Blackbelts by Rank

By Erik Hofmeister

When you attend your first WYKKO function, it’s so exciting! There are students from so many dojo, there are swarms of blackbelts talking and companionably beating on each other, the highest-ranked blackbelts are mingling.  Once the group lines up for a formal bow in, it starts to get confusing. Some people are wearing red and white belts, some black and white belts, and mixed in with all of these are some wearing regular black belts. The blackbelts are arrayed in multiple lines, without any clear visual indication of why they are in different lines.  Welcome to World Yoshukai, where a student wearing a black belt may be a Shodan or may be a Rokudan, and there is no way you can tell just by looking at them.

In some styles of martial arts, such as Tae Kwon Do, it is clear what rank blackbelt a student has by their belt.  They have a gold bar on their belt for each degree of blackbelt they hold. This makes determining the rank of any blackbelt easy and instantaneous.  You know exactly where you stand in relationship to others you have never met before. Why doesn’t the WYKKO use a similar system? I don’t know, please ask Kaicho if you have a chance and tell me what they say.  However, there are some unexpected and positive side-effects of this policy.

You know where you line up, as a blackbelt, because you have attended WYKKO events and know the others in your line personally.  You know them by name, you know when they tested, and you know who they are as people. The organization is small enough to allow this, but it does require vigilance and regular attendance.  A Sandan who does not appear to events for several years will be entirely unequipped to line up at their appropriate place.

While there are differences among ranks, we do not highlight those and push into other’s faces what our rank is.  It encourages humility- a Shodan is wearing the same belt as a Yondan. The Yondan should feel humble and not hold their rank over the Shodan, and the Shodan should feel that they are a peer to the Yondan in some regard.  We do not highlight the differences among the ranks of blackbelt. In World Yoshukai, we are all friends and know each other and should have no ego when dealing with each other.

Knowing exactly what rank a blackbelt holds is absolutely valuable.  But not knowing exactly what rank everyone holds has fringe benefits, which ultimately make our organization more friendly, humbler, and more harmonious.

Forms of Address

By Erik Hofmeister

Respect and manners is the first precept for Yoshukai karate.  We use titles and formal forms of address when addressing or referring to various students.  While it is always preferable to be precise, the intent is important- if you make a slip up here and there, that’s just fine.  For those who want specific instructions, here they are.

 

Referring to someone

These rules are probably the least stringent.  I prefer using a title which makes it clear as to the context in which I am speaking about that person.  For example, when speaking of my Kyuki-Do training or Hapkido and referring to Ken Blumreich, I will use Sabumnim.  But when referring to him in Yoshukai or judo, I will use Sensei. You may refer to some people solely by title, such as Soke.  Use of an English honorific (Mr./Ms) and last name is the ‘minimum’ level of respect for this type of reference, as long as it is about martial arts.

 

Addressing a letter

For addressing a letter or email, I go with the most formal title available.  For example, when writing to Mr. Lecut for The Way newsletter, I address it as “Dear Shihan Lecut”.  When writing to Master Culbreth, I will use either “Dear Master Culbreth” or “Dear Kaicho Culbreth”. For Shodan and Nidan ranked students from other schools, I will use either “Dear Sensei X” or “Dear Mr. X”, as this latter is accepted within our organization for all ranks.

 

Addressing an individual

Use of “Mr./Ms.” and last name is always appropriate in a WYKKO context.  I tend not use formal titles like Shihan or Sempai, but do address Master Toyama and Culbreth as “Master”, and certainly do so for Soke.  “Sensei” without a last name is generally referring to your direct instructor- Sensei Serrian for Athens Yoshukai and Sensei Hines for Clarke County.  “Sensei Lastname” is generally used when addressing any other black belt. An exception can be made when you are working directly with a blackbelt. For example, when Master Toyama is instructing me at a camp, I will often address him as “Sensei”.  This is appropriate because that is that person’s _role_ at that time (situational authority vs. positional or rank-based). Within our dojo, for non-blackbelts with a civilian title besides Mr./Ms., we will usually use that, for example “Dr.”.

 

At the end of the day, many of these are personal preferences and are not codified.  You will never go wrong with addressing someone as “Mr./Ms. Lastname” in WYKKO. The protocol described here is a more elegant, sophisticated approach.

Zarei

By Erik Hofmeister

At the start of a class, the highest-ranked student has a choice: do a formal bow-in or an informal bow-in.  Generally, if the highest-ranked student is visiting another school, if a promotion is occurring, or if time permits, a formal bow is preferred.  An informal bow consists of the highest-ranked student facing the other students (facing away from shomen) and calling, “Kiyotske, rei.” and everyone bows.  This is tachirei- standing bow.

