On the Origins of Black Belts

Hirakawa Ryu uses both menjouhoshiki and kodokan-type ranking systems. I added a kodokan-type ranking system to our jujutsu waza and every new student starts there. I did this for two reasons - the first is when we visit other dojo my students needed some visible display of skill (rank) to prevent the arrogance of some other kyu ranks from interfering with the training; and also because new American students just gotta have a color belt. Our other disciplines still use menjouhoshiki and I will NOT consider teaching those disciplines to students below shodan in Hirakawa Ryu Jujutsu. I will not accept an outside student below the rank of yondan and even then they are subject to stringent evaluation.


The old Ryuku ranking system in Okinawa for karate styles was similar to the modern aikido system, you were a white belt or you were a black belt. If you were a white belt you were a student and if you were a black belt you had learned all there is to know of the style. You would typically only learn 5-7 kata in all but you would learn everything there is to know about each kata before you went on to the next and spend roughly 5 YEARS on each.

Koryu in Japan used the menjouhoshiki or certificate system, a set of written records for each student detailing what they had learned. This was kept in the dojo and only made sense when compared with the school documents; e.g., Dan Bernardo has learned shoumokuroku waza jyuuichi would only makes sense when you could look at the shoumokuroku waza and see what that actually is (migi nanamegiri followed by hidari gyaku kesagiri if you are wondering).

Kano Jigoro created the kodokan ranking system when he opened the Kodokan (a live-in training center for judo) more or less as a visual aid to the instructors to show what each student was capable of or should be training for. And let us be honest about it, whether or not they will: The kodokan ranking system was designed to match the ranking in "mutsubaka's peasant army".

Funakoshi Gichin adopted Kano's kodokan ranking system for shotokan karate (contrary to popular belief, Kano and Funakoshi were friends and Kano had Funakoshi teach at the Kodokan more than once). As such he is called the "Founder of Modern Karate".

Later when Taekwondo was codified, they took much of it from shotokan including the kodokan ranking system. There was a great push to hide the origins of TKD and to legitimize it as a traditional Korean martial art but the fact remains that TKD (as developed originally by Choi Hong Hi, e.g., ITF) is essentially "Korean Shotokan".

The kodokan ranking system fits the modern mindset quite well and is especially perfect for the American mindset (instant gratification) but it is vital we remember that within kodokan-type systems shodan (first degree black belt) was and is merely a beginner. At the Kodokan this meant simply that a student had gained enough skill for Kano himself to bother talking to him.

Shodan in kodokan-type systems means you have finally learned enough basics to be worth teaching. As far as skills go you can barely find your boots, let alone lace them up properly.

Unfortunately there is also the subconscious expectation of being like the old Ryuku yudansha; "I know it all" and just as unfortunate is that some people promote themselves as such; even going so far as opening a dojo and teaching what they really cannot understand themselves.

Finally, i will leave you with this and allow you to evaluate yourself...

The parable of "A Man of Tao (Do) and a Little Man":

A student once asked, "What is the difference between a man of Tao and a little man?" The sensei replies, "It is simple. When the little man receives his shodan, he can hardly wait to run home and shout at the top of his voice to tell everyone that he has obtained his black belt. Upon receiving nidan, he will climb to the rooftops and shout to the people. Upon receiving sandan, he will jump in his automobile and parade through town blowing the horn, telling one and all about his skills as sandan".

The sensei continues, "When the man of Tao receives shodan, he will bow his head in gratitude. Upon receiving his nidan, he will bow his head and his shoulders. Upon receiving his sandan, he will bow at the waist and quietly walk alongside the wall so that people will not see him or notice him".