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What is the Difference Between Black Belt Ranks?

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

What's in a rank? Does it really matter? Do they care that much in Japan (where the ranks originate)? Why should I work so hard towards kyu/dan testing? Did the founder care about rank?

At 31 years old, I'm probably one of the younger dojo chos (martial arts school owners) out there (certainly not the youngest I'm sure) - but I've had the privilege of training with some of the top competitors in martial arts like Judo and Muay Thai as well as long time practitioners of Aikido.

The question of rank is one that consistently comes up, either outright, or via subtext (e.g., "can you believe that he/she is only second degree? amazing technique!")

I thought it might be helpful to explore some of my experience with this as someone who holds black belt rank in a few martial arts, namely: how ranks as we know them originated, what O'Sensei seemed to think/say about them, and what I personally think.

As always, my hope is that this makes for an interesting read and ultimately leads to more younger people exploring the world of traditional martial arts like Aikido.

How Ranks (as we know them) Originated.

Before Jigoro Kano sensei developed Judo, most martial arts were disparate, family focused, and transmitted via certificates (Kaidens and Menkyo Kaidens). As Kano sensei worked to develop Judo, he saw an opportunity to systematize more than just techniques, but also experience and skill. He looked outside of martial arts and found his answer in 'Go' (this is a board game similar to Chess, but dealing with conquering territory rather than individual pieces). In 'Go', players were ranked on a Yukyusha and Yudansha system (much like Chess players are ranked on a points system) with Yukyusha being amateur players, and Yudansha being professional. Kano sensei adopted this into the system we commonly employ where Yukyusha represent non-black belt rank, and Yudansha represent black belt ranks. Further development would see colored belts added to further define Yukyusha ranks (though in most Aikido dojos, including Hombu Dojo, you are a white belt until black).

This quickly became adopted by most eastern martial arts disciplines as its effects were quite clear in student retention and progression.

What O'Sensei Seemed To Say/Think About Rank.

We know from teachers like Yoshimitsu Yamada sensei that O'Sensei was apparently closer in belief to the older system of transmission, where there were certificates, not ranks, but it's clear that his adoption of rank was an obvious decision to "go with the times". He seemed to rely more on commitment, experience, dedication, and skill to confer rank, rather than depending on minimum day counters. This allowed him to quickly build out his students' ability to travel and spread Aikido as young, high ranking instructors (something that I sometimes think our lack of today, is a contributor to the contraction in traditional martial arts interest nationally).

What I Personally Think About Rank.

I believe that we are often, and for the most part, an amalgamation of our teachers (with some of our own uniqueness peppered in for variety). That said, my perspective on rank has always been to minimize its importance as a status symbol and maximize its importance as a way to cement community on and off the mat.

The analogy I really like begins with imagining that you are a road trip (this road trip represents your life journey). Each time you achieve something in life, it's easy to view these achievements as destinations, or even as opportunities to pull over and explore. This, in my view, is where the mistake happens for many. Instead, achievements are more like mile markers, where we have some idea of the number of "miles" in our lives (80 years or so, though nothing is guaranteed). What do we naturally do when we pass mile markers on the road towards a destination? We happily remark on how far we've come, maybe even mentioning how far there is left to go. What we don't do, is stop the car at every mile marker and imagine ourselves living at these points.

Rank is the same - it is a moment in time (a beautiful one to be registered and appreciated), but without slowing down. We must quickly recognize that it's time to focus on the road ahead, moving towards the next mile marker on this journey of our lives.

It would be easy to view this almost negatively, but that would be a mistake. Instead, it is a way to develop a view that allows us to be truly present in our experience of life, working diligently and with joy, rather than developing extreme highs and inevitable lows.

In my dojo, we conduct yukyusha testing at our in-house seminars (4 per year, matching the seasons), grouping students testing together to help foster teamwork in preparation for exams. Students test when they are already practicing at the rank they are testing for (eliminating the fear of failure), and we quickly return to our daily training after testing to keep ourselves focused "on the road ahead".

Make your life journey filled with "mile markers" that fill you with joy as a result of your hard work towards your family, work, and dojo.

See you on the mat,

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