The meaning of the grades

The meaning of the grades

Dan grades were introduced to Japan in the Tokugawa court ‚Äď but they were not for martial arts initially. They were for Ikebana and Go (flower arranging and boardgame). They were based on a courtly system of levels dating back to the Chinese Northern Wei Dynasty (circa 220AD) when Chen Qun began ranking courtiers based on nine levels.

Throughout the Samurai era there were schools that specialised in both the martial and the academic/cultural (bunbu). A school might teach sword, archery, horsemanship and rifle, while another might teach grappling, espionage, swimming and tea ceremony. Therefore the schools were not equal. One adept in the Muso Shinden Ryu might be adept with the sword but have no concept of mounted archery for example. Generally these schools represented the courtly traditions of each clan. So as well as the different skills one was also taught the family history, the etiquette and the mythical founder of each school.

To use a western comparison. A British lad might be taught to fight by his father, but he would also be taught table manners and not to walk under ladders because of superstition, and have customs like shaking hands, and he might be told to wear a Poppy because of the sacrifice his grandfather‚Äôs generation made. And when he got older he might go to college and university and received a degree. The Samurai were no different. You were taught to fight, taught customs, superstitions, respect for ancestors and unique cultural foibles. When the full curriculum was learnt you were awarded the equivalent of a masters degree and doctorate ‚Äď usually called a Menkyo Kaiden. In the hereditary schools (Ryuha) the Koryu (old transmission) was usually passed from father to son (or nephew, grandson etc) and these headteachers were called Soke or Iemoto. They were not ‚Äúgrandmasters‚ÄĚ they were more like boarding school headmasters who were responsible for the transmission of the culture.

In 1868 the Samurai era ended (Meiji Restoration) and the clan traditions were dismantled and in 1876 the Bushi (warriors) banned from carrying their swords. In around 1880 Jigoro Kano began to transform his method of Jujutsu into what we now know as Judo. Around the same time there was a movement to transform Kenjutsu into Kendo. In 1883 Kano conferred the first grading to some students. He borrowed the ranking from Go and called their grade Shodan (1st Dan). They may have worn a black sash but the colour was not significant. While the Kodokan (Judo’s headquarters) was growing in Tokyo, another institution began in Kyoto called the Dai Nippon Butokukai. The aim was to standardise and nationalise the martial arts.

Titles (Shogo) were awarded by the Dai Nippon Butokukai. They were Renshi, Kyoshi and Hanshi. The Renshi grade was supposed to represent a drill sergeant ‚Äď one who teaches those who are already warriors. Eventually the system of ten grades were instituted. Broadly speaking Renshi was awarded to 4th-5th Dans, Kyoshi was awarded to 7th Dans and Hanshi to 8th-9th Dans however the two were not automatically associated. Some were awarded Dan grades but no Shogo, others Shogo but no Dan grades.

Masters ranked by the Dai Nippon Butokukai also included Okinawan Karate masters. Gichin Funakoshi was awarded the Renshi title but was considered ‚Äúbeyond grade‚ÄĚ. Like Jigoro Kano it was accepted Funakoshi was senior even to 10th Dans (of which there were very few). Read more about Funakoshi‚Äôs early days in Japan and the founding of Shotokan here.

The two world wars threw a major spanner in the works of Budo development and it was only in the early 1950s that the drive to re-nationalise and re-standardise the martial arts returned. Much like the Kyoto-based Dai Nippon Butokukai, the Tokyo based Kokusai Budoin was designed to have this standard. The martial arts were divided into the following divisions:

  • Judo
  • Karatedo
  • Aikido
  • Kendo
  • Iaido
  • Kyudo
  • Nihon Jujutsu
  • Kobudo

The Judo division was headed by Jigoro Kano’s successor Kyuzo Mifune and also included the likes of Kazuo Ito and his adopted son Shizuya Sato. The Karatedo division included the likes of Hironori Ohtsuka (founder of Wado Ryu and student of Funakoshi) and Gogen Yamaguchi (founder of Goju Kai). By this point it was common to grade students with between Kyu grades and Dan grades and Dai Nippon and Kokusai Budoin both still awarded Shogo. The chairman was Prince Higashikuni.

When I joined Kokusai Budoin in 2003, the president was Tokugawa Yasuhisa (great grandson of the last Shogun). The Judo and Nihon Jujutsu divisions were headed by Shizuya Sato; the Karatedo division by Hirokazu Kanazawa (Shotokan), Ikuo Higuchi (Shoto Ryu), Kazuo Sakai (Wado Ryu), Tadanori Nobetsu (Goju Ryu) and the Iaido division by Kenji Tose and so on. Each country had a regional director (for example in England the reg dir was Dave Wareing and the UK secretary was Colin Hutchinson). One could not walk into Kokusai Budoin and claim to be a 23rd Dan in Krav Kwon Jutsu. Your grade was in the traditional divisions.

In my case, I was a 2nd Dan Karate and a 2nd Dan Nihon Jujutsu. I was instantly mentored, taught, tested and graded by my local Regional Director who was Reiner Parsons (a 5th Dan at the time). Reiner, like all those higher than 3rd Dan had taken his grade under a panel of Japanese masters. In his case he was graded by Nobetsu for 5th Dan and by Ikuo Higuchi for 6th Dan. All instructors attended Budo Workshops at the UK headquarters, we attended seminars with visiting masters like Mitsuhiro Kondo and we attended the European congress and so I too got to train with masters like Sato and Nobetsu. Eventually I too became a regional director and ultimately international director of Kokusai Budoin (IMAF) GB. I later received the title Renshi from the UK Head of Dai Nippon Butokukai and returning to Kokusai Budoin in 2012, graded 5th Dan.

In 2016, I try to adhere to the same standards and procedures. In Bushinkai, I teach Karate and Nihon Jujutsu and we also have divisions in Iaido and Aikido. I teach in a traditional Japanese Dojo in a simple white gi. The grades simply reflect progress in the traditional divisions and their traditional styles. For more information on my classes click here.

Simon Keegan, Renshi

5th Dan Shotokan Karate (Kokusai Budoin)
4th Dan Karate Jutsu/Jujutsu
2nd Dan Nihon Jujutsu (Kokusai Budoin)