Rank in Karate

In many martial arts, all ranks below black belt are called “grades” while black belt ranks are called “degrees” in order to note this difference. This distinction is similar to how we refer to students at different points in the public school system by a different set of terms.

Those who are in elementary school are said to be in the 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, and so on up to the 8th grade. After that, they are generally referred to as freshmen, sophomores, juniors, or seniors. In most martial arts, instructors use grades and degrees to make this same type of distinction. In karate they are called, “kyu” and “dan.”

Dan degrees are listed as follows:

  • 1st degree – Shodan (1st degree), Nidan (2nd degree)
  • 2nd degree – Nidan
  • 3rd degree – Sandan
  • 4th degree – Yondan
  • 5th degree – Godan
  • 6th degree – Rokudan
  • 7th degree – Nanadan
  • 8th degree – Hachidan
  • 9th degree – Kyudan
  • 10th degree – Judan

In most styles of karate, as well as other traditional Japanese martial arts, the highest rank is either 5th, 6th or 10th degree black belt.

A belt – even a black belt – in karate won’t win any fights for you or make you a better person. It’s what you know and can perform that’s important. That’s your true rank.

If you were to switch belts with your instructor (you put on their belt and they put on yours), would anything have changed? Would you now be a better fighter? Would you be better able to defend yourself? Would the fact that you now wear a black belt and they wear a lower ranking belt make you able to beat them? Would it give you greater self confidence, self control, self discipline, self esteem, and the other qualities possessed by a true black belt? Of course it wouldn’t. Everything would be exactly as it is now.

Acquiring or earning belts in karate should never be your goal. Rather, you should always strive to achieve the physical, mental, and spiritual mastery that results in a belt being awarded. Without these, a belt is worthless, except to keep your gi jacket closed.

There is only one true rank in the martial arts – black belt. All belts below it are merely progress points. A black belt represents completion of a course of study in the martial arts.

Colored belt ranks such as orange, yellow, blue, purple, green, and brown – merely represent progress towards achieving black belt.

Quitting karate before a student is a black belt is like quitting school before graduating. In many organizations, students who hold less than black belt rank lose their rank after 6 months if they quit. This is because these belts only represent progress towards and not attainment of the only true and permanent rank.