What the Hell is a Black Belt?

Sage words from one who has gone before….   


                                          By Hayward Nishioka

            I once asked a high ranking friend of mine, “What is a Shodan?” How does one know if one is a first degree black belt, or a second, or a third for that matter? Is it that a person can beat a certain number of other practitioners? If so, how many, and of what quality? He couldn’t answer the question with any degree of conviction. He just said, “I know he doesn’t look like a white belt or even a sankyu. (third degree brown belt) I asked this question because I was at one time a member of four American promotion committees on or about the same time, and each one of them had different criteria’s for shodan. Even within the same organization’s criteria, weird differences arose.  I also noticed that internationally many of our U.S. brown belts would easily beat Japanese shodans. But, that’s where it usually stopped. Once they got to nidan and sandan it was a different story. There seemed to be more Picasso art than Newtonian science to how judoka got promoted, and I was somewhat confused, as I am sadly even to this day.

The following are a few thoughts on this most perplexing but soul searching subject, rank promotions. Everyone who sits on a rank promotion committee or is to be elevated to a high rank in judo should be required to write a paper on the subject in order to comprehend the complexities involved in this process we take for granted as a natural progression of our sport and way of life, judo. Well, what are you waiting for? Try starting with the sentence, “ I should be a ____dan because – – – – – –

Who decides who is to be promoted? Is being tough the only qualification? Can a higher rank always beat a lower rank? What about a red and white belt? Can they beat all lower ranks? What about red belts? Why don’t we see these higher ranks compete? If they’re so good why don’t we see them winning at the World Championship tournaments? Obviously it’s not just about winning but what causes our minds to equate higher rank to higher physical ability? What causes this obsession for higher rank when we don’t even know what it represents or whether we are truly eligible for the thing we know nothing about? Why is everyone trying so hard to get the next higher rank? What is the value of a belt ranking system? What does it all mean?

Before Kano and the Meiji restoration there was jiujitsu. People then just practiced in ordinary kimono; usually a hakama (pant/skirt looking thing) and uwagi (thick jacket type material). Because of the social agenda of the times when Japan was throwing out old ideas of feudalism and bringing new ideas from the West, activities aligned to the old samurai ways such as kenjitsu, karate, jiujitsu were thought anachronistic and slated to be eliminated. It was the time of the “Last Samurai.” It was Jigoro Kano who stepped in to save the day. Dr. Kano’s interest in education, physical culture, and English, and of course his love of his own activity of judo, plus his political connections that helped to save the martial arts in Japan. His English language skills allowed him access to Western ideas that were so favorable to the Meiji government of the time. Among these Western ideas was the burgeoning importance of sports as a means of developing the vitality of a Nation’s citizens both physically as well as culturally. From about the mid 1850’s to the 1880’s came an on-slot of then new sporting events such as ice hockey, baseball, basketball, and football encompassing the values of planning, skill development, team work, courage, quick thinking, discipline, and much more. Kano felt that Judo (then thought of as a feudal martial art) could also be transformed into a sport but it had to be packaged differently. Essentially this is how many of the Japanese martial arts of the time, considered as part of the old feudal system, came to be preserved.  

Philosophically, Dr. Kano was quick to note that rather than judo being a means of offence and defense that it was used as a means of elevating ones life. To drive this point home he promulgated his maxims of “self perfection, mutual welfare and benefit and maximum efficiency with minimum effort.” He said that there were three levels at which an individual could train in judo: One, as a means of self defense, two, to cultivate the body and ones mind, and three, to do this for the betterment of society.

Additionally he changed the look of judo by developing a specialized work out uniform called a judogi. In line with the idea of Western sports clothing it utilized pants rather than the traditional hakama. The upper garment was made of a stronger weaved material resembling the type of coats then warn by Japanese firemen. The color of the uniform was an off color white, and was shorter in the pants and sleeve than found today. The most dramatic difference however was the belt that was worn. By 1884 there were two colors; white to denote a beginner or mudansha and black belt by advanced or yudansha. The belt was an outward manifestation of the station or level one had attained in judo through hard practice. Other martial arts such as karate, aikido, jiujitsu, kyudo, bojitsu, iaido,’ and kendo, followed suite and utilized the belt ranking system as well.

