Why Take Exams?
Most new students do not give it a second thought when their instructor or senior tells them that passing exams is necessary to advance in rank in karate. As the months and years roll by, however, some may wonder if the tests are really testing what they should, or if there should be exams at all.
As with many other facets of karate and the way its related activities are administered, there are positives and negatives that may be worth considering.
• Gives the student feedback on his/her performance
• Gives other students an idea of relative ability
• Gives everyone (student, teacher and others) an opportunity to see how well the performer does under pressure
• Provides a goal for the student to aim for in training
• Provides teachers with primary curriculum for different level students
• Does not always reflect accurately the true ability of the performer, simply the performance at the time of the exam
• Favors athleticism
• Only tests a limited number of techniques and scenarios
• Some people do not like to take tests, either for fear of pressure or lack of interest
The process of kyu testing (pre-black belt) has the benefit of determining if the student has a sufficient grasp of the most basic techniques before advancing to the more complex techniques and combinations. At different levels, there are certain general points being looked at, in addition to the specific techniques of the exam. For the dan ranks, it is often more of a personal achievement, although more advanced technical skills are generally required for higher levels. For the higher ranks (usually over yondan), contributions to an organization are often a prerequisite in addition to “technical maturity” (an obviously ambiguous, subjective and perhaps arbitrary term).
To get around some of the exam shortcomings, whether real or perceived, examiners may want to consider that the ranking exams are often limited in their scope and that not everyone should be expected to be able to fit into the same mold in terms of physical technique and performance. This thought should also probably be explained to many students who may wonder why they failed when other passed an exam, or vise-versa. One way that I augment the traditional physical exams is by providing a written exam as well.
With the combination of physical and written exams, an examiner can get a better idea of the student’s understanding of techniques and ideas for consideration when it may not be clear by simply watching his or her performance. For added reference, the physical exam may be videotaped. All of this is good for the examiner. But for the benefit of the student being tested, feedback on the physical and written exams, as well as a copy of the videotape, really should be provided after the exam for clarification as to what advancement in rank (if any) was decided upon. The examiner may also want to explain what the decision process involved.
Once a rank is achieved, others may sometimes question its validity. While some dojo may accept the rank of new members gained elsewhere, some do not. Usually, within a given organization, ranks are accepted between different dojo. But even this is sometimes not the case.
There are many different styles of karate and organizations that supply rank certification. It should be understood, however, that these ranks are not always accepted outside of those organizations, sometimes not even outside a particular dojo. Kyu rank is usually considered “dojo rank” in that it is up to the instructor of a new dojo if he will accept the kyu rank awarded elsewhere. Dan rank is usually a more official rank that is generally accepted at any dojo affiliated with the organization with which that rank is certified. That being said, it is still up to the instructor to decide who is to wear what color belt or where to stand/sit in the lineup when it concerns functions/hierarchy within the dojo. This should be because there may be a difference in standards or points of focus specific to a particular dojo, not just because the instructor wants to demean the new student.
For example, in my dojo I usually require new students to take a test with me, no matter where they may have received their previous rank, unless it is clear that they are up to the standards of my dojo. Most are not. I have a reputation of having higher technical standards than just about anyone else in the area teaching Shotokan. Some students may have been required to do more complicated combinations or some self-defense at their previous dojo. At my dojo, however, I require a higher level of understanding of the most basic techniques, as opposed to a shallow understanding of many so-called “advanced” techniques or tactics. Often, students who have transferred from another dojo, where they claim to have been a 4th kyu or 2nd kyu, or even a black belt, may have to wear a white belt for a while, or at least a belt level/color that they have more clearly earned. Some of my prospective students, hearing of this concept, decide to train elsewhere. Those who decide that the color of their belt is not as important as the level of training/teaching they receive usually do well and advance quickly. The ability to accept a “beginner’s mind” is truly an asset to the learning process.
Rank exams and different colored belts have their purpose. They can be good tools for instructors, students and others to gauge relative abilities. If one has any doubts as to what is required at a given rank, where one stands in relation to others or how one is doing in training in general, I cannot emphasize enough that a student should consult with the instructor(s) for clarification and guidance.
Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published February 2002)