Updated: Sep 12, 2017
We have recently taken on a few new students and one of the common beginner questions is about the coloured belt system and what the hierarchy is. This has prompted me to talk about the concept of the belt ranking system.
Prior to Japanese martial arts expanding in to the western world, there wasn't any belt ranking system. The traditional system is referred to as Koryu licencing. The first licence a person receives is "Okuiri" and is an official welcoming to the school/art after a number of years of proven dedication. Next is Shomokuroku. This identifies that a person has reached a certain level, in certain techniques, and may teach others ONLY those techniques. Then comes Gomokuroku then Menkyo. Again, as with Shomokuroku, This identifies that a person has reached a certain level, in certain techniques, and may teach others ONLY those techniques. The final qualification is Menkyo Kaiden. This is given when the Headmaster, or Soke, identifies that the student has attained full transmission. Only a Menkyo Kaiden can licences to students and it is surmised that each Headmaster will give 5 Menkyo Kaiden licences in their lifetime.
I do not know when or where the belt system was introduced but it most definitely only occurred when martial arts began to be taught in western countries. There is no one consistent coloured belt system for all martial arts. This is because there are many martial arts, with many organisations within each art, then many dojo's within each organisation. Along the way, each art, organisation and school have come up with their own system. The negative aspect of the coloured belt system is it can become very egocentric and becomes a status symbol. Also, the goal becomes the next belt instead of the journey and desire to just train and improve. Lastly, gradings have a commercial benefit and by adding more belt levels a dojo can gain more money. The benefit of the coloured belt system is can be a goal to help you improve and when training with someone else, it indicates a certain level of experience and thus a senior person should modify the way they train with that person.
At Bushinkan I have tried to remain true to the organisations belt ranking system but realised I had to make some concessions for kids under 12 years of age. When I started teaching kids I was initially resolute in not deviating from the standard. However, after 9 months of no grading because I did not believe they were ready for the next belt, I relented. Even I was feeling bad they had not had their first grading. So now, I have broken up the first 3 levels in to 6. My standards are still high and the number of techniques to learn are just broken up.