The Meaning Of Judo Rank…


It has become popular among martial artist’s to equate fighting ability with rank in America today.  This has largely been the attitude of BJJ, and has become a popular idea for a very simple reason - what Black Belt wants others to think anything else?

And while there is certainly a limited amount of correlation between ‘fighting’ ability and rank, it’s not absolute, nor do I think Kano ever intended it to be.  Let’s examine another form of rank which is directly correlatable with ability… and that is in the world of Chess.  In the U.S., every time you play in a chess tournament, your win/loss record is sent to the USCF, and they feed it into a computer (along with the current ratings of your opponents), and it spits out a new rating (rank) every even numbered month.  Can you imagine changing belt colors 6 times a year?

If Jigoro Kano had wanted belt rank to correlate directly with fighting ability, he could have proposed just such a system, for despite the many stories you hear about 60 year old hachidan’s being capable of throwing Sandan’s half their age, it’s true only in randori, not shiai.

So clearly, Kano did not intend rank to be stripped away when you could no longer ‘wipe the floor’ with the young hotshots… after all, someone has to teach, and who wants to be learning from someone they technically outrank? (if rank depended on fighting ability)

Even in BJJ, with the emphasis on Brazilian machismo, I doubt if anyone seriously thinks that Helio Gracie can step on the mat with some teenage Blue belt, and ’school’ him with his undoubted vast experience and knowledge.

Trevor Leggett tells a story of training in Japan, where when doing randori with the head Sensei, it was expected that when he would flick his wrist, you would take a flying ukemi.  The head Sensei was a very old man, although quite highly regarded and ranked.  And if you offered him respect in terms of ukemi - his students, Yondans and Godans, would ensure that you got an excellent few hours of training.  Of course, if you couldn’t offer the head Sensei any respectful ukemi for his ‘wrist flicking’, the Sensei’s students, Yondans and Godans aplenty… would regard it as an illustration that you’d forgotten how to perform proper ukemi - and would then take it upon themselves to remind you how to do so.

The only standard that I would feel it important to insist on is that as the rank grows increasingly higher - the knowledge and ability to pass on that knowledge should also increase.  And surprising no-one in Judo - this is exactly the case in Judo.

An excellent example to point to is Phil Porter (USJA Kudan, USMAA Judan) - who’s about as controversial a Judoka as there is in America.  Many Judoka have had doubts about his rank - and yet, if you’ve ever attended any seminar with him - he’s the one you’ll be reminded of when someone mentions that hoary cliché about someone who “has forgotten more Judo than you’ll ever know.”

I’m sure many Judoka have run across collegiate wrestlers - who can step on a Judo mat for the first time and tie up some poor unfortunate Shodan.  Giving that wrestler his black belt would be understood by most Judoka as being absolutely incorrect.

Judo rank means far more than mere fighting ability - it means the development of character, it means the ability to pass on the traditions & cultural knowledge of Judo.  For as many Black Belts can tell you - they are even more proud of their first student who achieves Shodan than of the time they received their own.