The Kodawari Hombu Dojo is currently in the process of completely reworking our entire ranking system as it applies to specific material taught at various levels. So, this page, at least for the foreseeable future, will be very much a work in progress. If you have an interest, we would advise you to bookmark it and check back often.
In addition to the various belt levels and the material taught at each level, there will also be some potentially interesting information on how rank testing is done, the scoring that we use (and the meaning of those scores) as well as additional information as to how someone can join our informal organization and/or add our teachings to their school or dojo.
The origin and history of the use of belts in karate (and other related martial arts) as well as colored belts, ranking, titles, teaching titles, etc. is really quite interesting. Unfortunately, there is still much confusion, misinformation, myths and misunderstanding surrounding all of it. While I will be touching briefly here and there on that history and origin, it will not be as in-depth as it should be. Therefore, please do keep an eye out as I plan to write another long form and in-depth article on the topic soon. You have signed up for our email list, right?
General Thoughts On Rank
Rank within the martial arts is a “funny” thing. And, it can be quite an explosive topic depending on who you are talking to, what art(s) they study and what organization(s) they belong to. What follows in this section might offend some of you. If so, it is not intended. Remember, you are the only person in control of what offends you and when something does, you might do well to spend some time reflecting on why that is.
To start, if you have not read the posting on the primary art that we teach (Ryusei-ha Ryukyu Kempo Karate-jutsu), then we recommend starting there as it lays the proper foundation of understanding.
Types of Students
Anyone that tells you that there are not different types of students that are taught differently just isn’t telling you the truth. That or they are spending an unnecessarily large amount of time trying to teach people that they probably should not be!
If we go back many years (especially in Japanese based arts), a level of students called uchi-deshi (内弟子) or “inside student” was utilized.
Instructors of all ranks would do well to always remember the following Chinese proverb:
Yī rì wéi shī, zhōngshēn wèi fù
Teacher for a day, father for life
Types of Schools
Levels of Learning
Well prior to any rank exam or testing (試験 – shiken), students should be provided with full documentation that covers all of the material they will be expected to perform and be tested on. This should fully cover all areas…waza, kata, bunkai, oyo, henka, kumite, etc.
Testing at any level is done on a very easy to understand and implement 1 to 5 basis. The scoring would break down as follows:
- 1 – Equates to a scoring of UNACCEPTABLE.
- 2 – Equates to a scoring of NOT COMPETENT.
- 3 – Equates to a scoring of COMPETENT.
- 4 – Equates to a scoring of EXCELLENT.
- 5 – Equates to a scoring of EXCEPTIONAL.
When determining a score, Unacceptable would indicate a student’s inability to perform the mechanical or physical process in which the technique (or kata) is considered to be properly executed. Not Competent would indicate that the performance of the technique (or kata) fails to meet the minimum or baseline requirement for that rank. Competent would indicate that the technique (or kata) being performed meets the minimum acceptable baseline standard for that rank. Excellent would indicate that the technique (or kata) is above the minimum baseline requirement for that rank and demonstrates a high level of skill for that particular level. Exceptional would indicate that the technique (or kata) is well above what is considered to be Excellent and demonstrates a uniquely high level of skill for that rank or level.
To pass the shiken, there should be NO Unacceptable scores for a student. The occasional Not Competent might crop up and the student can still pass. However, the higher the rank the student is testing for, the less this should be allowed. Not everyone is perfect all of the time and situations such as this can be unusually stressful for the first couple of low ranks. Judgement should be used here. Overall, the baseline minimum a student should be expecting to perform is Competent or higher.
Once the shiken is completed, students should be provided a copy of their results with additional comments for the instructor(s) performing the grading. If necessary, meet with the under performing students privately to work out an “action plan” to correct the issues that they are having.
Form Over Function
Time in Grade
Dealing With Trouble
Students Without Dan Recognition
In essence, the very beginning or first rank is actually two (2) ranks. Initially, all new students (deshi) start as a mukyu (無級). This can be considered “no rank” or “without rank”. In some of the styles that I have studied in the past (such as Goju-ryu), a new student, as a mukyu, wore a gi or uniform. But, they wore no belt at all…thus signifying that they were of “no rank”. And, only after having been tested were they given the rank of jukyu (十級) or 10th kyu.
