What is a belt rank and what does it mean?
It is a physical manifestation of both one’s perceived and acknowledged prowess as a martial artist. Rank was never given to a student in a traditional dojo. It has only been part of the martial arts for the last seventy years.
In Chojun Miyagi’s Dojo, students were taught Sanchin as the first kata and perhaps one other kata that suited their fighting style and body type. Since very few students advanced beyond Sanchin, there really was no reason to rank anyone. Only the Uchi Deshi (principal student) was fortunate enough to learn all of the katas. The focus of training was the development and perfection of one’s technique.
The introduction of ranking was started with the formation of the Butoko Kai as a means to evaluate martial artists of different styles and classify them for training purposes. The belt ranking system that developed has been likened to the growth of a tree, the white belt being the young sapling, pliable but not well rooted. Gradually one matures over time, developing very strong roots physically, mentally and spiritually as they reach the black belt level. Chojun Miyagi Sensei had reservations with the ranking system as he feared that it would become the focus of young students rather than the perfection of their technique.
After the Second World War, a student once visited Miyagi Sensei and asked to be awarded a dan rank. Chojun Sensei was very angry and did not reply to the student. After the student left, Chojun Sensei explained to Miyagi An’ichi Sensei that he had never given a dan grade to anyone, not even Shinzato Sensei. Miyagi Sensei explained that the ranking system creates inferior and superior strata within the karate community leading to discrimination between people.
While some may argue that Chojun Miyagi Sensei’s methods were too harsh to spread the martial arts in today’s modern society, there still is wisdom in his concerns. It may be easier to structure a martial arts curriculum based on belt ranking, especially with regards to kata and bunkai. However, if the purpose of learning a kata is solely for a Shiken, how deeply does one understand the form?
A precept of Goju Ryu is that the secrete principles exist within the kata. Through continuous training of the kata one strives to reach “gokui”, the essential teachings. Let us assume that it takes 10,000 repetitions of a technique to even begin to develop an understanding of it. If 10,000 repetitions of one kata were performed, each repetition taking two minutes, it would take over 333 hours of training to begin to develop an understanding of the kata. Multiply this by the 13 katas of Goju Ryu and it would take 4,333 hours of training to develop an understanding of just the kata. This example helps to illustrate the wisdom of Chojun Miyagi Sensei’s approach to solely focusing on the training and not rushing to the next level for ranking.
Today a martial artist is being given the gift of possibly learning all of the forms in the Goju Ryu system, something most of Chojun Miyagi’s students were never given the opportunity to do. It would be a tragedy if today’s students failed to understand the wisdom of the old ways and worried too much about the rank around their waist.