Posted By Matthew

The Road to 10th Dan – Understanding Senior Rank

I recently had a front row seat to a rather special event. My instructor, C. Bruce Heilman, was promoted to 10th Dan (Judan), the highest attainable rank in traditional martial arts. Heilman Sensei has been training continuously since 1961 and has helped carry on the ways of Okinawa Kenpo as taught by Odo Seikichi.

red karate belt

A Judan promotion is an exciting time, but also one that brings up many questions. For example:

  • Odo Sensei promoted Heilman Sensei to 9th Dan in 1997 but subsequently passed away in 2002. How could Heilman Sensei receive a 10th Dan ranking without his direct teacher?
  • Why didn’t Heilman Sensei become a 10th Dan right away when Odo Sensei passed away?
  • Once a person becomes 10th Dan does that put them in charge of their style everywhere?

These are important questions, and understanding how the highest levels work is healthy for anyone engaging in long term martial arts training. Let’s look back in history at how the 10th Dan first came about, how it manifested in Okinawan fighting arts, and how it appears in the modern world (ending with our specific example of Heilman Sensei).

Menkyo Kaiden – The Early Inheritance Model

Some people may be surprised to learn that the concept of 10th Dan is rather young, historically speaking. The martial arts stretch back thousands of years, but recording rank through ten kyus and ten dans wasn’t developed until the post Meiji era.

Way way back in time, when feudal Japanese Samurai were facing each other on the battlefield, rank was handled a bit differently. First, and most importantly, an individual’s last name determined their class. Peasant-born children stayed peasants while Samurai-born children were immediately Samurai. Training, equipment, and knowledge were thus distributed accordingly. A first born son was often slated to carry on a particular martial style.  When the time was right a Menkyo Kaiden was passed from master to son, usually indicating a transmission of full understanding, sometimes accompanied with makimono (scrolls) of secret techniques or family lineage. On certain occassions a son was unavailable, ill, or inferior to an outside warrior, in which case the Menkyo would pass to that warrior instead. On occasion more than one Menkyo was handed out or aggressive political maneuvering occurred after a master’s death, resulting in the splintering of a style.

Okinawans tended to be less formal with their inheritance process. This is mostly because their arts were forced into hiding multiple times, making any written documentation of rank/technique/instructor a patently bad idea. Nevertheless, around the time of Matsumura Sokon we see mentions of documented inheritance. It’s stated that Matsumura Sokon passed down a Menkyo Kaiden to Matsumura Nabe, his grandson. In terms of why Sokon may have been inspired to do so, it is said that Sokon studied Jigen Ryu swordsmanship in Japan for two years. While it’s highly unlikely Sokon received a Menkyo Kaiden himself from Yashichiro Ijuin (his instructor), it’s quite possible he brought the concept back to Okinawa and applied it to his own students.

Chibana Chosin, a senior student of Itosu Anko, referred to this inheritance process on Okinawa as Shihan no Menjo1 (expert teacher/master diploma/certificate). However, the ingrained habit of oral transmission combined with widespread illiteracy made the use of Shihan no Menjo sporadic at best.

The Birth of 10th Dan

Around 1868 Japan was experiencing a nationwide transformation. It was emerging from the tumultuous Tokugawa Period and beginning the hectic Meiji Restoration. During this time Japan was branching out to the rest of the world, attempting to assimilate technology and concepts that could help slingshot it to the front of the global stage.

In 1879 Okinawan King Sho Tai was forced to travel to Tokyo and formally submit to the Meiji rulers. Prior to that, since 1609, Okinawa was the property of the Satsuma clan and subject to their whims. Now the Okinawans were an official prefecture under the emporer2.

This transition caused significant turbulence in the lifestyle of the Okinawans, abolishing their longheld class system, absolving the king of all power, and removing the ever-present Satsuma metsuke (roving informants). It also opened the doors for more public appearances of karate.

In 1922 Funakoshi Gichin traveled to Japan in order to demonstrate some of the benefits of karate training3. The Japanese government was interested due to karate’s potential for making hardier soldiers. While there Funakoshi struck up a friendship with Kano Jigoro, a very famous martial artist and creator of Judo. During their training time together Funakoshi learned of Kano’s Kyu/Dan system which he had appropriated from other Japanese endeavors (such as the game of Go). At first the Kano ranking setup was quite simple – white belts for mudansha and black belts for yudansha. However, after seeing early success, Kano expanded his system into ten kyu and ten dan degrees.

kano jigoro and funakoshi gichin

Impressed by it’s organizational potential, and looking to make karate more palatable to the Japanese, Funakoshi quickly integrated the concept into his teaching.

