Would you say the ranking system is different depending on the style of Tae Kwon Do? My Sabumnim is a 4th degree in Chang Moo Kwan, Tae Kwon Do. According to the manual she’s provided, Kyobumnim is a 3rd degree instructor and Sabumnim is 4th degree or higher.

Yes, different schools sometimes choose terminology for ranking based on well, what their masters feel like. It can be confusing. The Ernie Reyes school uses five basic ranks for their black belts:

Choganim – (Assistant Instructor) for first degree

Busabumnim – (Instructor) for second degree

Sabumnim – (Head Instructor) for third

Bukwanjangnim – (Master Instructor) for fourth

Kwanjangnim – (Master) for fifth and higher

It’s worth knowing for piecing this apart that The Ernie Reyes West Coast World Martial Arts Association is a franchised organization, it has multiple schools throughout the California Bay Area (upwards of fifteen to twenty) and adjoining schools in other states such as Reno, Nevada and Oregon. We have somewhere around twenty Master Instructors with countless ranking black belts beneath it for different schools. The Organization is large enough to rent spaces and host it’s own in-house tournaments, having upwards of a few hundred students participating. Each black belt rank has a specialized and recognizable uniform which goes with it, which makes identification on sight ridiculously easy for both the students and the masters. Anything under 5th degree and you know immediately which level of black belt you’re looking at, in addition with what level of respect to accord them. The uniforms have become more segregated over the years as more 4th and 5th degrees have been added to the ranks.

What’s important to know about the uniforms is that the West Coast organization’s tournaments and events essentially function on free labor. Most of the black belts who show up are not paid to be there and there are too many of them for all the masters involved to recognize a student on sight. When you’ve got something like a fifty to a hundred black belts split between twelve different schools and all studying under different masters, it’d be difficult to tell them apart from the other lower belt ranks. The uniforms make that easier. You’re short on a judge for a round or board holder for a test? You can look up into the stands and just nab one of the loitering third degrees, easily recognizable in their red uniforms. If you can’t find one, then you check the pants for second degrees. If you can’t find those (which you will), then you still have easily identifiable first degrees who can be co-opted into working for free.

And yes, I have had a fourth degree walk past and have us stand up because they recognized the top part of our uniforms while we were in the stands to check our pants. Or simply grab one of the friends who was sitting with us when they ran short on a volunteer. The more masters, instructors, assistant instructors who know who you are or can recognize you on sight then the more likely you are to be put to work.

The reverse is also true: if a student is in trouble and needs to locate a master then they look for the men and women in white and gold. If they just need an authority figure, then they can almost immediately locate one of the eyesores in red or red with blue and white stripes. This becomes very helpful specifically in an auditorium or a high school gym when it’s packed and/or difficult to see.

So, it isn’t hyperbole. It’s an anecdote.

The uniforms allow for quick and easy exertion of authority over complete strangers, communicating information about a student/instructor’s experience level more quickly than a glance at the number of stripes on a belt. Otherwise there’s absolutely zero guarantee that the old man or woman climbing the steps is anything higher than a first degree while the sixteen-year-old standing next to him is automatically some lower belt rank. People come to martial arts at all different ages, so it’s not a good visual indicator of rank, experience, or authority. And even if the black belts at second and above have forgoed their belts and uniform tops, you can still locate them by their pants. (Yes, some first degrees stash their tops and belts after they’re done competing for exactly this reason.)

I suspect the titles were streamlined down over time simply because it’s easier to remember for the large number of students who pass through the organization every four years or so.

The flashy uniforms do put other martial artists from different disciplines or even the same ones off though.

Different schools/organizations/traditions are going to have different approaches which conflict. I’m sure there are even some in our audience who are WEST COAST? YEAH!!! or WEST COAST? BAD!!!!

Martial arts are like everything else, people will bicker over the correct way to do something until the cows come home. It’s probably worth knowing or remembering that your average martial artist is a nerd like any other kind. Usually a little more secretive depending on tradition and, sometimes, they fight over the purist view.

Your school may be closer to the Korean tradition than mine was. Taekwondo is a massively popular martial art the world over, one of the most popular. It has widespread appeal and widespread leads to a lot of diversity, including in tradition and even naming conventions.

So yeah, different schools do things their own way.

-Michi

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