“Because You’re Worth It!” Or are you? Rank inflation in the martial arts.

Rank inflation in the arts is something any long-time practitioner will have witnessed more than once in their time, and there can be many different drivers that cause it to occur.

I had to deal with this issue – hopefully reasonably diplomatically – many times over the years that I served in various official capacities for the largest of the martial arts multi-style organisations in the UK, and from my own experience I have to say it is rarely as straightforward as one might think.

As an example, the best Wing Chun practitioner – apart from his master, Wong Sheung Leung – I have ever seen in Europe, decided to join the organisation I represented.  His motivation was mostly gaining insurance cover, and having formalised ranking recognition for his students; of course, the difficulty was that in Wing Chun, like many ch’uan fa (Chinese Boxing) systems there is no traditional ranking system at all – you are a Sifu, when your Sifu says you’re a Sifu.  Traditionally this is also true regarding Guro/Guru titles/ranks in virtually all Indo-chinese systems.

Within a martial arts ‘family’ structure pretty much everyone knows who everyone else is, and where they rank in seniority and on what basis – some are valued for their fighting ability, some for their comprehensive knowledge, some for the ability to teach, and so on.  This difficulty was further compounded by the fact that the organisation I was introducing him to, although a multi-art, multi-cultural group, essentially worked to a Japanese model.

To explain a little further: most Japanese systems use the kyu and dan system (descending coloured belt and ascending black belt ranks), in which the general convention is that by the time one gains the coveted san-dan, or third degree black belt, one should have all the material in the system.  You might not have mastered it all, but you should know and be able to perform all of that material and have the entire technical canon available to you.  It is at this point that you are entitled to be addressed as Sensei – although in the West it is common to address any black belt by the title, strictly speaking below 3rd Dan you are a SempaiSen-sei, rather than teacher, which it is commonly understood to mean, literally translates as one ‘born before’ (in the art) and Sempai means an older brother (or indeed, sister), or in other words, a more advanced peer not yet accorded the title of teacher – this is all part of a relative ranking hierarchy within the family, the Sempai-Kohai (or Junior-Senior) relationship.

Returning now to my friend’s situation; as one of my roles in the association, by virtue of the breadth of my qualifications, was to assess practitioners from the less mainstream systems, so that we could assign them an appropriate place in the rank/authority spectrum of the organisation, I was asked to express his rank in some kind of Japanese-equivalent terms.  Now, as he had been a sifu for around fifteen years by this time, I assessed him as holding a level of seniority approximately that of a 6th Dan (roku-dan).  Ironically, he then informed me that of course, “no oriental would take me seriously” at my own rank(s) as I was too young – I was at the time in my mid-thirties and around 15 years younger than him – even though I had been teaching longer than my friend, and quite apart from the fact that he had just been officially recognised at a senior level of rank on my say so!

At the same association I was visited in the office one day by a teacher I’d known for many years.  He was my senior in one of the styles of karate I had studied when younger, was one of the other four individuals to first study Eskrima in the UK – now one of the most senior people in that art- and the most senior teacher of JKD in the country under Sifu Dan Inosanto.   He had not long returned from the Philippines where he had led the UK Team taking part in the first ever WEKAF (World Eskrima Kalis Arnis Federation) World Championships, of which event he had been one of the major organisers.

One of his students had taken part in the team, and had stayed on in the Philippines for an extra three weeks, returning as a Fifth Dan (not traditionally a meaningful rank in FMA, but another sign that everybody wants to have a recognisable standard by which to rank themselves).  All well and good, but 5 or 6 weeks earlier he had left the UK as a blue belt (just past mid-way on the road to black belt in his teacher’s ranking system)!  One of the masters this young man had met on his trip asked him to be his representative in the UK – his own teacher had recently died and now he wished to take over that teacher’s territories – and the rank was to establish the young man’s bona fides.  To be entirely fair to the young man in question, he has become in the nearly twenty years since this incident a fine teacher and worthy of his rank.

Now, American readers of this blog will be aware that historically this is a not uncommon practice – for example, many a GI during and in the immediate post-Korean War period – got on a plane in Seoul a green belt and disembarked on US soil a third dan.   Part of the problem, particularly in the US, where the arts are taught much more commonly and competitively and where many a shopping mall will have a karate or kung-fu studio, is that the public has no standardised way to judge rank.

In the US martial arts teaching is generally a respected profession, school facilities are on a par with a small private gym, but there are no officially (i.e. governmentally) recognised national governing bodies, and so Joe Public has absolutely no idea how to compare the services of say, Peter, who is a 3rd Dan and has a studio on one side of town with Frank, who is a 5th Dan at his dojang on the other.  The natural assumption of the neophyte seeking tuition is that ‘higher rank equates to better tuition’, regardless that Peter and Frank may be from two entirely different systems with different ranking systems, or indeed may apparently be from the same style, but the associations they are part of, and they as individuals, may have radically dissimilar standards.

