Black Belt - - Rethinking Rank -



once asked a high

ranked friend, “What is a shodan? How do you know if a per­son is a first-de­gree black belt — or a sec­ond or third de­gree? Does it de­pend on whether he or she can de­feat cer­tain other prac­ti­tion­ers of the same art?”

My friend couldn’t an­swer the ques­tion with any con­vic­tion. I’d brought it up be­cause I was a mem­ber of sev­eral pro­mo­tion com­mit­tees, each of which had its own cri­te­ria for shodan. Even within the same or­ga­ni­za­tions, dif­fer­ences ex­isted. Fur­ther­more, I’d no­ticed that there were many Amer­i­can brown belts who eas­ily could de­feat Ja­pa­nese black belts. Once judo prac­ti­tion­ers reached

nidan and san­dan, it was a dif­fer­ent story, I’d found. There seemed to be more Pi­casso art than New­to­nian sci­ence to the way high-level

ju­doka got pro­moted, and I was con­fused. The fol­low­ing are some thoughts on what I still con­sider a per­plex­ing sub­ject.


Ob­vi­ously, be­ing pro­moted is not just about win­ning, but what causes us to equate higher rank with higher phys­i­cal abil­ity? Why are we ob­sessed with higher rank when we don’t even know what it rep­re­sents or whether we are truly el­i­gi­ble? Does the belt-rank­ing sys­tem even have value?

Be­fore Jig­oro Kano and the Meiji Restora­tion, there was ju­jitsu. Back then, a per­son prac­ticed in an or­di­nary ki­mono, usu­ally a hakama and an uwagi. Be­cause of the times — Ja­pan was throw­ing out the old and bring­ing in the new, pri­mar­ily from the West — any­thing re­lated to its feu­dal past ( ken­jutsu, karate, ju­jitsu and so on) was slated for elim­i­na­tion. In­ci­den­tally, this was the time pe­riod de­picted in Tom Cruise’s The Last Samu­rai.

This is also when Kano stepped in to save the day. His in­ter­est in ed­u­ca­tion, phys­i­cal cul­ture and English, cou­pled with his love of judo and his po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions, helped pre­serve the mar­tial arts of Ja­pan. His English skills af­forded him ac­cess to Western ideas that were fa­vored by the govern­ment. Among them was the im­por­tance of sport as a means of de­vel­op­ing a na­tion’s ci­ti­zens.

From the mid-1850s to the 1880s, Ja­pan saw an on­slaught of “new” sport­ing events, in­clud­ing ice hockey, base­ball, bas­ket­ball and foot­ball. They il­lus­trated the im­por­tance of plan­ning, skill de­vel­op­ment, team­work, courage, quick think­ing and dis­ci­pline. Kano be­lieved that judo, then re­garded as a feu­dal mar­tial art, could be trans­formed into a sport — if it was pack­aged dif­fer­ently. ( In­ter­est­ingly, this is how many Ja­pa­nese mar­tial arts of this pe­riod were pre­served.)

Rather than see­ing judo as a means of of­fense and de­fense, Kano thought it should be viewed as a means of en­hanc­ing one’s life. He pro­mul­gated his max­ims of self­per­fec­tion, mu­tual wel­fare and ben­e­fit, and max­i­mum ef­fi­ciency with min­i­mum ef­fort. He said there were three lev­els at which an in­di­vid­ual could train in judo: for self- de­fense, for cul­ti­va­tion of body and mind,

and for the bet­ter­ment of so­ci­ety.

Kano also changed the look of judo. He de­vel­oped the stan­dard work­out uni­form, or ju­dogi. In line with the Western no­tion of sports cloth­ing, his con­cept used pants rather than a hakama. The new top was made of weaved ma­te­rial and re­sem­bled the coat worn by Ja­pa­nese fire­men. The uni­form was off-white, and the pant legs and sleeves were shorter than what we wear to­day.

