Karate is one of a number of fighting techniques collectively known as the martial arts. The word karate is of Japanese origin, kara meaning 'empty' and te meaning 'hand'. Literally then, karate is a form of martial art that uses nothing more than the 'empty hand'. Of course the application of karate requires other parts of the body to be used in addition to the hands, but the underlying principle is that there is no use of weapons or artificial aids.
With its origins going back many centuries, modern day karate has a number of forms. The form that we are concerned with is Shotokan.
Photograph of Gichin Funakoshi
The founder of modern day karate was Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957), a scholar and teacher of Chinese classics on Okinawa Island. It is believed that Funakoshi developed karate from more ancient forms of unarmed combat.
Some years after Funakoshi introduced karate to mainland Japan his students constructed a Dojo and named it Shotokan in his honour. The three Japanese characters making up Shotokan are - Sho meaning 'pine tree', to meaning 'waves' and kan meaning 'building' or 'hall'. Pine waves means 'the sound that pine trees make when the wind blows through their needles' and it is said that Funakoshi used 'Shoto' as a pen name.
Since that time Shotokan has developed into a style of karate in its own right, distinguishable by its low stances, compact movements and formality. It is now practiced all over the world.
In it's application, Shotokan Karate is a very effective form of self defence. However, it is important to remember that it also helps develop self discipline, confidence, control, motivation, loyalty and respect. It is also a good way of achieving physical fitness through aerobic exercise.
SHOTOKAN DAN RANKING SYSTEM
Very few karate students I know of would ever say that getting a black belt was the primary reason they joined a dojo. Yet for any student, earning a black belt can indeed be the by-product of their years of effort, all they have to do is train long enough, and hard enough.
In Shotokan karate a black belt or Dan ranking is the first truly significant plateau obtained by a student. It is a individual achievement that they will remember for the rest of their life, and even though karate is not a team sport, it is virtually impossible for any student to reach the black belt level without constantly training in the company of others. Unfortunately far too many students once having reached the rank of Sho Dan (1st Dan black belt) consider this to be "the end of their journey" and so they cease their karate training.
In fact quite the opposite is true. A black belt is only the beginning, all be it a very large first step if you will down a truly long and wonderous path for those who have courage and the discipline to walk it.
Upon receiving their black belt a karate student will be awarded the title of sempai (assistant teacher). At this point in their training the new sempai will find that they will be expected to take on a more formal leadership role within the dojo, leading by example from the front row, constantly encouraging the junior students, while at the same time re-affirming their own commitment, and seeking to expand the limits of their own horizon by looking for previously unseen meaning in all of the basic techniques and katas that they have learnt so far.
This is not as simple as it sounds.
Indeed it is only through a lifetime of conscientious training that the tightly held secrets of Shotokan's basics techniques and katas will finally be revealed to those who desire them. Getting your "black belt" is definitely not a time for quiting or "winding down".
It has been said that life is truly a circle.
The same can be said for a student's journey down the Shotokan road.
Starting out wearing a white belt made of cotton, the student rises up through the ten kyu (colour belt) ranks until they find themselves on the threshold of their Sho Dan (1st Dan black belt) grading. Finally upon passing their grading they are a "black belt" at last. They will now wear this colour of belt for the remainder of their martial arts career, and when the years have passed and their belt has been tied and untied a countless number of times, the student will look down one day late in life and notice that all the black colouring has ultimately worn off.
Their belt is now white again.
The beginner has now become the master, who after a lifetime of training has in the end come to see the truth, that they have in fact always been just a white belt, the colour its self was always just an illusion, something to feed their ego until, when after many years of physical, mental and spiritual training, the time came when ego no longer mattered.
For in the art of Shotokan karate it is not the colour of the belt around your waist that makes you a success, what does make you a success, however, is how well and how true you pass on the knowledge that you have come to possess to those who follow you down the Shotokan road.
If you can ever truly come to that realization then your circle will indeed be complete.
There are today ten Dan levels and three Samurai titles that can be awarded in Shotokan karate. The ten Dan levels are awarded in the following order starting from the lowest rank, Sho Dan (1st Dan) and going to the highest rank Ju Dan (10th Dan) :
Sho Dan or 1st Dan - at this rank no formal samurai title is awarded.
Ni Dan or 2nd Dan - at this rank no formal samurai title is awarded.
San Dan or 3rd Dan - at this rank no formal samurai title is awarded.
Yon Dan or 4th Dan - at this rank the formal samurai title of Renshi may be awarded.
Go Dan or 5th Dan - at this rank the formal samurai title of Renshi may be awarded.
Roku Dan or 6th Dan - at this rank the formal samurai title of Renshi may be awarded.
Schichi Dan or 7th Dan - at this rank the formal samurai title of Kyoshi may be awarded.
Hachi Dan or 8th Dan - at this rank the formal samurai title of Kyoshi may be awarded.
Ku Dan or 9th Dan - at this rank the formal samurai title of Hanshi may be awarded.
Ju Dan or 10th Dan - at this rank the formal samurai title of Hanshi may be awarded.
The three Samurai titles hold the following meanings :
RENSHI : "A person who has mastered oneself".
This person is considered an expert instructor. Renshi are no longer one of the many and is usually given at Yo Dan (4th Dan) or Go Dan (5th Dan). It is not unusual for a Renshi to be over 50 years old before this title is ever conferred upon them.
KYOSHI : "Knowledgeable person".
Usually this title is conferred at Roku Dan (6th Dan) or Shichi Dan (7th Dan). It is not unusual for a Kyoshi to be over 60 years old before this title is ever conferred upon them.
HANSHI : "Master".
A title given to the oldest and most senior black belt, usually the head of an individual karate organization, someone who has studied the art of karate for most of their lifetime. This rank signifies their true understanding of the art. It is not uncommon for a Hanshi to be well over 70 or 80 years of age before this title is ever conferred upon them.
It is not how long you have been training that counts,
but how honestly you have been training that matters.