Since 1976

What's the Purpose of Rank Exams?

HERE IS A QUESTION I RECEIVED RECENTLY ABOUT RANK EXAMS.

Mr. Yates, at our instructor's roundtable we were discussing the subject of rank tests/promotion exams.  The many ways we had all seen these handled were something we talked about at length—including a Kendo promotion exam that was conducted in competitive rounds, where students were eliminated from consideration at the end of each round without explanation being offered.


The question then arose:  what are the purposes of a promotion exam?  What ends should we seek to achieve thereby?  We have all of us come up through systems of instruction that use the promotion exam as a regular feature, so that we all tend to take them for granted.  It can also be a very sensitive issue, touching strong emotions. I would like to get your perspective on this question, if you would be so kind.

HERE'S MY ANSWER.

Many old Asian schools did not hold formal exams like we are used to in America. I remember working out with Tamura Sensei in the 1960s in Judo and he just gave you a new belt when he felt like you deserved it.

Allen Steen used to make examination pretty tough (especially the higher ones) and people often flunked. Of course there were only four colors below black belt in those days (white, green, blue, brown).

As we added more colors for American students, ranks became a way to encourage the students as they progressed (and maybe a way to create more income for the business as well). Years ago I instituted a “pre-test” where a student had to convince me he or she was ready to be advanced to the next rank. That reduced the amount of tears at the actual exam—however I will still issue a ‘no promotion’ if they just cannot remember anything they have practiced. Note that now I don’t say ‘flunk’ anymore.

I’m kinda old school in that regard, I will make students test again if I think they have not performed up to standards. In many schools however, the promotional event is just a ceremony where the students are to perform for parents and friends and be awarded their new belts based on their previous demonstration to the teachers. I suppose that makes promotion night a joyous occasion for everyone.

I’ll still run into instructors who say that the color of a belt shouldn’t matter and while that is true in the overall picture, I think rewarding students, especially young ones, is a valuable motivation for their hard work. And in the end, a belt rank is just that, a reward and a motivator.

That’s why not all green belts (or whatever) are the same. Some are highly skilled at the requirements for that belt because they are superior athletes. Others may not look technically as good but they had to work twice as hard to remember their moves and to improve their physical skills. So in some ways the more awkward green belt deserves his rank more than the natural athlete because he had to overcome more. 

Teamwork

"Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work." —Vince Lombardi

Martial arts is an individual activity for sure—but much can be learned from working together as a team. So for the 2017 awards ceremony I have decided to not do a big and fancy banquet like we have in years past but to concentrate on getting some demonstration teams together from several AKATO schools and have a fun time letting the kids (and maybe a few adults) show off their skills and training.

One of the most memorable experiences I've ever had in the AKATO is when we took a demonstration team to Washington DC in 1995 to perform on the national mall for the dedication of the Korean War memorial. We maintained that "Dragon Demonstration Team" for several more years doing exhibitions at boy scout meetings, churches, fairs and even movie theaters.

I hope that as our member schools put together teams for the demos in March that you will have as much fun and accomplish as much as we did back in 1995. Here is the team meeting with Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson.
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The History of KATA

I taught a kata class for AKATO black belts in August. This is from the handout we passed out to attendees.

The recording of information through physical movement is rooted in ancient history. Even today, certain cultures use “dance” to tell stories and pass on their history to the next generation. And no doubt hunters and fighters would pass on their most successful techniques to those who were less experienced. This is probably how the first fighting “kata” were created.

The Japanese word kata means “shape” or “form.” The kanji for kata the Japanese character is composed characters that literally mean “to cut a shape into the earth (soil).” Imagine cutting a shape into the soil, ie a “pattern” and then pouring plaster into that shape and you get a finished sculpture when you pull it out. In Western parlance we might call it a “form” or “pattern” that someone uses to design a piece of clothing or to mold a sculpture.

Anko Itosu (1831–1915) has been called by some the “father” of modern karate. He was one of the earliest Okinawan karate masters and he is noted for modifying the kata he learned from his teacher, Sokon Matsumura, who had brought back patterns of fighting moves that he was taught during his Chaun Fa studies in China.

Right after the turn of the 20th century he lobbied for karate to be introduced into the public schools in Okinawa. He therefore simplified some of the kata, changing open hand techniques to closed fists, arm breaks into blocks, and placing more emphasis on the physical performance. Some criticised Itosu for “watering down” karate but he probably never imagined his “children’s karate” would become the standard for modern karate practice.

In fact, he is quoted as saying, “The individual must decide whether your kata is for health or for its practical use.”

Gichin Funakoshi (also often called the “father” of modern karate because he introduced and popularized the art in Japan) was a student of Itosu’s. When he was granted permission to teach in Japan the martial arts hierarchy insisted on standarization (which led to the use of the “gi” and the “kyu-dan” ranking system—both borrowed from Judo). It also led to a further simplification of kata as Funakoshi, like Itosu, was focused on taking karate to a younger generation.

Ultimately the introduction of competition further served to place more emphasis on the “look” of kata performance. That has become more obvious as karate came to the West.

So today a karate (or tae kwon do) kata is a sequence of blocks, kicks and punches from one or more stances, involving specific movements and stances. The balance between offensive and defensive techniques and the direction and flow of movement give each kata its distinctive character.

In a traditional sense, all fighting techniques rely on similar movement, that is a particular physical movement can be applied with varying results depending on the application. This is the idea of “bunkai” or the breaking down of a movement to its real-world effect. Kata also embodies the idea of “ren-ma,” or “always polishing” —with diligent practice, the moves of the kata become further refined and perfected. The attention to detail that is necessary to perfect a kata cultivates self discipline.

40 Years and Counting

As we look forward to 2016 I am excited about the 40th anniversary of the AKATO (which started as the Southwest Tae Kwon Do Association in 1976). Over these four decades I have had the opportunity to meet and train with many fantastic martial artists. But perhaps even more gratifying is the honor to be able to have an impact on the myriad lives of students. I know I speak for all the AKATO instructors when I say that is the thing I am most proud of. For the March 19 celebration we've invited master teachers from several states to share with us. Larry Miller from Nashville, Jon Alster from Los Angeles, Tom Booker from Knoxville, and Colin Wee all the way from Australia are scheduled to teach seminars at the Richardson YMCA during the day. Our evening banquet will feature demonstrations, a retrospective video presentation and it looks like we are going to have many faces from the past 40 years come join us. And, of course, we will be giving out the AKATO student awards. Mark it on your calendar so you don't miss this exciting weekend.

Busting the Myths about Rank

I co-authored an article in the last “Official Karate Magazine” Annual edition about the myths surrounding karate ranks, belts and titles. There have been so many requests for the contents of that article that I have attached it here as a PDF that you can download. Suffice it to say that most karate instructors don’t know the first thing about the actual history of the titles they claim. I hope this clears up some of the confusion.
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