With the death of many older sokes over these last 15 years or so and their replacement by younger ones, this subject has become a controversial issue in karate, one that deserves an open discussion such as this one. This once respected tradition of the past is now infected with politics and related arbitrary decisions in prematurely awarding high belt ranks in violation of their own tradition. Succession to sokeship in favor of family over bona fide seniors in large style-organizations has driven away many seniors to start their own breakaway groups. “Son (and in one case daughter) over senior” is the reason why there are today in larger styles like shitoryu an “infinite” number of breakaway groups, most with good reputations and large followings spread out all over the world. In the case of Shitoryu, the first big break-up occurred when founder Kenwa Mabuni died in 1954 and brothers Kenei and Kenzo went their own ways, both claiming to be the bona fide 2nd soke. Also about half a dozen or more seniors went their own separate ways, the more well-known ones being Manzo Iawata (co-head of Shitokai in alliance with older brother Kenei), Teruo Hayashi (Hayashi-ha Shitoryu), Tani (Tani-ha Shitoryu/Shukokai),Sakagami (Shitoryu Itosukai) et al. With the death of these masters, there were more breakups leading to the formation of more independent groups. The situation has come to a head as major shitoryu groups are now under the sokeship of “fifty somethings”, two of whom were involved in vocations other than karate until the recent death of their fathers. This phenomenon will continue ad infinitum as deaths of heads/sokes take place. To add to the above reasons for the devaluation of belt ranks, the World Karate Federation/WKF (member of the IOC) also got into the business of dan certification for a price, adding to the deterioration of standards. In at least one country with a huge karate market, India, they are “signed in bulk and sold on consignment”. To make it easier for Indian clients, no proof of a pre-existing karate grade is required before a WKF equivalent is issued. As a result and example, local instructors with dubious 6th dans to begin with are certified by the WKF for a 7th dan. The higher the dan the higher the fee required for such certification, and so the greater the monetary gains for the WKF and their local agents.
Beyond a certain dan rank (usually past 5th dan) the awarding of a higher dan has nothing to do with winning tournaments or even a high level of karate prowess based on physical strength. Traditionally there was an age requirement related to experience in furthering karate knowledge through teaching excellence and other contributions, such as respectable writing and national team coaching skills. As age advances, technical knowledge is best reflected in the quality of students generated, be it in some form of exchange such as open competition a la the WKF, and or bona fide selection for national coaching duties. It used to be that even winning the world championships would not qualify one for a 5thdan, if he or she does not meet minimum age requirements, which was traditionally 40 or more.
With succession politics, breakaways and the arbitrary upgrading of higher dans, a highly politicized system has come to exist in small and large karate organizations. In the process respected rules of the martial arts tradition were severely eroded at the source in Japan, to spread eventually all over the world.
There have been efforts to standardize the awarding of high dan ranks, one from a largely non-Japanese source and another the consequence of competition among older masters to retain old and hungry-to-advance senior students, as well as to attract new ones. Many national federations pioneered by the example of France (FFKDA) have their own dan-ranking systems, some more credible than others.
Another strange path to circumvent the politics of dan-grading emerged as an unintended consequence of the pressure to award dans for money and the retention of seniors. In one large style organization composed of many senior Japanese masters, the decision was taken to delegate the awarding of all higher dans in-house by different masters but under the same soke in Japan. This is a welcome idea to contain rivalry between masters to get high dans for their own senior students from a central organization and soke, by placing this responsibility in their own hands. In other words all 5th dan and above dan-gradings will no longer be the responsibility of the central organization but rather an in-house one within member associations. This means that a dan of one master cannot pull rank on a dan student of another master. Whatever power and authority rank bestows is no longer of external comparative value. I think this is fair in a situation where there was clearly the perception that high dan-ranking was in favor of the senior students of whoever controlled the central organization as soke. Dan-gradings will now be the responsibility of individual masters in-house, while remaining members of the central world organization of this style.
The truth is, as we age we cannot be expected to out-perform our students. So 6th dan and up should not be based on physical prowess but rather on excellence in teaching, writing, coaching and other related challenges. Until recently many a soke of major styles were physically challenged “Octogenarians” and yet a tradition of respect for time-based knowledge on items mentioned above and more, allowed them to judge and upgrade young “stallions” for whom they were no match in physical combat. Furthermore sokeship is getting younger with each succession as seniors are cast aside for questionable family leadership, just to keep the money, title and tradition in the family.
Almost always this has provoked breakups within style organizations and the consequent establishment of in-house dan-gradings as the logical conclusion. In the case of Shitoryu, when dad Kenwa Mabuni died in 1954 brothers Kenei and Kenzo, went their own ways with each claiming they were the rightful soke with their own line of senior dans. So all in all the dan-grading system was quickly politicized in Japan and soon exported to the rest of the world. In some cases juniors became equals or even seniors of their own teachers who refused to play the game of the politics of favoritism based on an exchange of money and perfection of the art of non-stop “bowing before the gods”. Then, in the quest for increasing the size of their karate “empires”, a welcome is extended to “orphan” seniors from other karate styles who become “quickie” high dans, while the thoroughbreds among us had to spend a “lifetime” in the style to get here. The root cause is money. For many of these “quickie converts”, a paper qualification was all that mattered if it came from a Japanese source. Yours truly was also guilty of this for many years even after a lifetime of achievements in Shitoryu karate, in addition to being the national coach of 3 countries (in the WKF movement), writer and producer of many international karate champions from among my own students. My very first instructor Ishikawa (has lived married in Singapore over a lifetime), discouraged by karate politics, went his own way adopting the name Kenyukai for his organization. When all around one sees serious compromises of tradition to accommodate family interests such as in sokeship-succession, it may be time to carve out an independent path. If karate is truly an international art, the bounds of tradition must now be defined by wherever karate is practiced seriously over long years, such as in Europe, US and Latin America, not just in Japan. When world champions in kumite (also increasingly so in kata) are largely from Europe, and the products of indigenous European instructors, it is a surprise that there are so many in the West who still seek Japanese credentials. This is not to suggest an absence of Japanese excellence. There are some in the West but they are far and few. The reputations of many for producing good talent are really based on the hard work of their non-Japanese seniors.
