par M.T. Shewan

Before discussing the system of ranking which is currently employed in Aikido, it would be useful to make a short historical summary of the concept of ranking within the Japanese martial traditions.



The Menkyo Kaiden System


At the time when the various traditions had, of necessity, a practical"raison d'être"(ie. application in real combative situations), it is obvious that the practitioner fulfilled his duty as a warrior either by winning and staying alive, by sacrificing his life to win, or, simply, by defeat. The choices were not very varied as far as his combative effectiveness was concerned.


The concept of a system of ranking strictly based on an evaluation of combative capacities would have been illogical - it can, more or less, be said that one was either 100% effective and living or less-than-100%-effective and dead.. On the contrary, however, each school in need of a system for recognising the capacities and technical proficiency of the practitioner as a teacher or "transmitter" of the technical, philosophical and ethical structures, etc. of a given school. Thus the Menkyo-Kaiden system.was instituted.


This concept, I repeat, was absolutely not based uniquely on the personal combat prowess of the individual but included, rather, the idea of a certification, guaranteeing that the individual had achieved a certain level of study within the school and that he could retransmit (according to the rules existing in each school) that part of the school's curriculum that he had mastered and that he was authorised to teach. Today, a confused outlook exists due to the belief that a practitioner, possessing a certificate as a high-level teacher of a school, is inevitably extremely effective combatively speaking - he should be this but it would be, nonetheless, of secondary importance to his capacity as a teacher. This distinction is fundamental if one wants to understand the problem of ranking - both historically or at the present time.


In the Menkyo system, there existed, generally, 3 to 5 certificates, corresponding to teaching qualification levels. The first level certificate was generally called "Oku-Iri" and its purpose was to certify that the pupil had completed his study of the basic technique and could be regarded as a true member of the school from that point onward. This usually amounted to about ten years of rigorous training (at the rate of more than 3 hours per week as is common in the practice of modern Budo today!) during which he was thoroughly grounded in the basic curriculum . If one must make a comparison with Dan ranking, one might say that Oku-Iri corresponds with the level of 4th or 5th dan, whereas, in the traditional system, it constituted the first qualification certificate. In theory, this certificate included very few authorisations to teach and any that the practitioner could undertake would only be in the presence of a more qualified instructor and upon his request.


Afterwards, there came two certificates of instructor-level qualification - Sho-Mokuroku and Go-Mokuroku. These two levels corresponded, respectively, to Assistant-Instructor and Qualified-Instructor and, in the Dan system, they would be equal technically to the level ranging from 5th Dan to 7th Dan. They were required to be perfectly familiar with the entire technical curriculum of the school and theirs was a significant role in the training of younger pupils as well as in the everyday life of the School.


The certificate of Menkyo or Menkyo-Kaiden signified Mastery and its holder was fully qualified for all aspects of the teaching of the school curriculum. One might say that it corresponded symbolically to an 8th dan. I will say no more concerning the Menkyo qualifications, except that he could, at this stage (and if the school considered it necessary), open his own dojo or school. Indeed, Mastery implied a certain liberty of action.



The KYU-DAN system


The KYU-DAN system is a relatively recent innovation in the practices known as Shin-Budo (Modern Martial Ways - usually including competitive Sport Budo). It dates from the last century and the beginning of the current century. We owe its popularisation more especially to Judo and Kendo. This system of ranking has its origins in the Neo-Confucionist philosophy known as Chu-Hsi.


The central concept of Chu-Hsi Confucianism is based on the concept of complimentary duality "yukei-mukei", literally :"what has form and what does not have form"-"Form and Non-Form".

One says, for example"Yudansha-Mudansha", - i.e.:"the trainee with dan ranking and the trainee that does not have dan ranking". We also find everywhere in the modern disciplines, other dualistic concepts with which the individual must come to grips both with the Mind and with the body. The marriage of action and inaction is called"Sei to Do". One finds other aspects of this dualism in : "engagement and non-engagement" -"Yuken to Muken"; "the Essence and the Function" - "Tai to Yo" or again in "Energy and Reason" - "Ki to Ri", etc.


