TERMINAL RANK & PROMOTION
By Mark Lonsdale, Judo Training Development
One thing that seems to have been lost over time is the concept of “terminal rank.” While I have read about it in articles going back to 1970, I have never seen the concept embraced by a governing body. Simply getting older should not qualify an individual for promotion, and yet all too many people, with very weak judo resumes, have come to assume that they will make 9th or even 10th dan. These are ranks reserved for those humble and yet exceptional individuals who have had outstanding judo careers and have contributed enormously to judo.
Individual judoka should be honest enough (with themselves) to know when they have reached the point in their judo career, where their knowledge of judo and contribution on the mat has ceased to evolve or advance. That is when you hit terminal rank, with the general thinking that this should be around Godan. As an example, I have a good friend in France who was a national champion and is still involved in judo, but he broke his back so was never able to take the Rokudan (6th dan) test. He is recovered, but he accepts that his terminal rank is Godan.
Forty years ago, Godan was an uncommonly high rank, but now we have 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th dan by the boat load – so many in fact that you could live within 200 miles of a 9th dan and not even know him. Serious judoka now refer to many red & white belts as “candy strippers” – which is a sad state of affairs for what was once a highly respected badge of honor.
The simple solution to the entire promotion dilemma is open and transparent testing up to the rank of Rokudan, on the mat, in front of a panel of qualified examiners. Only when we know that every 6th dan has passed the same rigorous testing, should these sensei be considered for future promotions based on time in grade and service to judo. There must be at least one benchmark, or clearly defined minimum standard, for progression to higher grade. If an individual cannot pass the Rokudan test, for whatever reason, then terminal grade becomes a perfectly respectable Godan.
So where does competition come into all this? Promotion through competition points is usually only up to the age of 30 or 35 years; but now with Masters we would like to see them recognized as competitors too. A Master or Veteran competitor, who is still competing into his or her 50s, 60s or 70s, should be given credit for their effort and dedication to judo. This is a tangible demonstration of ability and dedication so recognition should be given through reduction in time in grade for promotion.
From 35 years to say 55 or 60, a judoka is tested primarily on technical ability and kata, but should still be proficient in randori. They should also be active in teaching, coaching or refereeing. So, if for example, an individual physically cannot do judo, then it is logical that they cannot progress in technical ability (waza) or in kata. Service to judo is a wonderful and essential thing, but it should be rewarded with certificates and awards, not rank. The exception would be individuals such as former All Japan champions, Olympic champions, World champions, and international coaches and referees, or those whose service to judo is significant, unswerving and undisputed. Other than those truly exceptional individuals, such as Toshiro Daigo sensei, 10th dan, or Yoshihiro “Yosh” Uchida sensei, 10th dan, a terminal rank of Godan should be considered perfectly respectable in judo. It is better to be a respected Godan than a known “rank chaser” or self-serving politician with an over-inflated rank.
In most countries, promotion up to and including the rank of hachidan (8th dan) requires demonstration of technical proficiency and the required kata(s). If you go to the Kodokan, on most evenings you will see 70 and 80 year old judoka doing judo and kata, and being taught by equally venerable 8th, 9th and 10th dan. Most of us at the Kodokan Kata Camp this summer were well over the age of 50 and many over 60. But how many 5th, 6th, 7th, or 8th dan have you seen on the mat testing for their rank in the US? Personally I have never seen it happen here.
Any time another sensei calls me to ask about promoting one of their judoka, or a judoka that i may have worked with in one of my clinics, my answer is always the same, “Convene a promotion panel and test the individual.” But do you think this happens? Never. The individual is invariably promoted with no testing and no competition record. The problem being that too many promotions are done behind closed doors; too many good old boys are taking care of other good old boys; and mediocre high-grades are propagating mediocre judo. We seem to have lost our “gatekeepers” of quantifiable technical proficiency and good judo.
Some readers of the previous article in this series were fixating on the role of competition in promotion. Promotions above 4th or 5th dan are not driven by competition points but by demonstrated knowledge of judo, demonstrated technical ability, and demonstrated kata. You do not have to fight for 6th dan, but you should be an exceptional judo practitioner to earn the red and white belt. The point being that the quality of judo in the future must be projected and propagated by “gatekeepers” with exceptional judo skills and an unwavering love of judo. This is why the Rokudan test should be the penultimate right-of-passage to higher rank. If at some point in an individual’s judo career they did not have the physical ability and skills to pass the Rokudan test, then terminal rank becomes the once totally respected rank of Godan.
Are there people that believe rank should be awarded for little more than time in grade and service points? You bet – and they are the problem. They are protecting their right to keep promoting each other aggressively and void of merit. This is why we now have all too many high-grades who don’t actually do judo, barely fit into a judogi, cannot demonstrate clean techniques, and are not well versed in the principles of Kodokan Judo or the writings of Professor Kano. Do you think that a 6th dan that does not know the meaning of “koshi-waza” is a good gatekeeper for Kodokan Judo; or even worse, could not demonstrate four hip techniques in front of the class? How about the 4th dan calling tome-nage kata-guruma; or the Nidan who did not know the Japanese name for kami-shiho-gatame? How about the sensei teaching leg attacks, preparing his juniors for a tournament a few months ago – long after leg attacks were taken out of competition judo? One of the parents had to call me for a clarification on this, having read that leg attacks would result in hansoku-make. How about a certified national rank examiner who did not know there were three levels of brown belt; or all the certified national coaches who have never been to an official Nationals? Then, last year there was the individual attending a dan-grade clinic who was asked to demonstrate a simple kyu-grade technique. With the look on his face, you would have thought that someone had stuck a nail in his foot. Even though he was a Yondan and certified examiner, he did not know the technique, and then when shown it could not do it without falling over. Sad but true.
All of these problems are symptomatic of promotions without testing and certifications without merit. Promotion must be more than just a revenue generator for the national organization. At one time in my career, when meeting a red & white belt for the first time, I would have had instant respect for that individual. But now I need to see them on the mat or Google their judo resumes to see if that respect is warranted. All too often I have asked others about an individual’s judo ability, only to get the response, “We don’t know – we have never seen him actually do judo.”
Judo, by doctrine and philosophy, is an activity that places tremendous importance and value on Respect. But how does one show respect to an individual claiming kodansha grade but does not even know what kodansha means? When you hear the general public and other sensei referring to a particular red & white belt as a “candy stripper” then you know that there is no respect for his rank. But even worse, this is tolerated and propagated by promotion boards and national governing bodies. Last year I contacted the chairman of a national promotion committee about a particular Rokudan in his organization but he had never heard of the individual. How have we come to the point, in such a small judo community, where promotion committees do not know every Rokudan by name and reputation?
So to conclude, the solution is mat-slamming simple. All promotions above 4th dan should be done on the mat, before a formally convened, qualified promotion panel, with public access and total transparency. What is not needed is more complicated manuals on how to negotiate the complex promotion process and a distinct lack of robust technical standards.