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Old Man KarateI once posed this question to a large group of Black Belts. My motivation was to not hold a true debate on the loss of rank for older black belts but instead hold a conversation about why they should not be reduced in rank. I was surprised by some of the hostility I encountered due to several people only looking at the face value of the question. I was also extremely surprised with the depth of thought from a historical perspective as well as premonitions about future behaviors.


My personal opinion is they should not. The rank worn around your waist has as much to do with wisdom and experience as it does with ability. To reduce the rank of someone due to their inability to perform some technique completely discredits the achievements of the mind and spirit and puts sole emphasis on physical ability.


Moving into the role of teaching and the passing down of knowledge to the next generation is a specific responsibility of high Dan holders. In a the martial arts it can be seen as the higher calling and every effort should be made to keep the old knowledge and wisdom actively training and teaching. Reducing the rank of these senior teachers because their bodies no longer perform the way they did when they were younger reflects a lack of wisdom and deeper understanding of the art.


I do have a couple of opinions and they are a bit nontraditional, or older traditions no longer practiced. Personally I think the Dan ranks should be abolished. I would rather see it structured thus:


  • Black Belt – Someone who has learned the basic curriculum to a level of understanding and proficiency
  • Teacher’s Certificate – Person who has been certified to act as an independent teacher and can instruct new students from the white to black belt level.
  • Master’s Certificate – Has the capability to issue teachers certificates. (I don’t personally like the term “master” but use it in the example to illustrate my point)


Will I ever see a change such as this in my lifetime? No. But the thought of streamlining the learning and certification process is something I would like to eventually see accomplished.


Addressing the question of age and failing bodies, the eastern societies where martial arts originated respect and celebrate the elders of their communities. Demoting a martial artist solely because of age-related issues beyond their control would contradict the tenets of the cultures from which most martial arts are founded. With that in mind, to base rank on physical performance in relationship to those with failing bodies is deleterious to martial arts.


There are other martial arts that traditionally came out of a need for self protection, and not warfare combat. In these arts, those of advanced age are valued for their knowledge and teaching. It is often misperceived martial arts knowledge was always contained in books readily available to whoever was seeking out instruction. That is a huge inaccuracy to think so.


For me, the question really speaks to that long held prejudice. After all, some martial arts are born from feudal military combat. In combat it is survival of the fittest; thus indicating age being a determent. If we think about it, that determent is only on the battlefield, but not concerning military leadership and strategy. But, not all martial arts origins stem from military combat.


Another issue to consider with rank reduction for those of failing bodies pertains to those who are able bodied then become physically handicapped. If a 3 Dan, at the peak of their physical condition happen to develop a neurological disorder. Do you reduce their rank because their affliction negatively affected their performance? Why punish them?


Women pose their own special consideration and for women of higher rank, especially teachers, their authority is continually challenged and disrespected by many of their male peers unless they are physically confronted in the ring. Becoming sick, disabled, elderly, or otherwise unable to take fight challenges or compete, is just another opportunity to demote women, maybe not on paper, but in respect given. It may not be spoken of, but this is usually how it goes down.


The question in my mind is really more about how we perceive those of advanced age. In many societies the elderly are not venerated. In very few societies the elderly are venerated and it is reflected in traditional martial arts. Pondering the original question it may elicit someone to think tradition is unimportant and as we age, we become useless and without worth. After all, there is a covert prejudice held that martial arts are truly for those in their youth and at peak vitality.


The question also brings up a serious misperception and prejudice in the modern view of martial arts and age. The most lionized martial arts individual has become those who are at their physical peak and vitality. Though, this is representing a myopic and diminutive perspective relating to the dynamics of martial arts. If we reexamine the question, it can expose this hidden prejudice against age that has strongly developed over the last 20 years in martial arts.


The only reference prior to mass affordable printing was a skilled and knowledgeable person past their physical peak who had skill and knowledge. In some cases, if that person had written information pertaining to skill and or knowledge, it was their personal private property not openly or freely shared. A person seeking martial arts information could not just pick up a book and crack it open. You had to seek out a person having a comprehensive understanding and knowledge; the person who had years of experience under their belt.


Traditional eastern martial artist and the premises of reducing an older persons Dan rank flies in the face of what we are accustomed to thinking, but there are many in the traditional group, who bowing to each other is as traditional as it gets, and there are those martial arts that do not come from the east and are not particularly inclined to follow any tradition including respecting elders. But let’s just stay with the eastern traditionalist for a moment. Consider as an example, how traditional tournaments have changed in the last 30 years? Colorful Gi’s for competitors vs. full solid white uniforms, and stoic disciplined behavior during events no longer the norm. Now whether you agree with the changes or not, they changed from what our traditional elders thought was the way to do it. Is that the respect to our elders to which we are referring? Consider the age black belts and how that’s changed from what it was 30 years ago. Its current situation is certainly not reflecting the thinking of our seniors at that time.


Respect is not just how we feel about people. Respect has to have legs or it is just another set of words. There has to be action or that respect is unrecognizable. And in my humble opinion, the lack of the display of respect on our part will lead to the undoing of martial arts as we know it. Judging by the changes of the past 30 years, I think we are well on the way.


I can’t tell you how much I would love to once again be the proverbial student in the back of the room, listening to my teachers shout encouragement. That said, the fact that I do not move as well as I once did and the fact that we still do the martial arts is indicative of people who work to find other ways of getting the work done. In short, I am comfortable that I do not speak only for myself when I say that I am far more dangerous than I was when I counted on my strength and agility to provide my defense. You cannot unlearn what has been acquired for decades, both good and bad. I do wistfully see my younger self in some of the folks I teach, but in the martial arts sense, I would not trade my experience for their youth and agility.


There are few topics of rank that really hits a nerve harder than this topic and an old colloquial expression restated, sum it up like this; “The only way you will take my rank is from my cold dead hands.”