Ranks and promotions in martial arts are a bit of a touchy subject–many people find that they dilute the arts or do nothing but generate money, while others find that the more ranks you have in your art the better off everyone will be. My personal opinion is that rank is a reference tool.
What is it for?
The dan-ranking system we currently have started with Dr. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, because his new students didn’t know who to ask for help–or at least this is the most accepted theory. It was because of that issue he gave his students who were proficient enough to teach black obi to wear to classes for this reason. This system spread throughout martial arts, partnered with the Menkyo Kaiden certification system that has largely become phased out in many martial arts organizations. There is some speculation as to the colored belts simply because swim teams and other sports used colors to designate skill before the kyu-ranking belts were introduced, so I won’t go into that too much here.
That said, I still believe that the mudansha ranks serve the same type of purpose as the yudansha ranks–they let people know what you know. If you were new to a dojo and everyone had white belts except the instructors, how would you know who to ask while the black belts are busy? Sure, if the school is small it won’t take you long to learn what everyone knows, but if the school is large that can be very difficult. Similarly, if you are an instructor visiting a dojo that only has white belts for mudansha, how will you know what material to cover? Do they all know Pinan Godan or have they just started on basic stances? This means you have to take more of your time to figure out what everyone knows so you can teach.
What is it for you?
What good are ranks for the individual karateka? Well, that depends entirely upon your mindset. Your belt is a signification of how much you have learned, and many people are motivated by visual representations of their accomplishments. This means that those people will be motivated to train harder so that they can reach the next rank as a bit of a reward. This is found most often in children, which is why many schools will have extra belts for them. The problem with that, of course, is that these schools will often charge extra for every promotion, which means that just because a child needs a bit more visual incentive to practice they have to pay for it.
What about for the people who don’t need a visual representation of what they have achieved? Well, the belt holds their gi closed and helps their instructors and fellow students know what they know. Beyond that the only thing that their belt might be for them is something that lets them compete in higher levels of competition, and that might be a motivator for them. If their search is for knowledge and their instructor only teaches certain things to people of a certain rank then that can be a motivation.
We have covered why rank can be a motivational force for a martial artist, but what about those who are not so much concerned about the rank itself but the test that proves whether they know what they should know? These tests can be very stressful for some people and a breeze for others, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how prepared they are. The thing that you should try to remember when you are going to be tested is that, no matter how you are motivated, you will be proving what you know to yourself and there is no shame in forgetting something or not having learned something yet. These tests give you great insight into what you need to work on–karate is about the journey, remember?
If you do not pass your test, what is the worst that will happen? You will train harder.
If you do pass your test, what will happen? You will continue training and, hopefully, you will train harder.
In the end, the result is the same, so if your instructor ever tells you to test and you don’t feel that you are ready, what is the harm? Sure, if your instructor charges for the test you may not want to pursue it, but otherwise you are just going to get a fantastic benchmark of your progress and what you should be working on. Then, of course, you may just pass and get to move on to new material.