I got involved in the another discussion about the real importance and value of rank again. This conversation has been around since at least Kano Shihan establishing the now popular system using black belts and ten steps of rank (known as dan 段 in Japanese). You’d think I’d be over this discussion, but I can’t seem to let it go by without taking another whack at it. I’m sure there were huge discussions within the Kodokan, because the rank system there evolved over several decades before it was finally settled in the form we are all familiar with.
The question of what does a particular rank mean can be an interesting one. People are constantly asking “ What is a black belt?" and “What does rank really mean?” These questions need to be looked at in connection with a couple of other questions. Those are “What is a sensei?” and “What is a student?”
In the world of classical Japanese martial arts, the koryu bugei, these questions don’t seem to exist. It might be because people are not evaluated in comparison to each other’s level of attainment. They only give scrolls that correspond with the portion of the system you have learned, and teaching licenses that lay out what you are qualified to teach. This only leaves one question to ask if you are talking to a possible teacher, and one to ask anyone you are training with. The question for possible teachers is “Are you licensed to teach?” and the question for training partners is “Can you do this technique or kata?”
For me, part of the issue is that I’ve been in the iaido and koryu worlds for a long time. I started in judo, and I still train, but I spend a lot of time in other arts.. The Kendo Federation (where I got my iai and jo dan ranks) has ranks, but there are no symbols of rank. Everyone in the room dresses alike, from the guy who just started, to the 8th dan who's been at it for 80+ years. The koryu dojo I'm in are even less about the ranks and such. Yeah, you get some paper sometimes, maybe a license, but that's pretty much it. There are even fewer signs of rank there than in the Kendo Federation. The fascination with belt colors is only in judo and karate systems, and something that is big outside Japan. In Japan, you get a black belt comparatively quickly, and all it tells people is that you are a real member of the club who can take the ukemi.
This leads back to the initial questions: “What is a sensei?” and “What is a student?” These seem obvious. A sensei is someone who teaches, and a student is someone who learns. Those answers work fine in a standard school classroom setting where most questions have right and wrong answers, the kids sit in the desks and the teacher stands in front of the white board. They don’t work so well in dojo where everyone mixes, the teacher might be in his 30s or 40s and the students are anywhere from 9 years old to 91, and even the teacher is working to improve her understanding of the art.
The student’s role seems straightforward. The student is there to learn the art. To do that, that the student is responsible for showing up healthy and ready to learn, with a good attitude. The student is responsible for herself. That was quick and easy to write, but it’s not very satisfying. Showing up healthy is pretty simple. Budo is practiced in close contact with other folks, so please take responsibility for yourself and don’t expose your training friends to every illness you get. Stay on the sidelines when you’re sick. This might not be a complete answer, but what is a sensei needs to be considered before we can go any further.
So what is a sensei, and what is she responsible for? I’ll start by disappointing everyone who wants to break down the Japanese word 先生 and define it by it’s parts. We don’t understand the modern meanings of English words because their original German, Greek or Latin roots meant something a thousand or two thousand years ago. We define them based on how they are used today, and the same goes for Japanese. In Japanese today, ”sensei” is used to address a teacher, doctor, lawyer, politician or other important person. Most commonly, it just means teacher. Nothing more. It has no fancy, special, abstract or mystical meanings. It just means teacher. The word doesn’t help us.
In a budo dojo though, the sensei doesn’t do a lot of classical talk and chalk teaching. Keiko in a budo dojo is a different situation from teaching an academic subject in a classroom, with different concerns, conditions and goals. The teacher has responsibilities to the students and to the art she is teaching. I’m partial to the modern version of koryu budo instruction rather than the military style instruction that became popular in Japanese and Okinawan during the 1930s and 1940s in militarist Japan, and which continued and was spread worldwide afterwards in gendai budo like karate. Koryu is generally done in smaller groups, with more personal instruction and less regimentation. This reflects what sensei is responsible for.
