In Japan, giving rank is more encouragement then reward. You’re given a rank with the expectation that you’ll work hard to earn that rank. This is a bit backwards to the Western perception that if you work hard you’ll get your next rank. So in Japan it’s used to motivate, but in the West it’s thought of as a reward. In fact, rank is not a big deal in Japan like it is here. But why?
Because in all reality rank doesn’t matter. The training – your training – is what matters.
The Wisdom of Mr. Miyagi
If you remember the original Karate Kid, Daniel-San asks Mr. Miyagi what belt he has.
Mr. Miyagi jokingly replies “canvas, JC Pennys.”
He then goes on to say that
in Okinawa a belt just means you don’t need a rope to hold up your pants. (Points to head) Karate in here, (points to heart) Karate in here, (points to belt) Karate no here.
What Mr. Miyagi is elegantly explaining is that a belt itself is meaningless, only the art and training has meaning.
Rank in the Bujinkan
In my last trip to Japan, Nagato-Sensei was talking to the class during the break regarding rank. He said “I am a Jugodan. There are many Jugodan, but they come to train with me. Why? I am the same rank.” The answer isn’t because of the rank he holds. By rank alone he is their equal. It’s because of who he is as a practitioner, as a teacher.
There’s also a famous story about an American back in the early days of the Bujinkan came to train with Soke Hatsumi. Soke asked him why he wanted to study Ninjutsu, to which the young eager student replied “to earn a black belt.” Soke immediately handed him one, and replied, “okay – now let’s train”. It was part lesson, part test; the lesson was that the belt itself didn’t matter and that the training is what’s important. The test was to see if the student continued to train now that he had the belt that he wanted.
Focus on what Matters
What does this mean for all of us? Everyone should focus on the training, and what you want to get from it. You shouldn’t be stressed in achieving the next rank or whether your making enough progress. Your movement and skills as a Martial Arts practitioner speaks to your talent, dedication, and hard work – not a title that anyone else gives you.
Ask yourself this; are you paying for the training, or for a belt. I hope it’s the training, because you can go out and buy a black belt for about $5.00.
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