In Tokugawa Japan jiujitsu students were awarded certificates with the titles of shoden, chuden, okuden, menkyo, or kaiden according to “Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan.” With a certificate however there was no way to display it. It sat at home on the shelf. With Kano there was now an immediate visual incentive to work toward– the black belt. The very first black belts were given to Tomita Tsuneyoshi and Saigo Shiro in August of 1883. To this day it has represented excellence in performance and is coveted by millions.

As judo membership grew over time, higher ranks were given out. The first fifth dan was awarded to Tomita in 1888 but it wasn’t till some 10 years latter that the first sixth dan was awarded to Yamashita, Yoshitsugu and Yokoyama, Sakujiro in 1898. The very first 10th dan was awarded to Yamashita, Yoshitsugu in 1935, some 53 years after many hard practices and monumental achievements in the development of judo, and this only posthumously by the founder. Many of the early belt ranks were given directly by Dr. Kano but as membership increased a Council was established, overseen by the founder.

Under the Kodokan Council criteria’s were established and read as follows under:

Article 10 Consideration for promotion is based on the candidate’s character, technical proficiency in kata and randori, knowledge of judo, application of judo training, achievements in judo and so forth. Candidacy will be judged in accordance with the following:

a)    f the candidate is lacking in character, he/she will not be promoted even they meet other requirements.

b)    Those deemed to be of good character and who train diligently, applying their judo skills and knowledge to daily life, and those who have made achievements through judo maybe compensated for technical inadequacies to a certain degree.

c)     The assessment of judo techniques will emphasize posture, balance and poise in execution.

d)     In regards to knowledge of judo, candidates to promotion to shodan or above must show how they place importance on their judo experience

(Kodokan Council Regulations printed in Judo Nenkan, 1925)

             After the death of Dr. Kano the council continued on, however due to WW II, promotional activity, at least at the higher levels, slowed down and didn’t resume to it’s full potential until after the Mac Arthur restrictions on the practice of martial arts in Japan was lifted. Not withstanding the war judo still flourished in other parts of the world. Europe, the America’s, Asia, Oceania, went on to develop their own promotional system’s catering to local needs but still mimicking the precepts first promulgated by Jigoro Kano; that of technical proficiency, knowledge of judo theory, continuing education, the use of judo in one’s daily life, and character.

            In the United States judo was heavily practiced in areas with a high concentration of first and second generation Japanese, and didn’t become popular with the Americans until after WWII as returning service men from Japan searched out places to continue their practice. Much of judo was under the control of first generation Japanese who felt that judo was a cultural right rather than an athletic activity. Much of the rank promotion system back before and even after the War was linked to the Kodokan. It wasn’t until the mid to late 60’s when a more objective system was implemented by Phil Porter, making it easier for non-Japanese to be promoted in judo through the USJA.

            While the system worked well for the promotion of lower ranks, sandan and below. Ranks of fourth and higher in America were, and still are, a puzzle with missing pieces. Ranks up to sandan can easily be compared with other organizations through competition. If your sandan’s are losing to the other organizations shodan’s something is wrong but adjustments can easily be made.

“Ah but what of promotions given to older judoka who started later in life, and did not have the opportunity to compete at a high level and build a history? Were they not helping in the development of judo?” Even if one were to receive up to a sandan through time in grade and through his efforts as a part of the leadership staff as an assistant instructor, instructor, coach, organizer, clinician, representative, committee member/chair, or officer, would this not seem acceptable? For any rank higher than sandan the individual has to be of exceptional quality and dedication to be equated to a competitor of fourth and fifth dan. After all, this is about judo and judo deals with proficiency, or does it?

Here is where things begin to get a little muddled. For all the champions that we have produced over the years we have not produced champions who would remain to become good leaders during or after their competitive years. Our judo organizations have done little to provide opportunities or incentives to encourage growth beyond championships.  It is only haphazardly that those who compete and stay on in various capacities are somehow elevated for this thing we call “time in grade”. What is perplexing is that this same “time in grade” standard is often times applied to those who have not had a serious competitive record but have stayed on, and have contributed to the running of the organizations. So now what does it mean to be a higher rank? It doesn’t seem to mean that the higher the dan, the more one is proficient in judo. Rank now when issued seems to become a tacit, collateral or payment for organizational skills and services rendered. That now, the person who has volunteered his services stands equal to the “man in the arena.”

