Now, with any type of "award" comes those who wish to abuse the system and acquire something they have not put the work in to earn. Unfortunately, this is something you'll never get rid of. There will always be people who circumvent the system, and that is just one reason why outside of the group they were issued in, they are meaningless. The truth is that certificates are only as valuable as the respect you have for the person signing it. The true measure of a martial artist is what they can do on the mat, and what they provide for their students and community. That being said, let's dive into what they actually are and represent.
When Kano Jigoro first implemented the Kyu/Dan rank system in his new art of Kodokan Judo, it was to separate students into different competition divisions. The better you competed, the higher ranked you were. It was no different than modern sport standings. However, as more styles began to adopt this new system of rank, many found it difficult to grade students who were not competing. After all, while there is a sport element to them, martial arts are not in and of themselves sports. This is where we start to see the emergence of rank requirements where the student is required to meet a specific standard set by the instructor, and in recognition of such they would be awarded a specific grade. As organizations began to develop consisting of multiple styles, the power to decide what those requirements were shifted from the instructor to the organization itself.
Licenses, on the other hand, are not recognitions of material learned but rather authority bestowed. The Japanese word for license is Menkyo 免許, and these are considered instructor grades. With each level of Menkyo came a specific level of authority to teach the art up to a certain point. The actual material learned by the student was recognized by the issuance of various scrolls cataloging what had been taught. The types of Menkyo varied between styles, but the most common ones are:
- Menkyo Shoden - First Level License
- Menkyo Chuden - Middle Level License
- Menkyo Okuden - Inner/Secret Level License
- Menkyo Kaiden - License of Full Transmission
Therefore, it can easily be summed up as one's rank is a recognition of their personal progress in the art while licenses designate what level of authority they have in the system, and licenses always supersede rank in the hierarchy of the style or organization.
In addition to rank and licenses, you have titles. There are generally two types of titles in Japanese martial arts: teaching titles and administrative titles. Teaching titles, like Menkyo, designate a specific level of authority in transmitting the system. Administrative titles recognize one's position in the art or organization, and include titles such as Kaicho (chairman), Kaiso (founder) and Soke (Head of Family). The most important thing to note is that titles are used only when you are talking about someone, or in writing. When addressing your instructor, you should simply use "sensei." To me, that is the most honorable title one can hold.
Now if you notice, none of these systems of rank (Kyu/Dan, Menkyo or titles) have anything to do with those outside of the style or organization. That is because outside of the context of who lines up where on the mat, or who gets to sign what certificate, they mean nothing. A 5th Dan in Goju Ryu does not outrank a 1st Dan in Taekwondo, a Kyoshi of Jujutsu does not outrank a Renshi of Karate. The Soke of one art does not outrank the yellow belt of another. They just aren't comparable, because the standards to acquire such positions are so different.
But let's examine the actual application of government regulation overseas. In Korea, the Kukkiwon (which many seem to falsely believe is the mecca of Taekwondo) is a government-run organization and can hardly keep a President in office for more than 6 months before they get arrested for corruption or "resign." Definitely a prestigious group to belong to. I think the only former President who wasn't charged with corruption is Lee Sung Wan, now head of Jidokwan. In Japan, the numerous government organizations fare slightly better, but due to the sheer number of them it's hardly the equivalent of saying martial arts are run by the government. It's more accurate to say that there are several organizations which are government supported, but membership is voluntary and instructors still largely do what they want. The only difference is you have a martial arts community with enough backbone left to keep the tradition of dojo yaburi alive and keep everyone in check.
However, unlike professional licenses, martial arts certificates are a private matter. They are for the recipient alone. They have no meaning outside the style or organization they were awarded in, and so there is no purpose is publicizing them for the world to see. If anything should be displayed at all, it is the Menkyo as that is really all that matters because that lets the reader know exactly what the instructor is authorized to teach. Even then, however, it should only be shared with students of the art because they are the only ones it matters to. Why does it matter to a Taekwondo practitioner what level of authority a Jujutsu instructor has to teach in his style of Jujutsu? Especially from another time zone.
However, the community of "respect and honor" is often full of ego and jealousy. People with nothing better to do than surf than internet find something that challenges their previously held beliefs, and so they demand an explanation. What they fail to realize is that they have no authority or position to make such demands. How self-inflated must one be to demand others share something deeply meaningful and sacred to them just because they want to see it? And then if you don't, they go around calling you a fraud for making claims you "can't" prove or you must be hiding something. It reminds me of a toddler throwing a temper tantrum when someone refuses to play with them.
If someone really wants to verify your credentials, all they need is a way to contact the issuing the authority. The internet is a wonderful thing and connects us all on an unprecedented global scale. Not to mention everyone has their cellphone glued to their face these days. Unfortunately, as martial traditions extend over the course of numerous generations, sometimes people die and there's no way to contact them. When that happens, it doesn't nullify what they issued but it does make it harder to prove. I mean, you could post the certificate from them but then, how do we know they actually signed it? You could post a picture of you with them, but how can you prove the person in the picture is actually who signed it? How can you prove they were actually your teacher and you didn't take that picture at a seminar? How can you prove that the person in the picture is even who you say it is and not some random cook from the local hibachi restaurant? You see, there is no end to the questions one can fathom. Where does it end?
The best way to judge a martial artist is to work out with them. Certificates are cool but in the wake of the coronapocalypse and universal toilet paper shortage...
Anyway, my point is that certificates serve various purposes. None of which have any bearing on those outside of the art or organization they were issued in. When people from various styles get together, the pecking order usually sorts itself out naturally. No need to consult a piece of paper you probably can't read anyway. Just get on the floor and train.
This is not unique to the martial arts, and is true for every service-based business. Of course doctors, lawyers and even barbers need to be professionally licensed, however they develop a clientele for the same reasons a dojo does. You don't go back to the same barber because they graduated from a good school. You go back because you like the haircut they gave you. You continue seeing your doctor because of their bedside manner and their ability to practice medicine. You retain a lawyer because of their success rate. While all of these things can be largely influenced by where they received their education, their personal abilities and their ability to meet your needs outweighs the piece of paper that hangs on the wall.