Menu

How long does it take to master a martial art? (Mastery)

How long does it take to master a martial art?

Last updated on March 11th, 2017

How long does it take to master a martial art?

Before you ask this, explain what you mean by “master” a martial art. How exactly would you be able to tell if someone has mastered a martial art? What are some indicators?

Unless you have a clear idea, all you have is the starting point – the day a person begins training. Without the end (the day mastery is reached), calculating the time needed for mastery is impossible.

This explains the structure of this article below. We first explore measures that can indicate a person’s mastery in martial arts, and then use those measures to calculate the time needed on average.

Challenges in defining what mastery means

Different Levels of Mastery in Martial Arts

There are a few challenges when defining mastery. Here are two.

Challenge 1: Mastering a martial art mean different things for different people

One, different people have different ideas about what it means to master a martial art.

Some believe a first-degree black belt is an accurate measure of mastery (here’s why it’s not). Others insist that mastery is an abstract concept that cannot be defined.

With differences in interpretation, you will never get a consistent answer.

Challenge 2: Unrealistic idea of what mastery means

Two, many people consider mastery an abstract concept. They believe that mastering a martial art means having absolute knowledge and impeccable skill execution. There can be ZERO room for flaws.

Being obviousSince no one ever attains perfection, they assert that no one can truly master a martial art. The definition they use for mastery is simply impossible to attain.

That is why the typical answers you get by asking: “how long does it take to master a martial art?” are:

  • “It takes a lifetime”
  • “You are always a beginner”

No shit, Sherlock! That’s an obvious and lazy answer, based on an unrealistic definition of mastery.

Think about it. Since perfect mastery cannot be reached even after death, it makes any discussion about this pointless. It is like bantering about fantasy – things that will never happen.

But both you and I know that people who want an objective timeframe for mastery aren’t talking about some abstract concept. No one asks a question with the intention of receiving vague answers.

And so, the next section defines some criteria of martial art mastery. It takes the topic of mastery into the objective realm, so that a discussion beyond vague answers can take place.

How would you know if a person has mastered a martial art?

While you can’t directly measure mastery in martial arts, you can look at some objective approximation for it. 

After all, you can tell apart a master instructor, instructor, senior and layman. Being able to do so means you already have a rough idea of the attributes that define a master.

For example, many martial artists have acknowledged Jigoro Kano, Masutatsu Oyama and Morihei Ueshiba as masters, based on their skill and contributions to the martial world.

So, let’s clarify the definition of mastery.

Mastery is not Absolute, there are different evolutions

Mastering a martial art simply means you are far beyond excellent at it. However, among masters, there are still different levels. At different points in time, a master’s level of mastery has nuances.

Take Morihei Ueshiba as an example.

Morihei Ueshiba - Founder of Aikido
Morihei Ueshiba – Founder of Aikido

Although there was a specific point in time when he mastered Aikijujutsu, he never stopped refining his skills.

The amalgamation of his martial arts training brought about Aikido. Even then, the style of Aikido experienced by his early students and later students had stark differences. It evolved with his life’s experiences.

This suggests that mastery has varying levels, and has some form of evolution.

It is no different from the nuanced differences between a white belt and blue belt. Both are considered layman, but one is of a higher level than the other. One has had slightly more experience to evolve their skill and understanding.

Evolving mastery involves mastering life’s challenges

The point here is – mastery is not the absolute final destination. There are things to refine based on how an individual progresses in life.

Consider this…

  • As a person becomes older, he has to adapt his skills. Does that adaptation to old age mean that he hasn’t mastered his art?
  • If a sixth-degree black belt loses her arm, does adapting to her injury mean she hasn’t truly mastered her martial art?
  • When a person’s life philosophy changes, does refining his techniques to suit his views mean he hasn’t truly mastered his art?

This is the evolution in mastery that I’m talking about.

So, refinements in mastery does not mean mastery does not exist

You can truly master the entire syllabus in a finite amount of time. But trying to fit the definition of mastery to the changes in life, and saying it falls short is fallacious.

