The grading system for Karate, like all Japanese, derivative martial arts is very formalised. In 1924 Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate, adopted the Dan system from Judo founder Jigoro Kano, using a rank system with a limited set of belt colors. Kano himself adopted the Dan ranking system, which was invented by Honinbo Dosaku a professional go player in the Edo period. Dosaku valued the then highest title holder, Meijin at 9 Dan.

In modern Japanese martial arts, holders of dan ranks often wear a black belt. Dan ranks are still given in arts such as the strategy board games Go and Renju, the art of flower arrangement (ikebana)and tea ceremony. The character of Dan (段 dan) is used in Japanese to mean step or grade, and is commonly equated with degree. However, the origin of the Chinese character, pronounced duán in modern Pinyin, was used to mean “phase”. Dan rank is often used along with the lower rank system, Kyu(級 Kyū) rank. Kyu is a Japanese term used in martial arts, go and ikebana, such as Japanese traditional culture, and academic tests and in other similar activities to designate various grades or levels or class of proficiency or experience.

Other Okinawan teachers also adopted this practice. In the late 1800s, even Kano had no external differentiation between yūdansha (black belt ranks) and mudansha (those who had not yet attained a grade). Kano began the custom of having his yūdansha wear black obi (belts) in 1886. These obi were not the belts karateka and jūdōka wear today—Kano had not invented the judogi (judo uniform) yet, and his students were still practicing in kimono. They wore the wide obi still worn with formal kimono. In 1907, Kano introduced the modern jūdōgi and its modern obi, with white and black belt ranks.

The use of belts to denote ranks were used by different athletic departments within the Japanese school system, most notably for swimmers, prior to their adoption by Kano. Karate, as we know also adopted the white Gi along the Judo lines.

In the Kyu/Dan system the beginner grades start with a higher numbered kyū (e.g., 10th Kyū or Jukyū) and progress toward a lower numbered kyū. The Dan progression continues from 1st Dan (Shodan, or ‘beginning dan’) to the higher dan grades. Kyū-grade karateka are referred to as “color belt” or mudansha (“ones without dan/rank”). Dan-grade karateka are referred to as yudansha (holders of dan/rank). Yudansha typically wear a black belt. Requirements of rank differ among styles, organizations, and schools. Kyū ranks stress stances, balance and coordination. Traditionally, speed and power are a condition of passing higher grades. The number of Kyu grades that apply vary from system to system – some having 10 kyu grades and some 8. Very occasionally, there may be a sub-division of the kyu grade into the ‘Mon,’ or ‘half grade’ reserved for Junior students. The following is a typical division of kyu level belts and the associated colours;

10th Kyu – White belt with red stripe

9th Kyu – Red belt

8th Kyu – Yellow belt

7th Kyu – Orange belt

6th Kyu – Green belt

5th Kyu – Blue belt

4th Kyu – Purple belt

3rd Kyu – Brown belt

2nd Kyu – Brown belt with white stripe (or black stripe)

1st Kyu – Brown belt with red stripe

In modern times, a dan-ranked practitioner of a style is usually recognized as a martial artist who has surpassed the Kyu, or basic, ranks. They may also become a licensed instructor in their art. In many styles, however, achieving a dan rank means that while one is no longer considered a beginner, one is not yet necessarily an expert. Rather it means that one has learned the basics.

The total number of dan ranks is style-specific (1st through 5th and 1st through 10th are common in Japanese arts). The lower dan grades can normally be attained through a grading examination or sometimes through competition. The higher dan grades usually require years of experience and contribution to the relevant martial art. This may be through instruction or research and publication. These grades can only be awarded by a higher-graded representative of the principal dojo or sometimes by a steering committee.There is no set achievement level that is universal. Ranking systems are specific to the school or style, so ranks do not necessarily translate across different martial arts styles. In fact, dan ranks do not necessarily indicate one wears a black belt. In certain martial arts such as iaido, kendo, or jodo, no external signifier of rank is worn, though it is by far the most common and recognizable symbol by the general public.

