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Intermediate Shotokan Karate Ranks

by on July 28, 2009

How does one define an “intermediate” ranking in Karate? This is not usually what we would consider to be a “hotly debated topic” here at Karate Daily… but the question was posed to me earlier and I though I would share my thought processes.

Many of us seem to use 2 main categories of ranks: “Black Belts” and “Coloured Belts”. While this is not entirely wrong, it may lead us to the conclusion that there is a stark contrast between your skill level pre- and post- dan grading… which is something I whole-heartedly have to disagree with. There’s no secret “karate pill” they give you when you pass the shodan grading, no secret ceremony where an age-old entity imparts upon you the vast knowledge of all things martial. You are the same after as you were before, all of the same strengths and weaknesses with perhaps a little more confidence.

When we apply the 3 level system ( Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced ) I think that most of us use Black belt to signify “Advanced”, and then the threshold between “Beginner” and “Intermediate” falls somewhere vague within the coloured belt rankings, probably usually around green belt or so. This is probably the most common version, but it somewhat assumes that all Black Belts are roughly around the same skill level, and does not allow for the obvious increases in ability between the various dan ranks. Would we consider, then, that Roku-dan would be “more advanced” than shodan? I don’t think that this definition is really accurate given the vast increases in skill experienced between 1st and 6th degree.  However, perhaps this habit of referring to all black belts as the “Advanced” group comes partly from the fact that the vast majority of karateka never make it past nidan or sandan, and also the fact that when you consider the katas, the curriculum is more liberal for black belts than for coloured belts.

The old saying is that training only really begins at shodan, and I think most of us will agree that this is true. Consider that the skill level differences between Yellow and Orange belts, or between Green and Purple belts, are incremental. The Heian series of kata focus on adding elements bit-by-bit, laying all of the basic groundwork for beginners. Compare this to the training required to move from one dan ranking to the next highest. The expected skill increases are by no means “incremental” in nature, a fact exhibited by the simple fact of the length of time spent at each dan grade. So then, how many categories are there, and how does one define them? What IS an “Intermediate” Rank? None of this has really answered the question. The truth is that there really is no clear answer to this question as it is purely subjective. Karate training is a continuous improvement of the practitioners abilities, both mental and physical.

The most accurate method that I can think of would be to say that you are a “Beginner” throughout the period of time when you are learning the Heian kata and laying the foundation of basics. “Intermediate” then would begin when you are a 3rd kyu (brown belt) and you begin practicing Bassai Dai, the kata that pulls together the basics taught by the Heian series. Where Intermediate ends and Advanced begins is more difficult, however I would accept the conclusion that shodan is the beginning of the “Advanced” range, as it is at this point that “real karate training” begins, and the door is opened to a much wider variety of katas for training, and also the possibility of becoming an instructor.

But this is by no means the end. At shodan the karateka is still a student, and while they may be considered “Advanced” in some ways, they are still by many standards beginners. There is an old Taoist saying that basically sums up my feelings on this; only when we can admit that we know nothing, will we be able to know everything.

Opinions? Comments? Post them. We write these blog posts in the interest of fostering discussion in the comments section, they are not meant to be “the last word” in any way. We by no means consider our opinions to be 100% accurate and welcome external comments. If you disagree we would love to hear your point of view.

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  1. It depends on the individual, and the culture. In Japan, they would regard their shodans as beginners, and our shodans as an amoeba.

    But sticking to this sector of the globe, shodans are just the upper end of the beginner category. “Shodan” literally translates as “first level”. Now sure that means first dan level, but either way, it is the beginning of real training, beyond the militaristic-style drills conducted in large droves of students.

    This also reminds me of something Master Woon-A-Tai is writing a book on at the moment which I think focuses on this exact thing: Shuhari (or shu ha ri). Looking at “ha”, shodan and nidan are really the first times when karateka start analyzing karate for themselves and not just regurgitating what they’ve learned. With very few exceptions, I don’t think anyone below a brown belt level has really acquired enough of the basic skills to begin knowing what questions to ask.

    Going back to “shu”, this is the only obvious one that you can see in people: dogmatic obedience. This is what we all experience in grade school up until about grade 6 (again with some exceptions of course).

    “Ri”, well thats much more difficult to pin down, isn’t it? But I think this gives us a good idea of when people start “thinking for themselves”.

  2. Me :) permalink

    I don’t know if I necessarily agree with the comment that North American karateka would be considered amoeba by Japanese standards. Shihan Okazaki is a direct descendant of the masters of Japan and he himself trained and learned by those high standards and has been passing those standards along to us. The wonderful aspect of our organization is that it is relatively standardized so that any member can visit another ISKF/JKA Shotokan dojo and not be out of place. I highly doubt Okazaki was sent out into the world to spread karate, but lower the standards of the art. I would almost consider it an insult to the masters present in North America to suggest it. This is just my opinion though.