The Very First Judans

In 1933 karate was officially recognized as a modern martial art by the Butokukai (the Japanese governing body in charge of such things)4. But there was a problem – the Japanese weren’t particularly clear on who’s karate belonged to whom. By that time judo and kendo were well established and organized, but karate seemed like a vague mishmash. The Butokukai immediately requested clarification on karate styles, so it was up to the seniors in Japan and Okinawa to actually come up with them.

Around this time (including a few years before and after) names like Shorin Ryu, Goju Ryu, Shotokan, Shito Ryu, Chito Ryu, etc. began cropping up. Since Okinawa was such a small island, it was fairly evident to everyone who the seniors were. Those seniors were tasked with forming official styles.

The first concrete examples of 10th Dan used in conjunction with karate seniors came AFTER early style originators like Miyagi Chojun, Funakoshi Gichin, etc.

It’s important to note that when kyu/dan ranking began making waves in Japan it did not immediately connect with the Okinawan mindset and many seniors chose to avoid it. The Butokukai for it’s part was unreliable in providing standardized ranking and did little to help the Okinawans assimilate. The titles they handed down, like Renshi, Kyoshi, and Tasshi, were often based on political connections and broader national agendas and therefore went mostly to Japanese practitioners5. That being the case, titles and ranks were not common on Okinawa until around 1956 when Chibana Chosin of the Okinawa Karate Federation (OKF) and Toyama Kanken of the All Japan Karatedo Federation (Okinawa Branch) developed their respective organizations. By 1960 an official ten dan system was accepted throughout most of the island and rank began to flow6.

In What Ways Can 10th Dan Be Transmitted?

The transmission of 10th Dan is by no means cut and dry and actually has less historical precedent than might be expected. It’s innate ambiguity has led to frequent misunderstanding and misappropriation. Let’s look quickly at the ways Judan grading has evolved in the modern world, and how it is sometimes undermined.

1. Direct lineage transition. Despite being the cleanest and most historically proper way to transmit grade, “direct lineage” is also the most rare. A direct lineage transition is when one headmaster names a single successor and all students realign under the next leader. In this way, there is only a single 10th Dan (or headmaster) for a particular style. One of the longest successful examples of direct transition in karate is the Motobu family line of Motobu Udun Di. This style was kept in the family for generations, and even managed to name a single successor in Uehara Seikichi even though he was not of the bloodline.

How is it misused? Diplomas of direct transmission are easily faked. Some individuals copy the style and writing of legitimate koryu arts and photoshop their name into the paperwork. Others secure blank diplomas from their instructor’s school and fill out whatever grade they desire. These fake inheritances are getting more difficult to maintain however as technology connects real practitioners all over the world. Where once it was difficult to prove what kanji actually meant on a certificate, or if an individual was truly a student of a particular teacher, modern communication and internet resources provide much easier access to verification.

2. Organizational Promotion. When a senior Sensei passes away it may fall to an organization to do the promoting. This is often seen in large organizations with multiple contigents in different locations who lose a figurehead and need to nominate a followup leader. There have also been historic examples of organizations like the Butokukai who’s primary responsibility was handling rank and monitoring style adherence. This method only functions successfully if each branch of the organization agrees to the same set of codes and standards.

How is it misused? Imagine a 7th dan forming an organization consisting of his students as well as a two other schools. The other school instructors, a 5th dan and a 4th dan, agree to promote the new “organization head” to 10th dan in order to better run their group. The 10th dan can then promote the 5th and 4th dans at will…

3. Councilship Promotion. When a single organization doesn’t make sense, sometimes councils are used. Councils generally consist of multiple senior practitioners of different styles who come together to ensure a general sense of high quality and character in practitioners. On a few different occassions councils were used in Okinawa, especially during the early days of rank promotion when little precedent existed for what rank actually meant.

How is it misused? “Soke Councils” are among the biggest money makers in modern martial arts. For a nominal fee, practitioners can send performance video tapes to a Soke Council that will “review” the tapes and send out rank. Most of the time skill level doesn’t matter, only payments. Coincidently, the members of these soke councils frequently promote each other to lofty ranks in order to better sell their council business to outsiders. Becoming part of a Soke Council, or receiving rank from one, is usually an exercise in marketing rather than quality control.

4. New/Hybrid Style Creation. Throughout martial arts history new styles have come and gone. Some have been named/formed out of sheer necessity, like Goju Ryu of Okinawan Karate. Others have been formed out of political need, or to escape a bad leader, or in rare cases due to sheer uncontainable brilliance from the founder (i.e. Morihei Ueshiba, Bruce Lee, etc). When the new style is formed the creator has the option of labelling him/herself the 9th or 10th Dan of that style. Some new styles withstand scrutiny and grow in popularity, becoming an accepted part of martial culture. Others fade into dissuse.

How is it misused? There is nothing stopping any person from creating a style no matter how insubstantial their skill level. Some individuals create new styles purely for the marketing potential of it, while others do it because they were unable to secure high quality traditional training in any one style. The most frequent way to create a new style is to hybridize existing styles, such as taking karate techniques and mixing them with aikido, judo, Krav Maga, etc etc.

