In the beginning of Okinawan Karate or Te, as it was once called, there were no belt ranks. The people learned the martial arts out of necessity. The Island of Okinawa is situated between China and Japan. It was a hot bed of activity because it was a convenient stopping point for ships. This made Okinawa very valuable and it was constantly being raided by the Japanese and Chinese in their efforts to own Okinawa and gain the upper hand in shipping trade. The Okinawan people were constantly having to protect themselves and became very tough and adept fighters using the art of karate. In the end, Japan ended up owning Okinawa. (Today, Okinawa is considered a part of Japan much like Hawaii is part of the U.S.).
During the birth of karate in Okinawa, most practitioner’s did not have belts, let alone uniforms. They simply practiced in whatever clothing they had. Usually, because Okinawa was very hot, they practiced in shorts or their underwear. Once karate started becoming popular they began wearing “Samurai under garments” which looked very similar to our modern Karate gi. One of the items of a Samurai under garment was a an obi, this was a cloth sash that wrapped around the waist several times with a purpose to hold ones pants up and secondarily to tuck in a knife (tanto) or sword (katana). The obi and gi traditionally were an off-white natural color because garment dyes were expensive and difficult to obtain. Bleach didn’t exist either, so clothing was the color of its natural, organic state.
One’s “rank” in early karate was apparent by how skillful and how long a person had been practicing in the art. Their age was also important to their status and rank. Age is still a vital part of respect in Japanese culture.
Legend has it that the colored belt ranks may have developed over time based on the wearing of one’s originally white obi. As you practiced, over time it would yellow from sweat, get greenish from a combination of dried blood and sweat, turn brown from dirt and then turn black from years of use. Once black the cotton fibers would start to break down and fray which turned the belt grey and then back to white as the middle of the old cotton obi was exposed. So, in affect a karate practitioner goes full circle in their training. This is still the reason why today you will often see experienced black belts continue to wear a very old looking, frayed black belt that begins to turn white as the core of the belt is exposed. It is a symbol of experience and a master practitioner’s journey back to the full circle of a beginner’s mind… just like a white belt.
Colored belt ranks, as we see them today, are a relatively new concept that is attributed with being originated by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo. Kano was an educator who worked for the ministry of education in Japan and used the belt rank system to integrate Judo and Kendo into the Japanese public school system around 1900. He also played a key part in Judo becoming an Olympic sport. Because of Judo’s popularity many other martial arts styles began to adopt a belt ranking system.
Today, there are a rainbow of different colored belts and rankings depending on the style of martial arts you are involved in. Furthermore, the requirements to achieve rank are different for each school. Some martial arts schools award new ranks over years of training. Other schools, award ranks as quickly as monthly!
Even the criteria for what qualifies a person for black belt is different from school to school. Unfortunately, this means that in some martial arts systems, a black belt can be achieved relatively easily by anyone… even a child under the age of 12. In the worst of the martial arts schools, you can pay your money and be guaranteed a black belt in 2 years or less, no matter what your capability. It is these schools or “McDojos” as they are sometimes called, that give karate a bad reputation. The nickname, McDojo is in reference to the fast nature of delivering rank similar to the fast-food franchise giant McDonald’s.
In the best of the martial arts schools, earning rank is a long process that takes years of training and involves physical, mental and spiritual growth. Belt ranks aren’t something that one chases in hopes of achieving black belt as quickly as possible. But rather, rank is an honor that is earned through hard work, growth of character, lots of practice and constant improvement. The coveted black belt is not something that is easily achieved and not everyone will achieve it in a quality school. It definitely is not something that a quality school bestows around the waist of a child. A child has achieved neither the physical or mental maturity to earn the valued rank of black belt.
It is also notable to realize that a first degree black belt represents that you are proficient and know the basics of your style. It does not mean that you are a karate master or an expert in the art. In most high quality karate schools, a shodan rank does not even qualify you to teach karate. Usually, that qualification is reserved for 3rd Dan ranks or higher. There is always so much more to learn and a black belt is just the beginning of what I like to call, “the fun stuff.” The black belt ranks, also called the yudansha level, are where you begin sharpening your techniques. Yudansha have the opportunity to learn more complicated skills, are introduced to new concepts, discover unique escapes, use additional weapons, often start training in other styles and begin understanding that karate is truly a way of life.
