Before I start, let me just clarify that this post is purely my opinion on this subject and is not by any means the official position of Seido Karate or meant as a criticism of any style or person in particular. Having said that, I wanted to talk a little about what I think rank means, or should mean, in karate.
I distinctly remember many years ago hearing about a policy at a particular martial arts. This school awarded promotions, or new belts, automatically upon a student's completion of a certain number of hours of classtime. I don't remember the algorithm, but you can imagine what it looked like - take 50 hours of classes to go up a belt, maybe 500 total hours to get a black belt (I could be way off on the number, but that's not the point).
To put it simply, I was horrified. I felt that a rank - a color of belt - was supposed to represent a particular skill level. I imagined legions of students slogging away in class, barely paying attention to what they were doing, then beaming with pride as they accepted their undeserved black belts. It seemed like a betrayal of everything rank was supposed to mean - mastery of a martial art. I believed that rank ought to represent a pure indicator of skill.
Over the years my beliefs in this area began to shift. In college I trained with a wheelchair bound student - Kevin - who everyone should read about here and here. Seriously, stop reading this and read those two articles, they're more important than this one. You can come back when you're done. I'll wait.
There are many other examples that affected my thinking. My teacher, Christopher Caille, who is a fantastic martial artist, had some knee problems (this was a long time ago). He couldn't kick above his waist and his movement was somewhat hobbled (although he could still kick my ass at any time). If you walked in and, not knowing who he was, watched him perform a kata, especially one of the more athletic ones, you might think his skill less than it was. Despite that, it would have seemed ridiculous to reduce his rank. His situation was temporary, though - but what about aging karateka? Eventually all martial artists lose their physical ability to perform. Should they lose rank as this happened?
There are other examples along the continuum that made me think more. I'm not a physically gifted ahtlete. I can look okay doing karate, but I might never look great (in the sense of having really sparkling technique, etc.) What if I work much harder, for a longer span of time, than a more gifted student, and still fall short of their ability? Should I definitely be ranked below them? What about an extremely un-talented student who worked very hard for many, many years? For them to languish in the kyu ranks forever would seem unfair. On the other hand, promotions shouldn't be completely unconnected to skill, not if high rank is to have any meaning at all.
Recently I was thinking about this matter some more. What should the basis of rank be - work done or ability? Or something else? To answer that I backed up a little anad asked: what is the purpose of rank?
I am well aware that there are styles in which there is no formal ranking system. I have no problem with that concept, and I'm not interested in defending the idea that a formal ranking system is a good thing. But in a style, like mine, that does have a formal ranking system, what is its purpose?
First, rank serves an instructional purpose by conferring authority on a student. If you're a white belt doing something, and the yellow belt near you corrects your form, then a sandan comes by and corrects your form in a slightly different way, you should listen to the sandan. Is the sandan always right? Well, no - the yellow belt might be right in that particular situation, but in general you can count on the guy who's been training in the style for ten years to know better than the guy who has been there six months.
Who should have this instructional authority - the person who has worked more or the person who is more talented? I believe that the person who has put more work in - who has trained harder and longer - is usually going to be a better teacher, will have more transmissable knowledge, than a more gifted athlete who might have better technique. Why? Because the harder worker will have to learn all the subtle tricks and adjustments to technique that make them work, while a gifted athlete will often do them unconsciously. The best teacher I ever had, I think, in terms of teaching basic technique, was a guy who was an extremely poor athlete and very uncoordinated. He'd had to master every "trick in the book" to get his body to do anything that resembled karate, and so if you had any kind of technical problem you could be sure that he'd faced and overcome it.
Rank also serves as a cue for modeling. If you walk into a class and see two people you don't know doing something differently from one another - whether it be attitude-wise or technique-wise - you should probably imitate the one of higher rank. Now, do you want to model the more talented athlete more or the harder working athlete more?
Again, I think you'd be better off modeling the person who has put in more work. Why? I'll put it simply - you can try to mimic the attributes of a talented karateka, but you're never going to be any more talented than you already are. Talent isn't learnable. On the other hand, work ethic and dedication are things you can learn, or develop. You're going to be a lot better off following the hardest worker in class and doing what they do than following the most talented person - unless they happen to be the same person.
Rank also serves as a guide for respect. Take my style as an example. I know only a small fraction of the people who train in Seido Karate personally. When I meet new people in the style, I treat them all with respect (something I try to do in general with everybody), but when a higher ranking person says something I'll listen better. I'll listen to their stories, consider their opinions, and generally try to treat them in the classic way we're supposed to treat our elders.
Again, the question is, should this kind of deference be shown to the more talented practitioner or the one who has put in more work? Again, I think that the answer is the one who has put in more work, for two reasons. First, I think they will generally show more insight - understanding comes from hours of training, not an inborn sense of coordination. Second, in general we want to show that we value hard work so we encourage our juniors to work hard - showing the greatest respect for natural talent doesn't encourage beginners to work hard, it encourages them to wish they had more talent. Showing the greatest respect for those who have put in a lifetime of hard work encourages beginners to try to earn that respect - by working hard for a lifetime. That is something they can hope to do, talented or not.
I can't think of a sense of rank in martial arts that ought to be based on proficiency as opposed to time and effort. The harder working, more experienced karateka should be ranked as high or higher than the more talented, less experienced and less hard working person who may show more proficiency due to having more talent.
All of which means that, in the end, I think rank should be given according to something very similar to the formula that used to horrify me. Hard, consistent training should result in promotion - even if the student isn't as talented or can't move as well as their more talented peers. I'm not sure the policy should be so cut and dried - maybe not a specific number of classes - and I'm all in favor of some allowances being made for people who train more often on their own (as opposed to classes in the dojo) and for really gifted athletes who master the movements and syllabus very quickly. But, overall, I think that hard work repeated over time should be the basis of rank.
What about the student who trains consistently but doesn't improve? That's a problem - not with your ranking system but with your teaching. How can a student show up class after class and not get better? If they show up and don't work hard then perhaps you should be encouraging them to find another hobby. If they show up and work hard yet don't improve then their instructor needs to figure out the problem.
This summer I hope to test for my sandan. Should I get it, that extra stripe on my belt will mean something - it means that my lower ranked classmates should pay attention when I give them advice, listen to my war stories, and treat me with a (small amount of) deference. They should do so not because I have extra yellow threads stitched into my belt or because I coughed up the promotion fee, but because in order to get that stripe I had to spend many, many hours working at karate, and while doing so I've hopefully figured out some things they don't know yet. Will it mean that I'm a better fighter than every lower ranking student? Not by a long shot. But it means I should know enough to teach them all a thing or two, even if it's while I'm getting my butt kicked by a younger, stronger, more athletic student. And in just the same way, while I listen to everybody and try to learn from everyone, I pay extra careful attention to my seniors, and indulge them longer if their stories seem boring (which is very rare anyway), and know that they all have more than a few tricks they can teach me if I'm lucky during any given sparring session.