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It was so beautifully stated and shared by Shawn Gray that I absolutely had to share it here:
Kata and Bunkai
形 and 分解
Forms and Applications
For the sake of simplicity, we are using the term bunkai (分解) to identify the applications of the individual movements (or a series of movements) in the kata (形). Technically, we believe that the more appropriate term or word would be oyo (応用). Bunkai, when broken down, means “to take apart and/or analyze”. Using that definition, bunkai is a MUCH more broad topic than just how to apply the movements in a kata in combative situations. Oyo, on the other hand, breaks down to “to put to use”. This is much more along the lines of an application of the moves. So, bunkai is a full breakdown and analysis of the kata and the related components (breathing, footwork, body shifting, target areas, etc.) and then the oyo is how you put it all back together for actual application in a combative situation. Since the vast majority of karateka use the term bunkai to reference applications, we will use it here to avoid any confusion…and we have not even broached the topic of henka (変化) yet!
Students With Dan Recognition
Probationary Black Belt
The rank of shodan-ho (初段補) or “probationary black belt” is an optional rank and can be used within a variety of different circumstances that are all dependent upon specific situations.
If someone under the age of 18 were to be able to pass their shodan test (which would be a VERY rare circumstance), then they would be awarded a shodan-ho rank. They would then hold or stay in this probationary rank until they reach the age of 18. At that time, they would assume a full shodan rank. In this particular circumstance, it would be required of the student to wear the obi (帯) or belt pictured above with the white stripe running through it.
Another situaton where the shodan-ho rank would be used is when a student joins the dojo (道場) and they hold a yudansha (有段者) or black belt rank in another art (especially one that is very similar to Ryusei-ha Ryukyu Kempo Karate-jutsu). Rather than requiring them to wear the white belt of a rank novice, they would be afforded the courtesy of wearing their black belt as they learn the new system. Since they already have, at a minimum, a number of years of experience, it is expected that they would be able to absorb the new techniques and kata in fairly short order and thereby be ready to test for a shodan in a much shorter amount of time than other students. In this case, it would not be required that this student wear the belt shown above.
Additionally, if a dojo (of another style) joins the Kodawari Hombu Dojo, they would do so as a Jun Shibu Dojo (支部道場). In this case, the dojo-cho (道場長 – head of the school and/or chief instructor) would then become a shodan-ho and remain so until that dojo receives a full Fuku Shibu Dojo (副支部 – branch dojo) charter AND the dojo-cho completes and passes their black belt rank test. It is not required that the shodan-ho/dojo-cho wear the obi pictured above.
Lastly, the shodan-ho rank can be used in two other very special (and rare) circumstances. The first is when a student test for shodan and, for whatever reason, do not fully pass the test in the judgement of the ranking sensei but also do not fully fail the test in a way that would necessarily require failing the student. In this rare circumstance, the student can be awarded a shodan-ho rank. They would then work with their sensei to formulate a plan to move to full shodan. This may (or may not) require the student to test again at a later date. In this case, the student will be required to wear the obi pictured above. The second rare circumstance is when a yudansha (regardless of rank) does something that, in the opinion of their sensei, is a serious enough infraction that they be placed on a probationary status. It is then incumbent upon the sensei to work with the student to correct the problem (as well as explain the problem to them thoroughly). This would include a plan or steps that must be undertaken by the student as well as a time frame for this to be completed. Once done, their original rank is restored. If it is not done or completed, then the risks expulsion from the dojo and having their rank revoked. In both of these unique circumstances, it is up to the individual sensei to determine if this is the correct course of action to take. And, in both of these situations, the student would be required to wear the obi pictured above.
When I joined my first Goju-ryu (剛柔流) dojo, I was already an accomplished black belt in another related art (Shotokan – 松涛館). The sensei of that dojo (and his sensei) afforded me the courtesy of allowing me to wear my black belt rather than to start as a white belt. This essentially made me a shodan-ho. Since I was trained and ranked in a related art, the idea was that I would pick things up much faster than the other students and that I should progress to shodan in fairly short order. In this case, I tested in about 1 year as a sankyu (三級) or 3rd kyu brown belt. And, in this case I wore a standard black belt and not the shodan-ho belt pictured above.
1st Degree Black Belt
It is important to note here that the name for this rank is shodan (初段) and NOT ichidan (一段). Many folks often wonder why it is that I use so many Japanese (or Okinawan, Chinese, etc.) terms and especially the kanji or ideograms. This is one of them.
2nd Degree Black Belt
3rd Degree Black Belt
4th Degree Black Belt
Since I am ranked as a godan (五段), according to the rules regarding rank that the Kodawari Hombu Dojo have adopted, I am only able to promote up to the yondan level. In most normal circumstances, that should not be a problem for a student as the required learning program listed here is going to cover a couple of decades worth of effort to achieve. On the off chance that it does become an issue, I have plenty of options available to me so that the student can be pass off to another sensei for further training and instruction.