Therefore, these nuances mean that mastery can be separated into different levels of refinement. Instead of taking mastery as absolute perfection, see it as a work-in-progress. Acknowledge that it includes varying levels of mastery that can spark martial evolution.

With this in mind, let’s define mastery and take a look at some measures. We ultimately need only identify the lowest benchmark for being a martial art master, to get the calculations done.

Measures that indicate martial art mastery

Martial art mastery is a combination of proven skill and acknowledgement by other experts. It is at least one class above being an instructor.

Measures of Martial Art Mastery

For simplicity, we refer to the study ‘A way to mastery. Mastery in martial arts‘. It already uses some measures as an approximation for mastery:

  • Founding of a well-regarded style of martial art
  • Being awarded the rank of tenth-degree black belt
  • Attaining the menkyo kaiden license
  • Attaining an instructor’s license (Shogo System)

I’ve also added this measure:

  • Black belt degree that qualifies for: renshi, sa bum nim  or shihan title

Let’s explore the measures in detail, and find out why I added the last one…

The 5 Measures of Martial Art Mastery

These are the five measures of mastery.

  1. Establishing a Respected New Style/Martial Art School
  2. Attaining Tenth-degree Black Belt (and similar)
  3. Menkyo Kaiden License
  4. Instructor Titles (Japanese Shogo 称号 System)
  5. Black Belt Degree Equivalent to Renshi (錬士) & Sa Bum Nim (사범님)

Click on a specific measure above to skip the other sections.

1
Establishing a Respected New Style/Martial Art School

To found a new martial art style or school that is well-respected, the founder needs to possess high technical proficiency in and deep understanding of their martial art. This puts them at a higher level than the average instructor.

Hence, being a founder is a good measure of martial art mastery, except for one issue. Any charlatan can create their own martial art while being utterly incompetent.

To counter that, we need to assess other measures.

Shigeru Oyama (Oyama Karate founder)
Shigeru Oyama (Oyama Karate founder). Image via Australian Kyokushin

For instance, does the founder possess a senior black-belt degree or menkyo kaiden license in another martial art?

That would confirm that (s)he has proven skill.

Likewise, if a founder’s style is acknowledged by other reputable martial artists, (s)he is unlikely to be incompetent.

Famous Founders of Modern Martial Arts

The study,  A way to mastery. Mastery in martial arts, included these founders. They were (and still are) widely recognized by their predecessors, peers and successors.

In addition, these masters possess at least one of the three: (1) a high level license in a koryu martial art, (2) black-belt degree in a modern martial art, or (3) both.

NameYears of training before establishing styleStyle founded
Choi Hong Hi20Taekwondo
Masutatsu Oyama25Kyokushin Karate
Shigeru Oyama39Oyama Karate
Morihei Ueshiba46*Aikido

*I can’t tally the calculation for Morihei Ueshiba. However, the number of years is plausible if the study calculates Aikido’s founding date as the day Aikibudo was renamed as Aikido in 1942.

How long does it take to master a martial art? – (Founder of New School/Style)

So, if we were to use this measure, how long does it take to master a martial art?

According to the study…

AsiaOutside Asia
Years trained before setting up schoolAverage 33.2 (ranges from 20 to 46)Average 29.1 years (ranges from 1 to 54)
Grade before setting up schoolAverage 5th/6th dan (ranges from 2nd to 8th, or menkyo license)Average 5th/6th dan (ranges from 1st to 10th)

Back to the listing of five measures

2
Attaining Tenth-degree Black Belt (and similar)

The tenth-degree black belt is generally regarded as the highest possible qualification in several martial arts. The study uses this measure to indicate confirmed mastery – the highest level of refinement.

People awarded the tenth-dan (black belt)

NameYears of Continuous TrainingMartial Art
Richard Kim77Karate
Yuchoku Higa70Karate
Siegfried Lory44Jujutsu
Keiji Tose39Iaido
Jon Bluming40Karate

Problems with using the Tenth dan as a Measure

There are several issues with using tenth dan as an approximation for mastery.

