  Not long ago, a reader wrote to tell me a sad story. After many years of training in a particular karate school, he became disillusioned with the teacher and discontinued his practice there. In response, the teacher acted threatening and unpleasant. He demanded the return of the student’s rank certificate and black belt. The student asked me how the Japanese martial artists of old would have handled such a situation and what I thought of the practice of asking a student or former student to surrender his rank and certificate.

  Before answering, I must remind readers that the business of issuing belt ranks is less than a century old. According to most accounts, it was in the early part of the 20th century that judo-founder Jigoro Kano informally handed out lengths of black cotton belting to his senior students. Thus was born the concept of using colored belts to indicate rank. Asking how the Japanese martial artists of old would have reacted to a demand that their colored belts be returned after a disagreement is like asking how they would have handled a computer problem.

  Ranks in the martial arts of the feudal period were of the menkyo, or “license,” variety. Different traditions had different approaches. In some schools, a single rank or document might be given to certify that the bearer was authorized to teach the art. Other schools used rankings in which a student held a certificate called a go-mokuroku or sho-mokuroku. This indicated that he had been indoctrinated into the “bottom half” (go) or “top half” (sho) of the “catalogue” (mokuroku) of techniques taught in the school. Aside from being an official teaching authorization, these documents were not very important in the overall scheme. If a student had fought in several battles and still had all his limbs, that alone would be a powerful testament to his skill. He didn’t need a colored belt to prove anything.

  The modern era’s martial ways, however, were not designed as much for combat as for teaching such things as morals, physical fitness and aesthetic values. And since they are taught to the masses instead of to professional warriors, belt ranks have become a way of encouraging practice and rewarding effort. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it has caused a lot of problems for the martial ways. Let’s say a student hasn’t missed a practice session in 10 years. He’s always on the floor trying his best. Unfortunately, his best is rather pathetic. He’s just not well-coordinated. Should he be given a belt to reward him for his efforts or only for actual physical progress in the mastery of techniques?

  Other questions include determining what the awarded rank represents. If I get a certificate for climbing to the top of Mount Everest, the issuing organization could subsequently revoke it, I suppose. But that wouldn’t take away my accomplishment. A license to practice medicine could be revoked by the state, which would indicate the holder had done something wrong legally or ethically. But while the revocation would prevent the doctor from practicing medicine, it would not necessarily indicate that he was technically incompetent to do so in the future. A certificate giving me privileges at a health club could be revoked simply because I didn’t pay my dues. However, budo organizations have never been able to decide whether their rankings are like the climbing certificate, the medical license or the heath-club certificate.

  I cannot imagine any of my sensei asking me to return a rank. But if they did, would it mean I could no longer perform technically at the level at which they had certified me? Or would it mean I had done something to make me no longer “deserve” the rank? Frankly, I’ve always had a problem with teachers who demand a rank be returned after a student misbehaves in some way.

  In a famous incident some time ago, an aikido student was forced to return his rank to his teacher after it was revealed that the student, a teacher himself, had molested and assaulted female students. This seems fair. But what does it say about the teacher who gave him that rank in the first place? Shouldn’t that teacher have been obliged to return his rank to his teacher in recognition of his obvious inability to judge the character of one of his senior students?

  The teacher who awards a rank should be clear about what he’s awarding and certifying. If he gives me a rank to indicate that I can perform technically at a particular level, then his subsequent demand to return that rank doesn’t make sense. I performed, he rated me, that’s the end of it. If a rank carries other connotations, he should make that clear. “This rank is a symbol of your membership in good standing in our school,” the teacher might say. If this is the case and I do something awful and the teacher no longer wants me in his school, then it would make sense for him to ask me to return the rank as a symbolic statement that I am no longer a member.

  If the rank is a symbol of my teacher’s faith in me and a certification of my character, but my later actions demonstrate I was not worthy of his faith, then it would be my responsibility to return the rank on my own. It should also be the teacher’s responsibility to do some serious thinking about his ability to judge character in his students.

  The average martial arts teacher probably regards rank as a combination of all these things. That’s why there is much confusion about the matter of returning a rank when something goes wrong in the teacher/student relationship. In the case of the reader, the details of his teacher’s actions leave little doubt in my mind that the reader did the right thing in leaving the school. He may regret having to surrender his hard-won certificate. But on the other hand, would he really want a certificate from a place where he didn’t respect the teacher or the teaching?

  A rank and belt can be taken away, but no one can take away a person’s skills. If they have been legitimately earned, a belt or a piece of paper isn’t going to matter much in comparison.


Then one must understand:  Giri:  http://www.sanchinbushi.com/index.php/articles/53-understanding-qgiriq