After witnessing the demise of standards in Japan, I no longer look at those who after many years upgrade themselves, as “pariah’s” of an otherwise “purist” karate tradition, as long as it is clear that they practice and teach good karate techniques that resembles that taught by the Japanese tradition, and are above all respectful of age requirements in dan upgrades. However we don’t need “child” sokes of the Tibetan Dalai Lama succession tradition in karate, which we are all obliged to reject.
The bottom line is how good a fighting system did “street karate” acquire, develop and now teach? In my long years of experience I have come across weak purists of traditional karate and respectably strong ones from what some call “street karate”. Compare this with the international organization that is the sole representative of karate in the IOC, the WKF which has for many decades now been awarding all levels of dan grades for a price. An award is made based on the support of client’s national federation. There is no age requirement or even vague certification of proficiency in karate from a credible source. The sale of certificates has become a major source of income for the WKF and the current leadership that has run it since 1998. What began as an in-house business for the organization with some credibility, has now gone international. Certificates are now pre-signed in bulk by WKF President Espinos or his representative, and left on consignment with national federations for sale to anyone, at a price that varies with the dan-grade requested. The most prominent national federation involved in this scheme is the Karate Association of India (KAI). This mass sale of certificates with no questions asked of age and years of karate experience is why India now can probably boast of the largest concentration of inflated higher dan ranks in the world, even though Japanese karate entered the Indian market seriously only after 1980s. This radically increased numbers of high-dans in India in such a short time appears to have had little or no impact on improved standards, as the country’s karate standards continue to lag far behind internationally at the bottom 10% of WKF members. It is alarming that the very leadership of the WKF under Antonio Espinos is responsible for the massive devaluation of dan-grades worldwide within the WKF movement of karate. While sale of black belt certificates by the WKF is old business, at least in the past there were stricter requirements attached to the hefty price-tag, such as to obtain a WKF 7th dan, one was required to submit a copy of an equivalent grade already possessed from another source, usually from a Japanese/Okinawan style-based organization. This no longer appears to be a requirement, based on a few examples I know of. What is also new in this WKF practice of the mass sale of certificates is that they are signed in bulk and left on consignment with national WKF member federations, whereas in the past one could only obtain them at WKF world-championship events. This massive sale without question by national federations in all corners of the world has invited massive corruption and massive devaluation of any value that was once attached to such certification. Given the blatant sales and consequent devaluation of karate certificates from the WKF (sole representative of karate in the IOC), does it matter anymore where good strong karate comes from? Add this factor of devaluation to the never-ending saga of break-ups and rivalry between karate style-organizations for a greater clientele, and the picture becomes clearer as to why the value of dans are not what they once were.
While we in Japanese karate are engrossed in the furtherance of our belt-grades, the MMA folks trained hard to blend their mix of techniques from different martial arts to smoother perfection. It is no surprise that MMA has superseded karate by leaps and bounds as a more attractive and effective fighting art form.
So friends and “foes” who differ, after more than 50 years in traditional shitoryu karate, it is difficult for me to swallow any purist claim that they teach best, the simple basics of a fight for life. After all the European WKF scene has radically transformed the kumite techniques they received from Japan for the better and deserving of the new name of eurokumite. So whether one is a high-dan from a purist source or a dubious source, if they teach good techniques and have an age-friendly dan, this is ok with me.
In an age where money talks and opens doors in many a purist tradition, let us interact as karatekas and not with the restrictions of etiquette and protocols that are dan-determined. This is best kept within the dojo and or branch of style, so that we can enjoy a broader company and maybe even learn something in the process. Some of us just don’t have the patience or talent for tolerating abusive and undemocratic traditions in order to advance, such as was often the case with traditional Japanese karate. As long as you teach quality karate, you will never walk alone, or have to bow a million times in preparation for the next upgrade.
In conclusion, it is appropriate to contend after more than 50 years in the Shitoryu and WKF karate scene, that karate has evolved into a truly international martial art and sport. While Japan gave the world modern karate, especially after the 1960s, their students from Europe and America have now taken the lead, as shown in international competitions over the last 40 plus years. From the 1990s the spate of deaths among “octogenarian” sokes, meant that leadership of styles fell into younger hands, largely due to favoritism of family over seniors in sokeship-successions. Leading karate countries of the world such as France started their own grading system for black belts, as an alternative to arbitrary style-based upgrades. Serious inconsistencies in the grading of high dans caused much resentment. Also as a consequence of intense competition for students by the different styles, the once tough standards for upper-dans were lowered. They varied from style to style and master to master, and big money was always in the mix. Very soon Western instructors got into this game and promoted senior students as they pleased, resulting in the proliferation of 7th dans and above like never before.
Dr Ravee Raghavan – Puerto Rico – 2016