A formal bow involves the highest-ranked student calling “Seiza!”.  Everyone then kneels, left knee first, to seiza position. The highest-ranked student calls “Mokuso!” and everyone closes their eyes.  Everyone breathes in through the nose, out through the mouth, expanding the diaphragm, and clearing their mind. The highest-ranked student then calls “Kaimoku!” and everyone opens their eyes.

The next command is “Soke-ni, rei!”.  This is a bow to Soke Yamamoto. Everyone holds for a four count (ichi, ni, san, shi) and then comes up.

Assuming one of the directors is not leading the bow, the next command is “Kaicho-ni, rei!”.  This is a bow to Kaicho Toyama and Kaicho Culbreth. Everyone holds for a four count, then comes up.

At a small dojo and when high-ranked visitors are not present, the second-highest-ranked student (Second) now has a choice.  If the highest-ranked student (Highest) is also the head instructor of the school where the bow is taking place, the Second should call “Sensei-ni, rei!”  If the Highest is not the head instructor, the command is “Title-ni, rei!” Acceptable variations in either case include, “Mr/Ms lastname, rei!”, “Title lastname, rei!”, and “Mr/Ms lastname, thank you for today’s training/today’s test, etc., rei!”.

This process is zarei, or kneeling bow.  The zarei is a time for all students to reflect on their role within the WYKKO, and to help cement relationships and the rank structure of each dojo.

Types of Authority

By Erik Hofmeister

You’re an experienced, but enlisted-ranked, military firefighter and arrive on the scene of a fire.  There’s an officer on the scene from another unit with no MilitaryRanksKaratefirefighting experience and a lowly ranked private already fighting the fire.  Do you A) tell people how to put out the fire or B) wait for the officer to give orders or C) allow the private to continue their efforts?  There are three types of authority in rank-structured organizations like the military and the dojo: rank-based, positional, and situational.

Rank-based authority is the most obvious.  A brown belt gives instructions to a green belt because they are a higher rank, and so have authority over the lower ranked students. Obviously, this authority extends only within the dojo and with karate-related tasks.

Positional authority is that given in titles independent of rank.  At Athens Yoshukai, this is the instructor structure- Head Instructor, Senior Instructor, Instructor, and Assistant Instructor.  Students in the instructor hierarchy have authority when it comes to the management of the dojo and teaching of students. If a high-ranked student bows in class who is not in the instructor hierarchy, they then turn the running of the class over to the highest instructor.

Situational authority is often dependent on who is on the scene first with some ability and knowledge to handle a situation.  If a student has an injury, the first person to tend to them with any first aid knowledge can give others orders, regardless of their rank or positional authority.  If you encounter a situation that needs management, you must give specific orders to individuals (e.g. pointing at a person, “YOU, call 911!”) as opposed to diffuse orders to a group (“Someone call 911!”).

The interplay of each of these is unquestionably complex and requires consideration. Layered on top of this is the dichotomy of dojo-associated activities and non-dojo-associated activities.  When in doubt, ask a high rank or the head instructor what the appropriate course of action in a given situation is.

Titles

By Erik Hofmeister

At the Athens Yoshukai dojo, we have a protocol distinct from some other martial arts schools and even most WYKKO schools.

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White Belts Are Guests

At AYK, we consider new students guests.  They are not yet full members of the dojo.  They aren’t expected to teach or sweep or conduct other duties of students.  They are accorded respect, but new students come and go. Once they have tested and showed their dedication, then they are considered full members.  We address white belts by their first name, to indicate that they are indeed visitors but not yet members of the dojo.

 

Color Belts are Members

Once a student tests to 8th kyu, they are considered full students in the school.  They are expected to keep the dojo clean and may be called upon to warm up class or teach.  They are addressed by their American-standard title (Mr., Ms., Dr., etc.) and last name. This is to create a culture of respect and formality among the students.

 

Black Belts are Teachers

Although students teach throughout their time in the dojo, once a student reaches Shodan, the expectation for teaching is greater.  They are still learning, but they now have a greater burden for passing their knowledge on to others. Thus, they are addressed as Sensei and last name.  This is to indicate that blackbelts are responsible for teaching.

 

The Head Instructor

The highest-ranked student at the dojo is the head instructor.  This person is responsible for all the teaching and direction of the dojo.  The head instructor is addressed as Sensei. This indicates that the head instructor is ultimately responsible for the dojo, and is accorded a respect distinct from blackbelts in the dojo.