Over the past twenty or so years I have watched a situation develop that is a very strong example of rank inflation and dilution; now I can only talk about this in a UK context, although I am aware anecdotally of broadly the same situation pertaining to the US and Europe.  I can speak of this because for much of that time period I was one of the co-hosts of an American teacher who has been responsible for a good deal of inflation and therefore, devaluing of rank – oddly within his own system.  This man is very talented and has a great reservoir of knowledge, although his seminars mostly fall into the category of ‘info-mercials’ – in a four-hour seminar he will typically spend three hours telling you what he could be teaching you, were you his student, and one hour demonstrating and teaching one or two techniques.

When he does perform, however, he is very competent and his techniques are impressive when demonstrated in a seminar context – I personally have my doubts as to their efficacy in the chaotic conditions of a live and violent confrontation.  The techniques here are not the problem;  the issue is do you have all the attributes to support those techniques – can you pluck the punch out of the air, when not thrown with either karate precision nor control, and apply that pressure-point technique with any surety and consistency?

All of that aside, it is his business model that is highly questionable (though it is not uncommon, particularly I have noticed amongst the modern Korean arts) – any teacher wishing to become his student, must join his association along with all their own students, incurring all the usual fees and an obligation to host him fairly frequently at not inconsiderable seminar rates – and it is implied that you can only become uchi-deshi – or a ‘closed-door student’ (i.e. someone being given the ‘real deal’) this way.

A further incentive, which oddly seems to bear a direct relationship to how many students (and their membership fees) you bring to his organisation, and to how frequently you host cash-generating seminars, is that you will rise rapidly up the dan rankings.  I’ve watched over a period of about ten years a decent karate teacher (and a very nice, sincere person, by the way) rocket up to, I think, ninth dan* from either third or fourth dan!

Very early on in that relationship I was myself co-teaching some seminars hosted by this teacher in a quite different skill area.  I think it was the second seminar I was teaching at his dojo, and many of the other people we knew to be attending were delayed due to a traffic accident on the motorway.  My teaching partner was amongst them, as was our host, so I decided to delay the commencement of the seminar, as I knew many of the attendees were travelling from all over the country.  When the delay to the start of the session had reached an hour and a half, I decided to get the local members of the host dojo moving and asked the senior brown belt present if he would like to conduct a warm-up?  I watched open-mouthed as both the 1st Kyu and the students he was leading through basic exercises displayed some of the sloppiest technique I have witnessed anywhere, especially as the base system they had been following for years prior to this is renowned for an obsession with clean, powerful, precise technical proficiency!

Contrast my own progression in karate, in which I hold dan rankings in three styles; in my main style, Wado-Ryu, the standard minimum required period between rankings in the UK and Europe were as follows: between 1st and 2nd Dan – 2 years; between 2nd and 3rd Dan – 3 years; between 3rd and 4th Dan – 4 years, and so on.  Note these are standard minimum periods with an assumption that to reach 1st Dan you have been training on average at least 3 times a week, and with each succeeding level you aspire to, you are training ever more frequently.

Personally, I waited more than 4 years between my 1st and 2nd dan, 5 between my 2nd and 3rd, about the same time between 3rd and 4th dans – all this despite the urgings of my teachers, my peers and the association I was a member of, precisely because I would rather be a spectacularly good green belt than a so-so black belt.

I’ve talked about the difficulty in finding true equivalence between ranks, but I think what shocks me most of all is that I believe martial artists should be relatively strong-minded individuals when measured against the average person.  We do, after all, promote the arts as developing character, confidence, calmness and an ability to resist stress; in short, we market the arts as being as much about personal development (in competition with all the ‘self-help’ gurus) as we do physical fighting ability.

When all is said and done, we are only human, but if we are so anxious to acquire the trappings of rank that we accept them on a commercial basis, while knowing we cannot assert ourselves as worthy of them with some confidence, then all of the alleged character-building qualities of the arts are a meaningless fraud.

Perhaps it is my age, perhaps I am merely old fashioned, and perhaps it is – as I said in my last post – the fact that we are close to the anniversary of the passing of Prof. Wally Jay, and he was both very modern and a paragon of the classical martial values, but I grow sad and cynical when I see so much of what passes for the martial world these days.

*I may well be doing the man a disservice; he may only have accepted his 8th and not his 9th Dan!

What’s your opinion on this issue?  Would you ‘shop around’, research the necessary criteria so you could assess the relative merits of a teacher and a class?  Is it meaningful to cling to classical values in a Mac-Martial Art world – let me know?

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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