Author: Bret Gordon
Probably most common in Taekwondo, but certainly not an obscure concept in other arts, is belonging to multiple organizations and holding different rank in them all, despite it being the same art.
Many practitioners of traditional Taekwondo have two affiliations: their Kwan and the Kukkiwon, and hold a different rank in each. A lot of this (for Taekwondo practitioners at least) is due to the history of the Kukkiwon itself, which I'll briefly detail in this article, but then it raises the question on which is your true rank?
For those who are unfamiliar with the history of Taekwondo, let's break it down. Following the end of the Japanese Occupation of Korea in 1945, numerous martial arts schools called Kwans were opened up with the instructors sharing what they learned under the Japanese: Karate! Of course, they used their native Korean language, so they called their art either Tang Soo Do, Kong Soo Do, or Kwon Bup (Tode, Karate, and Kenpo respectively), but it was no secret that what they were teaching was Japanese Karate.
In the 1950s, the Korean government (understandably) wanted to erase the connection to Japan from their culture, including martial arts, and ordered the Kwans to change the name of their art to something uniquely Korean. Many names were proposed, but they eventually settled on Taekwondo. Without getting too deep into the politics, suffice it to say that all nine original Kwans eventually unified under the Taekwondo banner and the newly formed Korea Taekwondo Association.
Wanting further governmental control, the Kukkiwon was established in 1972 under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. Originally, the Kukkiwon was meant to serve only as an international Dan registry and provide a baseline of standards for all Taekwondin to meet, but it was understood that the Kwans were to continue providing instruction above and beyond the minimum guidelines. This was short-lived, however, with the birth of the World Taekwondo Federation (now World Taekwondo) in 1973, whose main objective was to have Taekwondo recognized as an Olympic sport.
As modern, "civilized" society continued to spread, the shift of martial arts training from self defense and combat to competition and athleticism began to take root. When the WTF finally secured a place in the Olympics, the final nail in the coffin was set for the Kwans. Because of the close relationship of the Kukkiwon and the World Taekwondo Federation (Un Yong Kim was President of both organizations for decades), it was decided that a Kukkiwon Dan rank was required to compete on an international level. Well, when the Kukkiwon has set minimum standards to earn such rank, why would the average practitioner want to go above and beyond that if their only interest is competition? Over time, entire generations of instructors were created that had no Kwan affiliation at all, and the Kukkiwon grew to be one of the largest organizations in the world. As the Kukkiwon erroneously calls itself the World Taekwondo Headquarters, the propaganda spread for decades that the Kwans were all but dead, and that Kukkiwon rank is the only legitimate ranking in Taekwondo.
Over the last several years, the Kukkiwon has tried to over-correct itself in terms of quality control and self defense education. While I applaud their efforts of putting together a self defense system for Kukkiwon schools to adopt, that features more of the joint locks and throws that traditional Taekwondoin have been saying are part of the art for years, their promotions look more like action movie choreography than actual self defense training, but of course we'll need to see how it plays out. However, something that has truly turned people away from the Kukkiwon are their new regulations regarding rank and licensing, as well as who is allowed to promote individuals through the organization. I'll apologize now if my information is incorrect, but several sources have stated that it now takes a panel of regional instructors to promote black belts to 3rd Dan or higher, and that regardless of your own rank, you cannot test your own students without such panel.
I'm sorry, but if someone is a 6th, 7th, 8th, or 9th Dan, especially also holding a master's license from the official instructor's course, how can they not have the authority to promote their own students? This statement is directed not only at the Kukkiwon, but any organization that micromanages its high ranking members to such a degree as to strip them of the authority to test and promote their own students.
This shift in policy, among many changes, has lead many to rediscover their Kwan roots and affiliations, only to find that the Kwans were never dead. They remained strong and fruitful, retaining their foundations to varying degrees. After becoming certified by their Kwan, some instructors have maintained their Kukkiwon ranking and some have completely abandoned it, which brings me back to the original point of this article:
If you hold one rank in the Kukkiwon, and another rank in your Kwan, which is your true rank?
I personally hold rank in 3 different Taekwondo organizations, and they are all different. If you were to ask me what rank I am in Taekwondo, I would say 6th Dan as it is the highest rank I've earned in the art as a whole and Jidokwan is the organization I actively teach and promote. So naturally, it is the one I identify as my true rank. However, in the off chance that I was to attend an official Kukkiwon event representing myself as a Kukkiwon practitioner, I would wear my 2nd Dan as claiming a 6th Dan would be at the least a misrepresentation.
Like Taekwondo, Judo is another martial art that often leaves its practitioners with an identity crisis. Here in the US, there are 3 organizations generally considered the "National Governing Bodies" yet there are numerous independent organizations with legitimate lineages and charters. The NGB, much like the Kukkiwon, have been successful in their marketing that their rank is the only rank that matters, but that's simply not the case. One gentleman I know promotes himself as a 5th Dan in Judo, which was earned through an independent organization, whereas his rank through one of the NGB is only a 3rd Dan. At the end of the day, Judo is Judo, so by all standards he's a 5th Dan. It would be wrong to wear his 5th Dan at an official NGB event, but that doesn't take away from his rank and standing in the art itself.
Generally speaking, when introducing yourself, you would go by the single highest rank you have legitimately earned in that art, and if necessary, provide clarification based on organizational affiliation. However, listing multiple ranks and organizations in your resume may seem tempting, but in general it just confuses the public and opens you up to scrutiny from ignorant martial artists who would say it's impossible to go from white belt up, with proper time in grade, in each organization. They're right, but why would you need to restart at white belt when it's the same art, just a new affiliation?
Which brings me to my next article, the subject of cross-ranking. Stay tuned...