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Dan Rankings

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #69 (November 1985)


One of the challenges we constantly face in the publication of this magazine is how to maintain respect for the principles of Aikido while doing justice to our role as purveyors of information and opinions. For example, in the interviews we conduct and in some of the materials which come into our hands rather strong criticisms are sometimes expressed which we feel are not appropriate for the pages of AIKI NEWS. Our approach has been to reflect the fact in print that disagreements between individuals or organizations exist rather than to probe into the labyrinth of unpleasant details characterizing such differences. Where legitimate issues of concern to all do exist we frequently offer our thoughts and views and, even if critical, endeavor to express them in a manner intended to produce a constructive outcome. In Aikido as well as in life, we have discovered that “packaging” is every bit as important as “content”. With these introductory remarks in mind I would like to broach a topic which is a matter of concern to nearly everyone involved in the practice of martial arts with an eye towards an improvement of the status quo.

The subject? Dan rankings. There are few areas which elicit as much emotion and comment as the topic of the recognition of the ability and service of practitioners through the awarding of ranks. In Aikido as in every martial discipline, there are individuals who are clearly competent and those whose backgrounds and lineage cannot withstand even cursory scrutiny.

Persons purporting to be qualified to teach martial arts almost invariably seek to provide some sort of proof of the legitimacy of their status. Typically, they will identify their teacher(s) and indicate the number of years they have trained as well as the names of the arts they have studied. Often ranking certificates will be prominently displayed in their schools or places of practice. In contrast, there are also individuals in the position of instructing others whose martial arts backgrounds are quite varied and who have trained for brief periods with many different teachers. As such they possess no certificates and can point to no specific instructor as the source of their particular method. Another reason for difficulty in explaining one’s past experience might be a personality clash between teacher and student which in effect has cut off that particular person from the school in question. In this category of ‘traditionless” individuals, you will at times find rather competent martial artists with unique and valid methods as well as out and out charlatans. What is fascinating is the seemingly universal need to justify one’s present standing even by going to the extreme of weaving a false past. At least a half dozen names immediately spring to mind, several of them with successful dojos and scores of students, the latter training in blissful ignorance of the fact that the individuals in whom they have placed their trust and confidence have been untruthful to them.

To my mind, this is the crux of the problem and, in line with my initial comments, I prefer to emphasize specific steps which could be taken to make such activity difficult to engage in and perpetuate. Realistically, I don’t expect the suggestions below to be adopted by any of the existing martial arts organizations but anyone involved in the future creation of such entities which award ranks might consider the inclusion of some of these proposals.

A giant step toward the elimination of abuses of dan rankings would be the design of a new type certificate containing supplementary information. What additional information ought to be included? To start with, a list of any previous ranks received together with the date and issuing authority of the promotion(s). Also, worthy of inclusion on the certificate would be an indication of whether or not the promotion is a “merit” rank or an “honorary” rank to distinguish between those who are being elevated based on ability and those non- or occasional practitioners who advance primarily due to their activities in support of the art. Here is an idea of how the information might look on the certificate of promotion:

“John Doe is hereby awarded the (honorary) rank of 3rd Dan, etc.”
Date: September 15, 1985
Issuing Authority: Japan Aikido Federation
“Previous Ranks Issued”
2nd Dan
Rank Date: January 4,1982
Issuing Authority: Japan Aikido Federation
1st Dan
Rank Date: June 8, 1979
Issuing Authority: Japan Aikido Federation, etc.

Consider the advantages of such an approach and the problems eliminated. For example, anyone being promoted at an unusally rapid pace due to political or other reasons would immediately stand out. By the same token, persons “skipping” ranks (a common practice in the early years of post-war Aikido) would be noticeable. Anyone who had switched organizations in the past would have that fact noted since the issuing authority listed under the “previous ranking” category would be different. Also, a common abuse partly eliminated through the presentation of this information would be the surprisingly frequent tendency to arbitrarily “add” years to one’s training career, presumably to lend greater credibility to one’s status.

One further step that an organization wishing to restore integrity to dan rankings might take would be to make rankings available to the general public on request. The other day we were at the Kodokan (World Judo Headquarters) in Tokyo and were elated to discover that we could obtain detailed information concerning the dan promotions of the teacher we were researching. Besides, most organizations announce rankings in their official publications at the time they are awarded, so this information is made public to begin with. What I am proposing is merely an extension of that practice and in line with the present policy of the Kodokan.

One final point worthy of mention is the importance of issuing a translation of the promotion certificate (assuming the original is in Japanese) together with the original either in English or perhaps in French for foreign recipients. It goes without saying that all of the merits gained by including the above information would be lost if people were not able to read the diploma.

Hopefully, these ideas will prove useful at some point in time to organizations adopting them and such institutions will gain increased respect due to the built-in integrity of their dan awarding system.