Understanding your Rank

Understanding your Rank

Rank in karate is likely the most misunderstood concept in the martial arts.  It is usually, only useful for beginners.  For most people, the moment a rank is earned it becomes an obstacle and impairs learning, judgment and training. Rank today has become a wide spread cancer of the martial arts.

It’s time to accept that the rank you believe you have earned is worthless and like all diseases, you would benefit from having it removed.

Hold it!!!

I can already hear the keyboard warriors gearing up for a fight of epic proportion.

Who does this guy think he is? What an arrogant <expletive>. He clearly doesn’t have any understanding what martial arts is about.    My rank is not worthless.....you can just try and take it from me.

Don’t worry. I am not going to take your rank away.

I don’t want it.

Neither does anyone else.

It’s worthless remember.

The truth is, very few people care about what rank you have.

They care about their own rank...and their next rank likely.

Sometimes, very loyal students will perhaps care about their instructors rank, which they follow devoutly, and who bestowed upon them the super secret knowledge, missed by all other schools, or styles, or federations around the world because their instructor is special and is the “Highest Rank” that they recognize, or perhaps the next link in the chain of the only instructors they recognize.

I liken this to a 4 year old I once heard tell another child that his dad could “beat up” theirs.

Ok, two thirds of readers are now sufficiently offended....but I can do better. Let’s look at the other side of the spectrum. Those “enlightened” individuals that champion the cause and claim that rank is unimportant.

There are people who believe they are “above” rank, and the ego that comes along with it. Often these people do not train in an actual “martial art”.

They perhaps teach classes with no indicators of rank.....or so they think. Although, even with no belts......the guy at the front of the class teaching must be a higher rank.....and the guy telling him what to do is even higher....right?

Ask some of these people and they will tell you rank is an obtuse concept and only for traditional martial arts....and it has no meaning in the famed and notorious “streets” anyway.

This is ridiculous concept and usually serves to justify the credibility of the position of those who claim it. They are usually somewhat proficient at fighting, but are lacking the embodied knowledge and experience to understand what they are doing and how to improve, how to teach it, and most importantly how to apply it to everything else. They haven’t yet realized that being an instructor, or being a higher rank is not ONLY about being a more skilled fighter than someone else. This group has usually “fast tracked” through their basic training, and trains usually for a specific sport (by which I mean a specific rules set.) They will often describe themselves as training in “MMA” or something alike. They have no use for rank, because unbeknownst to them, they do not study a “martial art”. They practice for a competition, which is a part of martial arts, but does not come close to encompassing what would be required to be considered one itself.

In karate specifically, these individuals will also drastically adjust their training to fit the competition rules. The biggest example of this is practicing Kata for the sake of the kata, and not to understand the core principals and knowledge it contains. (That is a whole other article). As in all sports they can become impressive and skilled athletes. They can gain skills that would apply to a martial art, however by this standard they are no more a martial artist than would be a talented gymnast.

Here we arrive at the main point.


Rank is important within all martial arts.


YOUR RANK IS NOT IMPORTANT in any martial arts.


Since rank is a concept that means so many different things to so many different people, it is a very tough idea to grasp. It is something that is not real, but is ever present in most arts.

Everyone has different opinions on rank, and on what is right and what is wrong. Who has what rank, and who gave it to them. Who has the highest rank.   Should “person X” wear their black bet to my class. CAN I wear my black belt to a new art. You have righteous champions who will pick up the fight on both sides.

Some people go as far as to suggest that everyone wear no belts, or wear odd colour belt so that rank is not discernible, which they believe will somehow magically purify the training that is done. This mirrors the other side of the argument where you might see someone wearing black belts with bars on them per dan rank, or to wear belts that even have the rank embroidered on it..... “GODAN” so that everyone knows how important they are.

In the reality we live today, with 6 year old black belts and people grading themselves to 10th dan or even higher how can anyone take the idea of rank seriously?

