What is 10th dan in karate? 空手十段とは如何に？
Probably the most famous karate person who is 10th dan is Higaonna Morio (東恩納 盛男) sensei of Goju ryu. I am aware that there are several other Okinawan karate styles that grant this rank, though I will not list their names as this is not the main purpose of this subject.
As for Shotokan, we did not have the rank of 10th dan for a long time. Even though Master Funakoshi Gichin (船越義珍 photo left) inducted the dan system from Judo in 1924, it is interesting to note that he never claimed any rank for himself. Initially, the highest rank was 5th dan or Godan, then in the middle of the 20th century the system expanded to 10th dan, Judan. In fact, the first chief instructor of the JKA, Nakayama Masatoshi (中山正敏 photo right) was the first person who received a 9th dan while he was still alive. He received a tenth dan posthumously in 1987. In 2001 Kanazawa Hirokazu (金澤弘和 photo below left) of SKIF (headquarters in Tokyo) became the first living Shotokan person who claimed 10th dan. A few years later in 2007, after splitting from the JKA, the chairman of ISKF (Philadelphia USA), Okazaki Teruyuki (岡崎照幸 photo below right) began to claim 10th dan. I do not know exactly when but Ken Funakoshi of Funakoshi Shotokan (California USA) also began to claim the highest rank recently. I do not know if there are any other Shotokan sensei who are bold (?) enough to claim the rank. Not too many I hope.
Let’s look at the dan ranking system in general. Surprisingly, the dan ranking system is found not only in the martial arts but also in other sports and games such as Shogi (将棋 Japanese chess) and Go (碁) or Igo (囲碁). It is interesting that the dan ranks are also given in the art of Abacus (soroban算盤) and Shodo (書道 brush writing art).
How are the high dan ranks such as 9th and 10th being granted in the martial arts?
Interestingly, the highest dan ranks are sometimes reserved for the founder or leaders of a style and only high-ranking students can be promoted to them. For an example, in judo, seven living people have a tenth dan currently. On the other hand, in modern Kendo, the dan system was recently changed when they abolished the 9th and 10th dan. Thus, 8th dan is the highest attainable rank in kendo. Unlike Judo, all dan promotion within the IKF (International Kendo Federation) and its member countries is by examination.
How about in karate?
Each organization seems to have different systems. I know the JKA and JKS have granted 10th dan to their chief instructors posthumously and they have not, as far as I know, granted one to a living person. As I have mentioned above, the SKIF and ISKF have decided to grant the highest rank to their chief instructors while they are still alive.
The JKF（全空連 Japan Karatedo Federation）consists of six major karate organizations including the JKA (though they were expelled in 2014 but they were re-admitted in March of this year). This group of organizations is the largest karate entity in Japan. They require an examination up to 8 dan. For 9th and 10th dan it is decided by the board of directors after receiving a recommendation from an organization. As far as I know JKF does not have any 9th and 10th dan karateka yet.
As the number of the karate practitioners has recently increased significantly, we have begun to see the “inflation” of the dan ranking, particularly among the non-Japanese organizations. We find too many “masters” and “grand masters”. There seems to be too many sensei with the high ranks of 8th, 9th and even 10th dan these days. Not surprisingly, a few have achieved even a higher rank such as 11th dan (a great grand master, Gilberto Pauciullo photo left). There seems to be no end to one’s ego but I feel strongly that this trend must be stopped. Shouldn’t we, the Shotokan practitioners, agree that we will not honor this trend and the dishonorable claim of the high ranks higher than 10th dan?
Let’s get back to the Shotokan ranking system. So, what does 10th dan mean to us?
The majority of the organizations are granting the highest rank as an honorary rank for being the head of a karate organization or for having left a major contribution to the development of karate. In this case, I can understand why Kanazawa sensei and Okazaki sensei could receive their tenth dan.
On the other hand, I clearly remember what the late Master Asai Tetsuhiko (浅井哲彦 photo right) told me that made a big impression on me. After Kanazawa sensei received his tenth dan, I had a chance to ask Asai sensei about it. It was probably in 2002 or 2003 and Asai sensei had been 9th dan for many years. As far as I was concerned, he was the best karateka alive then and even now I think of him as the best. So I was curious as to when he would go for the highest rank so I asked him exactly that. This is exactly what he replied, “I train every morning because I am not perfect yet. Every morning I find something new and a way to improve myself. I will become tenth dan only when my karate becomes perfect. I think they have to wait till I die.” Indeed, this was exactly what happened. He received his tenth dan after his passing in 2006 (photo left shows the tenth dan diploma issued by JKS).
I am not criticizing those sensei who claim the tenth dan while alive. I am sure they deserve this special consideration and the honor for what they have accomplished and their contributions. At the same time, I prefer to regard tenth dan as the mark of perfection in karate. At least to me, 10th dan is a rank that no living human can achieve thus it should be granted only posthumously. By doing this, I think this rank of 10th dan will have the true meaning of the highest rank or an unreachable goal.
This is my belief but what do you think?