16 posts / 0 new
Last post
Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture
Rank recognition- your take

So, here's the context: I recently decided to find a dojo for my nine year old son, I don't teach kids anymore, and he wouldn't listen to me as a teacher anyway, but he wants to try Karate.


I looked around a bit and found a traditional dojo that looked good, checked it out, met the teacher, thought it seemed fine. My son wanted me to accompany him for a month, and the teacher seemed keen on us joining.

I already have my own class of course, but would be training with my son as support at this dojo.

I email the teacher about rank etc. protocol, apparently he wants me to wear a white belt if I attend. I have had no issue wearing a white belt when I did Judo, etc. but being asked to wear one in a traditional Karate dojo after 30-something years of training I have to admit has rubbed me the wrong way.

It seems like a weird request to me on the basis of dojo-disruptive factors. A black belt doing kihon wearing a white belt in a mixed-age beginners class seems like it would be more disruptive than just wearing my black belt.

So, I am curious what people think about this? In my corner of the Karate world this would be something of an extreme insult - basically     a way of cutting off someone's status as a possible peer.

I do remember stuff like this from the 80's though, and I don't think it's intended personally. The teacher has been very respectful, we chatted about mutual Karate acquaintances, etc.

My options are to just look for another place to get my son some basic Karate, try teaching him myself again, actually put on the whitebelt and go with him, or just send him and not be there.

What would you choose to do and why? Is this just my ego talking?

Is there a logic behind this sort of rule that I'm not understanding? In the Karate culture I've been a part of for 20 years or so, another instructor is a peer. When I have had other black belts in my dojo Ive not only acknowledged others ranks and/or backgrounds but I treat them as possible sources of knowledge and even extend some teaching opportunities if they are interested. To me this is common courtesy and sense in an environment where the point is skill improvement for everyone.

I realize I'm probably on the informal end of the spectrum here, and there are lots of dojo's with more rigid structure, but is this normal?




Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

I should add, part of the reason I find this a little shocking is also that in my participation at other Karate dojo's over the years as a Dan rank I was just told to show up as is and I just participated in class as normal. My black belt from another style didn't make me an expert on the dojo's style, nor would I ever assume anything like that, but we managed good relations, and I feel like they were mutually beneficial relationships..I guess I had begun to assume this is more standard approach than it is.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

I had something sort of like this happen to me.  I had earned a 6th kyu long ago.  My son joined a dojang in the VERY SAME STYLE.  I joined him after a while.  I had to put on a white belt.  It was a little grating.  I was as good as anyone in the (small) class, some of whom were ranked higher.

However ... I think the instructor's view was that I was not a guest (who might have worn whatever rank by courtesy) but rather I was joining his dojang, and he had standards to uphold.  After he had checked me out for a couple months, at the next test I was promoted to 5th kyu.    

So, it's annoying and a little insulting, I get it.  But if you like the dojo otherwise, just take it as an opportunity to work on your fundamentals.  If he's a decent instructor he won't keep you at a low rank for long.

Frazatto's picture

I accepted, gladly, to go back to white belt when I started Goju-ryu.

I didn't train karate for some years at that point and the differences to Shotokan were enough to cause a lot of confusion. Their requirements for each grade were also a lot more rigid than my former experiences (the grades check list is quite annoying and don't evolve linearly) .

But in your case, it seams a quite unreasonable request.

Is he a really good instructor? Considering your son education in the art as the main objective here, if the dude is worth it, just don't practice there yourself. If he is just ok, go try some other places......

At least, this would be my reasoning.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture


When I switched from Shorin to Goju 20 or so years ago I voluntarily put on a whitebelt, the style was different enough to warrant it, and I was a ni kyu in Shorin Ryu. With Judo Jujutsu it wasn't even a question whether or not I was a whitebelt, the rank fit.

In this case I'm a Sandan in Goju Ryu who has had my own dojo for 14 years or something, thinking about doing some training at a dojo in a style similar to Goju, with some of the same Kata.

I imagine at least part of it is that I am coming under less than dedicated circumstances - wanting to get my son started in Karate, not looking for rank myself.

Then again  it's also somewhat complimentary that I am considering sending my son there.

Anyway, I guess upon reflection Im not sure I like the dojo enough to warrant doing it after this experience, so maybe I'll keep looking. Thanks for the input guys.


deltabluesman's picture

I'll offer a few thoughts.  I don't teach martial arts, so I'll speak to this purely from a student's perspective.  I personally prefer taking a white belt whenever training in a different style.  The only exception would be where the schools are virtually identical (in terms of syllabus, grading standards, etc.). 

