What's your rank?

The belt color ranking system that is used throughout the
world today actually started with Judo in Japan in 1883. The Judo clubs would train in a grassy field and pick up yellow and green grass stains on their white uniforms and belts. The uniforms would be washed but the belts were thought to hold the memories (& certainly the smell which can cue recall) of the training. As the grass was worn away and the dirt and mud exposed, that too would stain their belts. The experience and time they spent training could be clearly seen by the color of their belts.

Using that idea, most other martial arts systems have adopted their own belt color ranking system, but what exactly are they ranking? Each style represents a body of knowledge and a philosophy, but there are usually no written tests. In some styles rank is determined by how many
boards, bricks, or clay tiles one can break using fists, feet, elbows, knees or head. Others have a test of life and death, like catching a live blade with the bare hands or sensing a cut from behind, as a test for teachers’ qualifications. There is a story about a style that includes medical techniques. In choosing a successor the grandmaster proposed a test of their medical knowledge by asking them to find as many things that had no medical use as possible. He chose the young man who couldn’t find any.

In some cases the mastership of a style was passed down only
within a particular family. When that tradition was broken it often led to a feud, but it was only broken when a student who wasn’t related to the master was much more qualified than his own relatives. Such differences between rank and qualifications have been one of the driving factors
behind the development of new styles.

Sometimes it seems that, rather than knowledge or skill, time (& money) spent with a particular teacher is the determining factor in gaining rank. In such cases the instructor is often unwilling to discuss the history of that style or the types of skills/techniques to be taught. What they are selling seems to be an association with the styles legendary founders along with a great deal of exercise and discipline under their instruction.

This discrepancy between the promise of the skills associated with a particular style and the instruction delivered has led the Japanese government to consider some martial arts dojo to be a type of pyramid scheme.

For those that don’t know, a pyramid scheme is a type of
multilevel marketing business where association and rank in the company is more important than selling products. Instead all their money came from new recruits who were promised they would become rich if they recruited enough people. This type of business is now illegal in most

Any instructor worth learning from should be able to discuss
the history and philosophy of the styles they teach as well as being able to demonstrate techniques.

In some of the ninja clans of ancient Japan there were only 3 ranks. Genin were the agents who carried out missions. They had the skills to accomplish their mission and return, on their own or in small groups, and enough knowledge to maintain a cover identity in enemy territory for years. Chunin were the go-betweens who communicated between the Genin, their Jonin leaders, and various warlords throughout
the country. They were skilled in codes and ciphers, psychology, meteorology, strategy, geography, and various other skills that were necessary for maintaining a covert network. Jonin were leaders who planned the fate of the clan and had to deduce from every source of information the changes the country was about to undergo. Their training
was as much spiritual as practical, but they were required to have the skills of the Genin & Chunin as well. Often the Jonin’s true identity was never known.

In many styles there are only 2 ranks. Shisho(master/teacher) and Deshi(apprentice/disciple). One Shishou may have several Deshi or a number of Shishou may entrust their skills to one Deshi. This relationship continues until the deshi has absorbed all the Shishou’s skills and even beyond. The only flaw is when the Shishou’s
knowledge is incomplete, usually so is the Deshi’s.

Author's Bio: 

M.P. Schaefer has been studying & practicing the martial arts for over thirty years. While researching the origins of various arts he crossed over into various other subjects including Asian culture; history; and philosophy, the myths & legends of Japan & China as well as other Asian countries and even India. He speak more than passable Japanese and using several dictionaries sometimes reads college level textbooks and ancient manuscripts in Japanese & Chinese.
Mr. Schaefer holds a master's degree in Oriental medicine and acupuncture, as well as a few medical licenses & various certificates.