Shotokan Karate of America uses the traditional ranking system originally established by Master Funakoshi. He named this art “karate” which means “empty hand”. Students begin with a white belt and may advance through the various levels of white, brown and black belt. SKA does not award belts of other colors.
The attainment of a rank is not the true reason to begin the study of karate or any martial art. The process of achieving different ranks is, nonetheless, an established method of helping the student progress. Each rank has it’s own properties and unique qualities. Beginning students will learn shortly that mental and technical improvement go hand in hand. In time, all those who train in karate will come to appreciate the merits of the ranking system.
Gradings for ranks below black belt are conducted twice a year, as near to November 10th as possible to commemorate the anniversary of Master Funakoshi’s birth, and April 26th to commemorate the anniversary of his death. Gradings for black belt are held once a year. Each grading covers all elements of Karate — kihon, kata, and kumite.
Because all students have different potentials, it is important not to compare your progress with that of another. Gradings and ranks should only be used as a means by which to measure your own improvement. During grading, consideration in awarding rank, other than for one’s technical level, is given to age, time practicing, previous experience, physical condition, physical potential, personal situations, attitude toward practice, attitude toward others, concern for responsibilities, and number of special trainings.
It is the student’s responsibility to do his or her best during the grading and to accept the rank awarded with dignity and humility. The most important point is the student’s mental attitude.
All students must be current in their SKA and Dojo dues before being graded. Black belts must also be current in their Black Belt Council dues.
Generally speaking, the requirements for kyu test and shodan (first degree black belt) test are:
- Blocks (down block, rising block, inside forearm block, hammer fist block, knife hand block)
- Punches (front punch, reverse punch)
- Kicks (front kick, round kick, side up kick, side thrust kick, stomping kick)
- 1 required kata from the 5 Heian kata.
- Brown belts must perform Bassai, plus a favorite kata.
- Ippon gumite (1 time engagement match)
- Sambon gumite (3 time engagement match)
- Special training
- Candidates for shodan must also have completed at least 1 special training minimum. However it is highly recommended to participate in several as a white and brown belt since it will accelerate your progress. The minimum age is 16 years with parental permission.
- Information about special training may be found at the SKA website.
Ohshima Sensei discussed the important points about grading in his book Notes on Training:
Grading and Kyu Test
We make kyu tests in April and November each year. April 26th was the day Master Funakoshi passed away and November 10th was the day he was born. We make kyu tests during these months to remember those events. This is how I originally scheduled kyu tests, twice a year, in Southern California.
There are two points to always remember in a grading. First, we start with rei and end with rei. Second, the exam is not our goal; it is only one kind of practice for us. No matter where, no matter what, we have to express our best. This is the reason we continue to practice, especially people who get excited or who choke up in difficult situations like grading. They get in front of their seniors and cannot express their best. We practice so we can calm down. We want to be very alert mentally. Physically we try to be relaxed, with no conscious power in the shoulders and with our feeling going down to the lower abdomen.
When you present yourself to your seniors for grading, I am sure you feel excited or scared, but this is one of the most important practices in Karate. We have to get the habit of expressing ourselves strongly and making our best practice. If you don’t have this habit, you need this practice to become strong and pass through these mental blocks.
The Kyu Test
In the kyu test we emphasize three points for kihon: eyes, pulling hand (hikite) and stance.
First, examiners are watching to see if you close your eyes or look down or turn your head. This shows an incorrect feeling and should not do it. In kyu test, as always in the martial arts, we emphasize our own mental state. Mental state comes to the eyes. The eyes are the window to the mind and always reflect directly how we feel inside. Therefore, keep your eyes open and level, facing your opponent and looking straight into your opponent’s eyes. Never look down, never blink, never turn your head and show your immature, weak feeling, especially in front of opponents.
When the opponent is in front of you, you cannot close your eyes or look down. But many people, when the opponent starts to come, close their eyes. When I first started to practice karate, if somebody closed their eyes or looked down, they got a punch right away from their senior. Today, I don’t encourage any senior to do this, but all instructors must correct these bad habits in their juniors. When someone is looking down or closing their eyes, it shows they have a problem. Their mind is not strong enough. So I emphasize, always look straight forward and never look down.
Second, examiners are looking at how you coordinate right and left and left and right. A strong pulling hand connects underarms with other parts of the body to help make us one. We have to be one to make effective blocks, punches and kicks.
In the beginning it is very difficult to be conscious of the other side of your body when executing blocking or punching techniques. So make your pulling hand clear on each side (exactly on the point above the hip bone on the side of the body), make a fist, keep your shoulders down, slightly tighten your underarm and connect with the punch or block. This way you can execute techniques with good habits, using both sides of the body at the same time.
Third, they watch your standing form, mainly your back foot. Toes should not point outside and the heel never goes up when you execute basics. Also, don’t think that front stance is standing with most of the weight on the front leg. Even in front stance we stand with the back leg; the front leg is light. The back leg must never be weak, there is strong contact with the ground, and yet, movement is free. You have to make a solid stance.
I ask the instructors to always make the basics in the order shown below so that we have a standard order and there is no confusion when members go to other dojos.
In every kata, along with the points for basics, you should show in the ready form before yoi, that your mind and body are ready to face the opponent. Each technique in the kata should be realistic and effective against your imaginary opponents.
In sparring you show your strong mentality by always watching your opponent’s eyes. Make exact oizuki attacks each time and, when you defend, make clear, effective counterattacks. That’s the correct feeling during kumite.
For examiners who have not given many kyu tests, you should be aware that, generally, beginners overestimate their own level. So you must explain, especially to beginners first experiencing a kyu test: be happy with 8th kyu. There is nothing wrong with 8th kyu and, if somebody who is very good is promoted to 7th kyu, then he is very happy. But if a beginner thinks he’s a brown belt and he gets only 7th kyu, he’s very sad and disappointed and soon disappears. We have to remember when we were beginners. We thought we were pretty good, but we didn’t know how bad we actually were.
When I gave kyu tests at Caltech, I always told them that before my first grading I made four Special Trainings – two seven-day and two ten-day Special Trainings – and I received 6th kyu. If anybody practices harder than that and gets lower than 6th kyu, then they can come to complain to me. Actually, sometimes I felt upset with the results when I was coming up. The main practice for you when you take a test is not to feel bad even if you don’t receive a higher kyu. We must be humble and trust our seniors when we take an examination.