Take this into your heart and mind, the martial arts are a journey to be experienced. When you commit to a quality karate dojo choose to walk the path without expectation of reward. Do it because you love the art NOT because you want to earn rank. Keep your ego in check. A belt is simply something to hold your pants up. Finally, remember this: “Anything can be bought or cheaply made, but that which is earned through hard work and sacrifice has the greatest and dearest value.” ~ Jim Harrison
For those of you who are current or aspiring students of Seiyo-No Shorin-Ryu Karate & Kobudo Kai we have specific requirements for achieving each rank. Here is a primer to better understand the process of advancing in our art.
It's been a while since I last posted! It dawned on me that we have several new students that have recently joined our organization. One of the biggest initial challenges is learning how to tie your obi (belt). I decided to create a video demonstrating how to do it.
There are several other ways to tie your belt. If in doubt, you should ask your Sensei at your home dojo how they prefer to have you tie your belt. Many Sensei's require a unique belt tying process in order to denote their martial arts school vs. another. For instance, in my dojo, it is important to me that everyone's knot on their belt points to their left hand side. In this way, we all are consistent within the dojo. For me, it is also a nod to the East... the birthplace of karate.
If you are interested in receiving regular email updates when new blog posts are added, be sure to Subscribe to the Branson Karate and Kobudo Blog! Also, I encourage all students of Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu Karate to register as a member on our National Web site at www.seiyonoshorinryu.org. In this way you can receive rank requirement checklists, instructional videos and other tools to help you in your karate training.
In today's digital age we are fortunate as we can share information quickly to anyone that has access to a device with an internet connection. I have a personal goal to make karate training more accessible and easier to learn for anyone. In pursuing this goal, I've helped organize a curriculum database Web site that contains promotional checklists, detailed technique description sheets and kata outlines for each rank up to 1st Kyu (brown belt with a black stripe.) In working with other members of the Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu organization we have also started adding multimedia files such as videos and photos to rank sections. We believe this will be a tremendous training resource for all our members.
To access this new database, you will be required to register as a Seiyo No Shorin Ryu Karate & Kobudo Kai member. If you already have an up-to-date annual Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu Karate membership, you will be credited the membership registration fee. Colored belts (kyus) are $25/yr. Black belts (dans) are $50/yr.
As this site is brand new, it is currently in BETA status. This means, that it's a work in progress. We appreciate any helpful suggestions or tracking of any errors that you may find. Please click on the "contact" page to send that feedback.
Let's get started! Visit this link to access the new Web site: http://snsr.wildapricot.org/
NOTE: This is the BETA site address provided by our Web site database hosting service. The official Web site address will be http://www.seiyonoshorinryu.org and will be activated by June 1, 2013. So, don't bookmark the "wildapricot" address.
The site will constantly be growing and improving as we add more photos, videos, helpful documents and tools.
Ranks and titles in the martial arts can be confusing and intimidating. But, they aren't meant to be. They are useful in recognizing who is the most experienced or highly honored in the room. Ranks are earned with hard work, sweat and years of practice.
Honorary titles are given to esteemed practitioners out of respect for what they contribute to the martial arts and for the level of responsibility they have in the organization.
It is good reishiki or manners in the dojo to respect rank and title. Think of it as honoring a special dignitary in your home. Although a distinguished guest is usually humble enough to not expect special treatment, it's polite to honor them.
For new students it can be confusing understanding the etiquette of the dojo. There are many different ranks and titles. The title heard in most dojos is Sensei. Pronounced as "sin say" it means "teacher" and is usually reserved for black belts who are authorized to teach classes. Though, not all black belts are called Sensei. Typically, a black belt must have attained a 3rd or 4th dan to be recognized as an instructor. A dan, sometimes called a degree is represented by stripes on the belt. Think of it as the level of experience and training that a Black Belt has. In traditional martial arts dojos, stripes are hard earned through years of training. There are ten degrees of black belt. Once a person attains 5th dan and higher they are considered a master. Master ranks are often represented with different types of red belts. In Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu we use the Red and white striped belt for 5th and 6th Dans, red and black striped for 7th and 8th Dans and solid red for 9th and 10th Dans. But, these master ranks may also choose to wear a solid black belt.
