Rank System

Origins of the Karate Rank System

Throughout the course of our karatedo training, we take for granted the grading system that awards our belt ranking and titles. Sometimes this system is manifestly personal, with the headmaster–and only he–bestowing each promotion directly, according to his own standards. Often, the testing for and awarding of rank is a more bureaucratic affair, with a committee exercising a perfunctory duty in a formally standardized and even routine mannerless ceremony, yet somehow more officious.

The recent writings of Hanshi Richard Kim of the Butoku-Kai (Dojo Fall 1993) taught how the Dan/kyu (degree) system was adopted by modem budo systems, promulgated by the Butoku-Kai, and codified in its final form for Japanese karatedo by the Federation of All Japan Karatedo Organizations (FAJKO). To truly understand this ranking system, it is important to gain a clearer insight into how the various masters obtained their ranking, since that forms the basis for your rank.

This much we know for certain: On April 12, 1924, Gichin Funakoshi, the “Father of Modern Karate,” awarded karate’s first black belt Dan upon seven men. The recipients included Hironori Ohtsuka, founder of wado-ryu karatedo, Shinken Gima, later of gima-ha shoto-ryu, and Ante Tokuda, Gima’s cousin, who received a nidan (second degree) black belt. Like Gima, Tokuda had trained extensively in Okinawa before coming to Japan proper. The others were Kasuya, Akiba, Shimizu and Hirose. This beginning was a highly personal, yet formal ceremony in which Funakoshi is said to have handed out lengths of black belting to his pupils. Still there is no hard evidence that Funakoshi himself had ranking in any budo under the Dan/kyu system.

Actually, Funakoshi was greatly influenced by Jigoro Kano, aristocratic founder of judo, and originator of the Dan/kyu system. Kano was a highly respected individual, and Funakoshi prided himself on being an educated and “proper” man who rightly believed that he was acting correctly. Kano’s system was not only being applied to judo, but to other budo as well under the aegis of the Butoku-Kai and the Japanese Ministry of Education. Funakoshi, then, just adopted the order of the day: a ranking system officially sanctioned by Japan’s greatest martial arts entities. Funakoshi’s own rank was of no consequence, since it seems that belt ranking was really just something for the students, not for headmasters.

For its part, the Butoku-Kai issued instructor’s licenses: the titles renshi (the lowest), kyoshi, and hanshi (the highest). It would be a while before the Dan/kyu system became universal in karate. By the end of the 1930s, each karate group was called upon to register with the butoku-Kai for official sanctioning, and in 1938, a meeting of the Butoku-Kai’s official karatedo leaders was held in Tokyo. Its purpose was to discuss the standards for awarding rank within their art. Attending, among others, were Hironori Ohtsuka of wado-ryu, Kenwa Mabuni of shito-ryu, Kensei Kinjo (Kaneshiro) and Sannosuke Ueshima of kushin-ryu, Tatsuo Yamada of Nippon kempo, Koyu Konishi of shindo-jinen-ryu, and a young Gogen Yamaguchi of goju-ryu. Most of these men were founders of their own styles, and as such automatically became the highest rank that their agreed-on respective standards allowed. Yamaguchi assumed leadership of goju-ryu because, we are told, goju-ryu’s founder, Chojun Miyagi, personally asked him to take the leadership of the style in Japan. About then, Funakoshi also finalized the grading standards for use at his shotokan dojo.

Of course, the Butoku-Kai continued to sanction head teachers directly. This was not without controversy, however, since Konishi sat on the board that awarded Funakoshi his renshi and Konishi had been Funakoshi’s student. Of course, Konishi had inside ties to the Butoku-Kai by virtue of birth, something the Okinawan Funakoshi could not have.

Back on Okinawa, the Dan/kyu system did not become universal until after World War II. It was not unknown there, however, and some individual teachers did utilize the black belt. Judo had been practiced on Okinawa at least since the 1920s. In fact, it was at a Judo Black Belt Association (Yudanshakai) meeting on Okinawa that Miyagi and shito-ryu’s Kenwa Mabuni demonstrated karate kata (forms) for Jigoro Kano garnering praises from the judo founder. Miyagi, it should be noted, became the first karate expert given the title of kyoshi (master) from the butoku-Kai in 1937. Miyagi was then appointed chief of its Okinawan branch

Lower Belt Rankings:

  • 10th KYU White Belt

  • 9th KYU  White Belt 1st degree

  • 8th 8th KYU White Belt 2nd degree

  • 7th KYU White Belt 3rd degree

  • 6th KYU Yellow Belt 1st-3rd degree

  • 5th KYU Green Belt 1st-3rd degree

  • 4th KYU Blue Belt 1st-3rd degree

  • 3rd KYU Brown Belt to 1st degree

  • 2nd KYU Brown Belt 2nd degree

  • 1st KYU Brown Belt 3rd degree

Black Belt Rankings:

Solid black belt:  Must be 14 years of age or older and study no less than 3 years.
Jr Black Belt (white stripe in center):  Must be 10 years of age or older and study no less than 3 years
  • 1st Dan Shodan Black Belt (6 month probation)

