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Rank Requirements

Rank has become an established aspect of Karate, not only in the west but in Okinawa and Japan as well. Modern students might ask: what are the requirements for a particular rank? This is a very reasonable question in the west. When you go to college, you rightfully should ask what courses are required for graduation. Once you pass all these courses, you are entitled to graduate with a specific degree.

Karate is very different, at least it was very different in the past. There was no rank in Karate in the old days. People were known for their skill and specialties. Some might have reputations as great fighters. But there was no rank per se. The modern rank system was borrowed from Judo, which in turn may have borrowed the format from the game of go.

In any event, an oldtime student of Karate would never think to ask what the requirements were for a rank. The student would not think about rank at all. Rank would be thrust upon the student by the sensei. There would be no test or standards. The sensei would simply know when it was time.

Mitsugi Kobayashi told me that he was given a black belt by Seko Higa when he was asked to help teach a class at a nearby prison. Since an assistant was expected to be a black belt, it seemed the appropriate time for him to receive one. Kobayashi Sensei returned to Hawaii, and to my knowledge did not have any dan certificates. Some thought that this meant that he was not high ranking. He did, however, have a shihan no menko -- a teacher's certificate. A visiting 9th dan of Goju-Ryu exclaimed at a public event that Kobayashi Sensei was his senior.

Oldtime students would not think about rank. Modern students, who are used to modern conventions, do think about it. Some sensei are happy to accomodate. They establish very detailed guides showing exactly what a student needs to know for each rank. Techniques are described, time requirements are established, tournament participation may be specified, etc.

On the other hand, some sensei will specify no requirements at all. The student is promoted when the sensei feels that he is ready. That's it.

In either system, the student should never ask to be promoted. In the modern system, a student might have satisfied all the written requirements. That does not mean that he is ready for promotion. The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Ranking requirements are just parts -- the sensei evaluates the whole student.

If a dojo has specific requirements, the student should work on them so that he will be able to perform correctly and help his juniors -- not to seek rank. The sensei will promote the student when the time is right.

For some very conservative minimum ranking requirements, you might visit the website of the Hawaii Karate Kodanshakai.

What if the sensei does not promote the student when the student thinks that he is ready? Now there is a problem! First, why does the student think he is ready? The decision is made by the sensei, not the student. Second, why has the sensei created a situation where a student could think that he was ready for a rank? Has he promoted students with lesser qualifications? Has he stated inconsistent requirements? What is wrong with the structure of the dojo that this situation could exist?

I aways tell my students that I will promote them when I think that they are ready. The only minimum requirement I set is one of age -- 17. Aside from that, the decision is entirely subjective. Some students will have learned all the kata in our system before they attain shodan. Others might have only learned 60%. The technical details are not set in stone. I am more concerned with the student's basics, body mechanics, grasp of basic kata, effort, and attitude.

If a student is really concerned about rank, I can refer them to other schools where there are more specific guidelines for promotion.

Otherwise, we should all just try our best. Practice is something you do. It is its own reward.


Charles C. Goodin