History and Value of Grades
HISTORY AND VALUE OF GRADES
The use of coloured belts as recognition of achievement is a relatively new concept. It was introduced in Japan by Jigaro Kano, the founder of Judo, in 1907, so at the time of this writing the system is just under 100 years old (although we can trace recognition of skill back to the time of the samurai).
Classical Japanese Martial Arts used the menkyo (licence) system as a means to grade. There are few menkyo awards - between 3 and 5 over one’s lifetime, in contrast to the average 20 in the modern system (10th kyu – 10th dan). The lowest award is Okuiri (Oku — secret, In — to enter), which translates to ‘making an entrance to secrecy’. To attain this award you would have been training for approximately four years.
The next level is Mokuroku which literally translates to catalogue. At this level your name would have been entered onto some kind of register or catalogue of the ryu. Some ryu also used Shomokuroku (sho - beginning) and Gomokuroku (go - afterwards). Shomokuroku would be awarded between 8 to 15 years of training, Gomokuroku even longer, perhaps 17 years.
Following the Mokuroku award is the Menkyo. Menkyo translates to license, when you achieve this level you have a license to teach which is accepted and supported by your ryu. Up until this time you would have been an ‘assistant instructor’. To reach the level of menkyo would take approximately 15 to 25 years.
Beyond Menkyo is Menkyo Kaiden, which would take at least 30 years to achieve. Kaiden translates to mean "initiation in all the secrets of an art." This would have been awarded by a Master to his son or, on very rare occasions, his daughter, or his most senior or selected student to whom he had revealed his martial secrets. There would be only one holder of the Menkyo Kaiden within any ryu.
And so it remained until Jigaro Kano invented the external representation of achievement…The black belt.
Actually, Kano did not initially utilise belts to signify achievement. He pioneered the kyu (boy) and dan (rank) system, first awarding "Shodan" to two of his senior students, Shiro Saigo and Tsunejiro Tomita. This was in 1883, when Kano was just 23 years of age, but at this time there was no external differentiation between the mudansha (mu — a Zen term meaning nothingness, dan — rank and sha -person) and yudansha (yu — meaning possession). Kano began the custom of having his yudansha wear black obis in 1886. It is commonly accepted that black was chosen as it was already used in various athletic departments - most notably with swimmers, where the most advanced would wear a black swimming cap. The choice of the contrast of black (the obi) and white (the do-gi) also represents the nature of yin and yang.
By the 1930’s Kano invented a new coloured belt that would be worn by very high ranking black belts. For the achievement of 6th, 7th, and 8th dan the ‘red and white’ belt was allowed to be worn. Red and white are the symbolic colours of Japan, as can be seen in their national flag. This is why Kano used red and white in his first tournament, aptly named the ‘Red and White Tournament’, in 1884. Furthermore, Kano introduced the solid red belt to represent 9th and 10th dan.
The use of the red belt to signify superior rank lost credibility due to a lot of controversy around some of the people that claimed the rank and, as a result, is rarely seen today.
The introduction of belts for the various kyu grades was introduced by Mikonosuke Kawaishi, another Judoka, whilst he was based in Paris in 1935. Kawaishi observed that Westerners are not as patient as the Japanese and so introduced additional goals to be attained at more regular intervals. This would assist in maintaining motivation as well as providing regular rewards towards the coveted black belt. Kawaishi introduced yellow, orange, green, blue, and purple belts. Apparently Brown had already been introduced, probably by Kano.
One would expect this to be for similar reasons to Kawaishi’s introduction of the coloured belts - to signify achievement between beginner and that of Shodan, which took approximately four years to reach (which echoes the time period of the Okuiri from the Menkyo system).
Gichin Funokoshi, the father of modem Karate, introduced the dan grade system when he awarded Shodan to Ante Tokuda, Hironori Ohtsuka, Akiba, Shimizu, Hirose, Shinken Gima, and Kasuya on April 10, 1924. (Gichin Funakoshi also adapted and adopted the Judo ‘gi’ which Kano had invented in 1907).
For Karate to be accepted on Mainland Japan it had to meet the requirements of the ‘Dai Nippon Butokukai’ (the ‘Greater Japan Martial Virtue Society’). One of the requirements was that Karate should implement the kyu and dan rank system of Kano’s Judo. Around the mid-1930’s all the requirements of the ‘Butokukai’ were met and Karate-Do became officially recognised as a formalised Martial Art on Mainland Japan.
The ‘Dai Nippon Butokukai’ also introduced the titles of Renshi (trainer), Kyoshi (teacher), and Hanshi (Master). By the 1940’s anyone receiving a Menjo (rank certification) regardless of style had to have a member of the ‘Butokukai’ sign the certificate recognizing the achievement.
