In the Japanese martial arts, the use of colored belts is often used to distinguish rank in the dojo.
But what does rank mean in the martial arts?
Is it a level of knowledge, or a level of responsibility?
In this post I’d like to offer a perspective and how rank works in the Bujinkan dojo martial arts.
In each class, there is the moment for potential enlightenment, a chance with each movement to have the parts lock together, and understanding, a chance at amazing growth as a human being. These flashes of enlightenment happen all the time, and can happen all the time. It is part of the amazing essence of the budo of Hatsumi sensei.
The goal of the dojo is to come together as martial friends, and make the best use of the time we have training. In the dojo, we are stepping out of time. We are putting aside our daily responsibilities for family, work, school, and friends. We are putting aside the “to-do” lists and errands we have to run. In that moment in the dojo, for the next two hours, or however long class is going to be, we are entering into a time of self-discovery through the taijutsu movement of the Bujinkan.
To get the most out of this harmony- called wa is vital for the dojo, and training to run smoothly.
Rank is an expression of this harmony.
The first rank in the Bujinkan dojo, is no rank, with the student wearing a white belt. This represents that they are exploring the training options of the dojo, and seeing if the Bujinkan dojo martial arts are the path they would like to commit. Basic such as punching, kicking, blocking, and various postures and ukemi are introduced to get an idea of the movements.
Hopefully they start the journey in the Bujinkan, and if not, they have learned a bit about martial arts movement and philosophy that they can use in life.
Green belt is the first rank in the dojo, and represents that the student has committed to studying the Bujinkan methods. In this series of ranks they are discovering how to move the body through taijutsu, along with the philosophy of the training. They are kohai in the dojo- “juniors” who are guided by the black belts in the group, known as “sempai”. While green belts of course study the entire curriculum of the dojo, the focus is on the ten ryaku no maki level of training- learning ukemi and taihenjutsu.
Black belt is the next level after green belt and it represents a mature knowledge of ukemi and taihenjutsu. It is a student that has committed to the training and has a fluid understanding of ukemi an taihenjutsu. They are now a full student of the dojo and the tradition.
White, green, and black provide structure in the dojo to create the most optimal learning environment. Black belts provide an example of movement for the green belts and green belts provide an example of movement for the white belts.
Sempai assist kohai as example and role models.
Which now leads to the second understanding of rank in the dojo.
We go to the dojo to learn the martial arts, and here in the West, our example of learning is through academic institutions. This is a rather poor and incorrect model for learning, and in the martial arts, if you view them in this way, it will be fatal. In the West, your “rank” in terms of a diploma, degree, of certification means that you know the subject matter at a prescribed level. At higher levels you might even be considered a master of the subject matter if you have a Master’s degree or Doctorate degree.
This model is not used in budo.
Certainly when you receive a rank there is a base level of proficiency needed for the level in terms of movement, philosophy, and understanding. But in the East, your rank represents what you are no responsible for in terms of the tradition, group, dojo, and yourself.
If you are a black belt, how should a black belt be moving, and how does a black belt represent the tradition in terms of maturity and posture?
Are you up to that level?
If not work hard to be at that level, and represent your rank, and it’s place in the organization.
In the West we view a black belt as a “teacher” or maybe even a “master”, in the East a black belt is just a student with increasing obligations to the group and organization. Skill is the first half of the rank, obligation is the second half.
In the Bujinkan, at the black belt level, there are a few separate levels of black belt, and in this post we will explore two of them, that of Shidoshi and Judan.
A Shidoshi is a 5th degree black belt holder who has passed the sakki test and is now able to run a dojo and transmit the Bujinkan methods. In the Western model a shidoshi would be thought of as a teacher, but this does not accurately capture the feeling. Shidoshi are very much students still learning on the path of the Bujinkan, but they have received a transmission from Hatsumi sensei from the kami.
They have received a glimpse into the hidden aspects of training, transmissions of life and death, that can’t be put into words or studied by the academic mind, but only explored and understood in movement. Shidoshi have the responsibility to transmit both the visible and invisible methods of the Bujinkan to the black belts, green belts, and white belts who train at the dojo.
Shidoshi are there as a coach and a guide to get those in the dojo to the level of Shidoshi. They are also there and have the responsibility to represent the Bujinkan and be mindful of how actions represent the dojo and the organization, perhaps part diplomat should also be added to the responsibility list.
At the 10th degree black belt level are Judan. These are the shihan and masters of the Bujinkan, who not only have the responsibilities as Shidoshi, but also even higher to the Bujinkan organization and students.
So what is rank?
It is what you know, what you are expected to represent in the dojo and organization, and what you are expected to transmit to those after you, who are kohai.
Rank is the outline and method for harmony in the dojo.
Proper harmony allows for more training time.
More training time allows for greater personal development.