What’s rank? Just what is it to say “I’m an X-dan”, what’s it mean to you and to other people? Of what use is it?
Well to students, rank is a way of ticking off the progress milestones, a rank represents a minimum set of skills mastered, or a miniimum level of competence. As such, it provides a way to keep up the interest, who doesn’t want to collect merit badges, and it becomes a way to organize your education. The various dan levels provide a progression of learning and by studying to the next exam you are carrying on in a logical way to further your knowledge.
For the seniors, it’s a way to sort out the instructional ranks, who teaches who, who gets to define the curriculum and who sits in judgement of those below.
It doesn’t have to get any more complicated than that, we don’t have to bring in ego, power-seeking behaviour or other such misunderstandings. That formal rank is useful is amply demonstrated by its existance in just about every budo organization of any size out there. For smaller groups, rank may be informal, but it still exists. In a single dojo the members will sort themselves into sensei, seniors and juniors on an ad hoc basis, or perhaps even on a name board hung in the dojo.
Grades are organization derived, and recognized. If there are multiple similar organizations, as in a worldwide federation of national groups, the world body usually facilitates cross-border recognition of grades within the organizations under its umbrella. A highly structured example of this is seen in the International Kendo Federation, where a set of minimum recommended guidelines on grading is provided to the national body which is the degree granting unit. In other words, your rank comes from your country, but the guidelines provide a way to ensure that a 5dan in France is the same as a 5dan in Columbia.
Grades can also move between informally related organizations by tradition or semi-formal agreement, as perhaps between different Aikido groups in the same general lineage who will usually recognize a grade without requiring a re-test. There can even be transfer by unilateral granting of credit for rank earned elsewhere. This sort of thing often happens when, say, a karate teacher switches from one group to another and is granted his same or a higher (or lower) rank.
The ranking system is only meaningful within the granting organization itself, and is often opaque to the students… “what do I need to do to get the next grade”? This opacity is often useful to prevent students from getting too focused on the grading itself and forgetting the underlying purpose (to improve in the art rather than to gain the grade). On the other hand, a rank might be very specific indeed, “master this set of techniques and you will receive this certification that you have done so”.
Unhelpful Rank Manipulations
So why the noodling? I have been thinking recently about the various ways that rank can become un-useful, or perhaps I should say, the ways that it’s usefulness can be subverted, sometimes by good intent, into something that is actually damaging to the organization.
Money: Consider that most grades cost something. When the fee covers the cost of organizing the grading itself, there is never a problem. When it covers the grading costs and provides a reasonable level of extra income to the organization for it’s day to day expenses, that’s also not a problem. If the fees start to become high, and the students paying those fees can’t see any return, or worse, can see those fees heading to some other purpose than back to the students paying them, there’s discontent. The use of organization fees for the top guy to fly around the country visiting dojo (not teaching, just schmoozing around) might be considered borderline but imagine organization fees going to pay for the top guy’s new house (instead of to a salary which is then applied to the new house).
Fees that are “traditional” can crop up around gradings, these are things like “thank you gifts” to senior sensei which are “expected”, and can be confused with bribes, especially when given before the grading. Of course, then you have the straight out bribes but we hardly need to speak of how those will damage any organization and completely undermine all legitimacy in the grading system.
Bias: Similar in effect to bribes, the appearance (or reality) of granting rank due to association (to a teacher, or through family relationship) will undermine the system. If a grading system moves away from it’s stated outlines it will be seen as unfair, even if the rank is given for merit. If your rank system is based on ability, giving rank for being the son of the soke creates resentment. If the rank is based on family connection, giving rank to some outsider who is skilled will create a similar resentment. In other words, be honest about how rank is granted and don’t change the rules without consultation and announcement. Most organizations have a few ranks that were given as thanks to outside benefactors, or for work done by members that is of great benefit to the group, but isn’t given for technical skill. These are not uncommon or undeserved, but lower ranked students need them explained before they think bias.
Rank-inflation: What happens when a group starts handing out “easy” rank in order to build membership? “We will give you an extra dan rank if you bring your students in” or “you will get a black belt in two years if you sign this contract”. The result is that the worth of each rank becomes less, like money in a period of inflation, it takes more and more rank to represent the same level of skill. This way leads to the 15th-dan, or even to “currency-replacement” with additional rank systems being grafted on (you can be a 6dan but you also now have to be a shihan in order to sit on a grading panel).
Rank-deflation: What happens when the group at the top decides that they don’t really deserve their grade and they start requiring more and more from their students at each grading? You get deflation, as when a shortage of money in circulation causes price drops in goods (the value of the money in circulation starts to increase in value). Why is that not a good thing? Who doesn’t want to buy more for less? Less money means a stagnant economy, shopkeepers don’t get paid as much for their stuff and workers don’t make as much money, nobody buys stuff and people start to lose jobs. What happens in budo? Students start to quit grading or go to some other organization, either way, your next generation of teachers is gone.
