Many karateka (“kah-rah-tay-kah,” someone who studies karate) who are much more knowledgeable than I have pondered this question. In a perfect world, karate rank should be an indication of the karateka’s dedication and skill level in their martial arts system.
Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world.
In the worst of circumstances, politics, egos, and financial greed affect the ranking system. It’s like that old saying in the corporate world that “it’s not what you know but who you know.” This, unfortunately, sometimes applies in the martial arts world, too. It is not uncommon to see practitioners assigning titles to themselves, making up titles, playing the “I promote you, you promote me” game, and lying about their accomplishments. Sometimes people have created their own systems of branded karate and discard the traditions of martial arts and its origins.
These actions don’t go unnoticed by dedicated karateka who are active in well known and established national and international organizations such as the one that we belong to (Shorinkan).
There are too many checks and balances to allow this type of behavior to go unrecognized for too long. If you realize that rank in a dojo is based on the calendar or fees paid, that may be a sign that the integrity of what is being taught is low. I am proud to know that my rank and more importantly the rank of my superiors has been earned and not paid for or falsely manufactured. There are times when I believed I was ready to be promoted and was not; there have been times when I have been surprised at my earning a higher rank. The high standards of our organization will remain intact as long as we can say with all honesty that we earn our rank!
This is why it’s important to always practice and strive to learn. If students are dedicated to their karate, rank promotions will take care of themselves. Focusing on rank alone diverts your attention. In studying the Okinawan masters, one of the things you learn is that they had great humility about their rank, and believed it was their duty to teach humility to their students. If they saw jealousy in their students, they would often withhold their promotions, even if their karate was good. Being dedicated to karate means that we are dedicated to helping and supporting each other in the dojo.
In martial arts the color of the obi (“oh-bee,” the belt we wear) signifies the wearer’s skill level. Usually the colors start with the beginner’s white belt and end in the master’s black, with red & white, or red belts reserved for the highest ranks after decades of study. Remember, rank does not make you a good martial artist, hard work, dedication, and a desire to learn, do.