  1. Not all martial arts have a tenth dan; some styles like Aikido almost never award that rank
  2. Some martial arts have grades beyond tenth dan
  3. The tenth dan is often awarded for non-technical contributions (i.e. how well as master proliferates the martial art)

    Nakayama Masatoshi
    Nakayama Masatoshi – awarded tenth dan posthumously. Image via Asai Shotokan Association
  4. In some organisations, it is reserved only for chief instructors or founder
  5. In several cases, it is awarded posthumously, after a master has passed away

This is why a number of martial art instructors have argued against having dan-ranks beyond the first few. Also, the tenth-degree black belt is an overkill measure to signify mastery in a martial art.

That said, despite the issues, it confirms mastery with a higher degree of certainty.

How long does it take to master a martial art? – (Tenth-dan)

So, how long does it take to master a martial art, confirmed by a tenth-degree black belt?

According to ‘A way to mastery. Mastery in martial arts‘, to reach mastery confirmed by being awarded the tenth-degree black belt, it takes between 30 and 70 years of continuous training. The table below shows the differences between Asia and other countries.

AsiaOutside Asia
Years of continuous practiceAverage 55 years (ranges from 39 to 77)Average 42.8 years (ranges from 30 to 55)

Back to the listing of five measures

3
Menkyo Kaiden License

The Menkyo Kaiden is both a teaching license for and certification of high technical proficiency in the entire syllabus. It is the koryu martial art equivalent of tenth-dan.

The problem with the license is that an analogical version of menkyo kaiden can be awarded prematurely. This means such a license holder may neither have completed the syllabus nor demonstrated full proficiency.

This happens for a few reasons, such as:

  • The license is given to a foreign student, so that most of the martial art can be transmitted to people of another country.
  • The student is teaching on behalf of the master, and still takes direction from the master (menkyo kaiden is a legal license to teach a particular koryu martial art)

In either cases, (most of the time) the menkyo kaiden holder is sufficiently competent. Nonetheless, it is important to combine this measure with other measures.

People with Menkyo Kaiden in a Koryu Martial Art

NameMartial ArtAge awarded
Risuke OtakeTenshinshoden Katori Shinto-ryuGokui Kaiden at 42
Yoshio SuginoTenshinshoden Katori Shinto-ryuMenkyo Kaiden at 35
Fumon TanakaEnshin-ryu KobudoGokui Kaiden at 32

The ages for receiving menkyo kaiden is relatively young, unlike the tenth-degree black belt. This is because most Japanese people from samurai families (who transmit a koryu martial art) begin training at the age of six.

So, in my opinion, a person awarded menkyo kaiden can be considered a low to mid-level master. Years later, the person’s mastery level would naturally have refined to a higher level.

How long does it take to master a martial art? – (Menkyo Kaiden license)

According to ‘A way to mastery. Mastery in martial arts‘, the average time to receive a menkyo kaiden license is between 12 and 30 years.

Back to the listing of five measures

4
Instructor Titles (Japanese Shogo 称号 System)

Black Belt

Where the dan system ranks technical proficiency, the shogo (称号) system is a teaching title system for modern Japanese martial arts. It indicates a person’s instructor rank.

Especially in Japan (depending on the martial art), possessing an advanced black belt degree doesn’t necessarily make a person an instructor. It is the shogo system that deals with instructor titles, which are generally more difficult to obtain.

That said, not all martial arts use the shogo system. Some styles and dojos just use a different procedure to appoint instructors. And it varies in different organisations and dojos.

Taekwondo
Taekwondo

For example, they may have a less formal process to appoint instructors, and even use the title of shihan to recognise master instructors. The shihan title takes many years to achieve and sometimes comes with the power to give out ranks.

Take a look at this resource (by Total Self Defense) to understand the shogo system and shihan title in detail. As for a historical timeline on the dan and shogo system, check out kenshi 24/7 and Michael Faulk’s explantion.

Titles in the Shogo System

The following table is only a general example. Not all organisations use these specific criteria, and there are exceptions. Nevertheless, almost all organisations require a minimum of fifth-dan to confer the renshi title.

