The Problem of Rank

Outward displays of rank are common in the martial arts of Japan and those which were heavily influenced by Japanese culture. Okinawan karate is no exception. The dan/kyu system with corresponding grades of colored obi (belts) was first introduced into martial arts by Kano Jigoro of judo. A similar system spread throughout karate shortly after. This kind of belt rank system has its merits. Unfortunately, it has also led to many problems.

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The first problem:

It is impossible to tell a person's level of experience by rank alone.

In reality, there is no set standard by which rank is awarded. Time in grade, age, technical proficiency, subject knowledge, and teaching experience for a given rank can all vary even within a single dojo. This does nothing but add to the enigma of what rank really means.

This leads to the second problem:

Unqualified people get promoted; some of them are instructors. 

This is not to say that everyone who gets promoted is unqualified. What I mean by this is that, in some cases, unqualified people get promoted along with the truly qualified ones. This is especially detrimental if a person is promoted to an instructor position that they are not actually qualified for. Unfortunately, there are many people, especially beginners, who do not know how to tell the difference between an instructor who is qualified and one who is not. In this way, the vicious cycle continues. This problem exists throughout the martial arts community. There are schools that keep very strict standards of quality and there are those that do not.

The third problem:

The ego corrupts rank's true purpose.

The ego gets in the way when you focus on yourself at the expense of those around you. The purpose of rank is lost on those who believe that they are somehow better or worse than others around them based solely upon the rank they hold. In the worst cases, bad practices are allowed to perpetuate because people are too proud to change. This is especially true of people who have built their entire self-image around high rank and the bias that their way is best. To change is to admit that they were wrong which, in turn, undermines their self-image. All of these attitudes are detrimental to the art and miss the true purpose of rank.

Paradox and Purpose

The paradox of rank is that it is earned only by individual effort, but it does not actually exist for the individual who earns it. It says something about you, but it is not actually for you. It is for the people around you. The true purpose of rank is to serve the art. It exists as a reference for other students so they know who to go to for knowledge and guidance. It exists as a reference for instructors to gauge where a student falls in progression. It does not exist to elevate the ego of the holder. The higher you climb in the ranks the more important it is to remember that.


The problem of rank exists for all of us. It is something that we all must deal with somehow. I have developed my own solution to the problem of rank. Read about it here.

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Luke Pecor