Sensei is responsible for students’ having a safe training environment, that should go without saying, but it doesn’t, so I say it often. This is koryu bugei, and one significant difference I’ve found between koryu bugei thought and practice and nearly every other teaching situation I’ve seen is that in koryu bugei the sensei has no responsibility for making sure students learn anything. Sensei is responsible for making sure students can learn if they make the effort. If someone doesn't make any effort and doesn’t learn anything, that’s the student’s issue.
In both koryu bugei and gendai bugei, the sensei is not only responsible for teaching the student. The budo sensei is responsible for the art as well. They are responsible for passing on the entirety of their art to the next generation. They are not responsible for popularizing the art and teaching to as many people as possible. In fact, many senior members of koryu bugei systems view trying to spread an art as being an abdication of their responsibility to the art. Trying to spread an art quickly risks having poorly or incompletely trained people teaching and not doing a good job of teaching, and worse, corrupting the art because they don’t understand it well enough.
The lessons of any good budo system, koryu or gendai, are far more complex, and deeper than just the movements. In addition to the physical movements there are strategies and tactics for controlling the spacing between you and your opponent. There are techniques and concepts for controlling yourself and your mind. Most of a budo system is beyond the physical movements, and these are the real heart of a system. WIthout a proper understanding of these aspects, an art cannot truly be taught or learned. The sensei’s responsibility to the ryuha includes making sure that only students with an adequate understanding of all parts of the system are teaching. It is better to remain small and obscure and pass along the entire system than to grow into a huge, globe straddling organization that is teaching only the merest shadow of the original art. The teacher’s responsibility to the art is greater than to any individual student.
Interestingly, it’s strange how quickly most students begin to see and understand this. The art, the system dates back generations, particularly for koryu bugei ryuha which can be more than 500 years old, but even Kodokan Judo, the exemplar of gendai budo, is over 130 years old. The ryuha (system, school, art) has it’s own priorities and requirements and benefits. These outweigh the needs of individual students. As students develop an understanding of the deeper nature of the ryuha’s teachings, they also understand that the ryuha will continue long after them, and that their responsibility is to learn the system to the fullest of their ability so that those who train with them and follow them will get the full system and none of it will be lost or corrupted.
Students who begin to understand this, also begin to see and take on responsibility for maintaining the system. Mastering the art is no longer just about gaining personal skill. It becomes about being part of a larger structure that stretches back into history, and pushes on into the future. As students move from beginners to experienced students to teachers licensed to teach a portion of the system and occasionally become licensed to teach the entire system, their rank isn’t about status. It’s about responsibility. The higher your rank, the more responsibility you have to the system. Students who are only interested in learning the system for themselves and who don’t take responsibility for the system should be, and usually are, slowly frozen out of the school, and sometimes even simply expelled.
This is the way it should be. As I’ve been reading more about the early days of the Kodokan and the new rank system that Jigoro Kano Shihan implemented, and it’s evolution, it becomes clear that in the early Kodokan, rank, at least at the early to middle levels, was strictly about how well you could fight. Students were promoted when they defeated 4 people of the same rank, instead of based on how well they knew the whole of Kodokan Judo. I suspect that this caused a not so subtle twisting of priorities amongst the growing membership of the Kodokan. We can see the effects today in the way the International Judo Federation values competition above all else, and downplays or ignores the other 90 percent of the Kodokan syllabus. What has happened is that in many modern budo, rank has simply become a symbol of competitive accomplishment and not a reflection of system mastery or responsibility.
This leaves me with the sad reflection that we have two different answers to the question of rank. The first is what should rank mean? It should be a reflection of student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it. The second question is what does rank actually mean? In koryu bugei, rank is still a reflection of a student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it. In gendai budo sometimes rank is a reflection of a student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it, and sometimes it is a recognition of the student’s competitive accomplishments. Figuring out which is which usually isn’t too difficult.