Grades and Testing


Japanese martial arts nowadays generally use grades with decreasing kyû and increasing dan numbering. To my understanding this system was comes from Jigorô Kanô, who started to use them in the sport he created from earlier arts, Jûdô, to separate beginners and competitioners.

Both kyû and dan can be translated to mean grade. In popular view they would be grades for “student” and “teacher” – or even a “master” – but I suppose this comes from the time when a small number of people that had achieved a black belt arrived to Western countries, and naturally began to teach. Especiall in Bujinkan Budô Taijutsu it’s better to use for example titles “beginner’s grade” and “practitioner’s grade”; on one hand because the official teaching licences come separately, on the other hand because and shouldn’t think of himself/herself as a teacher – or even worse a master – just because one has been authorized to use a black piece of fabric to keep the keikogi jacket from flapping about.

Before the kyû/dan system martial arts used different ranking structures, that portrayed achieving different qualifications. Here’s a few examples:

Shoden            Mokuroku               Kirigami            Kirikami

Chûden            Nakagokui              Shoden            Mokuroku

Okuden           Gokui                     Chûden            Menkyo

Menkyo           Menkyo                   Okuden            Menkyo kaiden

Kaiden            Menkyo kaiden        Kaiden

In these examples after learning (or maybe more correctly receiving the teachings…) a certain part of the style (for example shoden, chûden, okuden) one might get a fitting grade. Of the higher terms menkyo generally means a right to teach and menkyo kaiden or kaiden full proficiency in the style.

Teacher Titles

As I wrote Bujinkan Budô Taijutsu has a separate licences for teachers, as many other styles. Here’s our system and on right side of it system of another style just as an example:

Shidôshi-ho        Renshi

Shidôshi            Kyôshi

Shihan              Hanshi



In our system shidôshi-ho is a title for assistant teacher and can be given to person who is graded from 1st to 4th dan. He is allowed to teach under the supervision of a shidôshi. The right for teacher’s licence shidôshi is achieved when passing 5th dan test. Shihan is a honorary title given by students for a shidôshi who generally has achieved 10th dan. Title of daishihan was added in 2014 for jûgodan who have been training for a long time. Sôke is the “head of family” for the whole style.

Awarding Grades

But back to the practitioner ranks: They might most appropriately be seen as mileposts defined by a teacher to the student for the training path. Maybe most constructice way to look at grade requirements is to think: “At that grade I should be able to perform certain things in a certain way.” It is not necessary to compare the grades between people (even if we naturally do that  – we are only humans, and classification is sometimes useful), even though it is a visible symbol of the practitioner’s skill level.

There are three timings for giving a grade:

1. Before reaching the required skill level

2. When the skill level is reached

3. After reaching the skill level

The purpose of the first one is to encourage (or to pressure) the practitioner to train harder in order to achieve the given grade, middle on is difficult to time and third one is in actuality a prize when different parties already know the pracitioner has earned the new grade.

This can be made more confusing with three different grades a practitioner has:

1. What level the practitioner considers having

2. What level the teacher considers the practitioner has

3. What level other practitioners consider the practitioner has

When one lumps together these two trio, it just might be easier to look at one’s own grade without comparing it to others…

Testing for Grades

Grades may be given at any point or with tests. So again we have some options:

1. Teacher gives the practitioner a new grade

2. Teacher surprises the practitioner with a test

3. Teacheror somebody else encourages the practitioner to go for a test

4. The practitioner wants a higher grade and applies for a test.

So the “spark” for grade testing may come from teacher or the pracitioner. If it is the teacher, he/she has most likely already made a decision – or wants confirmation for it. On both cases the practitioner has an opportunity to show his/her skill and training attitude. According to the performance the teacher – or possible panel – makes the decision.

If the testing comes as a surprise there’s no need to worry, just let out what one knows. One actually cannot fail: Either one shows to be worth a new grade or the teacher had formed a better image of the skill level than what the practitioner was able to present in the stressful situation. On the other hand if one has been forewarned about the testing, one should prepare for it: If not for oneself, then to show respect for the teacher and other practitioners.

Preparing for a grade test of course includes familiarization with the grade requirements in necessary depth and as early as possible. What the requirements contain naturally varies according to style and teacher, but a common point tends to be that knowing the requirements at least in some level seems to be help getting a new grade. And when training one notices what areas of study are lacking, one should contact early enough the teacher and more experienced practitioners, who could teach the necessary skills. At the latest the practitioner now notices that training shouldn’t (even generally) be left just for the regular classes…

Also considering the preparations one mustn’t forget the natural functions: Suitable amount of good nutrition with good timing, hydrating before the test and possibly during, resting before the testing, and focusing on the event.

And what to do everyone is clapping their hairy palms and one has a shiny new grade?

– Then one can start pondering “was I worth this or did I get it before the time?” – or “wow I’m so good!”

– One can concentrate training to correct the errors that possible test brought to surface – yes, there always is – in order to advance

– One can sneak a peek for the requirements for next grade – it’ll come up at some point… and could be a surprise…

– But most importantly, learn and go forth with the practicing…

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Jukka Nummenranta, daishihan, dôjô-chô

  • June 25th, 2023, I remembered to add Daishihan to the article…

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