Promotions Run Amok

It’s no secret that high dan promotions have been spiraling out of control for decades in the United States. Formerly, the USJA was pretty much the sole culprit when it came to issuing unmerited high dan promotions. Recently, however, I have noticed some questionable promotions made by the USJF and USA Judo that make me think that the floodgates are now wide open on all fronts.

We have so many 9th dans that you would think we are the Mecca of international Judo, the Kodokan of the West. We have more 9th dans than France has in spite of having less than one tenth of their Judo population, and so many fewer world and Olympic medalists. Why are we so special?

One good piece of news for those of us who are eager to return credibility to USJA ranks is that the new USJA Board of Directors seems to be willing to start closing those floodgates. The question remains whether the new promotion board will be capable to choosing the harder right over the easier wrong. I’m not on this committee, but if I were, these are the suggestions that I would recommend.

Revisit the notion of terminal rank. Terminal rank is the highest rank one would be eligible for. It would be based on your performance as a competitor or coach. At the USJA’s inception, terminal rank for most mere mortals was 5th dan. Now it seems it might be 9th dan if you live long enough. That’s unacceptable. We must go back to reserving the high dan ranks- 6th dan and above- for the few and truly deserving.

We must be honest about testing for ranks. Although there are technical requirements for 6th dan, many players are by then physically incapable of passing a technical test. Thus, all formal testing should end at 5th dan, which should be the terminal rank of the average judoplayer.

Promotion to 6th dan should require a whole different set of requirements that must be fulfilled at the national or international level.  This alone would stop most of the high dan promotions. Although his name doesn’t appear as the author, Phil Porter, former USJA President, most assuredly had a huge hand in A Study of the Criteria For Promotion to 9th and 10th Degree in JudoIn this study, Porter rightly suggests seven main areas to be considered for high dan rank: competitive record, coaching record, organizational leadership, refereeing, teaching Judo, creative contributions to Judo, and devotion to Judo. Although the document was self-serving- it was created to justify his promotion to 10th dan- the ideas within are certainly valid for all high dan ranks.

A Study of the Criteria For Promotion to 9th and 10th Degree in Judo is an excellent document that makes a serious attempt at defining the accomplishments for high dan ranks, and the level at which these accomplishments are to be performed. The USJA Promotion Board will be wise to take a good look at this document and adopt many of the ideas within.

It’s no secret that I am not a proponent of traditional, formal kata. I find it a total waste of good training time that should instead be devoted to drill training (informal kata if you will) and learning international Judo skills.  Kim Sol from the University of Montana pretty much sums up my feeling about kata:

Kata was a cultural holdover, an artifact of history.

To make Judo acceptable as a martial art in Japan, it had to include Kata, even as Judo was breaking tradition by its emphasis on Randori. But, one step at a time. At one point in the evolution of Judo, Kata was important to Judo for historic, cultural, political and public relations purposes. That era is long past.

Kata may have served an important transitional purpose in Japan and in a Japanese cultural context, but the transition is over and that purpose has disappeared.

Therefore, I would recommend that kata no longer be a requirement for promotion- any promotion.  Kata performance is already often overlooked when it comes to promotions. Again, a little honesty is required here. Either require kata and hold all candidates to it, or accept the fact that its purpose is passé, and drop the kata requirement altogether. I favor the latter. Needless to say, I favor eliminating the promotion requirement of kata, but not the activity itself.

I would also recommend that we remove the financial incentive to fast-track people through the promotion system. Take away the $200-300 promotion fees the USJA charges, and the organization might not be so happy-go-lucky with promotions.

Lastly, I believe the promotion board needs to take a more active and preemptive role in monitoring, reviewing, assessing, communicating with, and mentoring all candidates for high dan promotions. This would eliminate, or at least minimize, the need for candidates to submit their own request for promotion, which most candidates do because they invariably no longer have a sensei to recommend them for promotion.

If we are unwilling to stop the floodgates, and are all eligible to make 9th dan, then rank becomes meaningless. Like kata, perhaps dan ranks have served their time and should be abandoned. Or, we could make rank requirements more stringent, accept the fact we are not all destined for high dan rank, and once again make it a meaningful accomplishment if we legitimately have what it takes to be one of the few high dan holders.

12 thoughts on “Promotions Run Amok

  1. I read you from Spain, but I totally agree with your post. Same is happening here, all ranks are losing their meaning. What does been a 3rd dan mean? What is the diference from been a 4th, 6th or 8th dan? Just dedicated time.