Rank-degradation: This is rather similar to deflation, and can sometimes be the cause of that same deflation. Anyone in an international organization has seen or even participated in this one, in it’s mild form. “A Japanese 5dan is, of course, more skilled than a non-Japanese 5dan”. In it’s nastier form the folks from the home country will state flat-out that “overseas ranks are too high”, that those grades given in a foreign country are given too easily. When this happens the grading system in the foreign country will become tougher, either by the locals trying to improve, or by dropped-in examiners with an agenda to improve the locals. Either way it will lead to fewer students bothering to grade and eventually to the loss of membership.
Rank-collapse: If there are no students rising to the top of the organization due to any of the reasons given above, the system can collapse. Those who die or retire are the highest ranks, if they haven’t replaced themselves somehow, the degree-granting system ratchets down to the next allowed rank. If you have to be two grades ahead to sit on a panel, 6dans can create 4dans, when you run out of 6dans you can only create 3dans with your 5dans. Sooner or later the membership collapses as students realize there’s no way to get to the top any more.
A Theoretical Example: What can happen with the best of intentions?
Let’s suppose a world budo federation with a bunch of national organizations under it. The national organizations probably start with a club or two out in the wilderness, students who have moved abroad perhaps, being supported as best as they can by sensei back in the home country, or in some other country. With enough growth the dojos form a national organization and then join the international group. The grading system may not start for several years after this, but eventually some ranking gets done with some of the more wealthy students going to other countries. This situation lasts only as long as it has to, because you can’t grow like that. The talent levels become wildly out of kilter with the rank so it is decided that the country has to start doing their own gradings. This is hard, but with enough time, effort and money collected from the students a panel is assembled and some gradings are done. Now the growth can happen, and it does with the upper ranks trying hard to stay ahead of their students coming up behind them. Several years go by and now the oldsters who started the organization have managed to accumulate enough higher rank to think about not having to bring in judges from other countries. A proud day indeed. The upper ranks are proud of their students who worked hard, built dojo, struggled and sweated to gain their own students and become worthy of their rank. The students are proud of their sensei who have pulled them up the mountain while not having any regular teachers of their own. No easy walk up following their teacher for those guys, they had to cut the forest and build the bridges as they fought their way slowly higher, always looking both forward and back to make sure their students were on better footing than they ever had.
A nice story, and a nice result. But… money.
The budo has a competitive aspect which is a big reason the first group started practising in the first place. Now they have a national team to compete in the world championships against the old country. A national team is expensive and a lot of money is now heading toward their training and travel. So much in fact, that not a lot is left over for promoting or instructing the grass roots clubs and those clubs are starting to wonder what their grading fees and membership dues are being used for… beside the elite few on the national team. Not only that, but all the tournaments are now seeded and the recreational types are starting to wonder why they spend money to travel to and enter a tournament where they get knocked out in the first round by one of the national team members. It’s hardly worth the effort and they only attend out of loyalty to the organization. Still, it would be easier and cheaper to just mail the equivalent of the entry fee to the organization. They might even do that, and the tournaments start getting smaller and the better competitors start to get fewer matches before meeting each other in the quarter finals. So far so good, no less money and less wasted time before the elite fight each other.
Good intentions but the result? With no grassroots efforts and no tournament experience for the juniors, the national team starts to get a bit long in the tooth. It’s the same guys for year after year and their results are going down. The limited funds available in the organization went to pride before growth and now they are paying the price without having reaped any benefit. Their numbers were too small, their base too limited to take a run at the larger countries so soon. Now they are back at the beginning, building from the ground up but with a set of middle level ranks who are not as keen as they were, they just want to practice the art and are reluctant to work for a competitive side they can no longer enjoy. This is an age old problem for any sports organization, how much do we spend on the elite and how much on the grass roots. Concentrate everything on either one and you have a problem. The usual advice is to make sure that most of the money goes toward instruction, a big base gives you money and prospects to push on to the elite levels. Concentrate on the elite and it’s a very short-term effort before that elite gets old and there is nobody to replace them.
Well, the organization can survive, they will just concentrate on growth for a while, and they call for that from the dojo and sensei. They don’t have any particular suggestions, but they call for it nonetheless. More cynicism from the membership, they’ve been fighting for years to increase their membership and have tried everything they can. Unless there are plans coming, there will be a negative result from calls for growth. You don’t ask for more work without putting it in yourself do you?
Well perhaps it will work out for our group but….. more rank troubles.
Unfortunately, someone back in the home country has become nervous about the upper ranks of some of the other countries, they have heard that the top fellows aren’t the strongest technicians, that they aren’t up with the latest developments in the art. Never mind that there are lots of teachers of the same rank in the home country that are just as bad, just as behind the times, those guys aren’t in charge of whole countries! So the word goes out in a very polite way, “you guys are too easy on the grading”. The implication of course is that there has been bias in the judging! You fellows have been promoted because you’re the ones who have been putting your efforts and money into growing the organization and so you have been awarded your grades for this instead of for technical skills…. (wait, that doesn’t sound so dire does it? Well yes it does, if you can’t do it you can’t understand it right? We’ll talk about swim coaches who can’t swim some other day shall we.)