In my experience, each school tends to have its own fundamentals.  Black belts in those schools will (hopefully) spend years refining those fundamentals to a high level.  When you come from a different style, it's anyone's guess whether your skill set will align.  Most of the time, there will still be some kind of skill gap.  It doesn't mean that one school is necessarily better than another, it just means that they focus on different priorities. 

As I think back to all of the times where either (i) I visited a new school or (ii) a martial artist came to visit our school, I would say that there were always noticeable differences in our skill sets.  It's a rare person who can walk into a new school and effortlessly perform and teach all of their warm-ups, drills, and techniques (at a black belt level).  For this reason, I think it's preferable to start off with the white belt and then earn rank as the gaps are filled.  I don't think of it as an insult at all.  The ultimate question is whether the material itself is worth studying.  

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture


Hmm, I guess I can't really agree with that. The fundamentals of Karate are just that, and they transfer pretty well, minus specific style-based minutiae. To my mind this is very much part of what is questionable in the Karate world - confusing and magnifying style-based minutiae with fundamentals, which are broadly similar across Karate styles.

I don't think it was intended as an insult either, It might indicate irreconcilable differences though, in terms of training there.


deltabluesman's picture

Let me offer some clarification.  My point is that each school/instructor has the authority to decide which skills they consider fundamental or most important and to set standards for their curriculum accordingly.  When a student joins a new school, it may be the case that they already have all of the key skills in place and are already performing at a black belt level.  If so, their skills and rank should be recognized.  But if there is a difference or gap, then I (speaking as the student) would prefer to wear a white belt and grade up accordingly.

After all, karate can include a huge range of different techniques and methods . . . strikes, traps, locks, throws, principles, kata, etc.  Each school will prioritize those differently and train them in different ways.  As years of training accumulate, the different priorities will start to make a larger and larger difference.  There will be different "levels" (to borrow an overused term).   

I can't speak to your specific situation, but if I understand correctly, the kata in this style are different.  At minimum, you'll need to (i) learn those kata, (ii) train the bunkai and any accompanying drills, and then (iii) refine the bunkai until you're able to apply it against resistance at black belt level.  Hopefully that will be a quick process, but when I'm in that position, I prefer to start fresh and work my way up.  Reasonable minds may differ, of course.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture


Of course people can make their own policies, that goes without saying, people get to run their dojo's however they please. I'm just trying to figure out the merit of this kind of rule.

As I mentioned, I'm not there to learn their system. I'd certainly appreciate seeing some of it and benefitting from the education that comes with cross training. I'd be there to do that while I supported -my son- starting there.

Sure, there are different levels and competencies at different dojos, if they are wildly different, that is a problem in Karate  and indicates a haphazard approach. Personally I can watch someone do basic techniques or kihon a bit and tell fairly quickly where they sync up on a base-skills level to my dojo standards, such as they are. I recognize people's rank regardless though. To my mind part of teaching Karate effectively would be filling in the "gaps" you talk about without needing to start from scratch.

Knowing specific drills should not be a core competency to me, rather, the skills those drills create should be the measure, if someone is going to have such a measure. Like I said I am the diametric opposite here, and I recognize anyone's rank - especially if they are just training and don't plan on trying to learn the whole system, which describes every guest black belt I've ever had in my dojo, personally.

No I don't know all the Kata, but I know probably a quarter of what was on their syllabus. I have no idea whether they even train bunkai, much less resistant bunkai. That is not a common find in manyKarate schools in my experience , even today. I was lucky enough to have it but I have not seen it being a part of that many Karate schools basic curricula. These folks have very nice basic technique and that is my main reason for me wanting to start my son - so he can learn basic Karate techniques from someone who is not me. I'm not that concerned with more advanced learning and if he wants actual combative stuff as he gets older my dojo is literally part of my house and he can join us there if he wants.

Anyway, I've made my decision to keep looking at this point. A dojo focused on orthodoxy in this way might not be the best fit for my kid and I anyway, and there are other places to check out.

I have just gotten used to a much more open culture than what I think exists in a lot of dojo's, so I will either have to deal with the adjustment or keep looking. I may just scrap it and check out the MMA gyms kid program or even go back to the boxing gym, he enjoyed that a lot, it was just a huge time commitment.