The most dra­matic change Kano ef­fected was the belt. Un­til 1884, there were two col­ors in use: white to de­note a beginner (or mu­dan­sha) and black to de­note an ad­vanced prac­ti­tioner (or yu­dan­sha). Af­ter 1884, the belt was re­garded as an out­ward man­i­fes­ta­tion of the level one had attained through hard prac­tice. Other mar­tial arts fol­lowed suit and im­ple­mented sim­i­lar belt-rank­ing sys­tems.

Be­fore the changeover, ju­jitsu stu­dents were awarded cer­tifi­cates with ti­tles like chu­den, oku­den, men

kyo and kaiden. Cer­tifi­cates, how­ever, can­not be eas­ily dis­played. Kano’s re­place­ment of­fered a vis­ual in­cen­tive for stu­dents to work to­ward: the black belt. The very first black belts in the world were awarded to Tomita Tsuneyoshi and Saigo Shiro in Au­gust 1883.


As judo mem­ber­ship grew, higher ranks were deemed nec­es­sary. The first fifth dan went to Tomita in 1888. In 1898 the first sixth dan was awarded to Ya­mashita Yoshit­sugu and Yokoyama Saku­jiro. The first 10th dan was given to Ya­mashita in 1935 in a posthu­mous pro­mo­tion by the founder.

The official cri­te­ria for pro­mo­tion were es­tab­lished. Can­di­dacy would be judged on the fol­low­ing ( para­phrased from Kodokan Coun­cil Reg­u­la­tions, printed in Judo Nen

kan, 1925): • Can­di­dates lack­ing in char­ac­ter will not be pro­moted even if they meet the other re­quire­ments.

• If can­di­dates are of good char­ac­ter and train dili­gently, ap­ply­ing their judo skills and knowl­edge to daily life, and they make achieve­ments through judo, this may com- pen­sate for tech­ni­cal in­ad­e­qua­cies to a cer­tain de­gree.

• The assess­ment of judo tech­niques will em­pha­size pos­ture, bal­ance and poise.

• Can­di­dates for shodan or above must show how they place im­por­tance on their judo ex­pe­ri­ence.

Af­ter Kano died, the coun­cil con­tin­ued, but World War II caused pro­mo­tions, at least at the higher lev­els, to slow down. They didn’t re­turn to nor­mal lev­els un­til af­ter the re­stric­tions Gen. Dou­glas MacArthur had placed on the prac­tice of mar­tial arts were lifted. De­spite the set­backs in Ja­pan, judo flour­ished in other parts of the world. Europe, the Amer­i­cas, Asia and Ocea­nia de­vel­oped their own pro­mo­tion sys­tems, cater­ing to lo­cal needs but mim­ick­ing the pre­cepts put forth by Kano: tech­ni­cal pro­fi­ciency, knowl­edge of judo the­ory, con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion, the use of judo in one’s daily life and char­ac­ter.


In the United States, judo thrived in ar­eas where many first- and sec­ond- gen­er­a­tion Ja­pa­nese lived. In gen­eral, it didn’t be­come pop­u­lar with “or­di­nary” Amer­i­cans un­til af­ter World War II when ser­vice­men re­turn­ing from Ja­pan searched for places to con­tinue their prac­tice. Much of judo was un­der the con­trol of first- gen­er­a­tion Ja­pa­nese, who saw the art as a cul­tural pos­ses­sion rather than an ath­letic ac­tiv­ity. Most rank pro­mo­tion was linked to the Kodokan. Not un­til the mid- to late ’ 60s was a more ob­jec­tive sys­tem im­ple­mented, mak­ing it eas­ier for nonJa­panese to be pro­moted.

While the sys­tem worked well for lower ranks (san­dan and be­low), in Amer­ica, the ranks of fourth de­gree and higher were and still are miss­ing pieces of the puzzle. Pro­mo­tions up to third de­gree are com­pa­ra­ble to those in other or­ga­ni­za­tions and based in large part on com­pe­ti­tion. If a san­dan is los­ing to an­other or­ga­ni­za­tion’s first de­grees, some­thing is wrong — but ad­just­ments eas­ily can be made. But what of pro­mo­tions given to older ju­doka who started later in life

and did not have the op­por­tu­nity to com­pete at a high level and build a his­tory? Are they not help­ing in the de­vel­op­ment of judo?

