From Matt Sheridan, written in 2019
As we know the Dankyuisei (段級位制), or Dan and Kyu Rank System, was adopted into martial arts New Years of 1884 by Jigoro Kano. Prior in October of 1883 Jigoro Kano, at the age of 23, receices a Menkyo Kaiden. I have talked extensively about martial arts move from the Menkyo (免許) system to the Menjo (免状) system, so lets not focus on that here. Lets focus on Kyu and Dan, where they come from, and how they were originally used.
So where does the Dankyuisei come from?
As most of us know Jigoro Kano adopted this system from the game of Go. The Kyu system in Go now extends as high as 30th Kyu and the Dan system is now split into two aspects Amateur and Professional. Amateur Dan go from 1 to 7 and Professional Dan go from 1 to 9. Many believe the rank system in Go only dates back to the 17th century due to the fact Tokugawa popularized the game in Japan. However both Go and its rank system date back to China and one of the first documentations on its rank system dates back to the 2nd century, where it was described to have a Nine Refinement System (九品制). This Nine Refinement System being comparable to the 9 Professional Dan used today.
How did Jigoro Kano first used the Dankyuisei?
Before we move on try to remove any preconceived notions you currently have of the Dankyuisei! How things are now is the product of 130 years of development, so obviously when Kano first adopted the Dankyuisei, these things had yet to develop, obviously. Kano’s original system adopted in 1884 had 3 Kyu and 3 Dan, and that was it. Around this time the Kodokan (founded in 1882) had less than 27 students. Kano only awarded two Dan: one to Tomita Tsunejiro and the other to Seigo Shiro.
Of Kano’s students these were the only two who were capable and trusted to run classes at the Kodokan in Kano’s absence. These Yudansha (有段者) were assistant instructors that could competently run the school and teach classes. This is an important thing to note due to the fact that this was prior to when Kano implemented his scaffolded curriculum system, so rank wasn’t based on competence within the curriculum. (Dai Gokyo through Dai Ikkyo) You see, in Go, Dan was considered a professional rank and originally in Judo it was as well.
Why people think Dan-i isn’t a professional rank?
After receiving a Menkyo Kaiden, Jigoro Kano, introduced the Dankyuisei within the matter of months (October 1883 to January 1884) as a a replacement for the Menkyo system. Yudansha began spreading Judo all across Japan, to Okinawa, Korea, and then on to Europe and the Americas. But eventually the Menkyo system got reinstated at some point with the use of titles, most likely due to influence from the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai. We know the titles Renshi (錬士) and Hanshi (範士) were used in antiquity, as well as by Koryu Budo that continued to use the Menkyo system, and initially rejected the dankyuisei. Eventually the title of Kyoshi (教士) was also introduced. When these titles got introduced to the Gendai Budo (現代武道) styles is when we started seeing seeing Dan-i being downplayed for titles yet again.
How does this pertain to karate?
As we know karate originally had no ranking systems and also had no title systems. The Ryukyu Feudal system was not a ranking system within karate. Yes, many karate-ka prior to the 1860s held the titles of Pechin or Udun, but these were not martial arts titles nor ranks.
Karate first officially adopted the rank system in April of 1924, but even at this time there were no titles being used. Many karate Yudansha went on to open their own clubs and programs, still before titles were introduced. Then the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai began to force titles onto high profile karate-ka, such as the head of a style, the head of a major -kan or -kai, etc. People like Chojun Miyagi (head of the Okinawan region of the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai), Gichin Funakoshi (head of the Shotokan and founder of Shotokai), Kanken Toyama (head of the Shudokan), Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito Ryu), etc were all awarded the title of Renshi. Then later, starting with Chojun Miyagi in 1937, the title of Kyoshi began to be awarded by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai (a fact I find somewhat amusing because Miyagi was said to strongly dislike the use of titles). These titles were not being goven to just any professional, but rather the top professionals in their field. Many instructors ran schools under these others, but were not title holders.
This differs from the viewpoint held by some modern practitioners that believe the first professional “rank” is Renshi at 6th Dan, followed by Kyoshi and Hanshi. Something easily dismissed with the fact that prior to 1946, 6th Dan didn’t even exist within karate: titles were completely separated from rank, rank was being awarded by people who held no rank, etc.
In the 70+ years since then the standardization of ranks and titles really stemmed from the All Japanese Karate Federation and the larger associations in Okinawa. Early on there were no age requirements. There were no training requirements. These were all things that came about after the 1950s. For example in 1959 Kanken Toyama awarded a 10th Dan to Eizo Shimabukuro, and despite what modern practitioners think of this, at the time this was a fully legitimate proceeding.
Anyways, back to Shodan as a professional rank. Before being introduced to martial arts, Shodan was a professional rank in Go. In Judo when the Dankyuisei was first introduced Shodan was considered a professional rank, denoting someone who can teach and run a school. When it was introduced to Karate, many Shodan through Godan in Japan went on to found their own schools, clubs, styles, and associations. Even after the Dankyuisei and titles were introduced to karate, those without rank and titles went on to start their own things (such as the students of Miyagi, who were never given ranks and titles by Miyagi). It wasn’t till the 1960s, when many second and third generation karate-ka were starting to get older that we saw modern standards introduced.
Ultimately, it is you (if you are an instructor) that gets to decide the importance placed on Shodan.