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Karate Ranks: The Revenue Rainbow

Posted by on in Ranks and Exams
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Why do karate schools issue ranks? It’s complicated. The most obvious answer is that people charging money for karate sell karate belts to students who pass tests. The more belts there are to sell, the more revenue the owner of the school collects from each student as they pass through the ranks. This effect is amplified by the fact that a karate school owner probably sees that the more quickly students are rewarded for their efforts, the more motivated they are to continue training. Therefore, more students training for longer paying money for more belts can mean an exponential increase in revenue from equipment sales.

The pieces of tape increase the potential for collecting fees for increasing ranks even though nothing is given but a piece of tape worth less than a penny. The costs from these sorts of promotions are nearly zero, and the school owner is able to award them in unlimited number to allow students to feel rewarded without actually giving them a new belt.

Isn’t that cynical? There are plenty of karate clubs out there where this is not the case, and even though the system may have expanded due to some sort of motivation of this type, the people using it now are more interested in simply retaining students through frequent rewards than they are in increasing their take at the cash register for the belts themselves. Kyu ranks are awarded relatively frequently to give the student a sense of accomplishment. The reason for wanting to give this sense is usually little more than not wanting students who were trained at great expense of time and effort to walk out the door because they feel unappreciated. Also, it is possible that at some point someone felt that giving only a few kyu ranks infrequently failed to provide enough granularity to serve as useful benchmarks. Whatever the reason, today it is typical to use as many as ten, number them backwards, and give colorful belts every other kyu rank or so. This is not true for the dan ranks.

These dan and kyu ranks have multiple uses for both karate players and the karate industry as a whole. Benchmarking, motivation, validation, symbols of social status, and a moderately dysfunctional credentialing system are all provided by karate ranks.

Karate ranks provide a benchmarking system for both karate instructors and karate students. The people who give out the ranks are able to organize their students quickly into groups when teaching a large class and custom-tailor the content of the class to match. By looking at the student’s belt, the instructor of a large group is quickly reminded of what he was teaching that person, and is freed from having to do what a doctor or dentist has to do: review customer data in files before meeting with them. Since karate schools cater to all levels of students, the instructor is benefited by having everyone wear a color tag for their level of development as he sees it.

I call this belt system the Revenue Rainbow because it tends to appear only in schools where belts are sold instead of given away. When belts are free, there seems to be fewer of them used. Where there is money to be made, the system expands. Add to this system tape in between each belt and two or three pieces of tape on the brown belt and that’s quite a bit of cash!

Students also get something out of this arrangement, as they are able to establish short-term goals that are attainable and strive to meet them. The belts they earn tell them that they are learning more material and increasing in skill. As each student reaches a new kyu rank, they are encouraged to find yet another waiting for them only three months or so in the future, if they try hard enough. This benchmarking function of karate ranks gives students something to look at as they progress through the various ranks. Unlike other sports, karate cannot be played by just anyone who tries to play. For example, in other sports, anyone can play but will have more or less skill. In karate, without enough skill, it is impossible to participate in bare-knuckle point sparring and kata performance competitions without injuring others or having no material to perform. The belts let the students know that they are transforming themselves from an inability to participate in the real sporting aspects to an ability to participate.

As a benchmarking system, ranks also provide motivation for students to continue training. Each time a goal is reached, the student might be tempted to call it quits, but just around the corner is yet another goal that keeps them energized to continue. Since short-term goals are much easier to achieve than long-term goals, karate ranks in the kyu range provide quick incentive to continue working to reach full competency.

The later dan ranks also provide this motivation to continue training, providing experts with rewards for continuing their training. But here, the motivation begins to become questionable in nature, especially as the ranks increase in level. As written in the article here about about karate experts becoming more independent, striving for further ranks might actually be somewhat counterproductive after a point. I believe that point is somewhere around 2nd or 3rd dan, depending on the person.

I feel that it depends upon the karate practitioner’s motivation – what the rank is motivating them to do. If the rank is a goal to motivate a long-time student to come back from time-off and work hard, then I feel it would be very beneficial. If the motivation is to encourage expanding horizons, learning new material, or engaging in more creative work where karate is concerned, then this motivation can also serve the karate expert well, no matter their level.

black belt
A black belt is usually worn with the embroidery facing outward. Goldish orange is the most popular color for putting Japanese characters on a black belt. Some people embroider stripes or English words on them.

If, however, the rank is used to motivate the karate expert to toe the company line, continue to stick to a fixed curriculum and promote a particular dogma, then I think less of it. Especially if the motivation is hoped to encourage the karate expert to engage in promotional activities for a corporation, non-profit or for-profit, raise funds, or otherwise direct and drive recruiting efforts. When these sorts of activities are the kinds motivated by the karate rank, then I find myself losing interest, because such motivation is perhaps intended to subvert my natural drive toward independence.

Some karate enthusiasts find that the karate rank system provides them with not just a system of benchmarks and motivation, but also a form of psychological validation and confirmation of their own competency that they may have lacking in other areas of their lives. Many in the karate community have found themselves parented by fathers who give little praise, working for companies that consider them like a number, or serving in other thankless capacities. Perhaps some of us feel that we are insecure in our self-image and wonder if we are truly considered competent by others. What a relief and a huge boost it can be to such a person to receive validation from their karate instructor that someone expert in something finds us not just acceptable, but worthy of a reward.

But should be be looking for that? What does it say about someone if they are desperate to receive recognition?