To the common public, and to even more structured organizations like Six Sigma, the perception is that the higher the belt rank the more stellar the participant.  Again the perception of proficiency is predicated on the best of the competitor side of the equation and not on who has been around a long time or has friends in high places that have been given a possibly inflated rank to them. The inflated rank, also as with money matters, lessons the quality with quantity.

The International Judo Federation, in its attempt to belatedly control rank, has issued a proclamation that they will be the only body to confer ninth and tenth dans. Furthermore that they will only recognize ranks issued by National Governing Bodies; in the United States that would be USA Judo. Not withstanding USA Judo has an agreement with the other two larger U.S. Judo organizations that all three would reciprocally honor each others ranks. Things would not be so bad except for the fact that the United States has more high ranking black belts with less skill level and knowledge than most European countries. It may be that the United States has more ninth dan’s than France. France has a judo population of well over 500,000 registered members while the US has about 25,000 registered members.

For the French, Rokudan is gateway rank leading to higher rank. To attain this rank a very large hall where 4 to 6 mat areas may be installed is rented.  The candidates vying for rokudan must now perform before a panel of higher ranking individuals. First they select a technique such as ouchigari, seoinage, etc. and demonstrate at least 25 different ways to execute that one technique. Next they select a kata and demonstrate it. There is also a presentation of ones theory of judo, a written examination, and a demonstration of how one would conduct a judo lesson. The examination is an all day affair that many say the fifth dan must prepare for at least one year in advance. The result being that each person promoted to rokudan is assuredly a proficient judoka capable of meeting high standards. It is little wonder that France has a 500,000+ membership. It has an army of really capable judoka. Additionally if one wants to teach judo in France an additional certification is required. The certification is sponsored through the ministry of education and is a physical education degree.

Now for tough love to begin. This article would become meaningless without really looking honestly at our promotion system. The truth may hurt many of the ones that I have come to respect and honor and serve with, but unless these issues are brought to the foreground they will not be addressed for the betterment of judo in the United States.

  1. Integrity – Mel Applebaum once wrote to his friend the following:

“The topic of promotion is not a simple matter. High dan grades reflect significant expertise and contribution to the sport and must be administered by High dans with integrity. On the lower dan levels, competition is the main path to promotion. Promotion procedures must be fair and consistent and not influenced by the payment of money, as in the way some in the past have literally sold rank and disgraced our sport. It is similar to those claiming doctorates and using the title doctor from degree mills and on line degree factories. It diminishes the value of all degrees.”

In the past, as it is today, ranks can be bought. It could be an outright bargained for exchange or it could be more sophisticated in nature as with donations, dinners, junkets, favors, services, etc. in exchange for rank.  A question was once asked if it may be justified in that the monies exchanged for rank is truly in the service of judo or may be at a crucial juncture where the life or death of the organization is at the heart of the matter, what then? After all rank promotions can be a viable source of income for an organization.

In recent years there has been a rise in the cost of rank promotions world wide. This most likely started by the Kodokan whose promotion costs are very high (in the thousands of dollars). Taking a cue from this action the IJF has also raised its promotional fees as a means of raising monies to fund its programs as well.

These increases raise another question for the Japanese as well as others, “Do I spend my money on this promotion I am qualified to receive or spend it on the family or other needs?” More importantly, am I really worth the rank for which I am putting out the money to receive this rank or is the organization using me as a source of income? For those with expendable income it is not a problem to shell out the big bucks for the privilege of being named amongst the esoterically honored few.

2. Equality – When thinking of this word one thinks of two words, equal and quality. Is the quality of one side of an equal sign the same as the other side? When looking at seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth degree black belts from Japan, Korea, France, Germany, Holland, and England to name a few powerhouses can we say that our recipients are equal to theirs? Have our candidates competed and practice at a high level? Are they held to high standards? Have they done as much as say a Neil Adams, or Nobuyuki Sato to promote judo. Adams is a eighth and Sato a ninth dan. Have they contributed to the betterment of judo?

Granted these two men are of exceptional quality and are at the top of the rating scale and perhaps America due to its situations should be given some slack. Still, in spite of the need for incentives to encourage judoka to stay on, rank as a currency has to be personally deliberated and weighed against our social needs.

