I had a nice discussion with a friend when talking about rank in martial arts... We both have two separate levels of thought, his is shaped by what his "Sensei" (I don't know the Korean word for it) says "That Rank cannot be taken away it is a sign of skill." I say rank is meaningless and can be taken away just as easily as it can be lost. There is a different in having rank taken away and losing your rank. To see where my thinking goes on this, you need to understand how I see rank and why I don't put much stock in it.
What is rank? Lets start with what is rank in the first place. The Kyu/Dan grading system as we know it was invented by Kano Jugaro, who copied the Japanese school system grading for progression in public school and took some insights from an English school uniform where the students of different grades wore colored school suit jackets. The older Koryu systems in Japan used no such measure but instead had a simple method of grading the students in martial arts... They used a simple ranking structure Deshi (student) and Sensei (teacher). Sensei taught Deshi, the Sensei was the Sempai (senior student) of the Shihan (master). A Shihan was someone awarded the status of teaching those who did the teaching. Now that sounds awesome right, a Master Teacher!
The reality is that the "Sensei" might not be in a great position to stand out as a teacher because the "sensei" might only be a Deshi who is a little further along then you. While you are learning from him, you are also his test from the real Sensei who wants to see if he understands the ideas and how to demonstrate them. In the old system of ranking and in martial arts a Deshi was give a series of certificates showing they had studied a certain art... this is not limited to martial arts but to flower arranging, tea ceremonies and so on. This system was called Menkyo or License and referred to licensing someone in a martial art.
Someone who starts training was sometimes given a Okuiri or a license that says they had entered into the art and what day. Okuiri is made up of two words Oku meaning secret and iri meaning enter and can be translated to mean to enter secretly or to enter into the secrecy of learning an art or trade. Many times this is a contract between the student and master to uphold the Dojo Kun or Kun of the art. This is symbolic of the student's oath to never teach methods to those outside the organization. After a time following basic training, one was given a Mokuroku license meaning one had been entered into the official school roles as a student. Again it varies between traditions and many such systems simply don't issue a certificate to the student for the Okuiri or Mokuroku grades, some do. One is not a student until they are a Mokuroku student. Shomokuroku is a license to learn the basics of an art. Many arts do not award a license until one can gain a Shomokuroku license can mean you have learned the basics of an art or system or that you are permitted to learn. A Gomokuroku holder is someone who has learned the Advanced methods of an Art. Most times Mokuroku was a blanket for Shomokuroku and Gomokuroku rank.
So a Shomokuroku grade would call a Gomokuroku a Sensei when they were helping them to learn the basics but a Gomokuroku would call a Shomokuroku Deshi and Menkyo holder, a lincensed teacher would call both Deshi or the Shomokuroku Sempai. Menkyo means license and means the bearer is a licensed teacher. A holder of a Menkyo Kaiden was a license of full transmission and a founder or successor known as a Soke.
You have to understand were this form of ranking comes in and what it means... This isn't a form of martial arts rank but a form of Iemoto or Soke system ranking for trade guilds/clans (families tied togather via politics, marriage and economics) that became common after the Sengoku period of war. The "martial artists" during this time were in fact warriors and many were in fact conscripted farmers and tradesmen. A samurai, even a Jizamurai or country samurai, might be trained in a particular school of combat using the same Menkyo system as the trade guilds for pottery, painting and so on.
A student's dedication might be judged by giving them pointless tasks to judge the student's worth and character. This is entering into the Okuiri status, certain students or prospective students would be trained and skip the Okuiri status because their family had to serve in a particular function. Others had to be Okuiri for a time to judge them, this is a copy of systems for licensing trades during the feudal Japanese system. Graduation from the Okuiri status or just by being born into the position. Mokuroku/Shomokuroku meant was learning the basics and being licensed or certified in the basics meant one was a low level martial artist or bushi/warrior.
During the Sengoku period many peasants and even some lower status merchants were given a Shomokuroku license to be used as Ashigaru (Light Feet or Light Infantry) warriors. Some wealthier merchants and low ranking samurai or even a few jizamurai (country samurai) acted as Non-Commissioned Officers or Sergeants leading groups (or squads if you like as Ashigaru). Some such samurai even made up whole columns of elite shock troops & mounted archers in battle, these warriors were ranked in a particular school of warfare or combat as a Gomokuroku. With many high ranking Jizamurai in the country and many lower ranking samurai from the cities ranked as Menkyo or licensed teachers.
Only a Soke held the Menkyo Kaiden (License of Full transmission) but during times of war the Soke often made sure his students were "over qualified" as the better one's school proved in warfare, the better it's reputation and more people paid to be trained. So for this reason Menkyo was awarded sparingly and each Menkyo holder had to pay the Soke to teach their traditions. During Tokugawa period the schools of combat were limited to geographical regions and training became more expensive, as not only could one pay to learn a system of combat and/or warfare but one could also pay to be protected by those trained within said schools. Thus, under the Tokugawa Shogunate Ashigaru became part of the Samurai caste of warrior governors, below the Jizamurai. This also limited training to the Samurai caste (a form of peasant disarmament).
Many schools of warfare and combat died off and a few survived being passed down along family lines. Some started new schools but it was of little concern with staged Shiai or Contests between rival schools that was basically as realistic as modern professional wresting. One Soke would argue and challenge the other Soke, then student's would fight in tournaments, Shiai, that charged people to watch said bouts. Both Soke were in on the rigged and dramatic displays to attract spectators. How does this answer the question of what is rank?
Because it demonstrates that rank is nothing more then a means of controlling competition and generating revenue or social status. In some cases when the head of family died and heir did not earn their Menkyo Kaiden, they were given a Menkyo Kaiden to "rubber stamp" Licenses while they learned their whole art in secret often from instructor holding only a Menkyo themselves. In trades the rank of Menkyo Kaiden is awarded only after one has been a part of the art for 30 or more years but it does not make one a Soke in the Iemoto tradition.
If this ranking system is based around making money and limiting competition to from one's own students what does it really say about the Menkyo ranking system? Rank is like this, I can train in a martial art and have a Menkyo after many years. I can teach and pay a Soke (if the Iemoto system was active) to do so in his name, and use the name of his art. If I failed to pay the Soke for using his art to teach my Menkyo could be revoked. Just like if I was a Ashigaru who rose to being a minor samurai in the country, a jizamurai and I displeased my Shugodai (governor appointed by the Shogun) I could find my status dropped to Ashigaru again and lose control of the lands I managed/ruled. So rank once given could always be taken away...
More so, can rank be lost? Rank can be lost... If Rank is a sign of skill then one must always work to achieve greater skill. If one fails to train due to illness or injury, or because one has to spend more time working and caring for one's family in today's complicated, fast paced world... skill gets degraded and in time can be lost. Its like being a doctor, you can be an awesome heart surgeon... but, if you stop operating for a year, you might have all the knowledge you always had but you don't have the practice. This is why, non-martial arts Menkyo systems require only a Menkyo to achieve full transmission and why Menkyo Kaiden is awarded after 30 years of practicing said skills.
Rank is an illusion mankind's need to seek status... What to prove your skills are effective, fight someone. Want to prove your rank means something, show it! In nature the Alpha is the strongest who proves his strength and the others fall to wayside. In our unnatural human civilization, tokens of status such as rank is the illusion of having proven ourselves. Rank does not will a fight, skills do and skilled fighter might not have rank to show for it.