TitleMinimum Black Belt DegreeMinimum Age (Years)
Hanshi – 範士9 to 10 danabove 54
Kyoshi – 教士7 to 8 danabove 39 (need to hold the Renshi title for at least 10 years previously)
Renshi – 錬士*5 to 6 danabove 34 (need to hold 5th dan for at least 2 years)

Source: Black Belt Ranks and Titles

Korean martial arts

Since the shogo system is from Japan, Korean martial arts do not use it. Instead they use something similar.

The below table shows a similar system used by WTF and Kukiwon Taekwondo. As shown, martial artists with at least a fourth dan are considered masters.

DanRemarks
Assistant Instructors (kyo sah nim – 교사님)1 to 3trained students who serve as assistants
Instructors/Masters (sa bum nim – 사범님)4 to 6
Grand Masters (kwan jang nim – 관장님)7 to 9

Source: World Taekwondo Federation & Kukiwon Taekwondo Ranks 

Koryu martial arts

Koryu martial arts already have the menkyo ranking system that both acknowledges technical proficiency and awards teaching licenses. It generally does not use the shogo system. (Refer to using menkyo kaiden as a mastery measure)

Measuring Mastery via Instructor Titles

The title of renshi, kyoshi and hanshi will be used to indicate the varying levels of mastery. However, according to researchers, Japan generally recognises only kyoshi and hanshi holders as instructors.

Nonetheless, renshi (錬士) holders will be used to indicate low level mastery. In the case of Korean martial arts, a minimum title of sa bum nim (사범님) is needed to be considered a master.

How long does it take to master a martial art? – (Instructor Titles)

Refer to the next section, which calculates the time taken to qualify for a renshi (or sa bum nim) title, based on dan-ranking.

Back to the listing of five measures

5
Black Belt Degree Equivalent to Renshi (錬士) & Sa Bum Nim (사범님)

Aikido

Since there are martial arts not using the shogo system (or the korean equivalent), we’ll use the corresponding black belt degree as an approximation.

This means Japanese martial art fifth-degree black belt (錬士 – renshi) of at least two years can be considered low level master. In the same vein, Korean martial artists with a fourth-degree black belt (사범님  – sa bum nim) will be used as an approximation for low level mastery.

How long does it take to master a martial art? – (Korean fourth/Japanese fifth dan)

It takes at least 13 to 15 years.

OrganisationNumber of Years (bare minimum)
World Karate Organisation13 years
Japan Karate Association14 years
International TaeKwon-Do Association15 years
Chicago Aikido Club8 years to get to third dan (time for each level after that is not specified)

Back to the listing of five measures

Different Levels of Mastery

Low level masters

  • Renshi title
  • Fifth-degree black belt of a Japanese martial art
  • Fourth-degree black belt of a Korean martial art
  • Analogous menkyo kaiden holders

Mid to high level masters

  • Kyoshi title
  • Hanshi title
  • Menkyo Kaiden
  • Acknowledged founder of a new style or headmaster of a new dojo
  • Sixth-degree black belt and above (including tenth dan)
  • Shihan honourific

The tables on mastery and specified data is based on the study, ‘A way to mastery. Mastery in martial arts‘, unless referenced otherwise.

Bottomline – How long does it take to master a martial art?

Bottomline - How long does it take to master a martial art?

Instead of taking martial arts mastery as an abstract concept that cannot be measured, I assert that there are varying levels of mastery with approximate measures. These, in summary, are…

Low level mastery: at least 12 years (lower range of Menkyo Kaiden) to 13 years (time to get fifth-dan).

Mid to high level of mastery: 29 to 33 years of training (before establishing a respectable martial art style)

Confirmed mastery (as in tenth-dan): Between 30 and 70 years of training

Now that you have a rough time frame, do not confuse the measures for mastery itself. If you want your skills and understanding to click in at a higher level, continue training regularly… Going through the motions for decades (or irregular training) will not make you a master.

Other articles in this series (including upcoming ones)

About Logen Lanka 174 Articles
Logen is a the founder and editor of WayOfNinja.com. Before his shoulder injury, he was actively involved in street calisthenics, Aikido and obstacle course racing. He has also served his 2-years conscription with the Singapore Armed Forces as an Armoured Infantry Trooper.