3. Role Model Consistency – “What’s good for the goose, (should be) is good for the gander.” While exceptions to the rule do exist, some rules are blatantly disregarded and run contrary the ideals of judo. At a fairly recent promotion meeting a high ranking member of a promotion committee suddenly proposed to elevate another member to a rank equal to his own rank. This would not have been out of the ordinary but for the fact that there was no prior submittal of promotional forms of any kind to deliberate upon. This is highly unusual since there was no written record of past performance, kata, character reference, nothing. Not even his name and address. Other candidates because they lacked the listing of one kata or even one line not filled in were not passed for promotion yet those within the committee were given a pass. Furthermore the following year the person who was promoted proposed that the person who nominated him the year before should now be raised to the next level higher. This also may have well have been a deserved promotion but for the fact that it also came with no paperwork and possibly no payment.

 Should not those who lead, lead by example?  Or is it that the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must? What was exceedingly bad was that the rest of the board of examiners voted to pass these two very high promotions while flunking others who merely forgot to fill in a line or two. Fortunately or unfortunately this author was not privy to a vote or party to this organizational decision.

  4. Rank Inflation – In the 1950’s a sixth degree black belt was a rarity. Today it is fairly common place. At the current rate of escalation of promotions to high dan America could see its ranks swell with high dans and maybe even a tenth dan or two. Imagine that! 

Two of the three U.S. organizations have already had tenth dan promotions. There are quite a few who are young enough to make tenth dan through the criteria of “time in grade.” Some may not have even competed at a high level or even contributed greatly to the development of judo, but they will have “time in grade.” 

5. In the end the rank promotion certificate is only a piece of paper. It allows no increase in income. No added fame. No added power. Those who flaunt rank are thought of inversely proportionately. Those who have high rank undeservedly are smiled at outwardly and laughed at inwardly by those in the know.

High rank is just a confirmation that a group of high ranks have confirmed that you have met their organizational criteria to be promoted. Usually if the group and/or its criteria is of low quality the rank may not mean as much. For example if your promotion committee consists of sixth degrees who have never been in high level competition or been in a leadership role and they are voting to raise you to seventh, eighth or ninth it would not mean as much as a group of seventh, eighth, or ninth degree black belts who have been in high level competition or leadership roles voting to promote you. Even then should a seventh or eighth be voting on elevating someone to become a ninth or tenth dan?

In conclusion I am reminded of a U.S. Navy Admiral whose shame was so great upon being discovered wearing a campaign ribbon on his chest for which he did not participate in nor deserve to wear that he committed suicide rather than face his peers disdain. I am in no way advocating this type of behavior for judo, I am merely pointing out that some representations of honor are life and death meaningful to some but not to other. While judo is not the military, nonetheless it raises the question of what motivates people to want to claim credit for going down a pathway they have not traveled.

Sooo, back to the question; what the hell is a black belt rank?

            For an answer let’s look outside the box. Let’s not look at who wears the belt but who devised the system. What might his motivations be for wanting a rank grading system. While the following is but conjecture, this author thinks the founder understood the need for order, hierarchy, self esteem, and the human need to fulfill goals. The black belt ranking system does all of these things and more. It perpetuates the sport by meeting the needs of its participants. However, maintaining excellence in the system and under changing social conditions requires training, knowledge, judgment, integrity, and, dedication

            Dr. Kano understood change. That is how he changed the idea of martial arts from activities of destruction to one of sports and character building. That is how he changed the use of Japanese street clothes to uniforms and the more visible belt ranking system. Even within the belt rank system as his students increased in numbers and in age he later added five more rank levels with concomitant requirements in order to keep interest levels constant over a lifetime of participation. For Dr. Kano judo was a work in progress and had he lived on to this present day he would surely have devised a better measure of competency than time in grade.

            If he were alive today he would most likely look at elements or judo that would increase membership, increase performance levels, increase an understanding and acceptance of judo. As per increasing membership, attention should be given to those who run judo dojos and those who could be trained to do so. Performance wise clinics and certifications are important. Certifications are more important than clinics since certifications usually require course work and testing. Amongst the more successful of the certification programs are those of kata and refereeing, both having very stringent examinations, but their success records speak for them self. Refereeing has several levels that are tested for: local, regional, national, continental, and international “B,” “A,” and now rostered “A;” those qualified to do the World Championships and Olympic Games. The National level referees are further divided into “N”(National) 3,2, and 1. “N 1” being the highest. Any referee not meeting the higher “N 1” standard can be dropped to “N 2” or even “N3” by the examiners, who are usually “A” referees. 