The top guys aren’t the best technically? Hey, the guys at the top already know this, they’ve spent most of their time teaching and too little practising in front of a teacher, you don’t have to remind them of that, they worry about it every day. They worry about it so much that they spend all their time coaching their juniors to make sure they don’t have the same disadvantage, they teach as hard as they can, not out of ego but out of concern. Yet the implication is that if the guys at the top aren’t up to snuff, neither are their juniors. So fine, we’ll crank up the requirements to make sure our students are at least half a rank above the ranks elsewhere. We’ll put in lots of kyu grades before they even get into the dan ranks, we’ll put extra years between ranks, and we’ll require more at each rank. That way they will be better than their grade wherever they go.
Good intentions but students aren’t blind, they notice the requirements creeping up, they start to wonder why the guys ahead of them didn’t have to do so much for their rank. Never mind that the first guys worked their asses off building the system the students are grading in now, they are changing it after they’ve gone through, they are… well they are making it easier for the students to decide that it isn’t worth all the trouble to grade. If you have to turn in a PhD thesis to get a BSc degree, why not go to community college and study graphic design instead. Just do what you want to do, just practice and to hell with the grading. But that means the upper ranks are shrinking and not growing.
And the older ranks are still there, they have made it harder to get to their level, but they haven’t demoted themselves so the concerned folk back in the home country decide it’s time to be more direct, they will take over the grading of the top ranks themselves. Again, the implication, and maybe even the quietly polite statement that the top ranks are undeserving (they’d be the first to agree of course), and all done with the best of intentions. The direct students of the top guys are not happy of course, their teachers worked hard to create the organization and here comes a group from overseas to tell them they don’t deserve their rank, effectively demoting them by taking over their jobs, but the top guys are keen to finally get some instruction from their own seniors after years of scarcity.
If the home country sends the judges and pays their expenses, it’s a glorious thing. But of course that isn’t going to happen, if there was that sort of money available they would have been visiting all along. No, the local country will have to pay to bring in the judges, and will have to accept the new judgement regime that combines with the new, more strict rules to make sure that only the very best get to advance to the next rank. A worthy goal indeed.
Expensive? You bet. Examinations might only happen once every two or three years now, and students who were wondering where their dues went in past years now know exactly where their increased grading fees are going. They are going to bring in judges from somewhere else, judges who don’t have a clue who the students are, judges who may change every grading to make sure they don’t get any bias by knowing the students. Remember that bias that created the unworthy upper ranks in the first place? It can happen back home too, so change the judges who are getting too cozy with the foreigners, make it an objective assessment. Good intentions.
The outside judges may have their own concerns back home with their own higher-ups. If they were told to “crack down” on these foreign ranks you can be assured they will. Otherwise, why were they sent? The local judges will follow suit, and crack down alongside, or they will catch what-for. And the students find themselves waiting for the next grading as nobody passes.
Does all this sound alarming, is it really a danger to the organization if we crack down on the upper ranks in our national organization, make the ranks really valuable? No of course not. It’s a good thing and let’s remember that the rank isn’t the important part of the process, its the time spent on the dojo floor practising with your sensei. All the rank stuff is just politics after all, just sorting folk out on the hierarchy which is just ego stuff. The national organization begins to feel a drop in revenue as grading fees are not coming in, so all the other fees get increased to make up for it.
Remember way up top there when we talked about the worth of rank? Most students don’t like testing, most don’t like the stress and don’t like paying for it and now our organization has pushed back at them just enough that they remember they don’t need rank to practice. Their sensei, the guys in the middle who have been disillusioned by their own top guys and by the home country are also disinclined to pressure their students to grade. After all even if you have the good of the organization in mind, it’s not a good idea to push a lot of the membership up to middle rank only to have them pile up because they can’t move on to the top ranks. That creates a bunch of instructor-level people who might just decide to leave the original organization and start their own group with their own grading system. If they aren’t in the sport stream and don’t need to be members of the organization to compete, there’s no real incentive to stick around, and even if they are competing, they can simply join as individuals while teaching their own students elsewhere.
International recognition of your rank? Why? You have been told your top levels are sub-par which actually means that ranks are NOT equal and are NOT recognized. You certainly don’t have any real need for an international rank if you aren’t planning to move, so what’s the use? Other countries are going to bring in the “real” ranks from the home country from now on so the recognition ceases to be of interest to anyone but the national team.
The organization is now in a downward spiral. The old guys retire out of age or frustration and the ranks collapse far enough that the home country doesn’t send judges any more. Our national group can only rank up to a low level and unless there are keeners who are willing to travel to the home country and grade, its all back to the beginning.
Best intentions can bring worst results.
As I say, I’ve written this because I’ve seen organizations grow and then die back over the mis-understanding of both money and rank. The example above is a combination of the worst results I’ve seen from the best intentions in several organizations. I know there are some groups out there on the cusp of either moving forward or heading over that tipping point to decline. Nobody is the bad guy in these situations, everyone has the best of intentions, but actions always bring unexpected results if they aren’t fully thought out. Don’t make changes without considering the results several years down the road.