What’s with all the ranks?

Karate student one asks student two, “What rank are you?”
Student two answers, “Yellow with a green stripe and one yellow tip. What about you?”
“Green belt with a black partial stripe and two white tips!”
Both turn to student three and ask, “What about you?”
“Green/red, with a purple stripe, one blue tip, one red tip and one black tip!”
All three students stare at each other in confusion.

What is the deal with all the Karate ranks?  Are they consistent across Dojos?  Who makes up all these ranks?  Was it always this way?  These are some of the questions I get from people I meet who want to talk to me about Karate.

It’s a bit of an interesting story actually.  Sort of a mashup between cultural influences, business savvy, historical occurrences and freedom of thought – let me explain.

In the beginning, Karate was not Karate at all.  Or at least, it was not the the Karate that you may be familiar with – the Karate you might see for example at your local, neighbourhood Dojo.  No, Karate was something totally different.  To explain, let me give you some historical context.  Japan was not the birthplace of Karate.  Okinawa was.  And although Okinawa is now a PART of Japan, it was not always this way.  In fact, Okinawa, before it was a part of Japan was… wait for it!! – Ruled by China!  And it wasn’t called “Okinawa” at all.  At that time it was known as part of the “Ryukyu Islands”.

The Ryukyu Islands

Being ruled by China of course had a tremendous impact on the Ryukyu islands – culturally and otherwise.  Over centuries, certain elements of Chinese Kung-fu slowly made its way to the RyuKyu Islands, and incorporated itself into the local, indigenous fighting style, which at the time was simply know as, “te” meaning “hand” or “hand fighting“.  Merchants for example, who traveled to China (remember back then, the trip would take a long time – merchants would be gone for many months at a time), would be exposed to elements of Kung-fu.  You can think of it as sort of a cultural exchange.  People interacting over long periods of time – generations of people, slowing mixing cultures.  Very fascinating!

So, what does all of this have to do with belts?  Well, a lot actually.  Firstly, we see that “te” was evolved slowly over hundreds of years and was largely influenced by China – NOT mainland Japan.  Also important to note the method in which it was learned.  Not in large ‘commercialized’ Dojos as it is today.  But rather by small families of merchants and other families whose lively hood depended on interacting with the Chinese.  All of this happening of course, over long periods of time – spanning generations.

During this period in history, belts quite literally were just that – belts.  Not the leather belts we use today as part of our fashion, but rather simple cotton belts tied into place.  They were functional in nature and not indicative of any particular rank.  They simply kept your clothes in place while you did what you did;  fished, traded, exercised, whatever.  As a result, your belt would get dirty over time.  I guess you could say that the longer a person wore their belt, the more dirty and worn it would become.  Makes sense, right?  A result of function – not distinction.  There was no coloration between belt and skill.  This cannot be understated.  In fact, the story about people’s belts turning black from dirt over time and thus indicating your tenure of training is probably just that – a story.

So, to summarize;  what we’ve got here is a group of indigenous people trading and interacting with the Chinese for centuries and as a result learning elements of Kung-fu.  These people likely trained in their clothes, which included belts that were functional – not indicative of rank.  This went on for hundreds of years.  Simple.

Now enter the Japanese.  In and around 1879 a whole bunch of political positioning took place.  You can read about all over the internet, but basically Japan announced it wanted to annex the Ryukyu islands.  China protested, some negotiations happened, which ultimately failed, and Japan went ahead and annexed the islands anyway.  One of the many reasons why relations between China and Japan are volatile at times, even to this day.

A Woodblock Print

Speaking of relations, Japan’s decision to annex Ryukyu didn’t sit well with the indigenous inhabitants either!  Not only did Japan eliminate the ruling class on the Ryukyu islands, they also went about trying to abolish the entire region’s indigenous culture.  Religion, language and cultural practices were all to be eliminated – and this included te.  For a time, it was forbidden to practice te.  So, in protest, the indigenous people, now called Okinawans, practiced in secret.  Training sessions were often carried out in private residences.  Classes were very small – only a couple individuals would be involved.