    I am 3rd dan right now, and I have achived the requirements to go for the 4th dan testing but I don´t feel like I deserve it (yet). If I go on I will be 5th dan before 40 years. And the same happens to my near fellow. Are we all supposed to be 7th, 8th or 9th dan??
    Way too much for me indeed.

    Ibai Peña

    PS: Sorry for my english.

  2. Thank you for reading my blog in Spain. I am sad to hear that the same rank inflation is happening in your country. I’ve been told that little by little, the same is happening in France. It seems like this may perhaps be a global problem now. But why?

    By the way, your written English is better than that of many native English speakers!

  3. Keep taking techniques out of judo at the rate were going we’ll be left with just kumi’s first one to grip is ippon … wow how exciting. your sensei’s will be giving out 6 th 7 th and 8th dans like candy.

    Here’s a synopsis for ya, politics has been sabotaging our sport for hundreds of years now, japanese goverment law prohibited the existing of the samurai and it’s citizens to continue the jiu-jitsu art or you were considered a threat and an outlaw against the japanese goverment and punishment for doing so was death. A century or so later dr. jigoro kano called the same art “judo” and i hate to say it, but sabotaged it by taking away alot of the so called “lethal techniques” and making it a safe and gentle kind sport, after all he did’nt want to be sentenced to death, understandible. decades later mooore sabotage!! ijf,usaj,usja,etc. etc. all the judo associations are run by insurance companies and a budget, they are policy holders so they are going to take out daki age, dojime, etc. after all those techniques will run your premium to outrageous overhead cost’s, so of course sabotage is inevitable. hell judo dojo’s probably carry the same insurance carrier as the jiu-jitsu dojo’s and they probably have a lesser rate in claims… probably cause our art is extensive in technique and bjj is about 1/3 of ours. The brazilians did’nt have political issues so they just took the nage waza and called it brazilian jiu-jitsu cause they could’nt do it in japan and, look how succsesful it has been,

    Our sport is jiu-jitsu and for whatever the reason is survived by bjj and judo lets take our sport back as a whole and see if you can be a true high ranking dan.

  4. Sir,

    While I agree with you about the Kata Requirement and the abolishment of certain testing, I take issue with Terminal Rank. Who determines my Terminal Rank? If we look at the promotion boards for each of the Big 3, who are they to determine what my knowledge level is?

    Unlike most Americans, I have lived around the world and practiced Judo in foreign lands. Not there for a 1-2 week camp, but lived around the world and gain a wealth of knowledge that can not be measured.

    What about the children of Judo. I started as a child and have made the transition from Junior to Senior to Master. Unlike Judoka who started as adults, I normally forgot more Judo than others know. How is that measured?

    While Mr. Porter was writing a piece to justify himself, I believe that we don’t put enough stock in the volunteer portion. Without timers/scorers you have no tournament. Without Referee/Judges you have no tournament. Without set up people, well you get the point.

    Money matters but it shouldn’t be at the cost of creditbility, with this we agree. The way the system is set up neither you nor I will ever be a 9th….

  5. Who is going to determine terminal rank you ask? The same type of people who determine if you make general or admiral, or whether you thesis if worth a PhD. It is true that most promotion boards have consisted of politically connected people instead of our best and brightest performers. Still, even ethical, average players who care about the sport rather their own paths to high dan ranks are more than capable of devising a fair system that rewards the truly deserving. Unfortunately, those people, and I include myself in the mix, have never been asked to serve of such boards. And for good reason. Few want to see 9th dan removed from their grasp.

    I have nor problem with getting credit for volunteering. However, rank must be commensurate with the level of your volunteer work. Scorekeeping at the local tournaments for 40 years shouldn’t lead to high dan rank. It however might make the difference between peaking out as a 5th dan rather than 4th dan.

  6. Sir,

    When I lived in Japan I went to the Kodokan serveral times to work out. While I never cared about Kodokan Rank certificates, the opportunity to get a High Dan promotion was there because they knew the neighborhood Dojo that I spent the majority of my time at. In my narrow view at the time, I didn’t see the need to have the Kodokan validate a piece of paper, I was validated on the mat during randori.

    While I agree that politics plays a role in everything surrounding Judo, I ask the same question you asked. France has ten times the players we do, they’ve produced Olympic Gold Medals yet have less Kudan(s) than we have in just one of our American organization (let alone the big 3).

    How many non Japanese have been promoted by the Kodokan to Kudan/Judan?

    Factually, I know that Mr. Gerald Lafon’s knowledge, performance and application of the sport of Judo is well above the Rokudan rank. In fact you’ve forgotten more Judo than most people know. The mentoring piece is probably more important than you could ever know.

    I had no Sensei or Dojo in America for the better part of my career in the Military. I lived, worked out and competed all over the world, but I didn’t have a home dojo anymore.