Sup­pose a per­son was to re­ceive a san­dan be­cause of time in grade and his or her ef­forts as a leader.

Would this be ac­cept­able? For ranks higher than san­dan, it was held, the per­son had to be of ex­cep­tional quality and ded­i­ca­tion in or­der to be equated with a com­peti­tor who’s a fourth or fifth dan. Af­ter all, this is about judo, and judo deals in pro­fi­ciency. Or does it?

Now, things be­gin to get mud­dled. For all the cham­pi­ons we’ve pro­duced over the years, we haven’t churned out many who went on to be­come lead­ers dur­ing or af­ter their com­pet­i­tive years. Judo or­ga­ni­za­tions have not done enough to pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties or in­cen­tives to en­cour­age growth beyond tour­na­ment vic­to­ries. Only hap­haz­ardly are those who com­pete and stay on in var­i­ous ca­pac­i­ties el­e­vated for “time in grade.” What is per­plex­ing is that the time-in-grade stan­dard is of­ten ap­plied to those who don’t have a se­ri­ous com­pet­i­tive record but have stayed on and con­trib­uted to the run­ning of the or­ga­ni­za­tions. So now what does it mean to be

a higher rank? It doesn’t al­ways fol­low that the higher the dan, the more pro­fi­cient the per­son is in judo. In essence, rank is some­times re­garded as pay­ment for or­ga­ni­za­tional skills and/or ser­vices ren­dered.

The pub­lic might be­lieve that the higher the belt rank, the more stel­lar the par­tic­i­pant. But again, the per­cep­tion of pro­fi­ciency is pred­i­cated on a per­son’s com­pet­i­tive record and not on who’s been around for a long time or who has friends in high places. Un­for­tu­nately, the is­suance of in­flated rank lessons the quality of all rank.

The In­ter­na­tional Judo Fed­er­a­tion, in an at­tempt to be­lat­edly con­trol rank, is­sued a procla­ma­tion that it will be the only body to con­fer ninth dan and 10th dan. Fur­ther­more, it said it will rec­og­nize only those ranks is­sued by na­tional gov­ern­ing bod­ies — in the United States, that would be USA Judo. How­ever, USA Judo has an agree­ment with the other two large

U. S. or­ga­ni­za­tions that all three will honor each oth­ers’ ranks.

Things would not be so bad ex­cept for the fact that the United States has more high-ranked black belts with less skill and knowl­edge than most Eu­ro­pean coun­tries. The USA just might have more ninth de­grees than France. To put this in per­spec­tive: France has 500,000 prac­ti­tion­ers while Amer­ica has 25,000. Fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion of the French way is war­ranted. In France, roku­dan (sixth de­gree) is the gate­way to “high rank.” To at­tain it, a large hall that will ac­com­mo­date four to six mat ar­eas is re­quired. The can­di­date vy­ing for pro­mo­tion must per­form be­fore a panel of higher-ranked peo­ple. First, the can­di­date se­lects a tech­nique such as ouchi gari and demon­strates at least 25 dif­fer­ent ways to ex­e­cute it. Next, the can­di­date se­lects a kata and demon­strates it. There is also a pre­sen­ta­tion of one’s the­ory of judo, a writ­ten ex­am­i­na­tion and a de­mon­stra­tion of how one would con­duct a judo les­son.

The ex­am­i­na­tion is an all-day af­fair that’s of­ten pre­pared for a year in ad­vance. The re­sult is that each per­son who’s pro­moted to sixth de­gree is a pro­fi­cient ju­doka ca­pa­ble of meet­ing high stan­dards. It’s lit­tle won­der France has 500,000 reg­is­tered mem­bers.


This es­say would be mean­ing­less if it didn’t look hon­estly at our pro­mo­tion sys­tem. The truth may hurt some who re­spect and honor it, but un­less cer­tain is­sues are brought to the fore, judo in the United States will not progress.

