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Shodan or Ichidan

In the Japanese martial arts, the black belt ranks are known as dan ranks.  There are several dan ranks, often ten.  Have you ever noticed that the prefixes on the dan titles are numbers - except for first dan:
shodan
nidan - 2nd dan
sandan - 3rd dan
yondan - 4th dan
godan - 5th dan
rokudan - 6th dan
shichidan - 7th dan
hachidan - 8th dan
kudan - 9th dan
judan - 10th dan
Since they are all numbers, you'd expect the first black belt level to be titled, ichidan (literally 1st dan) but the title for the first level is shodan.  The prefix sho means face or front or superficial.  Why did they do this?  There is a cool story about that.
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Apparently, because the Japanese character for ichi is one horizontal mark, ni is two horizontal marks stacked, and san is three horizontal marks stacked, if the instructor were to write the certificate using the character ichi, then an unscrupulous student could go around the corner, take his own brush, and instantly promote himself to sandan by drawing two more strokes.  I don't know if this ever happened or if this story is apocryphal (why would you teach someone who would do that anyway?), but it's a cool and interesting story.
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I think that shodan (meaning beginning rank) conveys the sense of the true meaning of the rank better than does ichidan (first grade).  Shodan is a beginning.  You have just gotten to the point that you understand the superficial foundations of the art.  You have come to a point that you can see the face of the art.  You are competent to practice the basics of the art.  You have only just begun.

1 comment:

  1. Indeed. When I was a beginner all the black belts seemed amazing. By the time I made provisional black belt I was able to see some of the subtleties of the different instructors and take some of the next steps without being prompted as much.

    The more you learn, the more you learn how much more there is to learn.

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