“Rank Versus Skill” by Salvatore Forestieri

In the martial arts we all strive for a purpose. Some of us may have multiple purposes, but in general most of us strive for physical and mental development through shugyo. Some individuals might want to develop a certain skill level; others are more concerned with rank – especially the untrained newcomer. In a recent situation that I’m sure many will recognize, an individual walked into our dojo after contacting me previously on numerous occasions. Almost immediately on arriving, he asked me, “how long would it take me to get a black belt?”. I chuckled and replied, “Oh… around 2-3 days for an average one and about 7-10 days for a really nice one from Japan”. After he looked at me quizzically for a few moments, I explained the joke to him. Fortunately he chuckled and the ice was broken.

Of late though, I have given the underlying essence of this subject some significant thought. Not long ago, I read a particularly interesting article authored by Stanley Pranin regarding rank. Mr. Pranin made a number of pertinent observations on this subject, which hit home with me.

These days, it seems that increasing numbers of people are becoming overly-concerned with their rank, and from whom it is received or awarded. In the past, it was almost always a given that a certain level of skill in the art was required in order to achieve a recognized level of rank. Rank then, was an outward sign of progress in the acquisition of such skills. One therefore has to question the point of awarding higher levels of rank, in the absence of a significant set of skills in the art. Just as perplexing, is the all-too-common issue of individuals with outstanding skills not having an appropriate level of rank, due to unfortunate politics.

Surely in the martial arts, we should all be working on our own path to progress, and not get caught up in the specific successes or failures of others? Surely part of our training is to help those who may need us in a mutually beneficial environment – an environment that gives us the courage to ask for help when we ourselves need it. The outcome of such an environment is integrity. It is this integrity that diminishes thoughts of acquiring or possessing rank for its own sake, devoid of a connection to a particular and recognizable skill level. What good is your training, or your rank, if it has no practical value for you or your family? Perhaps we should ask ourselves the question: if we were really in danger, would we want one of our dojo mates to be present, based on how they train in the dojo?

There was a time when someone had rank, and it was understood clearly what it meant – where that individual’s mind and body was at. With all of the inconsistencies in rank today, how can we give merit to something that everyone has? What separates us from the superficial? I put it to you that the difference is in our attitude to our training – in how we train and in how we use our training off the mat and outside the dojo. The difference is in how we behave as individuals in society – in our work ethic, in how we practice what we preach. It is found in our communicating Aikido to others through the skills we have worked hard to acquire, through blood, sweat and tears, and not simply by talking about rank or the color of one’s belt, or the level of one’s dan.

For the sake of preservation, perhaps we should reflect often on those warriors who have gone before us, on those who have passed these skills on to us. Being able to receive these skills is a privilege, and so for us, our very training is a privilege. Perhaps striving to work hard in our training, striving to improve our skills, first and foremost without giving thought to rank, might make us better people.

When, in time, the rank follows, perhaps then we might then feel better about receiving such rank, because then it truly represents that for which we have worked so hard.
This, for me, is paramount.


  1. Rank verses skill … and eternal question in the archives of history.

    The sergeants of the army are more skilled in combat and more treasured on the battlefield than any officer, and yet when history is written the officers and commanders get the credit for victories and blame for defeat.

    Thomas Edison was not the inventor of many ideas but his input and his overall direction did create an atmosphere in which many helpers created new ideas that became patented over the years and were accredited to Thomas Edison.

    Question is … what kind of person are you? Are you filled with a longing to be famous, to be recognized by history and your peers who are powerful in the world around you, or are you satisfied to be you and be part of what made those people rich and powerful?

    It is not different for martial arts. It is as much the people we surround ourselves with and the path we choose that gives us satisfaction to be alive or puts us on a path of misery that creates misery for those people we must step on or step over on our path to success and power.

    Well, there is a choice. One can choose to accept the talent one has, add it to the pool of training so it survives generation after generation, and simply be talented without rank, but that is not human nature. Just examine how we record history in light of fact. For every famous human being who is the focus of history … there are dozens of talented people who have contributed to their knowledge and talent to let them be the center of attention.

    Consider this …. you can be the miserable wretch who seeks more and more fame and fortune, or … you can be one of the hundreds of talented people who lives a quiet happy life in the lime light.

    Everyone has some kind of talent. Everyone has some limit to what they can do. Don’t be taken in by the rank of someone, but be amazed by their talent! Oh, and remember to steal the techniques they share with you because eventually … you will figure out the secrets in those techniques which are merely science we have yet to understand.

    Bottom line, don’t worry about rank, rank will come in it’s own time.

    Warriors look at it this way, a dead general and a dead sergeant is still dead, come back alive and your win. Don’t worry about rank.

  2. I heard that old-timers would show up in Iwama to train in winter when the gakusei weren’t around. Middle aged or older and known as “kaibutsu” (monsters), they were shodan, nidan, sandan students of O Sensei. After his death they were never going to be promoted…

  3. My Wing Chun teaher’s teacher, Sifu Anthony Arnett, once talked to me about this. He told me that, at my age, being a black belt in any martial is completely different than is was in his day. He fondly recalled a time when, if someone was a black belt, the reaction was “Whoa, okay, sh*t, everything is going to be okay, just calm down.” He laments that nowadays, when he goes out to compete against the other senior ranks these days, he literally “eats them for breakfast.” He told me that often when he brings his students to a competition, he brings a bag with an assortment of different colored belts to hand out to his students so that they know which level they are fighting in. Once a student complained about being handed a red belt to fight in that division, when previously he had fought in the black belt division. He told his student that was because last time, there were more black belts present that time for him to whip on. Since there were only a few black belts this time, but about ten red belts, he wanted him to get the most fighting in possible. The fact that he can train his students to fight arbitrarily like that is, in my opinion, both a testament to his teaching ability, and a sad reflection of the standards commonly applied to black belts today.

Speak Your Mind