The Hokushin Ittō-ryū completely preserved its old ranking system. In traditional koryū-bujutsu (old Japanese martial arts) schools there is no modern dan or kyu system, as there is in gendai-budō (modern Japanese martial arts) like kendō, iaidō, jūdō, jōdō or aikidō. Gradings in koryū are traditionally awarded as makimono (ranking scrolls), which contain the secrets and teachings of the school. The content of the makimono is secret and the student has to protect those secrets from non-members or members of lower ranks. This is why makimono are traditionally awarded together with inka-jō (traditional diplomas) which can be shown to anybody or be publicly displayed. The makimono and inka-jō certify the rank a student received from the school’s sōke.
Coloured belts or badges on the clothing to show off rank are a modern phenomenon and are not existent in authentic koryū-bujutsu schools. The usage of striped hakama, kimono (montsuki) and haori (coat worn over kimono) have also nothing to do with rank in a koryū. They are formal wear, like a suit nowadays, and the keiko-gi and hakama, worn for everyday practice, would be the equivalent to sportswear. In koryū-bujutsu, rank is not something visible on the outside. It is shown in technique, knowledge and character.
The techniques and teachings of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū Hyōhō are transmitted in three levels. Those levels are:
- Shoden: Shoden is the beginning level of the transmission. In it, the student learns the basic movements and techniques of the school. It can be seen as the solid foundation on which a strong technique is built upon during the next two levels.
- Chūden: Chūden is the intermediate level of the transmission. During this step of the swordsman’s education he has to master all intermediate techniques, become proficient in shiai (duels) and knowledgeable in the philosophy and history of the school.
- Okuden: Okuden is the inner or master level of the transmission. The highest and most secret teachings and techniques are transmitted in this level. After fully mastering it, the student receives the menkyo-kaiden scroll (license of full mastery of the school).
There are traditionally five makimono (ranking scrolls) in the Hokushin Ittō-ryū. They certify the skill and rank a kenshi (swordsman) has. Those five ranks in correct order from low to high are:
- Kajō-Mokuroku / Seigan-Denjū (also called Hon-Mokuroku)
- Chū-Mokuroku / Menkyo
- Dai-Mokuroku / Menkyo-Kaiden
Next to those ranks there also exists the so called Naginata-Mokuroku which requires complete mastery of all naginatajutsu techniques of the school. Normally the naginata-mokuroku is awarded together with the chū-mokuroku. However, sometimes it is issued before the chū-mokuroku, when a student mastered the whole naginatajutsu curriculum before.
The student is going to receive the first grading, the kirigami after passing through the shoden level of the school. This means that all the kihon (basic techniques) have been studied, which contains ashiwaza (footwork), suburi (sword swinging and cutting exercises), as well as basic knowledge of a couple of kenjutsu and battōjutsu kata (forms) of the school. In the shoden level, the student gains rudimentary knowledge about the school and its teachings. Compared to the modern kendō / iaidō ranking kyu / dan system of the Zen Nihon Kendō-Renmei (The Japanese kendō and iaidō federation), the kirigami would be equal to the 1st dan (shodan).
While it is with frequent and hard training possible to receive the kirigami after around one up to two years, the hatsu-mokuroku is way more difficult to achieve. For this the student has to study the chūden level of the school. Chūden is structured into two steps, the hatsu-mokuroku and the kajō-mokuroku. For becoming able to achieve the hatsu-mokuroku, the student has to master the first half of the chūden (intermediate) techniques, as well as to become strong and dominant during shiai (duels). With receiving this mokuroku, the student becomes also promoted to the position of shidōin, an intermediate teacher of the school. Compared to the modern kendō / iaidō ranking system, the hatsu-mokuroku would be equal to the 4th dan (yondan).
The next step and third scroll of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū is the kajō-mokuroku. It is one of the most difficult ranks to achieve in the school. The student has to master the whole shoden and chūden level, develop a masterly technique, and become proficient in using the jūni-kajō, the twelve principles of fighting of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū. With receiving the kajō-mokuroku the student becomes a shihandai (beginning master) of the school. Those who are non-Japanese have to become fluent speakers of the Japanese language, as well as proficient in feudal Japanese history and culture. Compared to the modern ranking system, the kajō-mokuroku would be equal to the 6th dan (rokudan).
The kajō-mokuroku was the major master level mokuroku issued during the Edo period. Not so many kenshi actually managed to master the Hokushin Ittō-ryū to such a degree, were they received the chū- or dai-mokuroku. Compared to the total number of students enrolled in the Hokushin Ittō-ryū, the kajō-mokuroku was way more often issued then the chū- or dai-mokuroku. The kajō-mokuroku also certifies, that the honshitsu (essence) of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū was mastered. Because of this, the kajō-mokuroku is also referred to as hon-mokuroku, which translated means major- or essence-diploma.
If a student has mastered the entire (Omote waza) technical and philosophical curriculum of the school and has developed a strong personality upon the teachings of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū, the student will receive the chū-mokuroku / menkyo scroll. Compared to the modern kendō / iaidō ranking system, the chū-mokuroku would be equal to the 8th dan (hachidan).
With the complete transmission of all the secrets of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū, the dai-mokuroku / menkyo-kaiden (scroll of full mastery) will be awarded. This is the highest rank of the school and certifies that the individual has fully mastered the Hokushin Ittō-ryū. Compared to the modern ranking system, the dai-mokuroku would be equal to the 10th dan (jūdan).
All makimono and inka-jō of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū are personally hand written for each student and can only be issued by the gen-sōke (current generation headmaster) of the school.