Judo, Rank and Titles

Education. There is nothing greater in the world. The moral education of one person extends to 10,000 people.  The education of one generation spans one hundred generations.”

…… Jigoro Kano


By Vern Borgen
I taught a college level judo class at North Dakota State University. Often I would be asked to explain the Judo rank system.

I was new to teaching back in the early 1980s, I had a black belt around my waist, but I didn’t then understand what the rank system was all about. So whenever I had an opportunity I asked older Judo Sensei about it and I got a lot of different answers.

There remains a lot of confusion about the ranking system as evidenced by a recent essay by Hayward Nishioka, “What the Hell is a Black Belt Rank?” There is a link at the end of this essay for his essay.

At the time (early 1980s) as I was a veteran of the Army and was quite familiar with rank and the chain of command in the military so I used a military model of rank to explain how Judo rank operated.

But after a few years I began to use an educational model, to my mind anyway, better suited to describing the Judo rank system and suggested by the documentation. And I think closer to the idea of what Jigoro Kano intended the rank system to be.

Professor Jigoro Kano’s day time job was as an educator. It appears that he was a very good one for he is often referred to as the father of modern education in Japan. As a young man he rose in the education system from teacher to administrator quite quickly and at one point helped to adapt in Japan the European system of education, what we know as K-12, undergraduate and graduate college education. It would seem odd to me that he would develop a ranking system for Judo that didn’t parallel his work as the father of modern education in Japan.

Kano’s judo students worked from early morning until late at night, Steven Cunningham stated that in addition to physical training they studied Japanese and Chinese Classics, martial arts history, strategy employed in battles, tactics, etc. (Cunningham). Kano translated Japanese into English and vice versa to help cover the school’s expenses. There are references in older literature that the Kodokan was often called the Judo College by old jujutsu masters. Here is a quote from E.J. Harrison’s Fighting Spirit of Japan. Nango Jiro, a nephew of Master Kano, who had also been one of the first students of Judo, responding on the subject of hara (to be covered in another essay).

He said it was no part of the regular Judo College teaching but that he would give me a demonstration of its effectiveness. (Harrison, 127-28)

So it just seems appropriate, to me anyway, to describe the rank system of judo by comparing it to the European education system with which we are all familiar.

Judo rank based on the European education system

The kyu ranks (colored belts) make up the grade school part of the rank system.

The training more or less follows the normal progression of learning Judo as demonstrated every day in dojos all over the world. Students learn how to fall, how to throw, hold down, choke and arm bar, they learn randori and for those so inclined shiai. In some clubs, such as mine, they also learn self-defense in the form of the goshin jutsu from yellow belt. This is in line with the syllabus of the Kodokan Institute during the time when Jigoro Kano was alive.

1st degree black belt, shodan, is roughly equal to a high school diploma. By graduation the student has a fair grasp of the nature of judo, his/her knowledge and understanding is pretty broad at this point, their work ethic has been examined (persistence to complete the program). In educational terms the high school diploma is pretty broad and fairly easy to get, some say that all you have to do is show up. I have been told that a first degree black belt in Japan is fairly easy to earn. In my judo club it takes 4 to 6 years to earn a shodan rank.

The major part of the training is technique based: nage waza, katame waza and randori and shiai, again for those so inclined. Dr. Kano required his students to study kata; if Kano thought that the proper way to learn judo was to include the study of kata, then that is good enough for me. Students should have to study the Nage no Kata and understand it well enough to carry on a conversation about its merits.

2nd degree black belt, nidan, is equivalent to an associate’s degree in college. Following my analogy, after shodan, the student has jumped to a college level curriculum, the classes are more rigorous, a deeper knowledge and understanding of the subject matter is required. Some specialization occurs at this level much as it does in college, but the core curriculum is continued to be studied. Generally it takes another 2 to 3 years to earn nidan, much as it does in college to earn an associate’s degree.

Following most promotion systems (USJA, USJF and USA Judo, et al) both the nage no kata and katame no kata would be studied. Non competitors would be required to study the ju no kata also.

3rd degree black belt, sandan, is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree in college. This is a fairly rigorous course of study and the judo applicant would have to have time in grade and equivalent course work (knowledge) and be able to demonstrate a high level of understanding of judo. The student would be expected to study instruction/coaching of beginning and intermediate students, sports psychology, bio-mechanics, exercise physiology, nutrition, dojo management, judo games, judo drills, judo kata, how to set up a tournament, refereeing, and perhaps public relations, sports information, writing about judo, grant writing, judo storytelling, judo and the media, how to set up and conduct judo clinics.

At this point the judoka would have a good understanding of the entire gokyo no waza and the shimesho no waza. They would be proficient in randori and several kata.

