For most of us, the kyu/dan system is the standard rank system in martial arts, but few know where it comes from. In the late 1800s Japanese swimmers began using the system and colored belts to identify the rank of the swimmers. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, adopted this system to allow for an easier system of identifying the rank of judoka (students of judo). In the early 1900s Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan, adopted this system to help make karate seem more Japanese. Up until that point, karate students wore normal clothing and the only belts they had were for holding their pants up.
As for the rank side of things, until Funakoshi adopted the Kyu/Dan system, karate instructors would give their students a Menkyo Kaiden (a certificate of mastery) to symbolize that a student had learned the complete curriculum and was allowed to teach it to his own students. My point – black belts are still a new concept compared to the rest of karate.
My Feelings on Promotions
If you have been following my articles on promotion then you know I am extremely frustrated with the kyu/dan system. It is too commonly used as a source of money. To test for my Yondan (4th degree black belt) in most styles it would cost me upwards of $450. My instructor insisted that I give him a photo of me in my Air Force uniform to hang up with the certificate in his dojo. I insisted that I get to print my own certificate instead of a generic one he has for other students. It is a different kind of school.
I had mentioned in another article that I think my “test” for 4th dan should be based on how far I have come since 3rd dan. This website, my student manual, my instruction at the club I run, and my guest instruction when I am home are things that should be considered if I were to get promoted – not my ability to do a kata once. My instructor agreed.
It would be wrong not to mention that I am still prouder of the fact my instructor wanted to promote me than the fact I am a 4th degree black belt. The little pat on the back from someone I respect and who has been teaching me for years (not to mention a Martial Arts Hall of Fame inductee) is more of a promotion than a new certificate. As students, we have to remember that belts are just a tiny part of the big picture. This is a milestone for me, but the real achievement is everything I have been doing, not the belt.