IN­TEGRITY: Mel Ap­pel­baum once wrote the fol­low­ing to a friend: “The topic of pro­mo­tion is not a sim­ple mat­ter. High-dan grades re­flect sig­nif­i­cant ex­per­tise and con­tri­bu­tion to the sport and must be ad­min­is­tered by high dans with in­tegrity. On the lower-dan lev­els, com­pe­ti­tion is the main path to pro­mo­tion. Pro­mo­tion pro­ce­dures must be fair and con­sis­tent and not in­flu­enced by the pay­ment of money, as in the way some in the past have lit­er­ally sold rank and dis­graced our sport. It is sim­i­lar to those claim­ing doc­tor­ates and us­ing the ti­tle doc­tor from de­gree mills and on­line de­gree fac­to­ries. It di­min­ishes the value of all de­grees.”

In the past, rank has been bought, and this still hap­pens. It might stem from an out­right bar­gained-for ex­change or from a more so­phis­ti­cated trade in­volv­ing do­na­tions, din­ners, jun­kets, fa­vors, ser­vices and so on. A fol­low-up ques­tion has been asked: Could it be ar­gued that the money ex­changed for rank truly serves judo in some way? Af­ter all, rank pro­mo­tion is a source of in­come for or­ga­ni­za­tions.

In re­cent years, there has been a rise in the cost of pro­mo­tions world­wide. This was most likely started by the Kodokan, whose pro­mo­tion costs are very high — in the thou­sands of dol­lars. Taking a cue from this ac­tion, at least one other or­ga­ni­za­tion in­creased its pro­mo­tion fees as a means of rais­ing money to fund its pro­grams.

EQUAL­ITY: When con­tem­plat­ing this word, one thinks of two words: equal and quality. When look­ing at sev­enth, eighth, ninth and 10th de­grees from Ja­pan, Korea, France, Ger­many, Hol­land and Eng­land, to name a few pow­er­houses, can we say that our re­cip­i­ents are equal to theirs? Have our can­di­dates com­peted and prac­ticed at a high level? Are they held to high stan­dards? Have they done as much as, say, Neil Adams or Nobuyuki Sato to pro­mote judo? Adams is an eighth dan and Sato a ninth.

Granted, these two men are of ex­cep­tional quality and are at the top of the rat­ing scale, and per­haps Amer­ica, be­cause of its sit­u­a­tion, should be given some slack. Still, in spite of the need for in­cen­tives to en­cour­age ju­doka to stay on, rank as a cur­rency should be in­di­vid­u­ally de­lib­er­ated and weighed against so­cial needs. ROLE-MODEL CON­SIS­TENCY: At a meet­ing once, a high-ranked mem-

ber of a pro­mo­tion com­mit­tee pro­posed to el­e­vate an­other mem­ber to a rank equal to his own. This would not have been out of the or­di­nary ex­cept for the fact that there was no prior sub­mit­tal of pro­mo­tion forms. As such, there was no writ­ten record of past per­for­mance, kata abil­ity or char­ac­ter. Yet the pro­mo­tion was ap­proved. Mean­while, other can­di­dates were not passed be­cause their ap­pli­ca­tions lacked mi­nor things like the list­ing of a sin­gle kata.

The fol­low­ing year, the per­son who was pro­moted pro­posed that the per­son who had nom­i­nated him should now be el­e­vated to the next rank. Yes, this may have been de­served, but it, too, came with no pa­per­work.

Should not those who lead, lead by ex­am­ple? Or should the strong be al­lowed to do what they want and let the weak suf­fer what they must?

RANK IN­FLA­TION: In the 1950s, a sixth- de­gree black belt was a rar­ity. To­day, it’s fairly com­mon. At the cur­rent rate of es­ca­la­tion of pro­mo­tions, Amer­ica could see its ranks swell with high dan hold­ers. There have been 10th-dan pro­mo­tions, and more are el­i­gi­ble for 10th dan be­cause they have suf­fi­cient time in grade. In the end, a rank cer­tifi­cate is only a piece of pa­per. It brings no in­crease in in­come, no added fame, no ex­tra power.