Okinawa Kenpo’s Conundrum

Let’s hop back into history and look at a specific example of stylistic dissemination.

Among the many Okinawans who didn’t warrant particular attention from the Butokukai was Nakamura Shigeru of Okinawa Kenpo. Nakamura was a student of multiple senior practitioners, including Itosu Anko, Chomo Hanashiro, Kentsu Yabu, Motobu Choki, and Kuniyoshi Shinkichi (none of whom were selected for early rank by the Butokukai).

nakamura shigeru lineage

Nakamura’s agenda was to see all Okinawan karate organized under a single banner. He preferred the broad title of “Okinawa Kenpo” so as to encapsulate all the different branches.

Nakamura’s vision would go unfulfilled, but “Okinawa Kenpo” soon became associated with his particular brand of karate. As Nakamura’s health faltered he chose to name a successor: Odo Seikichi. This was not done explicitly through Menkyo Kaiden or a 10th Dan bequethment and no doubt was a difficult decision as Nakamura also had a highly capable son in Taketo. But according to Taketo himself:

“There was much discussion on why Odo Seikichi was selected.  I think this way now, as I think back in 1969:  My father selected Odo Sensei because he truly captured the essence of what my father Shigeru Nakamura had done. My father felt Odo Seikichi, (and I felt this too) that Odo Seikichi at the time WAS Okinawa Kenpo.  People should know if they have directly studied under Odo Seikichi for a period of time, they should know they were being taught how my father taught all of us.” – Nakamura Taketo7

Odo Sensei took the reigns and begun spreading Okinawa Kenpo globally. He also worked deligently to integrate a comprehensive kobudo system with his karate. Meanwhile, Taketo Sensei continued to teach as did other Okinawa Kenpo practitioners such as Oyata Seiyu.

Odo Sensei split his time between teaching in Okinawa and the United States, bringing up a handful of skilled senior students. These students trained deligently and eventually acquired ranks of 7th, 8th, and 9th Dan directly under Odo himself. Unfortunately, when Odo Sensei passed away, he left no clearcut guidelines of inheritance. The senior students were left to carry on as best they could in their own independent ways.

Heilman Sensei’s Organizational Efforts

The loss of a teacher is never easy and often leaves seniors wondering how to maintain the quality of the art. When Odo Sensei passed away Mr. Heilman was ranked 9th Dan (directly from Odo in 1997). Heilman Sensei was also in the process of building out his own organization known as the International Karate Kobudo Federation (which he begun with Odo’s approval in 1991).

In response to growing concerns about the future of Okinawa Kenpo, Heilman Sensei got together with a few other Odo seniors (Joseph Bunch, Larry Isaac, Al Louis, and Vic Coffin, later joined by George Epps and Charles Mann) and formed the Okinawa Kenpo Karate Kobudo Union, the point of which was to uphold high standards in teaching, certification, and preservation of the art. These individuals were not the only Odo seniors nor was the OKKKU designed to be the all-encompassing final word on Okinawa Kenpo. It simply filled a void with checks and balances across each independent organization. Each member had proven themselves to be of high quality and character over the course of decades, therefore acting as colleagues with a shared goal.

Heilman Sensei’s Promotion to 10th Dan

After Odo Sensei passed away Mr. Heilman settled into his position as head of the IKKF and president of the OKKKU, focusing his efforts on the growth and health of Okinawa Kenpo. He had fought serious legal battles over an external attempt to control the Okinawa Kenpo name, a matter which threatened the freedom of the art. In the end Heilman Sensei won, but sadly these events had cascading effects as different legitimate branches of Okinawa Kenpo chose to proceed under different names, including Ryukyu Kenpo, Ryukyu Hon Kenpo Kobujutsu, etc etc.

While Okinawa Kenpo suffered from legal and political complications, every practitioner’s right to continue training in their own way was preserved.

For 50+ years Heilman Sensei trained deligently, first studying Jujutsu with Hank Talbot, then karate with Robert Trias, then karate and kobudo with Odo Seikichi. He became a facilitor of martial sharing, bringing people together not just of Okinawa Kenpo background but also of other styles and methods. One of his main objectives was, and is, a continuation of the original dream of Okinawa Kenpo -sharing between skilled practitioners for the betterment of the art. Individuals like Jody Paul (Motobu Udun Di and Seidokan), Bill Hayes (Shorin Ryu), Chuck Merriman (Goju Ryu), George Alexander (Shorin Ryu), Nick Adler (Isshin Ryu), Patrick McCarthy (Koryu Uchinadi), Miguel Ibarra (Aikijujutsu), and more have teamed up with Heilman Sensei to further that vision.