            Along with these certifications other areas that currently do not exist but that could aid in the development of judo might be as follows:

Instructor, Coach, Assistant coach, Assistant instructor, Tournament Director, Public Relations, Sport Information Director, Writing judo, Grant writing, Dojo Management, Match Making – Scoring – and Timing, Judo Games and Drills, Judo Story Telling, Judo and the Media, Sports Psychology, Biomechanics, Exercise Physiology, Running a Meeting, Running a Judo Camp, Judo Clinics, Master Instructor.

            While there are an array of other certifications that could aid in the development of judo the important part is that there is standardization and acceptance. That means there has to be written documentation and materials with tests that have been agreed upon as to what is necessary for that particular certification. As with refereeing there also has to be follow up and maintenance of a level of performance or the individual is dropped lower on a hierarchy scale. To run these types of certification programs requires persons of integrity, energy, insight, and a feel for doing the right thing.

            It would make more sense to elevate individuals possessing a number of these certifications to a higher rank than an accumulation of a lot of time in grade were the individual did nothing but wait for the years to pass. Just think, wouldn’t an individual who had certifications as an instructor, judo drills, biomechanics, exercise physiology, kata, refereeing, tournament directing, etc., be more valuable and worthy of higher rank than having time in grade and simple points. Wouldn’t such a certification system increase the knowledge base and performance for U. S. Judo and at the same time professionalize judo, where Qualified Presenters of Judo Certifications could receive remunerations for services rendered.

            As Porky Pig so often say at the end of a Looney Tunes Cartoon, “badabadat That’s all folks”, I’ve presented a few of the problems of our ranking system but I’ve also offered a solution. If we are not careful and change we may well become the laughing stock of the world of judo.

This of course is only one avenue of deciding the rank of an individual rather than leave the reader with only the problem to think of a solution was also offered.


Hayward Nishioka, Hachidan

Hayward Nishioka, Hachidan






About Mark V

Dedicated shooter, seeker, traveler, teacher, trainer, educator
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7 Responses to What the Hell is a Black Belt?

  1. When someone writes an piece of writing he/she maintains the plan of a user in his/her mind that how a user can understand it.
    Therefore that’s why this article is amazing. Thanks!

  2. halutz says:

    Thank you for the powerful article; i personally been wondering about the ranking system of US Judo. This article gave powerful insight, and pointed out flaws with the offering of solution to such.


  3. Once more, judo being the first, Hayward is a master. I started judo and budo in 1950, and I wouldn’t quarrel with a word written here. Thanks, Hayward for a really penetrating essay.

  4. Douglas Sherman says:

    Tis does open up the thought of those promoted to higother”ks but do not have the skills to teach ,referee or promote Judo .Do you lower the standards or raise the standards thus hurting those upcoming because of the actions of the past
    MANY that I know are Roku Dann that are not skilled for Shodan but have promoted Judo in various ways any such as myself have lost interest in rank since it value has no meaning to anyone except the indivual themselves. I SEE IT AS A CATCH 22 SITUATION.You are dammed if you do and you are Damm if you don’t.Spend your time in grade ,promote a Judo and get no recognition or do nothing and kiss some one’s ass and you are promoted.
    My feelings may not be other’s opinions however after 53 years seeing I no longer have any belief in Judo organizations. organizations belief

    • Robert M. Cockey, BGen USAF (ret) says:

      I too have done judo for over 55 years, and sadly I agree with you. I have a friend who is a coach in a small country in Europe. He produced a Champion that was ranked 2nd in Europe and 5th in the World. That Champion easily beat everyone in the USA at the US Open. That was 30 years ago, and my friend has never fail to produce a Champion since. His athletes have won Bronze in World Championships and Bronze in Olympics. His country is poor and often he pays for his athletes to go to tournaments out of his own pocket. His understanding of judo technique and training methods is outstanding. He puts on camps and clinics so many countries can send their athletes and Japan can send an 8th Dan instructor. Yet his rank is 5th Dan. Here in the USA we have many people who have never produced something for their nation but wear much higher rank. I have lost faith and interest in US organizations or who has rank.

  5. Robert says:

    A well written and interesting insight into our Ranking system. I have to agree that a certification program like you have mentioned would surely be a better alternative. It is in my thought that time in grade should be used as a guideline for practitioners, and the first prerequisite on a long lost of prerequisites many of which should be as youve proposed above. I am quite glad for some of the new revisions that limit the emphasis on time.in grade (at least for USJA) Thank you for your time and skill sensei.

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