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On Rank

We often ask what rank a student or sensei might be. Rank is a relatively modern invention (or convention). It was not emphasized in Okinawa before World War II.

You must be very careful when you meet older Karate sensei. Sometimes they will have no rank in a modern sense, but will be senior to younger sensei with very high rank.

What rank is your mother? What rank is your father? Can you rank them at parenthood? It would seem silly. And yet rank can take on great importance in some Karate circles.

Practically speaking, rank and titles will not protect you if you are attacked. They will not improve your health. I understand that rank and titles might be useful if you have a dojo, but it is best not to emphasize them.

When I was a child, I practiced Judo at Misawa Air Force Base in Northern Honshu. Our Sensei was named Sato. I was a brown belt. One day, we went to a tournament off base. The Japanese students all wore white belts. My friends and I thought that we would have an easy time.

We were wiped out! I remember hearing hajime and ippon at the same time!

It turns out that the Japanese students all wore white belts irrespective of their kyu ranking.

That is one reason that I do not give colored belts in my Karate dojo, nor do I issue kyu ranks. I do issue dan ranking, but do not emphasize the issue. The emphasis is on learning.

In Hawaii, many of us remember Tomu Arakawa, a Goju-Ryu instructor. Everyone you ask will say that Arakawa Sensei was a dignified gentleman. That should be our goal in training -- to be like Arakawa Sensei -- not to seek rank.

What kind of student are you? What kind of son, brother, father, friend? What kind of person are you?

Sometimes we say that rank should follow you like a shadow. It is always behind you. You do not chase after it. It should seem almost trivial to you, compared to the goals of learning and improving your life.

If you are in a dojo where rank is part of the system, then try your best and accept any promotion with a sense of gratitude and a feeling that you must try harder. Help those who are junior to you and learn from those who are senior.

Remember that anything that can be given to you (such as rank and titles) can also be taken away. But your skill is yours to keep.

One day, people might remember you the way we remember Arakawa Sensei.


Charles C. Goodin