Six years ago I did a podcast on the grading system and what it means to be a black belt:
Essentially, I argued that grades are internal markers only and that you can’t compare grades across groups. While some want to see a uniform standard across karate, I argued against that because it would be limiting, will invariably be misused as a form of control, and will essentially ensure a race toward widespread mediocrity.
I still hold the same views today. However, one thing that I never discussed in that podcast was black belts knowingly seeking essentially meaningless grades in order to pad out their CV. I’ve seen a lot of that recently and figured it may make for an interesting discussion. I also want to vent and get this off my chest :-)
I sit on quite a few dan grading panels in any given year for various groups. I always tell the candidates that, pass or fail, I admire them for choosing the difficult path and seeking a dan grade they can be proud of. They know there are easier ways to get a dan grade, but they have chosen demanding tests against demanding criteria.
They write detailed papers, push beyond exhaustion, demonstrate deep knowledge, engage in stress-inducing live drills, and demonstrate high levels of technical competence. They would not want an easy test because that would also mean there is no sense of achievement. They want to have pride in their accomplishments; so that invariably means accomplishing something worthy of a sense of pride.
However, the antithesis of this is that I’m seeing a growing number of “karateka” happily get given a rank for little or no effort, and yet they wear it with apparent pride!
I’m not talking about those poor individuals who have only been exposed to poor quality martial arts and hence they know no better. I’m talking about people who should know better, often instructors themselves, who are happy to take meaningless grades from anyone who will award them.
It is not the fact that there are poor quality black belts out there that is the issue for me. That’s always been the case and it a price worth paying to avoid enforced mediocrity. What worries me is that in many cases everyone involved knows the dan grade issued is meaningless. It’s not just the “McDojos” either; in some cases it is once respected groups and individuals doing this.
The person issuing it knows it is a “give away” (which tells the world about the dubious internal standards they adhere too). And the person being awarded the grade also knows it is meaningless; but they seem totally happy to present it to the world as if it means something. There’s a shamelessness in this that is galling to say the least.
I know many an individual who started again from scratch with a new group when they realised their current grade meant very little. There’s an honour and honestly in that which I admire. Conversely, I can’t see anything good in people knowingly seeking a meaningless accolade.
In the podcast I did six years ago, I did not consider the possibility that people, who do know better, would still seek meaningless grades and then present them as an accomplishment. I never considered, perhaps naively, that people would have so little self-respect or self-awareness that they could knowingly present a worthless unearned rank to the world as if it was something to be proud of. Especially when there are huge numbers of dan grades, who did legitimately earn their rank, who can see right through them.
To me, these pretenders are akin to what the British Army refer to as “Walts” i.e. Walter Mitty types who falsely claim military rank and accomplishments for personal vanity and to gain acclaim from the unknowing … and, inevitably, derision and mockery from those who truly have those experiences and accolades.
Here is a list of things that I feel make very clear to everyone that a grade means nothing and is not something to be proud of:
* If you become an instant black belt in any way.
* If you didn’t go through the kyu grades to get there.
* If you were awarded a grade in an art you don’t practise due to your achievements in an art you do practice. For example, you legitimately have a rank in TKD and you got awarded a rank in karate in “recognition” of that, or vice-versa.
* If have a 3rd dan in “Style X karate” and someone says that worth an automatic 1st dan “Style Y karate” with no testing or time on the dojo floor needed.
* If you got awarded the rank due to your attendance at a few seminars or similar.
* If you got an increase in rank solely for joining an association / group.
* You “fast tracked” to a dan grade because of your participation in an “instructor program” or similar (essentially a form of pyramid selling).
* Your increase in rank was solely associated with your willingness to take on an administrative role i.e. because you run a training group, teach classes under the banner of the group, are an area representative, etc.
And so on.
In short, if you did not work for it, then it is meaningless! And you know that! And you should know others know that too. You may choose to turn a convenient blind eye to it within the group, but it’s very obviously to all outside the group that “dan grade doggy treats” are not meaningful: “Good boy! Good Boy! Have a dan grade you clever, clever boy!”
I think what surprises me is that people would be so brazen as to present to the martial arts world a rank that they know is meaningless, and all legitimate martial artists also know is meaningless. There’s no pride in a worthless achievement. However, I’m shocked there is so little shame from some folks.
The bottom line is that if a rank did not take years of blood, sweat and tears to attain then it’s not worth anything.
It is worth zero, zilch, zip, nada, nothing! And presenting it as if it is legitimate is both laughable and pitiable. People who do this should know that it only brings the admiration of fellow false dan grades; and the pity and derision of legitimate ones.
If you got any form of “fast track” or instant dan grade, then you’re not a dan grade! FULL STOP. And you know it. So have some self-respect and stop embarrassing yourself by claiming you are.
Any decent martial artist should want nothing to do with any group that awards “instant dan grades”. Join a group with standards who will demand you work hard over an extended period to get your grade (there are lots of them). Then, and only then, can you have pride in any rank you get.
All the best,