4th degree black belt, yodan, is equivalent to a master’s degree in college. The course work would continue and perhaps specialize in a particular area of interest, perhaps refereeing or teaching college students. In addition the student would be required to do some original research, perhaps it is in line with his major adviser’s research or something that he/she chose for themselves, with approval from his major adviser and the promotion committee. For example, the student could be doing research on a competitive aspect of chokes, their success rate in tournament and their medical results (injuries, etc.) or developing one of the more esoteric kata of judo, or perhaps a lost kata of the Kodokan. Students would be encouraged to study other aspects of samurai culture such as jujutsu, aiki jujutsu, kenjutsu, iaido, jodo, other weapons systems and their effect on the development of judo or for the expansion of knowledge of the student. Kano encouraged his students to study the sword for a better understanding of the principles of judo, Kano himself was a master of the sword.

5th degree black belt, godan, is equivalent to a PhD degree in college. The PhD candidates would continue the course work, would develop a deeper knowledge of a specific area of judo. This would be the realm of the higher National and lower International referees. More research.

6th degree black belt, rokkudan, is equivalent to assistant professor in the judo college. This is a very knowledgeable person capable of guiding students up to 4th degree black belt. With time this person will become a full professor. Like in a college setting this person has teaching and research responsibilities. He/she should be seeking out new methods to doing things, new ways of looking at things.

Hayward Nishioka, in an essay, What the Hell is a Black Belt, describes the French rank test for rokkudan.

For the French, Rokudan is gateway rank leading to higher rank. To attain this rank a very large hall where 4 to 6 mat areas may be installed is rented. The candidates vying for rokudan must now perform before a panel of higher ranking individuals. First they select a technique such as ouchigari, seoinage, etc. and demonstrate at least 25 different ways to execute that one technique. Next they select a kata and demonstrate it. There is also a presentation of one’s theory of judo, a written examination, and a demonstration of how one would conduct a judo lesson. The examination is an all-day affair that many say the fifth dan must prepare for at least one year in advance. The result being that each person promoted to rokudan is assuredly a proficient judoka capable of meeting high standards. It is little wonder that France has a 500,000+ membership. It has an army of really capable judoka. Additionally if one wants to teach judo in France an additional certification is required. The certification is sponsored through the ministry of education and is a physical education degree.

(Note: I would challenge all 6th dan to elevate their knowledge of judo to meet the requirements of the French test.)

Carl DeCree and Llyr C. Jones in their research investigation of the go-no-kata (Kodokan Judo’s Elusive Tenth Kata: The Go-no-kata – “Forms of Proper Use of Force” part 1 describe the examination of the Judo Bond Nederland (=Dutch Judo Federation) for 6th degree black belt as requiring the candidates for such promotion “shall produce a piece of original work”. Much like a graduate student would prepare a thesis of original material.

7th degree black belt, shichidan, is equivalent to a full professor in our judo college. The work of the professor is very important to the proper guidance of the graduate student. In addition, typically the graduate student works for the professor and contributes to the professor’s favorite research topic.

8th degree black belt, hachidan, is equivalent to a department chairman, high level administrator, remarkable teacher, remarkable coach, remarkable researcher.

9th degree black belt, kudan, is equivalent to a distinguished fellow of the college (remembering our Judo College is made up of all the judoka in the world)

10th degree black belt, judan, is the equivalent of the Nobel prize “for judo”

As I said earlier this is all a matter of conjecture on my part. I learned and taught Judo in a University atmosphere. My black belts had to do research, prepare and present the research in front of fellow black belts.

So begging the question, how does my interpretation of Kano’s education system compare with the other Japanese martial arts systems, more historical rank systems, examples found in the literature?

Menkyo system

In old Japan the country was divided into many districts, at one time as many as 300, called han, each with its own governor, called a daimyo, who were roughly like kings. Each daimyo had an army with all the attendant personal, equipment and a training center. The training that each army received was unique to the individuals in authority and tested on the battle field. Those methods that succeeded consumed those that did not, and sometimes incorporated the loser’s techniques into their own. These battlefield methods became known as a style unique to that han: some would be named for the han, others would receive a person’s name, perhaps a famous warrior, or the main developer of the fighting method, sometimes the developer of the method would go on a quest, sit in the mountains for 90 days in meditation, and come up with an idea based on nature, such as the bending of the willow in a strong wind, yanagi ryu. Ryu being translated as style or school.

The rank system that developed during that time was known as the menkyo system. It is thought that it may have started in the 8th century, there is no exact date. There were many variations of this system, each school of martial arts had their own version of promotion and rank but generally they followed a progression from okuiri, “entrance to secrets”, to mokuroku, “catalog” which meant your name is added to the schools catalog of notable practitioners, to menkyo kaiden, ‘license of total transmission’.

Generally it took 10 years to get to the first level, 10 years to the second level and an additional 10 years to reach the top level. Keep in mind that the Samurai that earned these certificates were professional soldiers and there would be a huge commitment in time dedicated to training – in the range of 40 to 60 hours of training per week.

