What is this Rank and Grading Stuff? Part 1 – Students and Teachers

What is this Rank and Grading Stuff?
Part 1 – Students and Teachers

By Kim Taylor

Everyone, in every martial art eventually asks himself why he is standing in line waiting to go demonstrate in front of a panel in order to try and obtain a piece of paper and the right to be called one more (or one less kyū) number. And pretty much everyone answers “I don’t know”. Of course there are many reasons to grade, and a few arguments against, so let’s examine some of them.

From the student standpoint:
Most students will have a very self-centred point of view to grading; they will be paying money for the chance to demonstrate their skills and perhaps get the next rank up. So why should they want to do it? Signposts. Having a set of markers along the way toward learning the art, which go all the way “to the top” is a useful tool toward knowing how you’re doing, where you’re going and a goal to inspire greater effort to get there. Gradings are something to work toward. They are something to judge your progress. They are a set of requirements that help you understand what is required of you next, after you’ve met the standards for the current grade.

In kendo, the grades go roughly in three stages. From ikkyū to 3-dan we have beginners who are to be encouraged by the progression through the ranks. By 3-dan (four to five years practise) they should be able to demonstrate the outlines of all the skills required in the art. By 5-dan (another seven years practice) they should know what’s “in the book”, to be able to perform all the skills of the art competently. 6-dan and 7-dan are where the more esoteric skills are expected, and 8-dan is where a complete understanding of the riai of the art is required. Looking at the various documents dealing with judging will give you a pretty good idea of what can be expected and when during a budo career, so regular gradings will help you stay on track.

There shouldn’t be any more than that from a student point of view, a student should not want rank for its own sake – a grade has no real value beyond bragging rights – but should only grade as a consequence of time in training and a way to check progress. In the West, however, another reason does occasionally show up, and that’s the desire to have enough rank in the local federation to be able to provide grading panels for more junior students. In Japan this just isn’t a consideration of course, with plenty of judges available to pretty much all local federations, but in many places the loss or gain of a single ranked individual can mean the difference in the ability to offer gradings. As a result of insufficient rank to meet the standards of the International Kendo Federation (FIK), many countries have opted to offer several kyū grades below ikkyū (the most junior grade mentioned by the FIK guidelines). While this allows the local students to do gradings and thus have a feeling of progress through the ranks, it can also result in a wide disparity of skill level when comparing someone who has practised for six years or more to someone with perhaps a year of practise as they challenge for ikkyū. Unless these situations are carefully explained to the students, those who have spent many years going through many kyū grades may also feel resentment toward those who have risen well into the dan ranks during the same time span.

Understanding this, there will be students in the West (and perhaps the more remote areas of Japan) who would not normally be concerned with grading, but who feel obligated to qualify as judges in order to give back to the art. Of course, the most powerful incentive of all for a student to grade is because sensei says “it’s time”. What more do you really need?

Why not grade?:
Students have many reasons not to grade: lack of funds (a real consideration in some countries), fear of failure, fear of disappointing sensei, lack of time, motivation or interest. These are all powerful and legitimate reasons not to grade and personally I would much rather see a student not grade for one of these reasons than grade due to ego or a desire to “be instructor rank”.

From the teacher’s standpoint:
From a teacher’s standpoint, gradings are convenient tools to keep the instruction focused and moving forward, in much the same way that students use it personally. Instruction can move into strange corners of the art for months if there is nothing to pull the teacher back onto the main line because “gradings are coming”.

Why not grade?:
From a teacher’s standpoint, the incentive not to want gradings is the opposite as for wanting them. Gradings continually pull the class back from the interesting flora and fauna in those strange corners to the same old “why haven’t you guys read the book” lessons on how to pass a test.

In Part 2, we will look at grading from the federation’s standpoint.


  1. Regrettably grading seems to be the one tool for maintaining a relatively uniform way for evaluating progressive development.

  2. Is fear really a legitimate reason not to attempt a grading? Isn’t fear just another problem with ego?

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