    Who recommended me in for promotions? I did. Who promoted me? Whichever country I was in at the time I wanted a promotion (I just joined their organization).

    I can go to a few clubs with Hachidans that know less than I do. Is the answer to make me a Hachidan? No. It is to provide me a path to determine my own destiny.

  7. I have read your blog over the last few months and find your positions based on common sense, honesty and integerty. Any number of subjects I have considered voicing my thoughts, but I do realize that I am a person of little consequence, so I keep my opinions to myself. For example, your comments on an All Women Championship were pretty much on as to the problems. I ran the 1st four in Kalamazoo, not Deb Fergus. The BOD meeting in January in Las Vegas was at the least quite interesting. As it was my first I was somewhat shocked as to how it appeared and was handled. But we are at promotions. I feel once again you have a very good handle as to the problem and possible solutions. Personally, I have been involved with judo for 34 years, had 12 years time in grade at 4th and was promoted to 5th dan 4 years ago. I filled out the paper work, paid my fees and USJA never blinked and promoted me. While I would really like to make 6th dan, I have an extremely hard time justifying what I have done and what I might do as being worthy of one last promotion. If one is in judo for the right reasons terminal rank is something that might seriously be self imposed. Human nature seems too many times to allow us to do what is most self serving. For what it is worth, as I will continue to read your blog it becomes much easier to do what is right. Judo is certainly worth fighting so keep us informed and keep letting people know they can make a difference.

  8. Thanks for the positive comments.

    I think every voice, no matter how insignificant you may think yours is, is needed to effect change. Think about the following quote. “If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.” Every little voice will make a difference if we all have the courage to exercise our right to dissent. Let’s not remain the silent majority.

    Your comment regarding self-imposed terminal rank is remarkable. I don’t hear that being uttered very often. Instead, it’s why should someone tell me I can’t be a 9th dan.

  9. 5th dan seem pretty high terminal rank. Considering level of Judo in America 5th dan should already reserved person that have won medals in USA championships. In most European countries 1 dan is terminal rank for people with modest competition success. and 3rd dan tends to be a rare achievement.

    Obviously 6th and above should reserved to people with outstanding success in international level. Otherwise they dont mean a thing.

  10. I totally agree with you. When I came from Cuba and I got involved in Judo, I was surprised to see so many white and red belts. Back in Cuba I only saw one: Andre Kolychkine, Father of Cuban Judo and most of the time he was wearing a black belt.
    All of my Senseis when I was growing up and training in Cuba were 2nd and 3rd Dan, 4th Dan and up was for Olympic or World Champions.Being a Hachidan, Kudan or Judan was an impossible dream.
    After a few months seeing the level of Judo in America, I realized than a high percentage of this high rank judokas did not deserve their ranks.Now that I compete against their clubs and see their results and students, I can tell that the belt does not make you a better teacher or judoka ( I always knew that) but in America is just a business and a show of red and white colors.You can tell the kind of Sensei by his students.
    Still you find a few Senseis that deserve their ranks and my respect, but the rest are a joke to me , I am not saying names but many come to mind now.
    They walk around telling everybody about their rank and showing off but at the end it is just a lie!I feel sorry for them, their students and people that believe them!
    I never cared about promotions just results and teaching the best I can, you are remember by how you change lives, your influence in your students and the kind of judokas and persons they become.
    By the way, you are in my list of respected Senseis.
    Sorry for my English, I am just a simple judoka from CUBA.
    Once again your blog is great!!

  11. Sadly we have been caught in a tsunami of politics, and self promotion. Dan promotion is the coin of the realm. This has led to a number of problems, that cuts to the core of the USJA’s credibility. On one hand every day coaches, are ignored by our governing body. On the other hand, the self promoting, politicians gather belts like flax. Nobody likes, or workes with anybody else. Our dues are wasted. Often friviously. In international compatition, we are a laffing stock. Our technic has degenerated to greco roman wresteling in a gi. It is not uncommon to be faced with the unseemly spectical of non completive students ranked higher than there coaches. You probably wonder if the USJA can be saved. I wonder if it is worth the effort to even try. But truthfully I need the insurance for the club. So at the appointed time I will again shake my head, and cut the overlords another check. At one time I was critical of Porter. Now I admire him and Gies for at least trying to effect change. My father once told me that as I aged I would mellow. My retort was that mellowing, is synonemos with rotting. Maybe we were both corect!

  12. Get rid of black and colored belts altogether and have everyone wear a white belt. Those who stay will stay for the love of sport, those who leave never cared about the sport but only about themselves and their promotions.

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