Home > Concepts & Principles > Belt Rank and Titles in the Western World

Belt Rank and Titles in the Western World

There seems to be a phenomena going on in the world today, with rank and titles in the martial arts. It is especially prominent in the western world. I think there are many reasons for this, some good, others maybe not so good.

While some people believe their own press (true or false), other people are using rank and titles for business purposes. After all if a perspective student who doesn’t know anything, looks for a school and finds one with a 1st degree black belt running it, and another school with a 10th degree black belt running it, or a school that doesn’t use uniforms, or belts at all, which school do you think the student will join? Since they are not masters themselves how could they tell skill, knowledge level, and the teaching ability of teachers using belts, other then by rank? They don’t know that all Black Belts aren’t equal. In order to know how to select a teacher that doesn’t use belts, may require that the student already has enough knowledge to know what he is looking for.

Before Jigoro Kano created Judo at the age of 24 in 1883, the Japanese used the menkyo system. Menkyo kaiden is a “License of total transmission”. This is the highest level in the system. Someone who receives this, may be designated as the successor to the system. The person receiving the menkyo kaiden, would normally receive a certificate, or scroll. This system is still in use today by some traditional Japanese martial arts.

Traditional Chinese systems approach rank in a similar manner as the menkyo system. It is not uncommon for someone that is a practitioner of a traditional Chinese system, to be told to go out and teach when his knowledge and skill become high enough. This might be without receiving the certificate or scroll. They may receive a certificate some years later from their teacher. After all it is knowledge and skill that count. I think we’ve all been told, that belts just hold your pants up? Since the Chinese haven’t widely adopted the belt system to date, I won’t go into proper titles etc. in this blog.

Jigoro Kano created the kyu-dan belt rank system for Judo in 1883, and had the first people wear black belts in 1886. The kyu-dan rank system was later adopted by other budo in Japan.

In April of 1924, Ginchin Funikoshi awarded the first black belts in karate to 7 men. Funikoshi under the sponsorship of the Butoku-kai and the Japanese Ministry of Education, adopted the ranking system then officially sanctioned by Japan’s greatest martial arts entities.

Funakoshi’s own rank was of no consequence, since it seems that belt ranking was really just something for the students, not for headmasters. There is no evidence that I’m aware of, that Funikoshi held any official belt rank.

The Butoku-kai issued instructor’s licenses based on old military titles granted by the government: the titles renshi (the lowest), kyoshi, and hanshi (the highest). I can only think of one person granted renshi, and one kyoshi in the last century by the Japanese government/ board of education. I’m not aware of anyone being granted hanshi. Of course this doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened, but I caution anyone considering training with someone using the title to verify the source of such claims.

I suppose titles may now be, being adopted by none traditional martial arts, trying to sound or become traditional? By the way if the founder of the art is alive and the one teaching it, how could it be a traditional martial art? To be traditional, wouldn’t someone have had to create the system, then teach students, that now teach their own students at a minimum to be a tradition? So again I would definitely do a background check on anyone I was going to train with, making such claims. The improper use of titles may not be intentional? Or it could be they are changing the meaning and use of the titles?

In the late 1930s, each karate group was called upon to register with the butoku-kai for official sanctioning, and in 1938, a meeting of the Butoku-kai’s official karatedo leaders was held in Tokyo. The purpose was to discuss the standards for awarding rank within their arts.

Attending, among others, were Hironori Ohtsuka of wado-ryu, Kenwa Mabuni of shito-ryu, Kensei Kinjo (Kaneshiro) and Sannosuke Ueshima of kushin-ryu, Tatsuo Yamada of Nippon kempo, Koyu Konishi of shindo-jinen-ryu, and a young Gogen Yamaguchi of goju-ryu. Most of these men were founders of their own styles, and as such automatically became the highest rank that their agreed-on respective standards allowed.

The belt rank system wasn’t fully adopted in Okinawa until after WWII. After WWII in the 1940-1950’s there were many kai formed to sanction rank. These filled a void created by the Butoku-kai.