Recently, the OKKKU directors and a select handful of outside organizations got together in order to promote Heilman Sensei as a reward for his efforts. The rank is not to indicate supreme grandmastership of all Okinawa Kenpo, but to recognize that Heilman Sensei has grown in skill and wisdom to a point where he is trusted as a key component of carrying on Odo Sensei’s dream. He is “his own man” and understands the complexities of the art and how to move it forward.

The actual issuance of the rank was conducted over two weeks, partially at the IKKF Annual Training event and partially at Larry Isaac’s North Carolina Tournament. For a look at the proceedings, watch this brief video:


The promotion was conducted and ratified by the following associations:

Okinawa Kenpo Karate Kobudo Union (OKKKU) International Seidokan Motobu Ryu Renmei (ISMR) United States Karate Alliance (USKA) International Karate Kobudo Federation (IKKF)
Larry Isaac, 10th Dan Shian Toma, 10th Dan James Hawkes, 10th Dan Nick Adler, 9th Dan Isshin Ryu
Vic Coffin, 9th Dan Jody Paul, 9th Dan David Jordan, 9th Dan Bill Hayes, Shorin Ryu
Al Louis, 9th Dan Satoshi Yamauchi, 9th Dan Jody Paul, 9th Dan Seidokan, Motobu Udun Di
George Epps, 9th Dan Shigemitsu Tamaei, 9th Dan Congratulation letters: Miguel Ibarra, 10th Dan Aikijujutsu
Charles Mann, 9th Dan Fumio Demora, 9th Dan Shito Ryu Ron Yamanaka, 9th Dan Goju Ryu
Spartaco Bertoletti, 9th Dan Jujutsu Patrick McCarthy, 9th Dan Koryu Uchinadi
Patrick McCarthy, 9th Dan Koryu Uchinadi Roy Hobbs, 10th Dan Shorin Ryu
Robert Bowles, 10th Dan Shuri Ryu George Alexander, 10th Dan Shorin Ryu
Nick Adler, 9th Dan Isshin Ryu Spartaco Bertoletti, 9th Dan Jujutsu
*All rank acknowledgements and congratulations were provided
voluntarily with no monetary compensation on the
part of Bruce Heilman
Chuck Merriman, 9th Dan Goju Ryu


Regarding the Associations featured in the chart above: The OKKKU consists entirely of high ranking Okinawa Kenpo practitioners. The ISMR is a respected Seidokan organization closely connected to Okinawa Kenpo, harking back to the days of cooperation between Nakamura Shigeru and Shimabukuro Zenryo who established the original Okinawa Kenpo Renmei with practitioners like Uehara Seikichi, Matayoshi Shinko as well as Odo Seikichi, Toma Shian, Kise Fusei, Oyata Seiyu, etc. The USKA is the highly recognized organization developed by Robert Trias and carried on by James Hawkes and Robert Jordan. The IKKF is Heilman Sensei’s organization, the executive board consisting of quality practitioners from a myriad of traditional styles.

okinawa kenpo gatherings

This promotion combines two major methods as described earlier – organizational rank and council rank. The OKKKU is essentially an organization of different individuals studying the same style. Heilman Sensei’s own IKKF students supported the rank (as you might guess), but the executive board, acting as a council, truly ratified it. The ISMR board connected the rank back to Okinawa and provided a more solid link to Okinawa Kenpo’s past. The USKA support provided broader American recognition and connected Heilman Sensei with his training under Robert Trias.

What Does it All Mean?

We’ve covered the core history of the 10th Dan, as well as exploring how one traditional style went about conducting a promotion. But what does that mean for you?

Well, if one thing can be said for certain, it’s that 10th Dan might have different significance in your style than it does in someone else’s. You may have one 10th Dan for your entire system worldwide, or there may be multiple. In fact, there may be MANY, some who have acquired the rank legitimately and others who have not.

Being a 10th Dan is a complex, philisophical endeavor. The promoted individual must exhibit exceptional character and dedication to the art, understanding it with extreme depth. They must also be responsible enough to carry the art forward and develop future students in order to continue the tradition.

Heilman Sensei is lucky to have many amazing artists supporting him, but he garnered that support with decades of hard work. In the modern world rank is often bartered for, bought, or stolen. It’s an obsession born of envy and desire. When high rank happens organically, through traditional channels, it can serve to celebrate careers and bring good artists closer together.



1Pat Nakata via Charles Goodin, 2007. Karate Thoughts Blog.

2John Sells, 2000. Unante, pg 59.

3Funakoshi Gichin, 1975. Karatedo: My Way of Life, pg. 69.

4Pat Zalewski, The Japanese Evolution of Karate Rank, pg. 3.

5Higaonna Morio, 1985. Traditional Karatedo Vol. 1 Fundamental Techniques. p. 19.

6John Sells, 2000. Unante, pg 189.

7Quote courtesy of Gonzo Flores during his interview with Nakamura Taketo