This topic has come up in conversation with a couple of friends fairly recently.
Its a tough question to answer. Many people have talked about this before, but here is my take.
I would say that it is a two part answer, part Yes, and part No.
This really depends on what you consider the function of rank to be.
Almost every “high ranker” I have talked to, either openly states, or has the general air as if to say “once your belt is black, the number doesn’t mean jack.” This is not said in a disrespectful way, but meant in the most respectful way possible. They are saying that we are all equally striving to improve our art, and we can ALWAYS learn something from each other.
I try not to think of rank as a measure of Skill Level. (What’s that old saying: “We are all on the same path, some are just farther along”)
I feel now that most of the time Rank only really signifies time spent, and general knowledge of certain sets of kata. Not necessarily Skill Level.
For Example: A Yondan should have a working understanding of the Yon Kata, same as a Sandan with the San Kata and so on…
If I have a question about the Koryu Dai Go (Kata commonly associated with the 5th degree black belt, and usually taught at or near that rank) I would most likely seek out someone 5th degree or higher, who I can assume has experience with that particular kata.
There are exceptions to this, but the overall theme holds.
Rank helps to narrow down the field in where to get answers, and seek advice.
I would like to think of someone of higher rank to be in the position of a Mentor.
Whether they are your direct instructor or not, you should always be able to ask someone who is farther along the path for some direction, and assistance.
Just with any Mentor, they are there to offer advice, sometimes they offer good advice, sometimes advice that you need, and don’t want to hear, and sometimes they offer poor advice. (they are human after all) It is up to you to sort through the information, and ultimately continue on.
But to have accountability, there needs to be rank. If there is no rank, there is no record to verify if someone is who they say they are, or has the training they claim to have. This may lead some students astray, and prevent them from learning as they should.
There are plenty of charlatans in our world, and sadly, many are in Martial Arts.
This can’t be stopped, but by having records of rank, and verifiable sources, some of it might be slowed down.
In many dojos, there is one head instructor, usually that instructor started the school, or inherited the school from the previous head instructor.
In these schools, the head instructor is usually the highest rank, so the style and method of the instructor is taught, and the students train accordingly.
There is no issue with Rank in these settings, because the Students understand the type of learning environment they are in.
More and more there are Schools popping up that have multiple instructors, with varying backgrounds, styles and ranks.
I personally believe that this is one of the best approaches for learning. When you learn the same subject from different teachers, you tend to pick up on different aspects that you otherwise would not have with only one teacher.
If each instructor offers valid methods, as long as principally sound in their approach, style should not be an issue.
Sadly though, sometimes you have power struggles, sometimes ego steps in, and someone thinks that their method is better, and should be taught.
This can cause dissent in the school, and animosity between instructors and students.
In this instance Rank can get in the way.
I am very thankful that I have been able to attend Seminars, and visit other dojos, I have had the opportunity to play with many people, of varying skill levels, and ranks.
The thing is, Rank is not something that is openly discussed when training, especially at a seminar. (not that its a taboo subject, its just not generally brought up. It doesn’t seem to be an important item to discuss)
I have had my hands on people who, because of their skill, I thought were higher ranks, and it turns out they were 1st or 2nd degrees. They just had natural talent, and skill. On the other side of that, I have felt people who are higher ranks, when I thought they were lower.
Rank doesn’t always mean skill.
Everyone that I have discussed this with has agreed that Rank IS important for beginners.
It helps them have measurable, attainable, and realistic goals in their pursuit of knowledge.
Especially when teaching younger students. Ranking ceremonies, and promotions give them something to look forward to, and feel good about receiving, keeping them interested in training and continuing on.
There is a certain pride that does come along with a promotion. That “I did it!” feeling.
Rank helps to encourage students to reach for the next level, and work towards higher goals.
We are all at different levels, all working towards the same goal. To have a better understanding of our art.
Ego should be checked at the door. Once you step on the mat, you are a student.
We are all students.