Origins of Dan Grading in Japanese Martial Arts
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By Simon Keegan:
Simon Keegan, a 6th Dan black belt, explains the history of Dan grades.
In Japanese martial arts, grades from black belt and above are known as Dan grades.
But where does this tradition come from?
Dan grades were introduced to Japan in the Tokugawa court—but initially, they were not meant for martial arts. They were for Ikebana (the art of flower arranging) and Go (a boardgame akin to chess). They were based on a courtly system of levels dating back to the Chinese Northern Wei Dynasty (circa 220 A.D.) when Chen Qun began ranking courtiers based on nine levels.
Throughout the Samurai era, there were schools that specialized in both the martial and the academic/cultural (bunbu). A school might teach sword, archery, horsemanship, and (later) rifle, while another might teach grappling, espionage, swimming, and tea ceremony. Therefore, schools were not equal. For example, a school teaching Muso Shinden Ryu might be adept with the sword but have no concept of mounted archery.
Generally, these schools represented the courtly traditions of each clan. So as well as learning its proprietary skills, one was also taught the family history, etiquette, and history of the mythical founder of that school. To use a Western comparison, a British lad might be taught to fight by his father, but he would also be taught table manners and not to walk under ladders because of superstition, have customs like shaking hands and might be told to wear a Poppy because of the sacrifice his grandfather’s generation made. And when he got older, he might go to college and university and receive a degree. The Samurai were no different. You were taught to fight, and also taught customs, superstitions, respect for ancestors, and unique cultural foibles.
When the full curriculum was learned, you were awarded the equivalent of a master’s degree and doctorate—usually called a Menkyo Kaiden. In the hereditary schools (Ryuha), the Koryu (old transmission) was usually passed from father to son (or nephew, grandson, etc.), and these headteachers were called Soke or Iemoto. They were not “grandmasters,” they were more like boarding school headmasters who were responsible for the transmission of the culture. In 1868, the Samurai era ended (due to the Meiji Restoration) and the clan traditions were dismantled; and in 1876, the Bushi (warriors) were banned from carrying their swords.
Around 1880, Jigoro Kano began to transform his method of Jujutsu into what we know today as Judo. Around the same time, there was a movement to transform Kenjutsu into the sport of Kendo. In 1883, Kano conferred the first grading to some of his students. He borrowed the ranking from Go and called their grade Shodan (1st Dan). Awardees may have worn a black sash, but the colour was not significant.
While the Kodokan (Judo’s headquarters) was growing in Tokyo, another institution began in Kyoto called the Dai Nippon Butoku kai. The aim was to standardize and nationalize the martial arts. Titles (Shogo) were awarded by the Dai Nippon Butoku kai: Renshi, Kyoshi, and Hanshi. The Renshi grade was supposed to represent a drill sergeant—one who teaches those who are already warriors. Eventually the system of ten grades was instituted. Broadly speaking, Renshi was awarded to 4th–5th Dans, Kyoshi was awarded to 7th Dans, and Hanshi to 8th–9th Dans. However, the Shogo and Dan ranks were not automatically associated. Some were awarded Dan grades but no Shogo, others Shogo but no Dan grades. For example, Okinawan Karate master Gichin Funakoshi was awarded the title Renshi but was considered “beyond grade.” Like Jigoro Kano, it was accepted that Funakoshi was senior even to 10th Dans (of which there were very few).
The two world wars threw a major spanner in the works of Budo development, and it was only in the early 1950s that the drive to re-nationalize and re-standardize the martial arts returned. Much like the Kyoto-based Dai Nippon Butoku kai, the Tokyo-based Kokusai Budoin was designed to have this standard. The Japanese martial arts were divided into the following divisions:
By this point, it was common to grade students with Kyu grades (ranks prior to Dan) and Dan grades, and the Dai Nippon Butoku kai and Kokusai Budoin both still awarded Shogo. Each country also had a regional director.
One could not walk into Kokusai Budoin and claim to be a 23rd Dan in Krav Kwon Jutsu; your grade had to be in the traditional divisions. In my case, I was a 2nd Dan in Karate and a 2nd Dan in Nihon Jujutsu. I was instantly mentored, taught, tested, and graded by my local Regional Director.
Eventually, I too became a regional director and ultimately international director of Kokusai Budoin (IMAF) GB, which later became independent as the United Kingdom Budo Federation. I later received the title Renshi from the UK Head of Dai Nippon Butokukai and, returning to Kokusai Budoin in 2012, graded 5th Dan. I was later accepted into the Dai Nippon Butoku kai and subsequently graded 6th Dan Kyoshi under the United Kingdom Budo Federation.
Simon Keegan was born in Liverpool in 1979 of Irish, Scottish, Cornish, Breton, Welsh and Swedish ancestry. He has been a professional journalist for 20 years and currently works for the Daily Mirror. He has also worked as a sub editor for the Metro, Daily Star and Daily Express. Simon was editor of the Salford Advertiser and Prestwich Advertiser and has also worked for magazines such as The Big Issue in the North and local newspapers such as the Stockport Express and Rochdale Observer. He has also appeared on various TV and radio shows as well as judging the UK's largest live music contest. Simon is married with two children and in his spare time teaches a Karate and Jujutsu class in Manchester city centre. In pursuit of the Arthurian legends, he has travelled from Scotland to Cornwall, Ireland to Brittany, Wales to York and all points between.
To purchase Simon's book, Pennine Dragon, click here.