Who should be called Master?

In the WYKKO, there is no canon with respect to the title of Master. index The title of Shihan is given to Yondan blackbelts at some point in their training, before they can test to Godan.  Titles like Fukukaicho, Kaicho, and Soke relate to the individual’s role in the organization, but do not equate with titles like Renshi, Kyoshi, or Hanshi which other organizations use to indicate mastery.  The English title of Master is never officially used in the WYKKO.

When I wrote the WYKKO Handbook, I asked Masters Toyama and Culbreth about the use of the title Master.  They both seemed uncomfortable, and agreed that this is a title that cannot be claimed, it can only be conferred.  That is, an individual cannot attain a certain rank and say, “You should address me with the title Master now.”  Instead, the bosses said that an individual is given that title by their students or others below them in the organization.  Presumably, Soke could say that a certain rank of student should be addressed as Master, but he hasn’t done that to date (December 2015).

So, now we have a situation where the students need to be aware of when they can or should use the title Master.  Technically, since the bosses say this is a title conveyed by the students, the students could choose to use this title when addressing any blackbelt.  Within the WYKKO, however, it would be odd for students to address some blackbelts as Master.  So, how can students be appropriately respectful and avoid a faux pas?

The easiest solution is to never use the title of Master.  The bosses address each other (and everyone else, including Soke) as Mister, and most or all of the Shihan-ranked blackbelts also address everyone as Mister (or Miss).  I insist on using the title of Master for two reasons.  One, other styles use the title of Master, and I think it’s important to emphasize that there are individuals within our organization who have a degree of proficiency that one would acknowledge as Master.  Two, I do feel that some distinguishing title should be used when addressing certain high-ranked blackbelts to distinguish them from other high-ranked blackbelts.  The formal titles (Sempai, Shihan-Dai, Shihan, Kyoshi, and Kaicho) are not used in verbal forms of address.

If you want to use the title of Master when addressing or referring to a high-rank blackbelt, the only rule of thumb I have is my Sensei.  Sensei Blanck would refer to Master Toyama _as_ Master Toyama.  This was when Sensei was a Yondan and Master Toyama was a Rokudan.  Everyone also referred to Master Koda as Master when he was a Shichidan.  Therefore, I assume any blackbelt at Rokudan or higher rank may be addressed as Master.  You may also restrict the use of the Master title to the Directors of the organization- Master Toyama and Master Culbreth.

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Lineup Protocol

A couple of Winter Camps ago, the Shihan-Dai (4th degree blackbelt) line was AthensYoshukaiLineupWinterCamporganizing itself.  In the line (from left to right) was Mr. McInnish, Ms. Brinkley, myself, and Mr. Wheeles.  Mr. McCullars got there after we had organized ourselves and got into the line at the far right.  Each of us already in line continued to shuffle him to the left until he was in his rank-appropriate place at the head of the Shihan-Dai line.  In this anecdote, two good, important things happened.

The first good thing that happened is that a late-comer placed himself at the ‘end’ or right hand side of the line.  Mr. McCullars didn’t just appear at the left hand side and ask us all to move down, although he very well could have, as the highest-ranked in the line.  We were already lined up, so he went on to the end.  He was showing respect and modesty.

The second good thing that happened is that everyone else in the line identified a problem with our order and corrected it.  We were showing respect and attentiveness.

When you line up, the first criterion is by rank, then by test date, then by age.  Unless you are very confident that you are the highest ranked student in a line at an event, you should not head directly to the front of that line.  For example, I know that Ms. Brinkley is the only active Shihan-Dai who outranks me at the time of this writing.  If she is not at an event, I know I should be at the front of the Shihan-Dai line.  When I was a Nidan, I would usually mill around near the middle of the Yudansha line.  I would never place myself at the front of the line, and actually was only at the front of the line once- when bowing in for my Sandan test.

AthensYoshukaiLineupAtTournamentWhen in doubt, you should not place yourself at the front of the line.   If you know there are students present who outrank you, you should move them to your left.  The first time I met Mr. Trawick, I didn’t know when he had earned his Yondan, so deferred to him as probably being senior to me- I moved him to my left.  If you aren’t certain you are the highest-ranked student present, you should probably not be at the head of a line.  When in doubt, you could ask those around you.  My solution was to just put myself in the middle of the line when I was Yudansha and Sempai.

You should always be showing respect, modesty, and attentiveness.  If your goal is to make it to the front of the line, your plan should not be “get there first, and quickly run to where the line will form.”  Your plan should be, “I will continue to train until I know there are no students to my left.”