Japan, where our Hanshi, Fujiwara Sensei, recently started addressing one of his Senior students as Saito Shihan. I asked him why and he explained in Japanese, to let the visiting students [Gaijin] know that Saito Sensei, is to be considered a Senior Instruction. As usual, I continue to address Saito Sensei as Saito Sensei as well, do the local students of the regular Hombu dojo. 

On a continued note; For the most part you shouldn't worry about being asked of your grade or title by lower grades. It is just as impolite to ask a woman of her age. If a senior in grade wants to know your own grade he may ask without hesitation or he may ask another senior.

Grades, ranks and titles are all relative and subject. There are green Belts that would be Black Belts at a different dojo and, there are Black Belts that couldn’t cross the street without endangering their health. In and under many circumstances grade is used to keep students motivated or to give them a sense of progression, of accomplishment and separates different levels of skill within a group. The student will be aware of the discipline within the class and with regards to grade. As each student progresses they receives grading beginning at 10th Kyu [being the lowest] and advancing to 1st Kyu or Ikkyu [being the highest of the Kyu levels] then onto the Dan levels beginning with 1st Dan or Shodan [the lowest of the black belt levels] and up to the 8th Dan [the highest level used for people still living]. Elevation there after normally is reserved for the deceased or extremely rare.

 The myth of the belt system

Back when Kara-te was still known as Chinese hand or "Te." there was no need for a Belt grading system. Everyone in the Dojo knew who the senior student and Teacher or Master was. In the early days of Okinawan Martial Arts, all Karatedo practitioners started out with a White Belt. In time, and the change of seasons, spring would come about and with it green grass, pollen and dust. Since the belt was seldom if ever washed, as a symbol of hard work put forth into ones training [as is today], Spring could leave behind, on your white Belt, a tinge of green, since most Dojo of the day were exposed to the elements or simply outdoors, and depending on how much training you participated in. With the coming of fall and winter the muck of Nature would further stain the once white Belt. After several turning of seasons, and repeated summer’s heat to bake and darken the colors, the Belt eventually turned Black - thus explaining the origin of the Black Belt.

Facts behind the belt / grading system

By the endorsement of the Dai Nippon Butokukai 大日本武徳会 [DNBK], sashes and belts were an idea conceived by the late founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano. This is of record and history – not of the many many myths that pre-exist.

Kano realized the need to distinguish the difference between several advanced practitioner and the multitude of beginners while organizing his Judo system and his association the Kodokan; and thus developed the Dan / Kyu system. The Dan degrees, or Black Belt, represented advanced proficiency level and, in receiving such, became known as Yudansha [Dan recipients]; the Kyu degrees represented the varying levels of proficiency below the Dan degree, and were known as Mudansha [not yet a Dan degree].

Kano Sensei felt it particularly important for all students to fully realize that one's training was in no way complete simply because one had achieved the Dan degree. On the contrary, he emphasized that the attainment of the Dan grade merely symbolized the real beginning of one's journey. By reaching Black Belt level, one had, in fact, completed only the necessary requirements to embark upon a relentless journey without distance that would ultimately result in self-mastery.

After establishing the Kodakan Dojo, Kano Sensei distributed Black sashes to all Yudansha, which were worn around the standard Dogi [practice Uniform] of that era. Around 1907, the Black sash was standardized by the Dai Nippon Butokukai being replaced with the kuroi-obi [Black Belt], which, of course, is still used today. The ideology of adopting the Dan / Kyu system to Judo came to Jigoro Kano after watching a swimming competition of which they called the seniors as Yudansha and the Juniors as Mukyu. This translated easily as white belt and black belt in the Judo system. Around 1958 the brown belt was added and in 1960 the green belt as well. This identification of hierarchy in training for Judo was adopted to Karatedo and many other budo styles.

Of clarifying this standard there was, of course, the white Belt and the Black Belt [still sometimes found to be the only two Belts in a Dojo such as many traditional Aikido Dojo]. Added to this was, the green and brown Belts, thus was known as the Traditional Belt system. In the Japan system of Karate-do is still found to be the most common system:

White

7th, 8th, 9th & 10th Kyu

Green

4th, 5th & 6th Kyu

Brown

1st [Ikkyu], 2nd & 3rd Kyu

Black

Sho Dan [Ho] and above


By: Johnpaul Williams

Comments
#1 yarien
on January 31 2006 16:33:15
congratulations!!! this is a very good article!!!!Wink



yarien
#2 T-Ravis08
on February 08 2008 16:28:13
i had learned that toguchi sensei was the first karateka to have used the belt ranking system. are there any sources for this?

@T-Ravis08 totally incorrect. Judo via Kano Sensei was the originator of the idea. At the "Meeting of Masters" in 1934 wearing black belts was adopted and Toguchi was only a very young child at that time.
#3 gojuryu
on December 08 2008 23:07:37
Revision forthcoming. Please remember that Gojuryu.net is a forum open to criticism and contribution. You are welcome to include your input here in the comments section. You input and comment will be considered for inclusion to the referred articles.
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