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Subsequent dan grades in judo are named numerically nidan (二段), sandan (三段) etc, but the first grade is called shodan (初段) "beginning grade". Is there a particular reason for this as opposed to the expected ichidan (一段) "first grade"?

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初 can also be pronounced "hatsu", which is used interchangeably to mean "start", "beginning" or "first". For example, hatsutanjō is a baby's "first birthday" and hatsuyuki is the winter's first snow.

Technically speaking, "sho" is the kan-on reading of the Chinese character 初, while "hatsu" is the kun-yomi reading of the same kanji. The kan-on reading is generally a Japanese approximation of how the Chinese would pronounce the character (in this case, "chu"), while the kun-yomi reading is how Japanese speakers would natively pronounce the same kanji. Even in Chinese, however, one of 初's main definitions is "first".

It is also good to note that "ichidan" does not mean "first dan", but rather "one dan", just like "nidan" means "two dan" and so on. This is because the Japanese numbers used in this context are numerals, and not ordinal numbers. Ordinal numbers in Japanese use the traditional Japanese numbers (hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu, etc.) as a base, to which the suffix "-me" is added. In Japanese, thus, you are not a first/second/third/etc. degree black belt, but rather a black belt that has 1/2/3/etc. degrees.

Why is "ichidan" not used for the first degree? I'm afraid I have no other answer than what my former karate sensei told me. According to him, you don't actually need to count the degrees if you only have one, and insisting on counting your single degree could be interpreted as bragging. In this context, "shodan" conveys more meaning, as it can both mean "first degree" and "beginning degree". Thus, it marks the start of a journey towards mastery rather than mechanically counting the single degree you hold.

Now as to why "shodan" instead of "hatsudan" (hatsu being more frequently used in compound words meaning "first something" than sho) or even "hitotsume dan", I have no idea.

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    I don't think your comments about numerals/ordinals are entirely accurate - ichi, ni, san etc can mean 1, 2, 3 or first, second, third e.g. 二階から目薬 (nikai kara megusuri) – ukemi Jun 28 at 9:01
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    @ukemi I'll readily admit that there are many subtleties of Japanese that I don't grasp, but I feel like the literal translation in that quote is "floor two", not "second floor". Because we translate it in a way that makes more sense in our language doesn't mean it's that way in Japanese. A good example of this would be how dates are given in different languages. For example, Americans would say "May fifth", but the Spanish would say "five of May" (cinco de Mayo, and not quinto de mayo) and the French "five May" (cinq mai). – Dungarth Jun 28 at 15:46
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    That's kind of my point - in different languages both cardinals and ordinals can be used to express ordinality. E.g. as you say in Spanish cardinals are always used for dates (except the 1st of the month), and are almost always used in place of ordinals generally as well, especially ones bigger than 10 e.g. Luis XVI is read Luis dieciséis, not Luis decimosexto. Likewise in Japanese, cardinals are sometimes used express ordinality e.g. 二番, 第二, 二世, 二番目, 二代目, 二着, 二級 etc. Or English e.g. WWII = World War Two = The Second World War – ukemi Jun 28 at 16:13
  • Just for clarification, the Kodokan itself translates shodan, 二段, 三段 as 1st Dan, 2nd Dan, 3rd Dan. – ukemi Jun 28 at 16:28
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    @ukemi Most of the Japanese speakers I know, when speaking English, have a tendency to translate dates as something like "twenty February", even though they are otherwise familiar with ordinal numbers in English. I've always interpreted that as meaning Japanese dealt with dates in cardinals rather than ordinals. In Go, I also often see rankings translated as 1-dan (one dan) to 9-dan (nine dan), and almost never first dan to ninth dan, hence my initial answer. The Kodokan having greater international reach, they likely used a translation with which English speakers were more familiar with. – Dungarth Jun 28 at 17:04
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I have no explicit evidence to back this up, but I suspect this was to avoid ambiguity with the homonymous superlative adverb 一段 (いちだん), which might lead people to assume 1st dan is the highest dan grade (cf. 1st kyu), as opposed to the starting one.

Note that the use of shodan predates judo and is terminology inherited from Go.1 2


1. Das "go" - spiel (1880)
2. An unabridged Japanese-English dictionary, with copious illustrations (Dan; Shodan) (1896)

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