2004 editorial by Guy Hagen
I had a recent discussion with an ASU black belt, who was turned down to fill in an opening for an Aikido Instructor at a large multi-style martial art school. The main reason, we felt, is that this person’s rank – a nidan (2nd Degree), probably didn’t sound as important as the ranks of the other instructors… who were all 6th degree black belts or higher in their respective martial arts.
This has bugged me a little, becauseit speaks to a hidden bias or assumption that we face every day, as aikidoists, and especially ASU aikidoists. And that is the assumption that the “black belt” is a uniform standard of quality and merit, as are the higher ranks.
However, this isn’t even remotely accurate; I believe ranks are incomparable for at least the following reasons: (1) imcompatible traditions and history, (2) incompatibility due to scale, (3) Western mentality, and (4) merit-based assumptions.
Tradition and History
First, rank is not equivalent across styles and arts because few arts even share much historical background. How can a quality standard be equal, when some arts emphasize athletic prowess, and other emphasize internal subtlety? I have friends from perfectly valid Korean schools where one could reasonably expect to earn one’s black belt in two years. Yet the average period in Aikido is five to six years! Ignoring other variables such as the caliber of instructors and individual students with high potential, this simply means to me that the art that requires more time (or has otherwise more difficult requirements) creates a higher caliber of black belt.
All “belt ranking” systems originate from the Japanese game of Go sometime around WWII; what I was told was that Karate Soke Funikoshi and Judo Soke Kano were involved in a process to open their arts up for the benefit of the public. Go has 30 kyu (“white belt”) ranks… some martial arts have 5 or 6, some considerably more (my first aikido style had 9). Some Chinese schools offer black belt ranks, and belt ranks are historically not even a part of Chinese systems! How can there be consistency when there are different levels of requirements between organizations? Many styles have a “panel” approach for advanced rank that helps maintain internal consistency in the quality of the ranks awarded. In fact, I understand that advanced ranks in Iaido in Japan require a panel of top instructors from different styles to critique the candidate, and this was implemented to ensure quality and consistency. We have no system for doing this across the dozens of styles of Aikido, much less with other martial arts. So, it’s valuable to learn the lineage and history of the martial arts that interest you, and how they connect to and interact with other styles and organizations.
Martial art organizations, of course, differ greatly in size – the number of their members. This may be because some arts are difficult, dangerous, or unpopular for any number of reasons. It may be because the organization or art is relatively recent, because a talented or ambitious instructor wanted to create something in their own style or because they just no longer fit in or got along with former colleagues for political or other reasons. Many such reasons are valid; historically, the most respected martial arts founders started out this way. Sometimes, however, I suspect such a system or organization is founded for less than valid reasons such as self-promotion; but that is beyond this article.
What this means is that some styles and organizations are relatively small, with only a few practitioners – maybe a few dozen, maybe a couple thousand. The simple fact is that every art or style is going to have a “rank pyramid”… with only one or two at the very highest ranks, a handful at the next rank, and more and more as the level of rank decreases (depending on the usage, the highest rank is either 8th or 10th degree, which may be reserved for the founder). By simple extension, the competition” is just not going to be as fierce to become a fifth-degree black belt in a family art that has only 40 practitioners, as it the competition will be in Aikido, which has tens of thousands of practitioners (my passbook lists my 1995 Hombu membership number at 125,588, if that’s any evidence). Pay attention to what an organization is comparing itself against, and how far and wide it is recognized.
Western culture has had some good influences on the martial arts; I believe it has helped martial arts to be more open, critical, and dialog-based in instruction, and helped remove prejudice and secrecy from many systems. But our culture has had some very negative influences as well, I believe.
I think our schools and sporting systems have taught most Americans that all effort must be rewarded regularly, with concrete external proof. In elementary school, you got a “gold star”. In college, you got grades and a degree, which was “proof of mastery”. Unfortunately, this translates into expectations that conflict with martial ways as paths of internal development, that never end and only “reward” in subtle ways that may be difficult to explain.
This has created a situation where many Dojos (especially commercially-oriented ones) pander to a short-attention-span mentality to increase their student base and revenue. Arts that focus on competition (and hence, trophies), will always be popular. And it must be recognized that often, Dojos like these are wildly successful and well-attended compared to traditional Dojo. But these schools sell lots of ranks, with lots of visible color distinctions, and hold the black belt as the standard of mastery – once you’ve gotten your black belt, you’ve reached the top. Most of you know, however, that “shodan” (black belt”) means “first step” in Japanese… meaning, now that you have internalized the fundamentals, you can start paying attention to the real important stuff. So, pay attention to what a school is really “selling”… how often do they mention “black belt” in their sales pitch?
Finally, there is the assumption that black belt rank promotions are, of course, always based upon technical proficiency and skill in performance. While hopefully most rank is measured to the greater extent based upon the ability to demonstrate and perform the art, it is a long-standing Japanese tradition to also promote for “social” reasons. Like good coaches, sometimes an individual demonstrates a teaching ability that transcends their physical ability. Or, an individual has made a contribution to the art that deserves deserves or demands recognition. Frankly, no large martial art organization can survive without people like these; and as you know, a little recognition can go a long ways, especially in a martial art that downplays advancement or ritual acknowledgement of rank or skill.
So why did I bother writing this? I would like our students to be discerning and informed when discussing rank. I would like potential students to be prepared when asking themselve if they should try Aikido, or this other martial art under Grandmaster Whomever. And I would like our students to be comfortable when students from other Dojos ask them “what color their belt is.”
Rank is a complex subject, and when it gets down to it, the only way to measure somebody’s actual skill level is to have an open mind, and train with that person without ego getting in the way.