There was and probably still is, an issue with westerners getting promoted to higher levels of Black Belt in relation to practitioners of the same system, that are from and live in the country of origin of the art. This lead to other issues.

With the above in mind there are many martial artists outside of Japan, that feel they should have higher rank. This has lead to different sokeship councils, and other groups recognizing rank. After all the fastest/easiest way to get rank is to create your own system. This automatically makes you 10th Dan? This could explain the use of titles such as hanshi, soke, and grand master, by so many people today.

So in effect people that seek out these councils, see themselves in their own way following in the footsteps of those that have gone before them. Others confident in their own knowledge and skill don’t engage with such groups. Believing their knowledge and skill are enough. They believe they don’t need a group of others to acknowledge them.

One difference in these new groups and individuals is that they don’t have government involvement. There are arguments on both sides for the merit of large bureaucracies, and government involvement. While these large groups can help with standardization, the larger a group is the lower the standards may become. Not to mention with more people involved, politics can have a negative impact on an art. This isn’t always the case. There are great organizations like the Kodokan that exemplify the positives in a large organization. There are also McDojo’s as an example of large numbers of students in a organization, where some, question quality control. Form your own opinion, and look closely at any group you think you may want to get involved with before doing so.

I’ve practiced Japanese, Korean, Chinese, as well as hybrid systems based on arts from these countries.

I lived in Japan and trained there in the late 70s through 80. While I was there someone who ran a school would be called sensei. Or if you went to some place like the Kodokan where many teachers would come, train and teach you might hear them referred to as sensei. You certainly didn’t refer to all the other Black Belts in the room as sensei.

I never heard a teacher refer to himself by that or any other title. If they introduced themselves it was by name alone (no title tacked on it). If they were in a large organization, regardless of what dan they were, position they held, or any other title they had, it was always sensei.

I never heard anyone in any style, using any other title while I was there. That doesn’t mean that some didn’t have other titles that might be used by someone else, writing about them in a historical manner. I met and was introduced to many different practitioners up through 9th Dan, and people that practiced systems that didn’t use the belt system created by Jigoro Kano. By the way I was told while training judo in Japan, that 9th degree was the highest rank a living person could obtain. 10th degree was something you had to die to achieve. Other systems didn’t necessarily follow that opinion.

Another interesting thing I’ve noticed people doing these days to gain legitimacy is getting a PH.D. You’ll see them putting Doctor before their names, and PH.D. after their names, sometimes they use Professor. By the way putting Dr. before your name, then PH.D. after it is not proper, it would be redundant. The correct method would be one or the other. So a medical doctor might say “Dr. So and So” or “So and So, MD.” This format applies to PH.Ds as well. Most of these PH.Ds are in martial arts.

I’ve searched the Internet and can’t find any college that gives out a PH.D in martial arts in this country, this includes accredited, and non-accredited schools. The only place I found a legitimate school granting PH.Ds in martial arts was in China. There they have a school right next to, and as large as other colleges/Universities. They have a real curriculum, and a real degree program. There may be schools out there I missed, but I’ve looked on and off for years to find them.

I was mystified that I couldn’t find a school that grants a PH.D. in martial arts, so I asked someone that says he has several, how and where he got them. I thought the answer strange.

“I think there is a college located on the east coast, but I don’t remember it’s name. There were some articles written on it in the martial arts magazines some time ago. My PHD’s were issued only as a result of recommendations from several of the World Martial Arts organizations I became a member of when I was inducted as a Hall of Fame Member. They reviewed my credentials, did background checks, sent their representatives out to view me, etc and once I submitted what they requested of me, attended the required functions, they formed their options, did their recommendations, and the rest is history.”

I still don’t know how you can get multiple PH.Ds and not know from what schools you got them? Wouldn’t you have a diploma?

Some people get their degrees in various topics, from what would be considered a traditional brick and mortar accredited school. Others get them from none accredited schools. While I don’t want to get into the merits of each approach here, I’d like to suggest that if someone is saying they have a PHD. but doesn’t name the school they earned it at, something may be amiss. Degrees in other disciplines then martial arts help make you a better rounded individual, but not necessarily a better martial artist.