    On the topic of beginner, intermediate and advanced students I would definitely consider a shodan to be somewhere between beginner and advanced beginner from my own perspective. Just to draw on an analogy I’m going to pick on writers/authors. I would consider a kyu rank karate student on the same parallel as a new writer who is just learning the alphabet and how to create words. They are not beginner writers yet because they are just learning the very basic building blocks of their art. Same with karate….the kyu student is still learning the very basic building blocks of karate. Going back to writing now you have a student who has mastered the alphabet and how to create words….congratulations, you have mastered the basics and are a shodan level writer….now you can starts to become a writer/author and create stories, novels and poems. Same with a new karateka shodan….congratulations, you have mastered the basics and can now begin to try and understand the art of karate by ‘learning’ more about kata, kumite and kihon….not to mention the mountain of other stuff that goes along with it.

    I would consider the intermediate karateka to be the student who has started to grain a deeper understanding of karate….probably somewhere between nidan and yondan depending on the individual. They have an excellent grasp of the basics but have also started to explore further than that. Instead of blindly running through a kata they develop a ‘feel’ of attack and defense throughout the kata. There is of course so much more to it than this as all the other ingredients have to be present as well, proper body connection, speed, power, balance etc etc. The intermediate karateka may also have started instructing kyu students under the guidance of the club’s sensei, or started the process of gaining their judges license or other certifications.

    The advanced karateka of course would be the one who has made it through all of the above and understands that they still have a lot to learn and that karate, like life, is a journey not a destination.

    Again, this is just my opinion, it’s not right or wrong, it just is 🙂

  3. Its not an insult to Okazaki sensei, but there are a whole bunch of reasons for why the standard in NA is lower than in Japan. Perhaps foremost is that Americans don’t like being dictated to and require a reward for something before they really strive for it. When karate was brought to America, it was very quickly adapted to the culture here once it became evident that north americans don’t react positively to “do it this way because I said so”, “ok, kick 400 more times and then class is over”. Its just a different culture and a different set of expectations. I’ve had discussions with people who have said they received their sandan under the JKA in America, and then went to Japan to study (for on extended vacation) and found themselves close to the shodan level there.

    Its just like how Japanese can’t drink as much beer as Irishmen. Its just a different culture and set of standards.

  4. Craig Finney permalink

    I can agree and disagree where the spliting of the ranks should occur. Or more exactly, it should not occur.

    I prefer to view karate, for lack of a better example, like an onion. Many layers and the more layers you peel off the more layers you find you need to peel.

    One can break down the whole karate experience (10 kyus levels and 10 dan levels) into ‘beginners’ to be the kyu levels (learning the basics and learning to perform them). “intermediate” from first dan to just before master level (learning about the body, some advance techniques and how to start to analysis the techniques. “Advance” for master instructors (not only being able to perform the techniques, but a deep understanding how the whole starts to fit together. Understanding of the different body styles. And the knowledge and wisdom they impart).

    Now lets look at the “beginners”, white, yellow, orange, green, purple and brown. This one level can be broken into beginners, intermediate and advance levels with the lines being between orange and green, and purple and brown. white to orange as beginners, green and two levels purple (or blue) as intermediate. Brown as advance. When you are learning the beginner levels you are getting use to your body and the basic blocks and kicks. As intermediate, you are getting use to the concepts of expansion/contraction, dynamic speed and control over your movements. Advance you are putting this all together.

    Break the white, yellow and orange into beginner, intermediate and advancce. As white you learn a basic stance, a basic punch, and a basic kick. As yellow (intermediate), you learn stronger stances and some combinations. As orange you learn combination techniques.

    Even just one of the belt ranks, you can break into a beginner, intermediate and advance. As a beginner you learn a new technique or concept. for example, as white belt you learn basic block and kicks. When you can start to perform the kata on your own and understand what you need to do (even if your body still feels like it is a fish out of water). When you grade you are advance.

    Break down a class into beginner, intermediate and advance. Beginner = warm up. Intermediate “performing karate”. Advance “spiritual understanding/happiness and warm down”.

    Regardless of our ranks, we will always experience “beginner”, “intermediate| and “advance”.

  5. How very true. I can’t help thinking of the “Advanced Math” course taken in high-school. Its advanced at the time, but seems fairly meager to what I do these days. And what I do is likely very meager compared to the full extent of what some others can do with “much more advanced math” 🙂

  6. I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years. The answer is that it depends on the system. But since we are talking about Shotokan and not some other martial arts, let’s talk Shotokan then.

    On the whole I see very little physical differences between a 2nd or 1st kyu brown belt and a shodan. They all have that special glide to their walk and their techniques are crisp and blindingly fast. If we are talking about serious practitioners training as hard as they can then I tent to consider 2nd kyu through the first year of shodan experience advanced-students.

    Obviously a shodan in his sixth month is going to be significantly better than a 2nd kyu in his third month but if that newish brown belt is a serious student who’s been putting some significant training hours into his workouts then they are all roughly equivalent as far as the ability to execute fundamental techniques and perhaps not that terribly far apart in regards to their understanding of those techniques. They are all advanced-students.

    • an interesting way to look at it, and I don’t disagree with you.
      Just want to pose this thought:

      What level would you consider a 4th or 5th degree, or even an 8th degree for that matter, to be on your scale?

      and also:

      Are you basing your scale on a purely physical interpretation?

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