Skill and ranks

What does a rank really reveal?

I’m sure many of you have already asked this yourself. Is there a reliable scale to compare the ranks of different martial arts?
Or are these ranks the scale themselves?

When Kano Jigoro integrated the Kyu-Dan-system into his Judo it was his intention to create an extrinsic motivation – which shows by a clearly visible signal – the belt colours (initially only white, brown and black aswell as violet for boys under the age of 14) the state of knowledge of each individual judoka.

Already during Kano’s lifetime this extrinsic motivation was compared to military ranks and found approval by the Dai Nippon Butokukai. Kano’s ranking system was by order of the Butokukai trying to unitize japan’s martial arts imposed or voluntarily adopted by other schools (such as Funakoshi’s Karate)…

I myself don’t think that Kano was quite happy with this process.
His concern was something completly different.

One should always bring to his mind that Kano didn’t tie the awarding of Dan-ranks exclusively to passing a technical exam but he declared that a Dan-rank should not be awarded in case the respective candidate features „heavy defects of character“ and/or a „lack of maturity“.
The question is how to handle this without arbitrary exercise…

The Kyu-Dan-system probably only works if someone has raised his students to understand the ranks as what they really are: a sign of how many steps on the unending staircase of Judo someone has climbed. When you keep ranks in perspective they are nothing to fuel someones vanity.

Just aswell someone should recognize that grades only possess a certain value within a certain frame of reference. A rank in Judo e.g. has no meaning whatsoever in boxing or Muay Thai. A Dan-rank in Karate (no matter the degree) should be of no interest in BJJ.
Thus the value of any rank is considerably changed.

Ranks in martial arts illustrated by coloured belts are a rather new invention. Kano developed them as a tool of motivation and as a part of a higher educational objective.
Intended for the teaching of large groups, which didn’t excist before the Meji-era.

Meanwhile Kano’s intentions have, in my opinion become thoroughly misunderstood and twisted.
Today it’s mainly not about a certain knowledge and set of skills behind the respective belt anymore. Today it’s more about fun, fast satisfaction of the own ego and as an outcome of this, the hunt for the next belt.

I think it’s strange that people try to even learning out. The process of gaining knowledge and skills. In many organisations there are waiting periods that strictly regulate the acquisition of the next rank. In my opinion that’s just absurd. There will always be those who slowly learn and just slowly get better aswell as those who learn fast and improve their skills fast.

If you put down strictly obsered waiting periods, this will in my opinion not contribute to motivate talented athletes. This way ranks might become the direct opposite of what Kano
Jigoro intended them to be.

And one more question you should ask yourself when thinking about ranks…
Who is awarding these ranks? And with what authority?
Is it really and always the case that the person examining has understand the relevant content of teachings himself?
Can the examiner really fight…?

Are the only legitimate ranks the ones awarded by large associations with high a member-count?
If so – what was it like when no such associations existed?

Isn’t it rather as I already said before, that ranks are only and exclusively of value in a certain frame of reference because only there they have any meaning at all? If that’s the case, and that’s what I’m assuming any discussion on which ranks are „official“ and „respectable“ and which are (allegedly) not becomes needless.

The more I think about ranks in martial arts, the more I realize that they’re simply unnecessary.
In the past I thought very differently about this. I thought the Kyu-Dan-system is an essential tradition and that only with this system it could be possible to ensure a certain growth in judo.

I was wrong.

Ranks truely don’t mean anything. They’re symbols of our vanity, obstacles on the way. But in fact it takes a lot of time to realize this…

To those who really want to learn how to fight, coloured belts don’t mean anything. Anyone who needs such a symbol to motivate himself for continuous training should remember that many martial arts don’t include any ranks. And the people within them train very hard nonetheless…

However I award ranks to my students. For good, old tradition and convinience. Because Kano brought the Kyu-Dan-system to judo. And like this I can see on first sight – especially when
standing in front of a large group – which things I can assume to be known by certain people and which not.

That’s a proper use of coloured belts.
For daily training belt-colours are not important.
In our No-Gi training for example no one is wearing a belt. Nevertheless we practice and fight very effective and hard.

(Translated by Fabian Ludwig)