I think that if they won’t name the school, either they don’t have the degree, or they don’t believe the degree to be real themselves. After all anyone with a degree from Harvard, or MIT brags about it. Anyone with a degree from any college should be proud of it. Anyone such as a Doctor, Lawyer or other professional using a degree to practice, has their degree displayed in their place of business.

My thought about PH.Ds in Martial Arts granted outside of Asia, is that they may be the result of a group of martial artists deciding to award each other these degrees. I hope this isn’t the case. To me this is equivalent to any group of people deciding to award each other degrees, without going to school.

Could you imagine a group of farmers, that some may or may not have graduated from High School, let alone college, deciding that because they worked in their profession for 20-40 years they deserve a PH.D in horticulture? Then just granting each other one? Then all these farmers going around telling people they have to address them as doctor from now on? This is just an example, and it could be any group of people, with any degree. I certainly don’t mean to suggest anything disrespectful of farmers, or any other group.

Black Belt Halls of Fame groups, are another interesting way in which people look for recognition, and sometimes rank. There seems to be some groups which are awarding rank based on the sum of a persons background, and not in a specific system, or criteria. The individual I asked about the PH.D is calling himself a 10th degree Black Belt/ Grand Master, but he can’t tell anyone what he is grand master of. Some of these Hall of Fame groups may be at the heart of the mystery PH.Ds? I think Black Belt magazine came out with the first “Black Belt Hall of Fame”. They have a very impressive list of inductees. Their inductees all are famous to some degree.

Many others have sprung up since. These are generally pitched as a “Hall of Fame” for martial artists that aren’t famous, but deserve to be. Being recognized by these groups can give you something to hang on your wall, and can be used for advertising. These groups are not all the same. They do all tend to be a networking tool for members. You’ll also see many of the same names appearing in multiple groups. They also appear to have different standards then Black Belt Magazine for induction.

Many of these groups have some big names on their inductee lists, but most of their inductees are people no one has ever heard of. Many of the big names on these lists may not endorse the group that inducted them, but just smile or say nothing about them. Some of these groups use unusual titles for their inductees such as “Supreme Grand Master”. I would suggest that you google the inductees, and see how many of them you can find, and what their backgrounds are. See if they use the same title the Hall of Fame uses for them, and if you can find them, do they list the Hall of fame on their site.?

While there are many hard working martial arts teachers involved with these groups, there are also some people to be very wary of. If you search the Internet I think you’ll find a group was founded by a guy, that was falsely claiming to be awarded the “Congressional Medal of Honor”, and learning martial arts in the orient. My understanding is there is no record of him receiving rank other then the certificate he wrote himself. He had been falsely representing himself, and joining groups for decades. A guy running another had claimed to be awarded his 10th dan by a specific person in Japan. When the person in Japan was contacted, they had never heard of the person making these claims. There is a long list of examples, but this blog has gotten too long already. So with the Internet people that have, let’s say exaggerated their backgrounds for decades can now be exposed. This can cause embarrassment for people associated with them.

The reason I wrote this blog is to provide perspective for those that train, or want to train in martial arts. There seems to be a communications gap between those using belt systems, and those not using them. Hopefully this will provide a frame for people with different backgrounds, and especially new students to be able to better understand the different approaches. Hopefully this will help new students find the right type of people and organization for them, without going through many groups and years, to find what they are looking for.

I have peers from the 90s that when we left our groups, and teachers of that time, took different paths. Each of us followed the path that was best for us. Many of these people sought out Sokeship, and Hall of Fame groups. Heck I even have a grand student that is now in a few of these groups.

One last thought before I close. To my mind extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Do your due diligence when looking for a teacher, and organization to join.

I’m not going to provide any links or references on this blog as supporting documents. I don’t want anyone to take my word on any of this, because I think every martial artist needs to learn the history of the arts he studies as part of his training. Do your own research, besides I could be wrong;-)


Mike Murphy


Categories: Concepts & Principles
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