1st Dan Shodan 初段
2nd Dan Nidan 二段/弐段

3rd Dan Sandan 三段/参段
4th Dan Yondan 四段
5th Dan Godan 五段
6th Dan Rokudan 六段
7th Dan Nanadan 七段
8th Dan Hachidan 八段 Red/White
9th Dan Kudan 九段 Red Belt (for formal occasions)
10th Dan Judan 十段 Red Belt

Traditionally, there is a ‘time served’ requirement for Dan grades as with Kyu grades, although in the case of Dan grades this is measured in years, not months and, for ease of remembering, the grade a person is going for is the same as the number of intervening years, since the last grade;

Beginner to 1st Dan – minimum 3 years

1st Dan to 2nd Dan – min 2 years (minimum age often 18)

2nd Dan to 3Rd Dan – min 3 years (minimum age often 21)

3rd Dan to 4th Dan – min 4 years and so on…..

In most Karate systems, it will at 4th Dan that the last ‘physical’ grading is taken. Subsequent gradings must be time served with continuing service and Association recommended and endorsed. The system is open to gross abuses, unfortunately.

The highest dan ranks are sometimes reserved for the founder or leaders of a style and only high ranking students can be promoted to them. This has led to upper level ranks becoming extinct in some arts. For example, in judo there are only seven living tenth-level dans in the world and only nineteen have been promoted to the rank since its inception. In other styles the dan ranks are not the highest level that might be attained, with instructor certification and judge/judgment authorization being understood as higher-level or more sophisticated.

In certain styles, shodan implies that all the basics of the style have been mastered. At sandan the student is deemed capable of teaching independently as a teacher or instructor, often called sensei. Minimum age and time in rank are factors affecting promotion. In Japan, the use of belt colors is related to the age of the student. Some clubs will only have black and white, others will include a brown belt for advanced kyū grades and at the elementary school level it is common to see a green belt for intermediate levels.

Terry Wingrove – one of the UK’s longest serving Karateka, and an early student of Vernon Bell (see History) wears his Red belt. Terry was the team captain of the first ever British Karate Team to take part in the European Championships in Paris in 1963. Other team members included Andy Sherry, Brian Hammond, A. Smith and Jimmy Neal. Terry and Jimmy were the highest grades at 1st Kyu. Vernon Bell was the National Coach

For Dan ranks, the first five are colored black, 6th, 7th, and 8th dan have alternating red and white panels (dandara), and for 9th and 10th dan the belts are solid red.

However, holders of grades above godan (5th dan) will often wear a plain black belt in regular training. Some countries also use colored tips on belts, to indicate junior age groups. Historically, women’s belts had a white stripe along the centre. Examination requirements vary depending on country, age group and of course the grade being attempted.

The Grading Syllabus
There are few other sports/pastimes, that have such a complex, sophisticated and potentially difficult system by which to progress through the two ranking systems.

Testing consists of demonstration of techniques before a panel of examiners. This will vary by school, but testing may include everything learned at that point, or just new information. The demonstration is an application for new rank (shinsa) and may include Kata, bunkai, self-defense routines, tameshiwari (breaking), and/or kumite (sparring). Black belt testing may also include a written examination.

Teaching Grades
The following are the list of teaching grades bestowed on individuals within the BCKA based on capability and/or rank,

Sensei “Teacher or One who has gone before”: This title is by far the most often used title in karate and generally refers to someone of Yon-Dan level (4th Degree Black Belt.) Most will state that this is the most honorable title that a student can use when referring to the senior as their teacher. The title Sensei implies a close bond between the student and teacher’s relationship.

RenshiRenshi: “Senior Expert Teacher”: This is the first of the three generally (Most Often) used teacher titles. Although this title is independent of rank, it is seldom given to anyone below the rank of Go-Dan.
ShihanShihan: “Master or Expert Teacher”: It is important to understand that the meaning Master as used in the martial arts is someone who has mastered the basic and advanced understandings {Principles} of a particular style or system, thus the title Shihan means someone who has mastered the basic and advanced techniques as well as the principles, concepts, and theory of their respective style of karate. The title Shihan does not mean that this person has stopped learning because they know all of the answers. On the contrary, they are considered to be the most serious and dedicated students in any style of martial arts. The title Shihan is generally considered to be an organizational title alone and has little meaning.
KyoshiKyoshi: “Master Teacher, Teacher of Teachers”: This is the second of the three generally (Most Often) used teacher titles. Although this title is independent of the ranking system, it is seldom given to anyone below the rank of Roku-dan and in most cases Shichi-dan).
HanshiHanshi: “Senior Master Teacher”: This is the third and highest of the three generally (Most Often) used teacher titles. Although this title is independent of the ranking system, it is seldom given to anyone below the rank of Hachi-Dan (8th Degree Black Belt)
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