The Dan and Kyu system was not instantly accepted on Okinawa. It was not until 1956 when Choshin Chibana formed the ‘Okinawa Karate Association’. Choshin Chibana and Kanken Toyama were the only ones recognized by the Japanese ‘Ministiy Of Education’ to grant rank certification no matter what style of Karate one was studying.
In 1964, Gogen Yamaguchi headed an attempt to unify all Karate forming the ‘Federation Of All Japan Karate-Do Organisations’ (FAJKO). This Organisation still exists today in the form of the ‘Japanese Karate Federation’ (JKF). By 1971 the FAJKO had established a system standard for issuing rank. This system remains to this day.
Did Jigaro Kano get it right?
So what are the benefits of the grading system? There is much controversy surrounding this subject, but it does have a number of (debatable) benefits.
Having a goal keeps people motivated and focused upon their training; it is quite possible that without it there would be a greater number of people dropping out! Knowing that a grading is due will increase the training intensity as people strive to hone their skill and knowledge. These times are excellent learning phases, possibly leading to increased training outside of dojo hours to ensure grading success.
Then, of course, there is the pressure of gradings. During regular training we experience a certain degree of pressure, but rarely that of a grading examination. We train in combat arts and that pressure is a valuable aid to training towards a confrontational situation.
For large formal schools the belt system is an invaluable aid for keeping track of the level of all the students. People can easily be categorised and taught accordingly. Visiting instructors or students will have an idea of someone’s skill level within the school. There are probably many more advantages....
But was Kano’s intention to award grades a means to identify the ability of his students?
Personally I do not think so. If this was the purpose then why was there no external representation of the students’ achievement from the outset?
It is my opinion that Kano pioneered the system so that students would have a personal goal to aim for. To set yourself a martial (internal) goal is very hard. It is much easier to have goals set for you. The original kyu and dan rankings set out by Kano were, again in my opinion, personal goals that you could aim for in order to keep yourself motivated, and able to monitor your own progression.
With the best of intentions, I believe that Kano’s introduction of measures of achievement was destined to transform the way in which Budoka would train. Training became a pursuit of achievement, of recognition, drawing away from the values of detachment of ego. With the introduction of external representations of one’s grade, the coloured belt, the system was destined to become a pursuit of ego and the victim of much abuse.
Miyagi was possibly the most vocal opposer of the "new" grade system on Okinawa. He saw the introduction of the black belt as a symbol - a symbol he saw of the egoism that stands in the way of true progress "If your ego - your love of self is so great - how can you defeat yourself? And if you cannot defeat yourself, how can you defeat others?" This he reinforced with the quote:
"You either deserve a black belt or you don’t. If you don’t you shouldn’t have one, if you do then you don’t need one!"
As a result of his opposition against the system, Miyagi never awarded any of his students a grade. In Seikuchi Toguchi’s book, "Okinawan Goju-Ryu 2", Toguchi states:
"Since Miyagi died suddenly the following year, none of us received Dan ranking from him. The truth of the matter is that we, his senior students, promoted each other in an effort to promote Goju-Ryu."
So are grades meaningless?
If we look at today’s Martial Arts and martial artist it would certainly appear that way! At it’s very worst we have the charlitan black belts hiding their inferior ability behind a self- promoted title and a black belt. There are Associations that take the public’s perception of what a black belt is (which is generally that of an accomplished martial artist) and abuse it to their own benefit.
These people make a complete mockery of the dan grade system and what it has come to represent.
Unfortunately, these abolitions are not reserved for the lower-ranking dan-grades for some of today’s highly-respected, senior dan-grades also have questionable credentials!
At the other end of the scale I have met senior grades that represent all that a martial artist should be. Unfortunately, mockingly to them, other more "superior" grades do not possess even similar ability or ideals.
Some people have given up on the grading system realising that the grades have little meaning, but unfortunately they have not completely detached themselves from the system. So instead of having a quality, experienced karateka of ‘30 plus’ years of training, we have a 3rd Dan.
Generally, it is the grade that he holds rather than his skill and years of experience that he will be judged by.
Requirements for grades vary immensely between Associations. This leads to a false sense of security and a false sense of achievement. What purpose has a grade if it has no value outside of your own Association? How about one of personal achievement, rather than external representation of ability?
It appears that the grading system, with the representative belts, is here to stay. Used wisely they can be a useful training aid. Once we get to ‘black belt’ we are all the same, we all have black belt, then the ideals of being judged on your skill and attitude may prevail. Your grade, your progression is personal. Do not use it as a measure against your peers - only as a measure of your own progression.
Martial Arts is an ‘individual’ pursuit. We all follow a different path as no two persons (individuals) are the same.
Do not get hung up on grades. You are as good as you are, not as good as your belt determines.
"It is not the colour of the belt, but the quality of the man wearing the belt that is important" - Bruce Lee.
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