Did you know that the belt and ranking systems . . .
. . . used by martial arts schools today are not really a part of former martial art times, but a relatively modern innovation?
Jigoro Kano, founder of a sport known today as Judo, developed a grading system based on competitor skill level in order for students to compete in sport matches. This color belt system, at first, was quite simple, but gradually developed into a system of 10 Kyu ranks and 10 Dan ranks.
Gichin Funakoshi, after arriving in Japan in 1922, formed a friendship with Kano. Influenced by Kano’s organizational approach, Gichin chose to integrate some of Kano’s concepts.
Over time, variations of this colored belt ranking system have become commonplace within most of the martial art systems today.
Rank – Lineage is Essential
The survival of an ancient feudal martial system, as applied to rank, relied mainly on family name and heritage; otherwise, it was only on rare occasions, as when exceptional skill was demonstrated on the battlefield, that promotions were granted.
In the orient, as recent as the last century, martial knowledge was reserved for the prominent social class. In a feudal society, if one was born into the peasant class, one would expect to remain at that social level, otherwise, many privileges were offered. Typically, the first-born son would inherit the family name and be expected to carry on the family’s name and martial style.
Given the societal familiarity due to the geographical size of Okinawa, it was relatively easy to determine the head master of a system. On occasion, a system’s integrity would come into question and an outside challenge would ensue to test the realism of an instructor’s skill. Defeat would tarnish the school’s reputation and could ultimately end a family’s legacy.
Authority to teach a system was rarely given to someone outside the family. However, when a master decided that a particular student had achieved a sufficient level of knowledge and skill consistent with their expectations; at the appropriate time, a special scroll - a Menkyo Kaiden - would be awarded to grant full authority to teach a fighting system.
My premise for writing this article is for those students who desire to hold true to the traditions of martial arts; students I call journeymen who remain mindful that truth is constant, that truth is not always pleasant and often difficult to accept when it conflicts with present beliefs. Truth ignored, on the other hand, especially in training, affects all other decisions in life.
In first choosing to study martial arts, I gave no thought to style or historical value, my sole purpose was to improve my self-defense skills which I later found to be all-consuming.
With all the schools available on Okinawa at the time, it was only by chance I had come upon Sensei Oyata’s dojo and my approach to studying the martial arts led me on a different path – one of knowledge, understanding and skill – one of tradition and legacy.
When choosing to study martial arts, choose to study a self-defense form that has a history; one that has developed slowly over time through lasting tradition and many trials.
Styles - Traditional or Modern
There are many styles or forms of martial arts that are unique in value and application.
In most schools today, Jigoro Kano’s innovative contribution of colored belts has unfortunately morphed from the traditional concept into one that is used solely as an incentive for students to continue studying which, in turn, helps continue the support and longevity of the school.
Much of what is being taught in schools that are unaccustomed with tradition, I believe, lends to the waning of knowledge and technique. Also contributing to this decline, is if any rift occurs in a school, such as a teacher’s death, a political vacuum develops which is rapidly filled that often causes dissention among the ranks ultimately resulting in the splintering of the student base. Needless to say, this domino effect leads to a weakened transmission of traditional knowledge and skill.
Remember, though, without an historical reference in training, a cage fighter or street fighter could very well be a lethal opponent. However, it is the traditionally trained fighter that separates the noble from the ignoble. Traditionally, martial arts were used to protect and preserve a family’s honor and legacy, not to be used in an impudent manner.
Contrary to most beliefs, there are no real “secrets” in the martial arts world, only things we do not know to understand. Knowing the history and tradition of the martial art can unlock what others may refer to as the “mystery behind the move.”
Martial art techniques need not be complicated. Sparring, for instance, is not only just a matter of skill, but also of making the right moves at the right time; the simplest punch executed at the right target at the right moment can easily defeat an opponent.
If one has to think about applying a technique, either defensive or offensive, then that becomes a vital weakness.
To acquire notable skill, however, takes hard work and repetitive practice; it is self-doubt and critical thinking, with regards to your progress, that is the major handicap. Training must be positive in both attitude and practice.
Traditional training in the martial arts does not only teach technique, but over time makes the art an essential part of the students’ lives.
No matter what style you choose, repetitive practice, endurance and actual fight experience during training are the keys to being an exceptional martial artist.
The decision to study a martial art form may not be a matter of style so much, it may be a matter of cost and/or convenience, but ultimately it should depend on the head instructor’s knowledge, experience and lineage which would indicate the quality of instruction.
Over the last few decades, the advent of Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Kung Fu TV Series and the Karate Kid movies, has resulted in “Karate” being promoted worldwide as a lucrative business. It is not unusual now-a-days to see a variety of martial art dojos crop up from virtually nowhere; many of which promote their own modern-day style and techniques, as well as the interpretation of techniques, that have no bearing on any authentic history.
If there is no lineage to support a style, it is safe to say that there is no historic foundation behind it and, therefore, no basis for rank.
My advice is to be wary of instructors claiming to hold high grades in rank, as it may have been awarded illegitimately by either self-promotion and not inherited by a true master, or by obtaining rank from a different system altogether, then claiming to be that higher rank in their own system.
The True Test
No volume of information taught, no matter what the source, is of any value unless it is effective and can be mastered. In all walks of life, there are no masters, except for those who have mastered themselves, which in reality is extremely rare.
In this computer age, it is relatively easy to research the history and/or lineage of a certain style. I suggest doing this as a criterion before deciding to study, as well as seeing first-hand how the various ranks are taught and, if possible, how promotions are performed. Also, if allowed the opportunity, assess the senior students’ fighting skill level.
Let me relate a short story that comes to mind about the decisions and tests we may make in life that determine who we become . . .
“Once upon a time there was a wealthy king, known by his subjects for his wisdom and compassion.
As time passed and the king began to age, he worried about who would take care of his kingdom after his death.
The king was blessed with three loyal and obedient sons. His decision of who would be fit to reign would depend on the outcome of a test he devised.
He called his three sons and gave each 100 gold coins and one year, telling them, “Whoever brings me a golden dog shall be my successor.”
The eldest son rented a palace in the city, hired some men, and sent them in all four directions to find the golden dog. After a few weeks, the men returned empty handed. The eldest son had not only lost all 100 coins, but the opportunity to become king.
The second son started lending money to people. His low interest rates earned multiple profits which he gave to the local goldsmith to make a Golden Dog.
The youngest son bought a small house among the poor and needy people. He invested his remaining coins in a lucrative business that employed the poor. With his profits, he built hospitals and schools. The people, seeing his compassion and generosity towards them, began to regard him as their king.
After a year had passed, the three sons stood in front of the king. The eldest son had nothing to give, the second son gave him a fabricated golden dog.
When it was the youngest son’s turn, he handed the king a golden dog made out of cotton, saying, “Do not underestimate this gift. It has been crafted by my hands and those of many who have toiled in the hot sun to grow this cotton. A gift far more precious than gold.”
Seeing the commendable attributes in his son, acquired by his teaching and example, brought tears to the king’s eye – attributes of wisdom and compassion - attributes worthy of a king.”
For students, especially those who devote much time, energy and hard-earned money training to become the best martial artist they could be, deserve instruction as well as promotion in rank (certificate, belt and status) to come from a legitimate source, otherwise, they are just a marketing tool for the instructor’s financial gain.
My premise, therefore, is that without the precursor of history or lineage and the guidance and teaching of a traditionally taught head instructor, rank has no value.
Hanshi Albert O. Geraldi