Okay – now a VERY high level look at Japanese culture, and the idea of rank will start to make sense.  Firstly, many things in Japan’s culture are rooted in a methodical and regimented practice.  For example, calligraphy.  In calligraphy, there are many levels or ranks on the path to mastering the art.  The art of arranging flowers, known as ‘ikebana‘ is similar in this regard.  An individual can spend years studying and creating arrangements and can achieve many levels as their skill and understanding grow.  In early, native Japanese martial arts, the idea of rank was already established with ranks like Shodan, Chudan and Jodan to indicate beginner, middle and upper rank (or skill).  In fact, once a student was a Jodan, they could then study at the Okuden level, learning the most secretive techniques of their style.  So, it’s not a stretch to imagine that when Okinawan martial arts began to proliferate into the mainland Japanese culture, a system of ranking was established as part of its assimilation.

Jigoro Kano

There were a series of other events as well, that had some impact on the idea of ranking in martial arts.  For example, Anko Itsu (1830-1915) was the first Okinawan to openly teach martial arts within the Okinawan school system.  He used a structured grading system to help encourage children to strive for the next level.  Jigoro Kano of mainland Japan took the art of jujitsu and made significant modification so that it could be practiced safely as a sport – for recreational use!  This was highly unusual at the time and both Itsu and Kano received serious criticisms for progressing their respective art in this way.  Finally and perhaps the most significant was the famous inventor of the popular style of karate Shotokan, Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957).  He brought Okinawan karate (although a heavily modified and “less dangerous” version) to mainland Japan.  Soon, Shotokan spread throughout Japan’s school systems and became very mainstream.  Shotokan was quick to adopted many of the familiar ranking characteristics you see today at your local Dojo.

The variety of belt colours across styles and even across Dojos within the same style is a result of a number of factors.  Firstly, there are many many styles of Karate and each of them can have their own ranking system.  There is no “standard” ranking system.  It’s widely understood that the black belt is the last colour, but even within it, there are varying levels or degrees.  Anything that comes before black is basically open season and Dojo’s will arrange these colours in an order that they deem fit.  There are of course organizations, e.g., the World Karate Federation (WKF).  Each Dojo affiliated with the WKF must adhere to certain guidelines including rank.  However, not all Dojos are affiliated with the WKF and there are other organizations which all have varying guidelines.

Additionally Dojos, as a result of proliferating into Western cultures and thus economies, have an overarching economic agenda – they are businesses.  And businesses above anything else, need to make money.  Ranks (particularly for children) vary in colour, number and order.  No doubt at least partially an attempt to keep people engaged.  Indeed the ranking system of a Western style Dojo (and even within Okinawa itself), is at least partly a motivational tool.  This is however an interesting twist to this idea.  You see, in Karate it is assumed that as you continue to work hard and train, you will advance in rank.  The idea of ranks can be a very effective filtering tool – discouraging those who are not up to the challenge of having to achieve many ranks before getting the elusive black belt.  So in the end you ideally should end up with an black belt Karate student who is skilled at least partially because they’ve worked hard to get where they are at and have traversed all the ranks.  Of course, this topic is certainly open to debate because what is the definition of skill and who sets the bench mark?  And not all people practice Karate to become skilled fighters – some for example put an emphasis on the ‘art’ part of martial arts.  And there are cultural and historical lessons to be learned as well.  So in the end you have black belts who have a wide variety of skills:  physical, academic, cultural or perhaps a combination.  What is important is to understand what you want to get out of your training and then align yourself with a Dojo and/or style that suits your needs.

This is a very intersting topic, and there are many opinions and different ideas of how certain events have shaped the idea of rank.  If you have a comment, please feel free to reach out in the comments section.

Happy Training!

Jason Pennell.

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