In this article, I hope to explore the true origins of rank, as well as settle once and for all the debate on age and rank. So many martial artists fight over who is eligible for what rank, what life skills must they possess or what experiences they have to go through before becoming eligible for a colorful piece of cotton, and it's enough. The purpose of rank has become bastardized as everything from a way to make money off your students to a lofty, unattainable goal that we are obligated to venerate. But what's the truth?
But why did Kano introduce it to the martial arts? From its onset, Judo placed a strong emphasis on randori and in-school competitions were frequent. It wasn't long before Kano decided to host official tournaments for his students, and he needed a way to keep track of their progress. So he instituted the kyu/dan ranking system, as well as accompanying colored belts, as a visual identifier of who ranked highest in competition. Students were awarded kyu ranks until they reached a certain number of wins, at which point they would be awarded dan ranks. However, Kano was a brilliant man. He saw the potential that the kyu/dan system had, and began dividing his curriculum into sections to be learned at each rank. Prior to this, Japanese martial arts were taught from a vast catalog of techniques and when the instructor felt the student had progressed enough they'd be issued a menkyo (teaching license). Other than menkyo, however, there was no other system of ranking. Martial arts were studied for the art themselves, and something as superficial as rank just got in the way (and still does).
So now, even though he was only 22 years old Kano must've been training in the martial arts his whole life to have developed such a wonderful system as Judo and came up with numerous innovations to the arts in general, right? Actually, Kano's first experience in martial arts was when he was 17 years old! And in that time between first studying martial arts and founding the system of Judo, he managed to earn a teaching license in Tenjin Shin'yo Ryu Jujutsu as well as Menkyo Kaiden (License of Full Transmission, the highest license attainable) in Kito Ryu Jujutsu. But I thought it took a lifetime to master a true traditional system, let alone two?!?! I guess we'll have to revisit the ridiculous time-in-grade requirements of modern "traditional" systems then, won't we?
Now that we've established the true origins of the kyu/dan system, how did it become so widespread among nearly all martial arts? Kano made a lot of friends, including the Imperial family, and enjoyed great popularity. Up and coming martial artists like Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan Karate) and Yamaguchi Gogen (founder of Goju Kai Karate) wanted to share in the spot light. They reached out to Kano and began exchanging information. Immediately, they implemented a lighter weight version of Kano's judogi more suitable to karate practice, as well as the kyu/dan ranking system. As an interesting side note, as Funakoshi was awarding his students dan rank he was asked what rank he held, to which he replied that "Rank is only for the students. Teachers don't have rank." As martial arts' popularity grew, more people began instituting the kyu/dan system until entire generations were brought up learning it as just part of the arts rather than a new innovation. When they began opening schools, it was only natural to bring with them the kyu/dan system, and a tradition was born.
But now, where did the age and time-in-grade requirements come from? Racism! It's no secret that the Japanese are a very nationalistic society, and when Western students were stationed in Japan and Okinawa following the end of World War II studying martial arts, they'd eventually seek rank from their instructors just as they saw their classmates getting. However, the Japanese and Okinawan instructors did not want to award rank to their Western students yet couldn't reveal that it was simply because they were white. Therefore, they came up with the idea that it takes a certain number of years of training to even become eligible. As all soldiers were at least 17, this naturally translated into a time frame along the lines of:
5 years to Shodan (22 years old minimum)
2 years to Nidan (24 years old minimum)
3 years to Sandan (27 years old minimum)
4 years to Yondan (31 years old minimum)
And so on... Following this progression, one would need to be 76 years old at minimum before reaching 10th Dan. But there was just one hole in the story. Their Asian classmates were progressing a lot faster than this time frame, so once again their instructors were forced to coin another urban legend, that Eastern culture is so different from Western that martial arts is in their blood, and is the entire focus of their lives. Therefore, they have the equivalent of these years in direct mat time. Sound familiar? I guess we can ignore the fact that they also had jobs and families to tend to, much like every adult in every culture. The days of the Samurai were long gone, and there was no such thing as the 24 hour practitioner anymore. By continuing these myths and keeping to these regulations, you are contributing to the idea that we are not as worthy or gifted as our Asian counterparts, thereby admitting our inferiority, and ultimately are continuing the lie designed to keep our forefathers down because they weren't of the right ethnicity. It's the 21st century, and it needs to end. Not to mention, at this point with all of our resources and research, it's just ignorant. And no one likes ignorance.
But let's entertain that thought for a minute, that it really does take 60 years to reach 10th Dan. The only problem is that the entire concept of a 10th Dan was created by a 22 year old! And Kano even made a point that 10th Dan was not the end, that one could conceivably earn rank infinitely. He himself was elevated to 12th Dan upon his death, and other organizations like the Bujinkan have instituted 15 dan ranks. And if teachers don't have rank, like Funakoshi said, at what point does rank become irrelevant and teaching the art take precedent?
My point is this. Stop wasting your time arguing over colorful pieces of cloth and pretty documents written in a language you can't read. I think I've clearly demonstrated the historical precedent for holding high rank at a young age, even mastering multiple systems in the time it takes the average student to tie their belt properly. The true value of your rank comes not from what's around your waist but the respect you have for the person who awarded it to you. It is a sentimental object that means something different to everyone, and every martial art has their own requirements. If you want to hold your students to the age and time-in-grade requirements I listed above, great and I wish you the best. If you want to hand out rank like it's going out of style, superb. None of it matters. The only thing that truly matters is your progression in your journey. Are you learning valuable skills and being taught properly? Are you prepared to defend yourself and your family should your lives be in danger? Are you mature enough to be a leader in your community? Are you giving back to the arts that have given you so much?
If you have a question about someone's ranks or titles they may have earned, ask them. Get on the floor with them, talk to them. Sure, there are many frauds and self-promoted masters out there. But there are also legitimate practitioners who just happened to meet the right people at the right time, learn the right material and progress quickly in one or multiple arts. That's certainly no reason to start a witch hunt. If they can perform, demonstrate the understanding, display the maturity one would expect from someone in such position, and their ranks were awarded through legitimate means, then who are you to discredit them?
The reason MMA has become so popular is because it discards all of the mysticism of martial arts and forces you to be able to produce quality practitioners. Maybe it's time we start keeping it real as well, because at the end of the day colorful piece of cotton never saved anyone's life.
For an indepth look at the self-prescribed inferiority complex of Western martial artists and our polluted way of thinking about rank, please read "Racism In The Martial Arts."