There are also additional titles that may be used. To simplify, here is the basic hierarchy in Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu:
KAIDEN is the Family Elder
SHIHAN is the Family Senior
SENSEI is the Family Junior
STUDENT is the Family Member
Titles for different ranks may be awarded at 4th Dan.
YONDAN (4th Dan) = RENSHI
GODAN (5th Dan) = RENSHI
ROKUDAN (6th Dan) = KYOSHI
NANADAN (7th Dan) = KYOSHI
HACHIDAN (8th Dan) = HANSHI
KYUDAN (9th Dan) = HANSHI
JUDAN (10th Dan) = KAICHO
Below I have outlined and defined many of the ranks, titles and honors that may be used in a traditional dojo.
KYU Grade: A rank designation for all colored belts under black belt.
DAN Degree: A rank designation for first to tenth degree black belt.
MUDANSHA: One without degree - A student not yet at black belt.
YUDANSHA: Black belt holder - A title designating rank of first to tenth degree black belt.
DESHI: Disciple or trainee - A student regardless of rank.
KOHAI: Junior - A beginning student.
SEMPAI: Senior Student - used to signify a black belt who is not yet a teacher. Usually, this is for 1st-3rd dans. The title may be given to brown belts if no black belts are present.
SENSEI: Teacher or instructor - A black belt qualified to teach. Usually awarded at 4th dan but may be authorized for lower black belt ranks if they are teaching.
SHIHAN: Master teacher - Instructor of very high rank, sixth degree or above.
HONORARY TITLES (Not all receive titles)
RENSHI: Polished expert - Discipled self to a master & is a highly qualified teacher. Usually a 4th Dan or higher.
TASHI: Great teacher about 7th dan. A teacher of the art with special dedication to one's teaching.
KYOSHI: Senior instructor a.k.a. faith teacher. Has learned and contributed a dedicated proponent of the ryu. A sixth or seventh degree black belt.
HANSHI: Master Teacher of teachers - A respected master of eighth to tenth degree black belt. Senior master/exemplary teacher.
SOKE-DAI (pronounced So-ka-die) is the Assistant Head of Family. This position is honorary and is selected by the Soke to help with administration and to lead the organization after the Soke can no longer do so.
SOKE (Pronounced So-ka) is the head of the Family. This is typically the highest ranking member of the organization. Our Soke is Harold Mead, 10th Dan.
More on the significance of the Soke and Soke-Dai was written in a previous blog.
O'SENSEI: Great instructor - Highest master within a system.
KAICHO: Master of the house - Senior master of a system.
MEIJIN: Expert - One who has mastered an art beyond the boundaries of physical prowess. Wise man of high spiritual level. Advanced age. Special dedication to the art.
MENKYO-KAIDEN: A certificate of full proficiency in a Japanese martial art.
Some members of the dojo may have multiple titles. If you are ever unsure how to address certain people in the dojo ask your Sensei.
By Ronald Leach, Hanshi and 9th Dan
Awarding rank in Seiyo-no Shorin-ryu Karate & Kobudo is not based on skill alone. It also has age and time in grade requirements. For the instructors there are also limitations. One basic requirement is that no instructor may award rank to anyone equal to the instructor rank. As a matter of fact, the instructor may only award rank equal to two ranks below his or level. A 5th dan may promote only to a 3rd dan level. This assures that the student gets an instructor with adequate advanced grade as a Sensei. This system works well.
However, problems arise at top level promotions of 9th and 10th dan, because if a 10th dan grades to maximum of 8th dan, 8th dan is then the highest promotion. There would be no way of promoting past that point. Eventually, when the 10th dan retires or dies, the highest rank is 8th dan and only 6th dan appointments may be made. With each successive generation two ranks are lost until the system dies.
To alleviate this problem, a mechanism called the Soke is put into place. The Soke, or head of system, holds an honorary rank of 12th dan. In this way the 9th and 10th dan levels may be reached. Unfortunately, the Soke system and rank are so over used and abused in the martial arts, that we in Seiyo-no Shorin-ryu abhor the system. But, it allows us a method to award upper level rank appointments. The Soke is a position only and not an actual rank.
