Originally typed in 2017 by Matt Sheridan
The very first 10th dan awarded in any martial art was to Yoshitugu Yamashita by the Kodokan in 1935. Since then the Kodokan has only ever recognized 14 other individuals as 10th dan. Of these only 3 are still living.
Karate did not adopt the practice of awarding ranks as high as 10th dan until 1945. In 1945 the Kodokan had only awarded 4 men to 10th dan as that was the year Kyuzo Mifune was awarded 10th dan (his certificate has been made public and can be viewed online). However even to this day very few Japanese and Okinawan karate-ka have been awarded the rank of 10th dan.
Yet when we look outside of Japan (the birthplace of many of these arts and the birthplace of the Dan system used in martial arts), there are many 10th dan individuals that are not only walking around, but are fairly young (less than 60 years old). Now we have discussed before that many people associate the use of a Red Belt to signify a 9th or 10th dan individual. However this is culturally incorrect, as the Red Belt was meant to be associated with the concept of Kanreki (還暦).
Kanreki refers to one full cycle of the Chinese Zodiac, which is 60 years. In Japanese culture this is a celebration of a man’s 60th birthday; in martial arts it represents 60 years of training in the same style, regardless of rank. Yet again we see 10th dan, soke, red belts around the globe who have yet to reach 60 years of experience (shouldn’t be wearing a red belt), are not legally on a Japanese Koseki (shouldn’t be using the title “Soke”), and who were simply self promoted or promoted by a council of their peers.
In the United States of America these councils are quite numerous and they often refer to themselves as “Grand Master Councils” or “Soke Councils.” In person, I have met several individuals who have been promoted by such a council. The first was my first Hapkido instructor. His highest official rank was a 4th dan in Hapkido, yet he was made a 10th dan Soke of his own style by such a council. He was in his late 40s and his children were younger than myself. His son being a 20 year old 5th dan promoted by his father. Online I have met many more including an individual that was given the rank of 10th dan at the age of 19 (he is now 25).