High rank is just a con­fir­ma­tion that a group of high ranks has con­firmed that a per­son meets the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s cri­te­ria. Usu­ally, if the group and/or its cri­te­ria are of low quality, the rank doesn’t mean as much. For ex­am­ple, if your pro­mo­tion com­mit­tee con­sists of sixth de­grees who’ve never com­peted at a high level or served in a lead­er­ship role and they’re vot­ing to pro­mote you to sev­enth, eighth or ninth de­gree, it won’t mean as much as it would if a group of sev­enth, eighth or ninth de­grees pro­moted you. Even then, should a sev­enth or eighth dan be vot­ing on whether to el­e­vate some­one to ninth or 10th dan?


As I con­clude this es­say, I’m re­minded of a U. S. Navy ad­mi­ral

whose shame was so great af­ter he was dis­cov­ered wear­ing an un­de­served cam­paign rib­bon that he com­mit­ted sui­cide rather than face his peers. I am in no way ad­vo­cat­ing this type of be­hav­ior for judo; I’m merely point­ing out that for some peo­ple, honor is a life-and­death mat­ter.

While judo is not the mil­i­tary, this none­the­less raises a ques­tion: What mo­ti­vates peo­ple to want to claim credit for go­ing down a path they haven’t trav­eled?

That takes us back to the ques­tion, What is a black belt?

For an an­swer, let’s look out­side the box. For­get who wears the belt; look at who de­vised the sys­tem. What might this per­son’s mo­ti­va­tions be for want­ing a rank grad­ing

sys­tem? I be­lieve Kano un­der­stood the need for or­der, hi­er­ar­chy, self­es­teem and the hu­man need to ful­fill goals.

The black-belt rank sys­tem does all these things and more. It per­pet­u­ates the sport by meet­ing the needs of its par­tic­i­pants. How­ever, main­tain­ing ex­cel­lence in the sys­tem and un­der chang­ing so­cial con­di­tions re­quires train­ing, knowl­edge, judg­ment, in­tegrity and ded­i­ca­tion.

Jig­oro Kano un­der­stood change. That’s how he changed the per­cep­tion of the mar­tial arts from an ac­tiv­ity of de­struc­tion to an ac­tiv­ity of char­ac­ter build­ing. That’s how he changed the norm from wear­ing street clothes to wear­ing uni­forms with vis­i­ble belts. And it’s why he later added five rank lev­els with con­comi­tant re­quire­ments — so in­ter­est in train­ing could be main­tained over a life­time.

For Kano, judo was a work in progress. Had he lived to the present, he surely would have de­vised a bet­ter mea­sure of com­pe­tency than time in grade. To­day, he would look at el­e­ments of judo that are likely to in­crease mem­ber­ship, boost per­for­mance, and en­hance un­der­stand­ing and ac­cep­tance. For ex­am­ple, he might de­ter­mine that it doesn’t make sense to el­e­vate in­di­vid­u­als who’ve merely ac­cu­mu­lated time in grade, who, in essence, did noth­ing but wait for the years to pass. Per­haps he would con­clude that it makes more sense to pro­mote peo­ple who have been cer­ti­fied in an­cil­lary en­deav­ors like biome­chan­ics, ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­ogy, ref­er­ee­ing, tour­na­ment di­rect­ing and so on.

I don’t know for cer­tain. What I do know, how­ever, is that judo lead­ers around the world should come to­gether and take ac­tion to cre­ate a sys­tem that would make Jig­oro Kano proud. Hay­ward Nishioka was a 1967 PanAmer­i­can Games gold medal­ist and Black Belt’s 1968 Judo Player of the Year and 1977 Judo In­struc­tor of the Year. His books Judo Train­ing for Com­pe­ti­tion and The Judo Text­book: In Prac­ti­cal Ap­pli­ca­tion are avail­able at black­belt­

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