Originaly Published in Totally Taekwondo Magazine March 2016
So have you noticed research often leaves you with more questions?
After exploring the history of the belt system and the Kyu/Dan system I was left with one question, “What came before these things?” And the answer was surprisingly easy to find.
Prior to the introduction of the belt system in 1886 and the Kyu/Dan system in 1883 the majority of martial arts in Japan used a
license system known as Menkyo (免許).
The menkyo system was introduced to Japanese culture in the 8th century A.D. Like
the Kyu/Dan system it was used in a wide arrange of crafts and skill based arts. Eventually this practiced was adopted by the many schools of Jujutsu and Kenjutsu, and was in wide use within the a few other Koryu (古流) or “old style” martial arts prior to the 1600s. For a list of Koryu martial arts please check out the Bugei Juhappan (武芸十八般), a list of 18 warrior arts, originally established by Hirayama Gyozo who lived from 1759 to 1828.
Each art was entitled to use its own license system. However, for the most part, you received one license when you began your
study of an art, one when you become proficient enough to pass on that art to the next generation (Menkyo), and one when you have learned all the art has to offer and are able to add to the art (Menkyo Kaiden). The highest license was usually a Menkyo Kaiden (免許皆伝), this was given to diligent practitioners who often spent 30 or more years involved in serious study. Those that held a Menkyo were often considered eligible to become the successor or heir of the art; they were also eligible to become the next Soke (宗家) or “Head of House.” Though it is important to note that a new Soke had to be included on the Koseki (family registry) of the old Soke and transference was a legal procedure and not as easy as simply stating, “I want Joe to take over once I retire or pass away.”
Also tied into the menkyo system are Mokuroku (目録). A mokuroku is a hand written scroll detailing the entirety of a style. They include things such as techniques, philosophy, history, and lineage. Often times they are written in a poetic format making them harder to translate, but other times they are simply a compilation of lists. Though the Menkyo system has fallen out of favor within martial arts due to the introduction of the Kyu/Dan system, Mokuroku are still being used and produced in modern times. These scrolls are found in two formats: scrolls that read from right to left and scrolls that read from top to bottom. It is important to note that mokuroku were considered very precious items reserved for holders of a Menkyo or Menkyo Kaiden, and were usually hand written by the head of a style. The famous Okinawan karate master, Bushi Sokon Matsumura produced a hand written mokuroku during his lifetime and it is still within the private possession of his living descendants.
So how does all of this connect to what is currently done within more modern martial art styles?
Jigoro Kano trained in two main styles of Jujutsu in his youth; first he trained in Tenjin Shin’yo Ryu under Fukuda Hachinosuke followed by Iso Masatomo, unfortunately both these instructors passed away when Kano was a young man, so Kano transferred to Kito-Ryu under Iikubo Tsunetoshi. Some believe that Kano received Menkyo and inherited a Mokuroku from Tenjin Shin’yo Ryu, but unfortunately these claims have not been substantiated with documentation. However in October of 1883, Jigoro Kano received his Menkyo in Kito Ryu. Interestingly enough, this is a few months before Kano introduced the Kyu/Dan system within the Kodokan, his school of Jujutsu which later took on the name “Judo.”
As discussed above this was prior to the use of belts to distinguish between kyu grade students (無段者) and dan ranked students (有段者), so when Kano awarded a dan rank he commemorated the rank with a paper certificate/diploma called a Menjo (免状). This is what the norm in modern martial arts in Japan became and which was then carried on to Korea and other parts of the world.
These paper certificates were often considered legal documentation in countries of the orient and as such they needed to possess a few key elements. This may seem like common sense but they needed to say who was receiving the certificate, what the certificate is for, and who was awarding the certificate. Also to authenticate the certificate they needed to be stamped with seals.
So why use a seal?
In modern Western civilization we use our legal signature in black or blue ink on documents, however in East Asian civilizations seals in red ink were used for legal documents. In Japan these seals are known as Inkan (印鑑) and Hanko (判子). Legally registered seals for large organizations and corporations are referred to as Jitsuin (実印). So a martial arts certificate will often have multiple seals often one for the organization and one for the individual awarding the certificate.
However dan certificates are not the only type of certificates that exist within the world of martial arts. Just like a Menkyo were used as licenses to teach, teaching certification also became the norm within most styles. And certificates were also awarded for honorary titles, called Shogo (称号) in Japanese, such as Renshi, Kyoshi, and Hanshi. These were spread through Judo’s involvement in the Dai-Nippon Butoku Kai, which regulated many formal martial arts and martial sports in Japan.
So how’d this practice work its way into Taekwondo?
As Okinawan Karate instructors began working with members of the Kodokan and the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, they started to adopt many of the practices within these groups. So it comes as no surprise that when Karate adopted the Kyu/Dan system, belt system, and Dogi in 1924, Gichin Funakoshi also adopted the use of Menjo, awarding 7 of them in April of that year (13th year of Taisho). One of these 7 certificates has been made public by the International Ryukyu Karate Research Society, and will be included with this article. It is the Shodan certificate of Kasuya Shin’yo, awarded by the Toudi Research Society which was headed by Gichin Funakoshi.
Finally martial arts such as Kendo, Judo, and Karate made their way to the Korean peninsula during and after the Japanese Annexation (1910-1945) and this practice of using certificates was brought to Korea as well.
During this time martial arts schools had to be approved by the Korean government due to the partial ban on martial arts in Korea. This is again where seals and legal documentation comes in. Many martial art students would use their martial arts certificates as a legal form of identification. This leads us back to the seals used on them. The personal seals used by individuals referred to as Hanko (判子) in Japanese are called Dojang (도장) in Korean, not to be confused with Training Halls (도장, 道場) which is a homonym. The more formal Inkan (印鑑) in Japanese are called Ingam (인감, 印鑑) in Korean. And the registered seals called Jitsuin (実印) in Japanese are referred to as Silin (실인, 實印) in Korean, as 実 is a simplified way of writing 實. Some certificates even had passport pictures pasted to them making them even more useful as forms of legal identification.
So how has this changed?
As the governmental bodies of Asian countries began to have less and less control over the teaching and regulation of martial arts, certificates began to lose their standing as legal documentation. Stamps and seals began to be replaced by western signatures. The Japanese and Korean languages began to be replaced with English. Beautifully hand written certificates were replaced by mass printed, digitally produced ones; some of which are quite beautiful in their own right. As styles and organizations began to splinter and diversify, parent styles and organizations lost their absolute authority.