JD's picture
Hi Zach Zinn, I'd try and encourage my kid to get involved with the club you run/teach if possible, make it fun where you can. Failing that, if the alternative club/instructor are worth the effort and investment for your son's karate future, then a month or so of wearing a white belt isn't too bad. As always, perspective and emotions control how we see reality and also deal with it... Instead of being annoyed, angered or feel disrespected by the sensei's request, put the white belt on and have a laugh, you'll be the best white belt there, maybe even shine brighter than their black belts, which will only bring attention in your favour to this sensei's request... Kinda like when someone says "wish I could be 18 again but with everything I know now!" Sounds like fun to me, an experience to be had. Remember the belt and suit are tools to illustrate or serve a meaning and purpose, they don't define the person... You are a black belt, regardless of what's around your waist. My thoughts anyway... Good luck... Josh
Heath White
Heath White's picture

Zach, there seems to be a fundamental ambiguity in what you are looking for out of these folks.  

If you want a recognized black belt *in their system* then it is reasonable to expect you to know all the kata, prescribed one-steps, etc.  And you don't know all that stuff.  You can learn it pretty quickly.

If you want the kind of recognition that a dojo often gives a one-time guest, where you are wearing a rank from *another system* acknowledged by courtesy, then it sounds like you want to be a permanent, dues-paying guest in the dojo.  And I think the instructor might reasonably maintain, as the kids say, that is not a thing.

If you don't want to worry about ranks at all, and just be judged on your skills, then go somewhere where there are no ranks: boxing, MMA,  Muay Thai, etc.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture


Heath White wrote:

Zach, there seems to be a fundamental ambiguity in what you are looking for out of these folks.  

If you want a recognized black belt *in their system* then it is reasonable to expect you to know all the kata, prescribed one-steps, etc.  And you don't know all that stuff.  You can learn it pretty quickly.

As Ive said a few times, I am not interested in learning a new Karate system and would be there because my son wanted me to participate.

e wrote:
If you want the kind of recognition that a dojo often gives a one-time guest, where you are wearing a rank from *another system* acknowledged by courtesy, then it sounds like you want to be a permanent, dues-paying guest in the dojo.  And I think the instructor might reasonably maintain, as the kids say, that is not a thing.
No, I just want to be able to be there to support my son without needing to awkwardly act like a beginner when I am not. This in fact "is a thing" because I have had this sort of experience at other dojo's of training in my normal belt, etc. and have had black belts do so at my own as well.

Demanding that another black belt defer to you to such a degree that they put on a whitebelt in order to participate at your dojo is a specific kind of decision. It is not the only decision people can make, and like I said, some people respect others ranks in these situations, and I know this from personal experience.

e wrote:
If you don't want to worry about ranks at all, and just be judged on your skills, then go somewhere where there are no ranks: boxing, MMA,  Muay Thai, etc.

As I said, I am pretty much leaning towards that, or simply trying to teach my son again myself, and/or not participating in his training and leaving it to him.

This whole thing reminds me of what I don't like about the the values I see sometimes in the Traditional Martial Arts world - territoriality , credentials based on arbitrary norms, etc. So perhaps it's best that I avoid that altogether and let my son forge the path on his own.


Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Thought it would be interesting to mention, thus far when I've asked martial artists I know about the this question, it has been about 50 - 50, with very little grey area. In other words, everyone has either said it's completely normal and I should get over it, or it's a sign that the place is simply not worth my time, and that I should rule it out.

Chris Wissmann
Chris Wissmann's picture

Hey everyone:

I’ve spent some time thinking about this topic, and finally wrote a blog, “Respecting Rank From Other Dojos,” for my program’s website. Because this subject has periodically come up in my program, I wanted to address it on my site, and appreciate the prompt that Mr. Zinn has given me to do that.

For a slightly more personal take, I wanted to weigh in here.

(I hope it’s okay for me to share the link to my blog since I linked from it to this thread.)

If Mr. Zinn wrote to address a same-style situation—a Goju black belt visiting another Goju school—the instructor should have insisted that he wear his black belt. But Mr. Zinn wrote that the school his son wanted to attend taught a similar but different style.

In that situation, I agree with the dojo owner’s policy.

Some years back, a local tae kwon do dojang allowed me to work out with them.

