In Shotokan karate we have only white, brown and black belts. White and brown belts represent different kyus or ranks. Different levels of black belts are called dans or levels. If you are a member of Canada Shotokan Karate, the instructor may invite you twice a year to attend a kyu test, at no extra charge. In Shotokan karate people start as “unranked” (sometimes called 9th kyu). They then progress from 8th to 4th kyu, usually at one kyu per test but occasionally at two or more kyus per test. From 8th to 4th kyu the student wears a white belt. Students who are ranked 3rd, 2nd or 1st kyu wear a brown belt. After 1st kyu you may be invited to grade for a first level black belt, or shodan. This occurs once a year at the end of Summer Special Training (see below). In Shotokan karate we have five levels of black belt (from 1st to 5th): shodan, nidan, sandan, yodan and godan. While everyone is different, generally new students can expect to progress to shodan in about 4 years, assuming they practice regularly and attend Special Trainings and Black/Brown Belt practices on a regular basis.
The Ranking Structure
Unranked (9th kyu)
1st dan (Shodan)
2nd dan (Nidan)
3rd dan (Sandan)
4th dan (Yodan)
5th dan (Godan)
Kyu tests 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. Each test covers the three main elements of karate -- kihon, kata, and kumite. The kyu test is judged by senior black belts from the CSK dojos in the Lower Mainland.
Because all students have different potentials, it is important not to compare your progress with that of another student. Kyu tests and ranks should only be used as a means to measure your own improvement. During a kyu test, the senior black belts consider a number of different factors in determining your rank, such as your technical ability, age, time practicing, previous experience, physical condition, physical potential, personal situation, attitude toward practice, attitude toward others, concern for responsibilities, and number of special trainings.
Why only five Dans?
As noted above, CSK has only five dans or levels of black belt. Other martial arts or styles of karate may have 10 dans or even more. This is due to a combination of history and modesty. When Master Funakoshi moved to Japan he decided to adopt the ranking system used by judo, which was well established. Judo had 10 levels of black belt. Master Funakoshi adopted a 5th degree black belt for himself, even though he was the Chief Instructor for Shotokan Karate. He was invited several times to apply for a higher rank but as some of the people judging him were his students, he saw no point in that. When he died he was still “only” a 5th dan.
Mr. Ohshima was awarded a Godan or 5th dan by Master Funakoshi. Although Mr. Ohshima has also been invited to grade for higher dans, he has never considered adopting for himself a higher rank than had Master Funakoshi. Thus, we have only five dans. In the end it really doesn’t matter. By the time you are a 5th dan, you won’t care that another style has 10 dans.