Ranks and titles have value
Ranks are a tool. They can help us preserve the knowledge of the past, and focus on our challenges in the present.
Ranks reward effort. They can be a mark of achievement and respect. It shows a newer person where to turn for advice, and who to imitate.
Ranks help organize training. They can show which person is working on what kata or techniques.
Ranks show relative experience and ability, so the instructors can make sure that the pressure is set at the right level for each student, so everyone takes a step forward every time they train. That is not easy with 20 people in a class at five or ten or 20 different levels of ability. Rank designation can help make the training work.
Ranks and titles can be goofy
In the wrong hands the ranking system can be goofy. If it does not represent real accomplishment on the part of the members then it diminishes traditional martial arts.
Keeping it real
In the military, in law enforcement or fire service, outside of a formal work environment people do not use rank to identify themselves.
No carpenter, electrician or equipment operator, however skilled and experienced, is called by their rank or title. They have a name and a company and a reputation. They can do the work. That’s it.
If you just learned to run a bulldozer you may feel you are ready to go to work, but if you can’t read a blue print and you can’t build what it says to build then you are not a fully qualified operator. You will get that feedback when you interview or you will get it on the job. It is the same with any trade or craft or profession.
In a trade or profession we judge our skill on the job. There are licensing exams and continuing education, promotions and higher levels of responsibility – just like we have in martial arts. All are tried and tested daily by performance.
This can be the way in traditional martial arts.
We have competitions. We may have jobs that demand combative skills, or the strong focus, will and initiative we develop in the heat and pressure of the dojo.
We like to train. We know what works.
We know it benefits every aspect of our lives.
But with no objective test outside the dojo people in martial arts can go very wrong. Then they become focused on their group status more than their skill.
Their attention goes more to policing the boundaries of the group and preserving technical orthodoxy than on deepening skills and developing mature practitioners.
Outside influences are regarded as threatening. New insights are unwelcome.
This is where dojos get weak, styles turn to fossils, and the reputation of traditional martial arts gets hurt.
Instead of relying on the rewards of their training some people rely only on approval from their leader. Some leaders feed on this and take advantage. No student should tolerate that. And no leader should allow a student to manipulate them – with flattery or anything else. A racket hurts both sides and serves neither.
We owe it to ourselves, to the people we train with, and to the people who could benefit from traditional karate practice, to remember: the only way to advance is sincere training.
Good teachers recognize achievement with rank, and in other ways.
Approval of a senior – even a 10thDegree Hanshi Shihan or whoever – is not a goal to be sought for its own sake. If the teacher is for real they will ask you to work hard and achieve something that you are proud of. They will ask you to get skill you can apply in the real world – in defense or in the ordinary stresses of life.
A teacher worth your time will not make demands that are demeaning or disrespectful.
A real teacher will challenge you – and look out for you.
Here is an interesting comment by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, from his book Maps of Meaning:
“The adoption of group identity – the apprenticeship of the adolescent – disciplines the individual, and brings necessary predictability to his or her actions, within the social group. Group identity, however, is a construct of the past, fashioned to deal with events characteristic of the past. Although it is reasonable to view such identity as a necessary developmental stage, it is pathological to view it as the end-point of human development. The present consists in large part of new problems, and reliance on the wisdom of the dead – no matter how heroic – eventually compromises the integrity of the living. The well-trained apprentice, however, has the skills of the (past), and the dynamic intelligence of the living.”
It’s up to each of us
It is up to each of us to keep our traditions alive and strong.
We live in a time when things that are great or even sacred are turned into rackets.
The people who degrade our art and exploit their students will look back at the end of their lives and shrug – and what will they say?
Wouldn’t it be good if we can look back over our lives and say “That was great.”
Post and photo by Jeff Brooks