Within this system, there is a second position called the Soke-dai. This person is the inheritor of the system given an honorary rank of 11th dan. When the Soke can no longer or no longer wishes to head the organization. This awarded position will automatically move the Soke-dai into the Soke position. That person then selects a person to fill the Soke-dai position. Technically, Harold Mead is the Shodai-Soke, first generation Soke. When he passes on the system the new head would assume the Nidai-Soke, second generation. And then, that Soke pass on the art to a successor who would become the Sandai-Soke, 3rd generation and so on.
Other than the ability of establishing continuity, people functioning in these positions are duly noted, but the name and special rankings are otherwise ignored in Seiyo-no Shorin-ryu. Other organizations use the terms in loft ways and that is the reason the Soke position is so out of control. In some organizations the position is more akin to Halloween candy, given freely at the front door.
In May 2012, Harold Mead, Kaicho (meaning originator of the system) selected a new person to fill the position of Soke-dai for Seiyo-no Shorin-ryu. That person, Vashon Borich, a very capable martial artist, will carry on Seiyo-no Shorin-ryu. Borich Sensei carries an actual rank of 5th Dan. The upper level students stand firmly behind her and have made a commitment to assure her training as the Soke-dai.
"Seventy percent of success in life is showing up."
Staying motivated in one's karate training can be a challenge. It requires a commitment of time and the self-discipline to practice what is taught. There are so many distractions in life, it is easy to say, "I don't really feel like going to class tonight. I think I'll skip." Excuses like, "I'm too tired" or "I don't feel well" or "I'll just go next week" all are an easy way out. It's always easier to make an excuse.
I am no exception to the excuse game. Many years ago when I first started karate, there was a period of time in which I struggled to attend regular karate classes or even train on my own. I'd make a lot of excuses to justify in my mind that it was ok to skip a class every now and then. However, I soon saw that some of my friends in class were getting promoted in rank and I wasn't. This frustrated me and I considered quitting. I approached my Sensei after class and before I could say anything, he asked "Do you want to become a black belt one day?" I said, "Yes. It's always been a dream of mine to become a black belt." He then leaned in and said, "Let me tell you a little secret... karate, like anything you want to succeed at in life, requires commitment and perseverance. If you want to one day become a black belt, you must demonstrate both. Anyone can quit. That's easy! But if you truly want to become a black belt, you MUST turn that dream into a goal. Commit to it. Be Present. Attend classes. Practice. Focus on your goal and NEVER quit until you achieve it."
I went home and I made a promise to myself to attend all classes, no excuses. The only way I would miss class was if there was some unforeseen circumstance, emergency or actual illness that would be in the best interest to not spread around. And if one of these rare things occurred, I notified my instructor that I wasn't going to be there and kindly requested a lesson plan so I could practice at home. It was a true commitment.
There still were times in which I didn't want to go to class. However, I've personally found that when I didn't feel like going was when I needed it the most. The safe environment, the meditation and just getting some exercise, lifted my mood. It made me feel better. And with each class, I was one step closer to achieving my goal. Of course I did finally earn my black belt. It took me five years of dedication. Had I not missed so many classes that first year, I may have earned my black belt in four years. But, once I earned the coveted black belt, I didn't want my goal to stop there. I set new goals and became an instructor. At the writing of this entry, I am a third degree black belt and I continue to learn and grow in the martial arts. The martial arts have become my passion and I see myself as a life-time practitioner of the arts.
My advice to any student of the martial arts hoping to stay motivated is: Set goals for yourself. Select things that you want to be able to do. The goal to be a black belt may be too daunting. Set some small goals like, I will practice my kata outside of class 5 times this week. Or, I will work to attend every karate class this month. Then reward yourself as you achieve your goals and set new goals along the way.
If you want to advance in rank and eventually become a black belt, it requires three main things:
The longer you do the martial arts the more it becomes a way of life and a part of who you are. There is a switch that occurs somewhere during your training where the motivation to continue training and learning suddenly becomes stronger than the motivation to quit.
Vashon Borich, Sensei teaches traditional karate & kobudo in Branson, Missouri. She considers herself a life-time student of the arts. Her blog is an open journal of lessons learned in the martial arts. If you are a martial artist and would like to contribute to her blog please contact her.
©2012 Branson Karate & Kobudo™