All these concepts, and all these “ranks” are unimportant to those who have a real understanding of what rank is. To these people, the colour or the amount of wear on the belt you have, or the number of stripes, or the rank written on your certificate isn’t even a consideration. They don’t care which belt you wear to their school, or class. They don’t think about which belt they will wear to your school or class. They will simply wear “their” belt. These people will expect that you live up to the rank you claim, and they will expect to be held to the standard of their rank. To them, progressing through rank is like paddling a canoe upstream. If you stop paddling, you move backward.   As you age, your ability to make strong and fast strokes will fade, and to maintain moving forward you will be required to paddle smarter to make up for it. Most certainly a rank will not be something you can use to hide from the current. Rather it will act as an anchor, towed behind you. An anchor that is proportional to the size of the rank.

The higher rank you achieve, the more difficult it is to continue forward.

The “belt” system, is largely the cause of the misinterpretation of rank. People “get” the belt, which is seen as the action of “getting” the rank. - This is a huge misconception.

You do not “get” a rank.

It is not something you can wear, or put on display.

A rank is not a badge of honour.

Real rank (or natural rank as I like to call it) is something you become, something you accept, and something you embody and represent for others.  As the story goes, (although with questionable accuracy) before modernization, the belt system was simply a white belt or a black belt. Through years of training and hard work, the white belt would become soiled and darken, eventually becoming a “brown belt”.  This reflected better the difference in a karate-ka’s concept of rank.  Although not a true historical account of how belts came to be, it does serve to point out a truth about honest training and honest rank.  True rank takes effort, over long periods of time.

Rank is an obligation.

Rank should never representative of what you “have done”. It is entirely representative of “what you are doing”. It is an obligation you have accepted to those who have come before you, to fulfill the expectations of that rank. That obligation is to honour all of the history and development that has taken place over the generations before you. It is also an obligation to those who will follow after you to serve as an example and a role model to which they can aspire.

For those who command Natural Rank, it is the only kind that holds importance. They understand that rank is not an achievement that can be awarded.

Rank is demonstrated.

It is not earned.

It is not static.

It does not withstand time.

Everyone will recognize natural rank, although they may not understand that they do.

Within most groups of martial artists, it remains unspoken; in the background. An easily related example is shown in the silent hierarchy within a rank.  In most clubs or organizations there may be many people with a rank. Let’s choose “nidan” (2nd degree) for our example. If 5 people are told they are Nidan rank, and you put all of them into a room together for a day, a natural hierarchy between them will develop. When they first meet, it will not be apparent. As they train, and speak, they will quickly separate into a natural rank. The majority will follow the lead of the individual who’s actions and words embody the highest natural rank.

Similarly, if you put a 1st degree black belt, and a 5th degree black belt on the dojo floor, and have no markings indicating which is which, it SHOULD be naturally apparent who is who.....providing they both train.   This is not by necessarily prevalent in how fast they move, or how hard their techniques are, but as a whole how they move, and what they understand and demonstrate. As people age, naturally their abilities may change, but so does their understanding and knowledge, which allows them to be effective and still demonstrate rank.

For those looking to make a difference in the visible interpretation of what rank is and what it means, there is only one way to do it. Don’t talk about it. Get on the floor, work out and show the difference.

Remember, if you find yourself talking about training, that means you had time to BE training.


Hold on....

Right now... I am talki........................



In Harmony,

Kris Reynolds

2 Responses

  1. Great write up Kris! Very well done. Reminders for all of us.
  2. I have always said. Let's put a whole class in a room to workout with no belt on. To the outside world, would they know who's higher than who. If you are a shodan and they think you are a sandan then good for you. On the other hand..... If you're a godan and they think you are a nidan, then something went wrong along the way. Talk less and train more. Anyone calling themselves a Master means they have stopped learning because they know it all. Most true Masters were still training and learning till their death. And a true master never calls himself a master. Onegai Shimasu

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