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 Judo. In 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.