Almost all of my martial arts training was in Okinawa karate, so I wanted to wear a white belt and line up with the beginners in the back of the room. The instructor, however, told me to wear my black belt and lined me up at the front of the class.

I appreciated the gesture, but it was the wrong move. My black belt and position in the front made me uncomfortable because it disrupted the class.

The novice students in the back of the room always watch to see how the more advanced students in the front of the class do things. I could feel the lower ranks watching and not getting what they needed from me.

This school executed basic techniques just differently enough—they blocked and kicked from different chamber positions, for example—that I was too busy trying to learn the specifics of their style to provide the leadership that the lower ranks deserved from someone with my rank and in my physical location.

When I instinctively did things the way I learned them, some of the dojang’s students followed my lead, and that created other problems.

Obviously, it was worse when I started taking gumdo there. I insisted on wearing a white belt to those classes, but again, the teacher lined me up in front of several students with far more gumdo experience—which was to say, any gumdo experience. I even wore my bokken upside down in the first few classes. But there I was, in front, providing an example to more experienced students without the qualifications or training to do so.

Were it not a tae kwon do or gumdo dojang but a dojo teaching a different karate style, the same things would have happened, with (perhaps) more subtle differences. We might have shared many kata, but chambered or executed the most basic techniques differently. Our back or cat stances may have differed. None of our kata form exact matches with those from other styles, and some differ radically.

Of course, big picture, I love this diversity. It’s not about right or wrong, but right and wrong within the context of a particular style.

Seeing these differences, for example, at tournaments or seminars, can open our minds to new bunkai. In a dojo dedicated to teaching a particular style, however, it can sew chaos and discord.

On neutral territory—like tournaments and seminars—we obviously recognize and respect everyone’s rank. When we visit another martial arts school or others visit us, everyone should feel welcome to wear whatever belts they earned. But if we wish to make an ongoing commitment to train somewhere, I feel we should wear belts that reflect our rank in that school’s style, not the highest rank we earned elsewhere.

Sometimes that means that even black belts should wear white belts.

Neil Babbage
Neil Babbage's picture

We always recognised other BCKA/BCA/WCKA grades as equivalent to ours. For other people, we gave them the choice of what to wear initially. Typically we said "wear your current belt" and then after the next grading (which came round every3 - 4 months) "re-graded" them to the right place in our hierarchy. That's because it helped the instructors and the class organisation - shouting out "all the green belts over here plus you Bob because we're doing bunkai and this is what you need to learn" is a right pain. By the time we've been through that first grading people "get it", everyone knows that you are a Dan grade from another style and there's no issue with changing belts.  Where I train now, we have belts for "knowledge" and shirts for people who have passed different levels of the instructor training. So you get black belts with green shirts who "know" more about technique but are not as qualified to teach as a brown belt with a brown shirt... it's not as complicated as I made that sound!

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Thanks for the thoughts you two. Neil, I get what you are saying, but I think the idea that lower ranks will somehow learn incorrectly because a persons chamber is different, etc. is a bit of  self-perpetuating dojo mythology, if the teacher teaches good principles and the students are attentive, individual differences in one person should not determine the outcome like that.

Anyway, this has given me some real food for thought. In my dojo we don’t wear gis or belts very often anymore, and I just informally interview new students (it’s a home dojo so it’s necessary anyway safety wise, etc.) and try to gauge skill level and areas of interest. Most of my students are more like peers now and I’ve gotten a couple interested parties recently who are definitely peers, we can learn something from one another, but there is little enough difference in our skill level that there is no room for “yes sensei” interactions with me. It makes the more standard Karate dojo environment seem bewildering in some ways.

It really struck on returning to this thread how much I have moved away from the supposedly “traditional” (though that’s debatable, post WWII Japanese Budo culture does not represent all Karate tradition) hierarchical dojo setup.

So in retrospect, I think part of the issue is just that I now am ambivalent about the value of that entire method of organizing a dojo, which makes me a bad fit to be a student in such Karate dojos, of course.

There have been some good arguments made for both sides of this though, and I can see merit in both approaches, I just know that I am pretty much done with the one approach.

e wrote:
Sometimes that means even black belts should wear whitebelts

Sure, sometimes they should, I didn’t even ask in Judo or Jujutsu, just put one on because it wasn’t even a question.

In a class where the style is so close to what I already do, and I am not even looking for rank, not so much, though I do get the rationale after you all explaining it some.

If it were an option to just show up in sweats that’d be my preference:)