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How the Masters Got Their Ranks:

Origins of the Karate Rank System

Throughout the course of our karatedo training, we take for granted the grading system that awards our belt ranking and titles. Sometimes this system is manifestly personal, with the headmaster--and only he--bestowing each promotion directly, according to his own standards. Often, the testing for and awarding of rank is a more bureaucratic affair, with a committee exercising a perfunctory duty in a formally standardized and even routine mannerless ceremony, yet somehow more officious.

The recent writings of Hanshi Richard Kim of the Butoku-kai (Dojo Fall 1993) taught how the dan/kyu (degree) system was adopted by modem budo systems, promulgated by the Butoku-kai, and codified in its final form for Japanese karatedo by the Federation of All Japan Karatedo Organizations (FAJKO). To truly understand this ranking system, it is important to gain a clearer insight into how the various masters obtained their ranking, since that forms the basis for your rank.

This much we know for certain: On April 12, 1924, Gichin Funakoshi, the "Father of Modern Karate," awarded karate's first black belt certificate upon seven men. The recipients included Hironori Ohtsuka, founder of wado-ryu karatedo, Shinken Gima, later of gima-ha shoto-ryu, and Ante Tokuda, Gima's cousin, who received a nidan (second degree) black belt. Like Gima, Tokuda had trained extensively in Okinawa before coming to Japan proper. The others were Kasuya, Akiba, Shimizu and Hirose. This beginning was a highly personal, yet formal ceremony in which Funakoshi is said to have handed out lengths of black belting to his pupils. Still there is no evidence that Funakoshi himself had ranking in any budo under the dan/kyu system.

Actually, Funakoshi was greatly influenced by Jigoro Kano, aristocratic founder of judo, and originator of the dan/kyu system. Kano was a highly respected individual, and Funakoshi prided himself on being an educated and "proper" man who rightly believed that he was acting correctly. Kano's system was not only being applied to judo, but to other budo as well under the aegis of the Butoku-kai and the Japanese Ministry of Education. Funakoshi, then, just adopted the order of the day: a ranking system 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.

For its part, the Butoku-kai issued instructor's licenses: the titles renshi (the lowest), kyoshi, and hanshi (the highest). It would be a while before the dan/kyu system became universal in karate. By the end of the 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. Its purpose was to discuss the standards for awarding rank within their art. 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. Yamaguchi assumed leadership of goju-ryu because, we are told, goju-ryu's founder, Chojun Miyagi, personally asked him to take the leadership of the style in Japan. About then, Funakoshi also finalized the grading standards for use at his shotokan dojo.

Of course, the Butoku-kai continued to sanction head teachers directly. This was not without controversy, however, since Konishi sat on the board that awarded Funakoshi his renshi and Konishi had been Funakoshi's student. Of course, Konishi had inside ties to the Butoku-kai by virtue of birth, something the Okinawan Funakoshi could not have.

Back on Okinawa, the dan/kyu system did not become universal until after World War II. It was not unknown there, however, and some individual teachers did utilize the black belt. Judo had been practiced on Okinawa at least since the 1920s. In fact, it was at a Judo Black Belt Association (Yudanshakai) meeting on Okinawa that Miyagi and shito-ryu's Kenwa Mabuni demonstrated karate kata (forms) for Jigoro Kano garnering praises from the judo founder. Miyagi, it should be noted, became the first karate expert given the title of kyoshi (master) from the butoku-kai in 1937. Miyagi was then appointed chief of its Okinawan branch

After the ravages of war in the Pacific, the surviving karate leaders had to begin anew. With the Butoku-kai administration shut down for years to come, each karate group was on its own. The acknowledged leaders of each faction, as well as individual dojo chiefs, gave out dan ranks based upon all original sanctioning by the Butoku-kai or mandates inherited directly from the ryu's founder....... Read the entire article at http://judoinfo.com/karateranks.htm