At this point I would like to quote from the writings of Donn F. Draeger, one of the most qualified Japanese budo researchers of our times. It describes, explicitly, a very common situation we see nowadays :


"(Modern) Budo ranking systems often lack integrity. Ranks are often awarded on a basis other than that of technical proficiency and thus become the basic source of struggle within the Budo by ambitious seekers of prestige and title. The Budo ranking system puts over-emphasis on rank and as a result the end point of training for most becomes simply the acquisition of rank, by any means possible. Often it is the individual who determines what rank he wishes to try for, and there is a wide range of freedom permitted in the demonstration of the skills required for the rank he seeks."


Whether or not we consider that the above description** constitutes an aspect that should be included in the "Spirit of the System" as originally conceived by its creators - we are obliged to admit that it is an integral part of it today. In any case, we can observe today that trainees are "competing for rank", in ignorance of the more profound objectives of Budo (obviously, since if they were aware of them, the attaining of rank would be secondary).


From the moment that the practice of Budo was opened to the public, it became necessary to have a system for acknowledging the technical prowess (not necessarily teaching ability ) of trainees at whatever level. The total absence of real combative situations, where conditions of life and death prevailed (Shinken Shobu), permitted the "evaluation of an individual within a larger social nexus (the mass)". This "evaluation of prowess" had no meaning in the historical past and, further, it created today where people equate spectacular feats with teaching ability. This is all the more so due to the fact that the founders of most modern Budo wished to disseminate budo to the masses throughout the world.


The existence of "Competition" also reinforces the usefulness of the Kyu/Dan system in the promotion of those disciplines and almost all of them have adopted the system as a means of recognising their members. To understand better the reasons for the existence of the Kyu/Dan system, it is interesting to reflect upon the rigid concepts of hierarchy within Japanese society. However, it suffices to say that, in Japan, people are very "attached" culturally to "Titles", "Recognition" "Acknowledgement" and "Gifts" in order to determine precisely place an individual occupies within society. It is, therefore, logical that Modern Budo are conceived and structured in the image of Japanese society.





Ranking in Aikido, as in other disciplines, was instituted by the founder, Morihei Ueshiba. O-Sensei, as we know, evolved spiritually throughout his life and, in this respect, he modified his views constantly. It also seems clear that he was never particularly preoccupied with organisational or material questions. The grading of his students seems to have been, therefore, intuitive, according to an "inspiration of the present moment" and entirely his own prerogative.


O-Sensei himself does not appear to have received the Menkyo-Kaiden of the Daito Ryu and he didn'tét have, strictly speaking, in that period of his life, the formal authorisation to attribute ranking of that school (this question is not entirely clear though there are some indications that he did have that authorisation, even without the Menkyo, (which includes the formal right to attribute grades of a given school. This can be seen as typical of certain situations we find in Japanese budo history. ) In any case, we do know that he gave Mokuruku to some of his earliest disciples and the presentation of a copy of his book,"BUDO RENSHU" often symbolised a "Teaching Certificate".


In 1931, Ueshiba Sensei opened the Kobukan Dojo and since that date there existed instructors that taught in various branch dojo. Those teachers were in need of some sort of official ranking and it was from this time that dan grades began to be given. However, it was not until the founding of the Aikikai in 1948 that a formal Kyu/Dan system was formally introduced.


It seems to be clear that Ueshiba Sensei considered the 8th Dan as corresponding to the older Menkyo Kaiden and as such he bequeathed it to his better disciples, both prewar and post- 2nd World War. Some of his 9th Dan were given to people whom he particularly liked or who had requested it of him.


There is something, however, that we must keep in mind : on account of his spiritual non-Attachement to material considerations, the question concerning the ranking awarded to his direct disciples - that is to say who really received what, when and why - will never be completely transparent. But, at the same time, because of this very fact, he has left us, by his attitude, with a marvellous lesson indicating what sort of attitude we should adopt concerning ranks. The system is in existence (created by O-Sensei himself); it is adopted by Aikido throughout the World; and it can be of great value provided that we are able to manifest the attitude of a human being that is spiritually free and guided by the spirit of non-Attachement.


** In his book "Etiquette et Transmission" Tamura Nobuyoshi Shihan one can find a good description of what an ideal attitude should be.

The above document was written for publication 1982 par Malcolm Tiki Shewan. It was used a number of times in more or less modified forms and in extensive quotations according to the requirements of the moment. This is the first time it has been translated into english.

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Luc Tamisier.