Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
August 12, 2016

Advancement of the Yudansha

A black belt is the common way to denote a person who has demonstrated sufficient competence in a martial arts system’s basic techniques, forms, and principles.  Since the start of the 20th century, martial arts schools have used a system of colored belts or stripes and specific testing criteria to guide a student’s training and mark progress to earning a black belt. When a student moves through all the kyu ranks and earns his or her first black belt, that student joins the “yudansha” or those who hold a dan rank.  Having earned the rank of a “1st Degree Black Belt, or “shodan,” literally meaning to have taken the “first step,” the martial artist can continue in their training and advance in dan and be awarded higher ranks within the yudansha.

But, while martial arts systems will make it clear how one can advance through the student or kyu ranks, advancement in the Black Belt or dan ranks becomes increasingly subjective.  In Isshin-Ryu, first through third dan Black Belts are considered to be assistant instructors, referred to as “shidoin” (versus “sensei”). Shidoin advance in the yudansha by demonstrating competence in advanced techniques, such as weapons use and weapons forms, as well as demonstrating competence in principles from other martial arts systems. But, once a shidoin is promoted to 4th degree Black Belt and attains full instructor status, addressed as “sensei,” there are no specific testing criteria for further advancement.

In Isshin-Ryu, the following ranks and honorific titles are observed after 3rd degree:

4th degree – Sensei or “instructor”
5th degree – Shihan or “chief instructor”
6th degree – Renshi or “expert instructor”
7th degree – Kyoshi or “master instructor” or “master”
8th degree – Hanshi or “grand master instructor” or “grand master”

Without specific training criteria, it is the duty of an advanced Black Belt to determine if a karateka is eligible for advancement.  Generally, such a “nomination” for advancement can only be made by a martial artist who is two ranks higher than the grade to which the candidate is to be promoted.  For example, a karateka of 7th degree or higher is considered qualified to determine if a karateka is eligible for promotion to 5th degree. Most typically, it is the master of a dojo who is charged with making all such evaluations for a given school.

Up to this point in training, advancement was simply a matter of competency in skills.  But, to advance further, past 3rd degree, other aspects must be considered. A higher dan should have an ever increasing depth of understanding of the system and a corresponding improvement in the ability to teach others. Moveover, if a Black Belt is to advance in the yudansha, that person should be seen as contributing to the promotion and/or growth of the martial arts. Finally, the ability of the candidate to provide leadership and/or serve as a role model will also be a significant consideration for promotion. While some have suggested that there are certain ages or numbers of years associated with promotions to advanced ranks in the yudansha, I feel this is an over simplification and generally misguided.  Certainly greater depth of understanding and the opportunities to contribute are greater with the passage of time, but talent and dedication can accomplish in less than a decade what some never will in a lifetime.

Finally, what must a candidate do in order to earn a promotion to an advanced rank?  While some schools use written exams or have the candidate provide some sort of demonstration, ultimately this is a means only to mark the occasion of promotion. Once nominated, all the karateka need do is to accept the nomination.  For the purpose of this article what I have called a nomination is actually an acknowledgement; seeing a karateka for the rank they truly hold. What is often the challenge in promotion to an advance dan is not the ability of others to recognize the advance rank of a karateka, but for a karateka to be able to perceive it for oneself.