Ranking System

Purpose of Rank

Rank in karate, or in martial arts in general, is inconsistent and very subjective. In an art like Brazilian jujitsu, for instance, a black belt (the dan rank) takes 10 or so years to achieve. In other schools, such as some commercial taekwondo schools, it is not uncommon to see children wearing black belts. So, in a sense, rank is sort of meaningless when compared across schools, and across arts. At the same time, however, it is valuable for establishing standards within a respective school, as rank helps instructors organize information and evaluate a student’s progress in a methodical fashion. If one were to compete, rank helps to group people according to time training and skillset. Rank also is a symbol of experience and dedication. One’s physical abilities invariably start to wane with age. In theory, higher dan ranks are awarded later in life when one has accumulated knowledge, trained extensively, and is recognized as a teacher and leader. Although a given person’s physical abilities may decline with age, a high dan rank indicates that they have trained extensively and are also qualified to lead.

–The belt only covers two inches of your bum, you have to cover the rest. Royce Gracie, Gracie Jujitsu.

The Gup/Dan Grades

Rank is awarded through the individual dojang, martial arts organization, or both. The outward symbol of the rank is the color of the belt (dee in Korean and obi in Japanese) that is used to keep the uniform (dobak or dogi) closed. There are two broad groups of rank: the gup and dan ranks (gup is a Korean term. In Japanese it’s called kyu). The gup ranks are preparatory ranks that are awarded before the dan ranks and correspond to colors other than black (or navy blue, more about this below). When a student begins training as a white belt, they are considered a 10th gup. The student then works through the gup ranks where, at first gup, they are considered a dan candidate. Along this journey the students work through various belt colors. Unlike the gup ranks, the dan ranks are awarded in increasing increments, sometimes from first dan to 10th dan, depending on the system. Ranks above 5th dan are sometimes awarded for time in grade and the candidate’s contribution to teaching and supporting the art. In many of the striking arts, such as ours, when a student reaches first dan they are considered to have gained a working knowledge of the fundamentals of the art. It does not equate to expertise or mastery.

Our Perspective

We view the achievement of rank as a personal journey. At the Soo Do Kwan, a first dan test for a healthy 25-year-old athlete would not look the same as a 45-year-old with chronic injuries, or a septuagenarian that recently decided to train to keep their mind and body sharp. That said, each test for rank will get progressively more challenging for the individual, according to their baseline physicality, potential, and reason for training. Factors aside from technical prowess considered for promotion include previous experience, time in grade, attitude toward others and training, concern for dojang responsibilities, community service, and attendance of special trainings (which could include tournaments). Rank tests are events designed to test the mettle of the student and allow the instructor to see if their teaching methodologies are working. The ranks themselves serve as a measure of the individual’s progress in the art–and that progress should not be compared to that of another.

–There are two points to always remember in grading. First, we start with rei and end with rei. Second, the exam is not our goal. It is one kind of practice for us. Tsutomu Ohshima, Shotokan Karate of America

Our Ranking System

Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern karate and major figure in Korean karate, was the first karateka to wear a belt and uniform. The attire and ranking system were adopted from Judo. Funakoshi was ranked by the Dai Nippon Butokukai as a 5th dan and posthumously awarded the rank of 10th dan. Consequently, we view ranks above 5th dan as being more honorary than technical. These ranks reflect time in grade, and acknowledgement of a significant contribution to the art and community.

We follow the original ranking system of the Chung Do Kwan, a school of karate founded in Korea in 1944. There are three belt colors: white, red, and midnight blue. White and red are gup colors, and midnight blue is for all dan ranks. We subscribe to Funakoshi’s 9th principle: karate is a lifelong pursuit. Hwang Kee, the founder of the Moo Duk Kwan, expressed a similar sentiment and felt that the color black represented finality. Additionally, in America, the black belt has come to represent mastery or expertise. Mastery in the martial arts is unattainable. There is no arrival, and one must continue to progress, or according to Gichin Funakoshi, one will essentially regress. We, therefore, have adopted Hwang Kee’s paradigm and do not have a black belt in our system. Following Ohshima’s model, we only have dan tests on, or near, Sensei Funakoshi’s birthday and the anniversary of his death.

Karate is like boiling water: without heat it returns to its tepid state. Gichin Funakoshi, Shotokai