Late Night Discussion
+Johnpaul Williams, a close collegue of mine, and I were discussing the other day while reviewing part one of this post. We were debating to see how much the general Karate community really understood how traditional gradings work and how the Shihan titles were mainly used for. The discussion then evolved to how you would address those senseis with Shihan titles and (seriously) would we even use the Shihan title if we were ever conferred with one? This then led into conversation about how 9th Dan ranking and 10th Dan ranking are ever achieved... does the Karate populace in general understand this? Our guess was probably not because even regular Japanese people do not understand the ranking system unless they are involved in an organization that follows a ranking system.
Just a quick touch... the current belt ranking system used in Karate was developed by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo. We have heard about the belt color changing from training (from white to black with blood sweat and tears), which is a nice story... but the truth was Japanese Martial Arts needed to be organized and therefore the Kyu/Dan system was born.
Now, there has been some discussion about the difference between Shihan Menkyo or Shihan Menjyo... there is some history behind this. Simply, the traditional system used to pass the protected techniques in scroll form to the highest ranking or most senior instructor as a tool for succession planning for the schools. However, modern practices have relied on the conferrment of the Renshi, Kyoushi, and Hanshi titles, and unfortunately no protected scrolls passed down. (unless possibly the Bubishi for the Jundokan and Higaonna Goju organizations in Okinawa where we may see this happening, hopefully in the not so close future)
Traditionally, the only ranks above 8th Dan we see are only in the Kaiha dojos. It is possible to see them because the Kaiha dojos are more local and have the local support of the student base which have a steady succession plan built in to keep their organizations growing. However, on the Ryuha level, which is most likely on a national organizational level, it is RARE to see ranks higher than 8th Dan. This is because the 8th Dan rank is the highest that ANYONE can achieve by testing for it. Currently, according to JKF Goju Kai statistics, passing rate to achieve 8th Dan is lower than one percent. In Japan, passing rate for 8th Dan in Kendo is less than 0.2 percent. Actually... there is a great NHK video on a Kendo Sensei trying to attempt his 8th Dan rank on YouTube... here's part 1. If you watch this through... it may give you a better perception. I know the video is about Kendo... but it mirrors Karate on the Japan Karatedo Federation level as well.
Now the misconception to us outsiders is that we are being discriminated against. As a Japanese-American, I can see this as a big misconception. Its not that we are being discriminated against, frankly its because we lack the understanding of culture. The culture of Karate is deep. Its not about just the punching and kicking, but there are deeper avenues and personal demons that come out when you are training at that level. I never truly believed it until I experienced it for myself... but your "life experiences" do come out in your Karate and either compliment or hinders your training. To a sensei who has been accepted into the 8th Dan community, they can see those "life experiences" come alive in your Karate and gives them great insight.
Getting back to the topic on hand, while it is not impossible on the Ryuha level, it has been known that 9th Dan has been conferred (again supported and lifted by the 8th Dan community) to a sensei who has been an extraordinary contributor to the organization. And even more rare, the 9th Dan community conferring or lifting up a sensei to 10th Dan for the same purpose. These conferrments above 8th Dan are very special and again very rare. Compared to those which are awarded on the Kaiha level, the prestige and the level of recognition are on different levels. A majority of the 9th Dan and 10th Dan ranking we see here in the United States are on the Kaiha or Dojo level and have not been recognized on a national level from organizations such as USNKF (United States National Karate Federation) or the JKF (Japan Karatedo Federation, All Styles).
I know that many of you feel the same way as I do... however, please be aware when you do see ads or other senseis which market their rank. I believe that there is a time and place for such a thing, such as for Seminar or a Guest Speaking event. But those who market stating they have obtained rank of higher than 8th Dan, I would be weary and confirm which organization awarded the Dan to the instructor. I hate to say it but, Karate is like a religion... you have to find a school that you match with and can believe in but also have to find a school where the leadership is strong and legitimate.
For any prospective beginners out there... its alright to ask questions and it is equally alright to question the leadership without having to fear that you will offend them. A good instructor will be honest with you regardless.
In training and late night talks!
PS... look for Part 2 of the Shihan Menkyo article about addressing your Sensei's by their Shihan titles... Does your sensei MAKE you call them by O'Sensei or Dai Sensei?