Since 1976

April 2017

What's the Purpose of Rank Exams?


Mr. Yates, at our instructor's roundtable we were discussing the subject of rank tests/promotion exams.  The many ways we had all seen these handled were something we talked about at length—including a Kendo promotion exam that was conducted in competitive rounds, where students were eliminated from consideration at the end of each round without explanation being offered.

The question then arose:  what are the purposes of a promotion exam?  What ends should we seek to achieve thereby?  We have all of us come up through systems of instruction that use the promotion exam as a regular feature, so that we all tend to take them for granted.  It can also be a very sensitive issue, touching strong emotions. I would like to get your perspective on this question, if you would be so kind.


Many old Asian schools did not hold formal exams like we are used to in America. I remember working out with Tamura Sensei in the 1960s in Judo and he just gave you a new belt when he felt like you deserved it.

Allen Steen used to make examination pretty tough (especially the higher ones) and people often flunked. Of course there were only four colors below black belt in those days (white, green, blue, brown).

As we added more colors for American students, ranks became a way to encourage the students as they progressed (and maybe a way to create more income for the business as well). Years ago I instituted a “pre-test” where a student had to convince me he or she was ready to be advanced to the next rank. That reduced the amount of tears at the actual exam—however I will still issue a ‘no promotion’ if they just cannot remember anything they have practiced. Note that now I don’t say ‘flunk’ anymore.

I’m kinda old school in that regard, I will make students test again if I think they have not performed up to standards. In many schools however, the promotional event is just a ceremony where the students are to perform for parents and friends and be awarded their new belts based on their previous demonstration to the teachers. I suppose that makes promotion night a joyous occasion for everyone.

I’ll still run into instructors who say that the color of a belt shouldn’t matter and while that is true in the overall picture, I think rewarding students, especially young ones, is a valuable motivation for their hard work. And in the end, a belt rank is just that, a reward and a motivator.

That’s why not all green belts (or whatever) are the same. Some are highly skilled at the requirements for that belt because they are superior athletes. Others may not look technically as good but they had to work twice as hard to remember their moves and to improve their physical skills. So in some ways the more awkward green belt deserves his rank more than the natural athlete because he had to overcome more.