In addition to all of the belt ranks listed above, there are also kyoiku shogo (教育称号 -teaching titles) that also come into play. Often, you will just see the term shogo and it means the same thing.
The graphic above is fairly standard for most Japanese and Okinawan dojo and I would agree with them with a few exceptions.
The biggest disagreement I would have with the above is including “sensei” (先生) as a teaching title. Personally, I have never been given the rank or title of sensei in any of the arts that I have studied. I believe it comes as a given that if you are running a dojo or teaching, then you are then sensei in that instance. You are the “one who has come before“. If you want to award a kyoiku shogo that denotes being an instructor, it should be the award of Shidoin (指導員). Keep in mind that sensei does not mean instructor (shidoin does, keep reading below). A sensei is simply translated as one who has come before. It is in martial arts that we generally refer to instructors as sensei. Someone who is you sempai (先輩) or senior is technically a sensei in that instance as they are one who has gone before you. It is just generally accepted that in the martial arts that sensei is what you call a teacher. If you want to award someone a kyoiku shogo that denotes being a teacher, then award them a Shidoin. But please just don’t call them that or let others do so! There is more on that below as well. So, please keep reading.
The title Shidoin (指導員) used above is technically being used incorrectly. Shidoin means instructor. You will generally see most dojo and organizations use it to mean associate or assistant instructor. In that case, it would actually be Fuku Shidoin (副指導員). Fuku (副) is translated as deputy. It can also be translated as representing, supporting or vice. So a Fuku Shidoin is someone that is a deputy instructor or, if you prefer, an associate instructor. Perhaps some of these people and schools just find it easier to shorten the title as Shidoin.
Generally speaking, any sensei or dojo-cho can use this particular teaching title for anyone who is a shodan or above in rank (shodan-ho would not be eligible). In these cases, the person receiving the title or teaching license should be someone who exhibits serious current and potential skill as a karateka. Awarding this serves, essentially, two distinct purposes. First, it identifies someone to all as being a person that can help to lead classes and assist with the teaching duties. And, at some point, teach classes on their own. Second, awarding this title/license (for all practical points and purposes) puts that individual into an advanced training on how to teach. Experienced sensei should use this opportunity to extensively and thoroughly train these individuals in how to be an instructor and not just use them to leverage their ability to lead classes.
A bit of a warning is needed at this point in discussing the topic of Fuku Shidoin. Sensei and Dojo-cho should keep it in the forefront of their minds that when someone who is serving as a Fuku Shidoin, when they are helping to teach and lead classes, they are loosing out on their own training time. If this is kept up over the long term, that person’s progress is going to become slowed or even stop. Instructors need to make sure that they take all necessary steps to ensure they spend time with their Fuku Shidoin teaching them specifically so they can personally keep progressing. I have seen some instances where Fuku Shidoin have become so frustrated over feeling taken advantage of that they have quit the dojo over it. Instructors should NOT let that happen.
In terms of the belts pictured above, in our case, both those holding a renshi (練士 – polished teacher) and kyoshi (教士 – teacher of teachers) are eligible to wear the red and white “candy cane” belt pictured directly above.
The hanshi title (範士 – model teacher) is eligible to wear a solid red belt. Again, this belt would be preferred for any “formal” event and could be worn on a daily basis if preferred. Alternatively, the hanshi grade is also eligible to wear a black belt with three (3) gold stripes embroidered on one end of it.
When it comes to kyoiku shogo (教育称号) or teaching titles/licenses, most Westerners do an absolutely bang up job of butchering how they are used and how they should be used.
At this point in the article, I have to tell you readers (what I think) is a funny story. It evades my memory as to specifically what year it was. But, I was in TN at a fairly well known Isshin-ryu dojo…helping to teach a seminar on vital points (kyusho – 急所).
What About Soke?
You can’t really have a discussion of martial arts rank and/or teaching titles without at least mentioning the term “soke” (宗家). AKA the “grandmaster” rank. AKA the infamous “red belt”. As I have jokingly referred to in the past as “okey-dokey-soke“. As I mentioned at the outset of this article, I plan to do another long form piece that gets into the nitty gritty of the history and origin of karate ranks, belts, titles, etc. at a later date. But if there was ever really a misunderstood and misused Japanese word [by Westerners], then “soke” is it!