  • 2nd Dan Nidan Black Belt

  • 3rd Dan Sandan Black Belt (A Sensei in our system)

  • 4th Dan Yondan Black Belt

  • 5th Dan Godan Black Belt (master level)

  • 6th Dan Rokudan Black Belt

  • 7th Dan Shichidan Red & black or Black Belt

  • 8th Dan Hachidan Red & black, or black (grand master grade)

  • 9th Dan Kudan Red/Black, black or Solid Deep Red belt

  • 10th Dan Judan Solid Deep Red or Black Belt


Becoming Shodan is somewhat equivalent to graduating from high school. One still has college to endure if one wishes to learn more about the art. Two years of college would perhaps be like “Nidan” or “second level” student. If one completes college, one might be “Sandan”.

At Sandan level, one is officially recognized as a Sensei. Sensei is a personal title and means teacher or “one who has gone before”. If one goes on to earn a Bachelors degree, one would be “Yondan”. And if one keeps studying until he/she earns a Masters degree, he/she would be “Godan”. One would then be a master of the art. Thus, Godan is a “Renshi” grade, those at which one finally becomes a teacher as well as a student.

At Rokudan level (6th degree) one is awarded the title of Shihan. The title loosely translated means Master. But there are those for whom even the doctorate is not the end of their studies. They serve internships, go on to post-doctoral studies, do research and make new discoveries about their art. They contribute to their art by their wisdom. These are the “Kyoshi” grades, the Grand master grades of Hachidan and higher. Another title, which is awarded, is that of Hanshi. This is granted to recognize outstanding dedication and leadership.
Advanced Martial Arts Titles

MENKYO KAIDEN In Bujitsu (martial arts) or Geido (way of accomplishments), the master bestows all of his secrets and the heart of his teaching to only one disciple. This is an old system.  The recipient of these doctrines is granted permission to instruct and transfer the style of his art, and he is called Menkyo Kaiden. “Menkyo” means a person who is permitted to perform a specific duty by an authority, such as a government entity or legislative body. In Budo, the founder or teacher confers his techniques and heartfelt teachings, through an official licensing process, to one pupil. ” Kaiden” means that the teacher grants the fullness of his knowledge to his successor.

Menkyo Kaiden thus means ‘A founder of a discipline or style conferring his knowledge. Technique and teachings to a chosen student, who then becomes the teacher’s successor in that style’.
SOKE The Soke is referred to as iemoto in non-martial arts groups. In Budo, the Soke is the lineal descendant of a kinsman or family, and is also called sohhonke or honke. In geido the sohke has obligation and duties to the house in which he was born, and is expected to carry on the founder’s or successors knowledge and teachings, and even to expand it. For contemporary sohke in the martial arts, this implies that the sensei must first develop a system of sensible, understandable concepts, both technical and spiritual, in order to pass them on. According to an old anecdote, the passing on of knowledge from a teacher to his successor is like leaves falling on a cradle: the leaves ignite and spread the flame. In the same sense, the successors imagination becomes like a candle. The important thing is for the sohke to take over his predecessor’s teachings and thoughts faithfully.

HANSHI The Hanshi is the highest tide in the active budoka, granted by license to a martial artist from a high authority, such as a government body or some other remarkable organization. (The supreme title of “Meijin” is very rarely granted by the government or the supreme entity.) In Dai Nippon Butokukai in Kyoto before and during World War II, the organization awarded the title of Hanshi (along with Kyoshi and Renshi, see below) to certain practitioners in Aikido, Kendo, Judo, Karate-do, Kyudo, Taido and other Martial Arts. Until 1946, the Butokukai also engaged in this practise. The All Japan Kendo Association conferred the title for a practitioner’s dedication, leadership, facilitation, and the development of the art, but only after the practitioner had achieved highest ranking of 8th Dan while being an active practitioner, gen eki. A person who receives the title of Hanshi can also, with proper certification, be called “Shihan.”

KYOSHI a person who trains a group of soldiers is called “Kyoshi” or “Kanshi”. In traditional Budo, Bujitsu, Kendo, Judo, and other Budo circles, the Butokukai grades this rank for deserving participants above 6th Dan who pass a physical and mental examination.

RENSHI The Ren is a soldier who leads other soldiers through training. According to old documents on ethical theory, Renshi refers to a member of a discipline who is recognised for his expertise in that discipline. The title is conferred to practitioners above 4th Dan who display excellence in both technical and mental capability. The Renshi title is the first step on the road towards Kyoshi, Hanshi, and possibly Meiji.
* Source: Kojien, Iwanami Shoten, Tokyo, Japan.
Summary of Definitions in Contemporary Budo Shohgo Concepts:

Hanshi: 8th Dan or above with 10 years after Kyoshi and above 55 years Kyoshi: 6th Dan and above with 5 years after Renshi and above 45 years of age Renshi: 4th Dan and above with 2 years after 4th Dan and above 35 years of age.
These titles are granted to deserving individuals within particular disciplines only after a prolonged and severe examination and evaluation. These ranks are highly dignified, and must be earned, rather than lightly granted.