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Improvement In Higher Dan Ranks?

Here is a question I was asked (I am paraphrasing it):

"Are higher dan ranks awarded for technical improvement or for other factors, such as contributions to the art and teaching?"
It is certainly true that higher ranks, such as 7th dan through 10th dan, do take into account the awardee's contributions to the art, teaching, and similar factors. However, in my opinion, a person should improve from one dan level to the next. This applies to higher ranks as well.

Thus, in my opinion, a 7th dan should be more skilled than a 6th dan, an 8th dan should be more skilled than a 7th dan, etc. A Karate student should never reach a level where he no longer improves. I am sure that there are 80 and 90 year old Karate experts who are still "working at it." The work never ends and neither does improvement.

Now I am not saying that you can necessarily compare a 7th dan in one style or dojo to another 7th dan in another style or dojo. Ranking is a pretty subjective thing with wide variations. But within one dojo or organization, you would expect to see some uniformity of ranking. And in this situation, I would expect there to be a qualitative difference between holders of higher ranks. In other words, I would not expect an 8th dan to simply be an older version of a 7th dan. An 8th dan should be more skilled and more technically advanced.

I have written before that the passage of time and the attainment of a certain age should never be the basis of rank. Improvement should be the basis of rank, and improvement comes from one thing and one thing only -- training.

I've also written that what's important is not being better than other people but being better than yesterday (quoting Jigoro Kano). It is also true that if you have not improved today, you have gotten worse (because you have gotten older). We must constantly seek improvement.

I am fortunate to know many skilled Karate instructors who have dedicated their lives to training. They train to improve, not to be promoted. Actually, I do not know any skilled Karate instructors who seek promotion -- they are too busy training and working on themselves.

Skill is the result of training. If skill increases, that is a reward in and of itself. An acknowledgment from a ranking committee is not necessary. It is also true that rank without skill and ability means nothing at all.

So I feel that a person should improve from one rank to the next, and this applies from the earliest ranks to the highest. But the goal is improvement, not rank. If rank comes, it should be accepted with a sense of humility, gratitude, and increased responsibility (to the other students).

I would also like to relate something I often experience. I meet many Karate instructors who are more skilled that me. I am never intimidated by this. Instead, I am inspired to train harder so that I can improve. I am 53 and my Sensei in Okinawa is 72. I say to myself, "I will try to be as skilled as he is when I am his age." And then I think, "At least I have some time to try to catch up." I have mentioned this to my Sensei many times. He replies that "We can try to improve together."

That is exactly how I feel about my own students. "We can try to improve together."


Charles C. Goodin