Why Rank Means Everything (and why it means nothing at all)

She was old, and fat, and slow, moving ponderously throughout the class. After breaking up my partner and I to show all the things I was doing wrong, she said with a dismissive chuckle, “That’s such brown belt technique you’re showing.” I should point out a few things.

First, I was, in fact, a black belt but due to some political maneuvering I was not allowed to wear my rank at the school in which I was training.

Second, this woman was, nominally. a godan, or fifth degree black belt, but that she had ascended the ranks for “administrative virtues”. During a decade plus long hiatus, she had gone from first degree black belt to fifth and now, armed with a big rank and big title, decided it was time to get back into training. And now here she was, demonstrating a technique to me and a beginner absolutely, positively, and 100% wrong. Satisfied with herself, she walked away and my partner looked at me. “I don’t think that was right,” my partner, a college freshman with about a year of experience, said. Through gritted teeth, I said loudly enough to be heard,

“You should do the technique the way that Sensei is demonstrating.” I said this with my mouth, but not my eyes. My partner nodded in understanding and we resumed practicing.

So let’s talk about rank in martial arts and why it means, depending on where you are and how you train, somewhere between nothing and everything.

The modern rank structure employed in martial arts is the Kyu/Dan system, used traditionally as a means of determining handicap in the game of Go and adopted by Jigoro Kano for use in Judo. Kyu ranks, in Go as in Judo, were beginner ranks, and Dan ranks did not suggest mastery but merely a proficiency of the basics. With a few years of dedicated study, one could achieve a dan ranking in either, but it was not meant to designate mastery of the form; merely an understanding of the basics and an ability to execute them.

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If you ever need to guess where something in modern martial arts practice came from, Jigoro Kano is an excellent first guess.

But we’re getting away from the main question, which is: In the Year of Our Lord 2019, what do ranks mean in the context of martial arts practice?

Moreover, what SHOULD they mean?

In terms of competitive arts, rank generally denotes two things:

1. A basic proficiency and understanding of techniques used within competition and

2. The ability to apply those techniques against practitioners of a similar handicap (belt/skill level)

The first point is how, for instance, at the recent ADCC World Championships there were Jiu Jitsu blue belts getting promoted to purple belt on the podium in which they had just defeated lauded Jiu Jitsu black belts and world champions. Their physicality, work ethic, and application of their game did not mean they were at a black belt level in terms of understanding the technique; just that they could apply it in competition.

For most of the rest of us who are not competing at the elite level, we can gauge our progress in competitive arts by how well we perform against people at a certain level. Competitive arts have an advantage because there is some assurance of quality control: if I send blue belts to competition who get stomped over and over again, then my blue belts are clearly not at a competitive level. So while a rank is not a guarantee of skill in a competitive art, there is some assurance that, as long as you’re at a legitimate school, your rank has some meaning relative to the other practitioners of your style.

So now we get to noncompetitive arts. And that’s where it gets dicey.

We come to the fifth degree black belts who haven’t trained in over a decade. To the eight year old who just received their third degree black belt, wearing their belt and dobok as they walk through Publix with their parents. To the ninth degree black belt in a striking art who hasn’t sparred in twenty years but lords their superiority over their students, beating on compliant students who are afraid to challenge the authority of their “master”.

How rank can be abused and how it is abused ties into the larger issues of Guruism within Martial Arts culture which I’ve touched upon before, so we’ll let that lie for now and discuss what ranks do mean, and what they should mean.

My opinion on ranks rests on these foundations:

1. Rank is an external symbol reflecting an internal achievement/struggle.
2. Rank, and the skill needed for that rank, are not a static achievement and can be degraded or lost.
3. Rank in an art does not mean you can fight: it means simply that you are better at your particular art, for better and for worse.

I’m proud of the ranks I’ve received because they represent an external, communal acknowledgement of the hundreds to thousands of hours I put in to learning them on the mat. However, as an example of how rank can degrade, and how it may or may not translate into fighting ability:

My last belt test was in 2012, in which I received a second degree black belt in Aikido. I was very proud to receive the rank. I had trained Aikido, off and on (but mostly on) for 11 years by the time I tested for my nidan. Aikido was important to me, and so was the acknowledgement that I had improved and was continuing to improve. However, I have since stopped training Aikido, and in the seven intervening years I have no doubt that my skills in that art have degraded immensely. I also came to realize that being a black belt in Aikido does not necessarily translate into fighting or grappling ability. A certificate is an unchanging piece of paper: a PhD is a PhD forever and a nidan is a nidan forever, but without usage and refinement of the skills granted by that diploma, it’s a meaningless piece of paper.

Unless you’re in a school in which rank is guaranteed simply by showing up and having the check clear, it stands to reason that you’ve earned your rank, and so have your fellow students and teachers. That rank, within the confines of your school and organization, has meaning. By all means be proud of your rank, but realize that at the end of the day, it doesn’t define you, or your abilities, or who you are as a person.

In terms of martial arts skill and advancement, rank means everything unless it means absolutely nothing at all.

As always, honesty in your training is tantamount, and it’s up to each practitioner to guard against the ego that comes with ever advancing rank, especially when those loftier ranks are not associated with competitive success (or, indeed, even training the art consistently at all). You should also know what your rank does and does not mean. This is accomplished by a mix of cross-training and thoughtful reflection on your weaknesses as a practitioner and the weaknesses of your training methodology. As Musashi said in his Book of Five Rings, “You must study this deeply”. You should study yourself, your training, and the strengths (as well as limitations) of your training every time you step on the mat. That’s how you can make your rank, and your training as a martial artist, mean more than the rank certificate on your wall.

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