For a more complete understanding of the structure of ranks in Bujinkan, it is necessary to learn how to build a similar scheme in other Japanese martial arts.
The traditional, most commonly used, rank system was invented not so long ago, as many believe. The belt ranking system was introduced by the founder of judo, Jigoro Kano, in 1883. The ranking system and structure was adopted from outside the martial arts world, and prior to this, most traditional Japanese martial arts used a complex grading system that lacked unity and general order. Usually, the ranks were confirmed by handwritten certificates of the teacher or founder. Often, high degrees were confirmed by scrolls that had illustrations of technical techniques, instructions and secrets of the founders of the schools. The simplest version of this were schools were the were only two levels, a student and a system completition certificate. According to this Kano sensei´s scheme, the students were divided into 2 categories: «mudansha» — «the one who has no dan» and «yudansha» — «the one who has dan». There are 10 ranks in each category. Thus, the student begins his Journey with 10 kyu, gradually approaches 1 kyu and is certified for 1 dan. Further, the ranks are assigned in ascending order. In Japan, before receiving 1 dan, it is customary to wear a white belt. Then black. Often we see that students use a wide variety of colored belts. This designation was coined in Europe to encourage and motivate children to study and has become widespread throughout the world. It is worth noting, that the word SHO-DAN translates BEGINNING dan. This is generally understood as a learning level, where the student has a satisfactory understanding and skill in the art´s basic techniques and theories, so the real training can begin. Nothing more.
Regarding the varying Bujinkan dojo´s, please understand this: each Shidoshi (teacher) or dojo-cho (head of a dojo) is free to structure their own curriculum as they please (if they please), so the requirements for different rank levels differ greatly inside Bujinkan. Thus, the kyu/dan requirements are only a tool inside a smaller community of people that work and learn together, nothing more.
Now let’s talk about the ranks in Bujinkan:
The founder of our direction, Masaaki Hatsumi, took the above system as a basis, but supplemented and expanded it at his own discretion. In Bujinkan, 10 degrees of Kyu are also used, but then 15 degrees of Dan are introduced instead of 10. Originally, the ranks were named after the Godai element names, but nowadays we mostly use just numbers to address rank. In addition to this, several other titles are assigned:
Shidoshi-students who pass a special test for 5 dan are awarded the title of «Teacher». From this point on, it is allowed to conduct classes and certify for ranks up to 4 dan.
Shihan — is not a real title, but it is customary to call Teachers with a rank above 10 dan when they are politely addressed. It is not customary to call yourself that. “Shihan” loosely translates to an exemplary person and is a title others use to address a person. It would be absolutely foolish and bad mannered to either call yourself, or demand others call you, shihan.
Yushu shihan (excellent master teacher “or excellent shihan”) and Dai shihan (grand master teacher “great exemplary person”) are the highest titles (but NOT ranks) in Bujinkan and are awarded personally by soke (the so-called founder of the direction) Masaaki Hatsumi to his students who have devoted several decades of their lives to the study of this Path.
You can also often hear the term «sensei». That’s what any teacher is politely called. Literally translated as «born before», «previously born», «senior». This person may not necessarily be older than you. Such an appeal can emphasize your polite attitude and gratitude for the knowledge. The word sensei is also used to address medical doctors, for example. It is not customary to call yourself that. Again, sensei is a title others use to address a person. It would be absolutely foolish and bad mannered to either call yourself, or demand others call you, sensei.
I would like to remind my students and all readers of the phrase Takamatsu sensei (teacher Masaaki Hatsumi): «My name is my rank». Do not chase ranks, belts and stripes. Only your name, experience, discipline, and knowledge can be an indicator of your rank. Everything else is just external attributes.