The DAN system (in Japan known as idan) developed by Kano dovetails nicely with the older rank recognition system called Menkyo. In the Menkyo system the Menkyo Kaiden is the highest rank and means “license of total transmission”, it takes about 30 years to get to this point, and most likely the holder of this license is the inheritor of the ryu (school of martial art). This would be 7th, 8th, 9th or 10th dan in Kano’s rank system. Menkyo means license and is the license to teach. At this point the student can begin to teach on his own and establish his or her own dojo.

The first ranking in this system is okuiri, which means “entrance into secrets” is roughly equivalent to a sandan in Kano’s rank system. At this point the student has a basic knowledgeable of the art’s techniques. At the beginning of his or her training the student takes a blood oath to not disclose the secret teachings of the school. While Kano didn’t like the idea of secrets he was obligated to take blood oaths (keppan) when he invited jujutsu masters to the Kodokan to share their knowledgeable. Consequently you see fewer requirements for upper ranks because they were supposed to be secretive.

There can be several steps between okuiri and menkyo kaiden – systems with one or two steps are most common. Mokuroku means ‘catalog’, is a middle learning step and takes another 8 to 10 years to achieve. Mokuroku is when the student’s name is added to the school’s scroll (catalog) and is roughly equivalent to 5th or 6th dan in Kano’s dan system.


Occasionally, in Japanese texts, you may run into a concept called Shu-ha-ri, it can be roughly translated as: obey, digress, separate. It is a description of the goals required of students studying martial arts, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, etc. and has been borrowed by the International Business community to help employees better understand how one masters business skills.

SHU refers to ‘copying’ faithfully the material presented by the sensei and is directed to students with the rank up to sandan, 3rd degree black belt.

HA is the second goal of martial arts study and requires the student to ‘digress’, to start exploring technique and is directed to students with the rank of yodan and godan, 4th and 5th degree black belt.

RI is the final stage, where the student is set on his own to create his own dojo, this is 6th or 7th dan.

This reflects the education system based on the judo college model.
Renshi, Kyoshi and Hanshi

Renshi, Kyoshi and Hanshi are bestowed titles. The history of these titles go back to the establishment of the Dai Nippon Butokukai in Kyoto, Japan. The Butokukai was a martial arts teachers college that offered instruction in kendo primarily but also karate and judo. Kenshiro Abe, the founder of the Kyu Shin Do society in England, the precursor of Zen Judo, was one of the leading exponents of the Butokukai kendo and judo programs.

The titles were generally bestowed on the professors at the school.

Hanshi (範士): teacher, 9th and 10th dan, 8th dan for more than 2 years, older than 60
Kyoshi (教士): instructor, 7th and 8th dan, 6th dan for minimum 2 years, older than 50
Renshi (錬士): assistant instructor, 5th and 6th dan, 4th dan for minimum 1 year, older than 40

rank – the military model

Here is a model of Judo as a military organization:

1st degree black belt second lieutenant
2nd degree black belt first lieutenant
3rd degree black belt captain
4th degree black belt major
5th degree black belt lieutenant colonel
6th degree black belt colonel
7th degree black belt brigadier general
8th degree black belt major general
9th degree black belt lieutenant general
10th degree black belt general of the Army

I have seen this model in slightly different formats, and while I think of Judo as a martial art as opposed to Judo as a sport, I think military models are better applied to older styles of Jujutsu, koryu, martial arts that prepared warriors for the battlefield.

What does Shihan mean? How about Honcho and Soke?

Shihan is not exactly a title, Shihan (師範) literally means “to be a model” and is a more formal word for instructor, teacher or sensei. So if you are teaching Judo you could be addressed as Shihan. However shihan is typically reserved for senior instructors, generally over godan and above. It is not considered impolite to address 8th or 9th dans as sensei, as is the tradition in Judo in the United States.

Honcho (班長) means “head” of something. So it could mean the head of a company, it could be the head of a division, it could mean the head of a dojo. This is not something that you see frequently in Judo but may see it in other martial arts.

Dojocho (道場長)means the head of the dojo. Again not used often in Judo but may be seen in other martial arts or literature.

Soke (宗家) is used to refer to the central family that carries on the family tradition of an art, be it martial arts or an art like tea ceremony or flower arrangement. It tends to be over used and often illegitimately so, especially in the United States.

What the hell is a black belt rank? By Hayward Nishioka https://www.facebook.com/JudoTrainingDevelopment/posts/584632911547264

What is classical Judo? An interview with Steven Cunningham by Linda Yianakkis http://www.gentleways.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/judo-forum-Feb-98-GW-page.pdf

About Gentle Ways, Inc.

I taught Judo at North Dakota State University from 1980 to 2012. The Judo program consisted of a credit class and a judo club. Over 32 years about 3,000 students took the judo class.
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