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Chapter 14: What Does a Black Belt Mean?
The black belt is—or has become—far more than just a symbol of rank in the karate dojo and to the public at large. It has an aura about it. It has a connotation. What is the first thing the average person thinks of when you say “black belt” in reference to karate-do or martial arts in general? Masterful skill. Extraordinary abilities. The black belt is the mark of an expert. Those actually training in a particular art might have a more objective, less sensationalized definition. If you have been pursuing karate-do for any time at all, long enough in particular to have attained a rank symbolized by that belt, you will have a more nuanced perception, probably. You will understand a great deal about what has gone into reaching that level. If you are fortunate, you will understand much more about what lies beyond that level. Nevertheless, we have to admit that the popular image of the black belt is inextricably woven into the general perception of these arts we follow. While we may have a more comprehensive view of the belt, we need to see that in the population outside the dojo, in the world at large, it usually means something else. When a black belt is conferred upon a karateka, that has implications in the popular imagination. And we should consider some ramifications that perception and those implications in turn have upon what people think about karate-do.
Most readers will know that the belt system (dan-i) was created entirely by judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano. It has no ancient, feudal, or samurai connections. Belts in black or any other color were not a part of martial arts practice before the twilight of the feudal period in Japan, which ended in 1867. Kano awarded the first black belts around the turn of the last century. Karate-do and other Japanese arts adopted the system, and later on so did most Korean combat arts.
The Japanese martial arts that existed previously in that country’s history, those going back to the feudal period, had an entirely different way of giving rank within their curriculum. The menkyo system is one still employed by many traditional arts of Japan, including flower arranging and tea ceremony. Nearly all classical martial arts of the feudal period used some variation of this system, and those extant today continue to use it. A series of licenses and sometimes accompanying scrolls were given to the student at various periods in the education. In some cases the menkyo verified that the student had reached a particular level of understanding. In many instances, these documents symbolized an official license to teach or otherwise represent the school. Often the wording in these menkyo scrolls was flowery and elaborate: “Having been revealed by the deities, this extraordinary skill, known far and wide across the land, is hereby transmitted to the recipient of this document . . .” That’s the typical tone of a menkyo. When one cuts through all that florid hyperbole, however, the overall message is usually clear. The recipient of the scroll or paper is officially recognized in some capacity by the headmaster of that school. It is relatively easy to determine what this capacity is in the wording of the document. That is a significant difference in these older arts and in the more modern combat arts like karate-do, which award ranks. Correspondingly, what exactly the black belt signifies in the modern dojo is another question entirely.
When the typical student begins training, he is apt to think the black belt means the wearer has arrived at a high level of competence. In some dojo perhaps this is true. In most organized modern budo such as karate, however, a black belt is generally given after a few years of training. Looking through the rank qualifications of several Japanese karate-do organizations, I found four years to be about the average time required to reach shodan, or a first level black belt, assuming one trains and tests regularly within that organization. In many of these schools, the black belt is a signal you are considered a student committed to your study and you are now ready to begin training in earnest. In other words, the black belt is a sign you have walked through the door and little else. You are not an expert. Not a teacher. Certainly not a master. You are not even someone who can adequately represent the art. The belt means you have stuck it out long enough to warrant some serious consideration as a student, period.
In Japan, it is not uncommon to see sixteen- or seventeen-year old children with black belts. By that time the young people have been in the dojo or training in their school’s budo clubs for probably close to ten years. No one in Japan would regard them as anything like a “master,” of course, just because they were wearing a black belt. The budo are a part of that country’s culture, so while it would be absurd to suggest the average Japanese knows anything about budo in any specialized way, they do know enough not to hold a black belt wearer in the kind of awe people sometimes do in the West. (In fact, most Japanese I have known understand that karate is about kicking and judo is about throwing, and that’s pretty much the extent of their grasp of the subtleties of budo.)
It would be nice if we had a similar understanding of what a black belt means here, but we do not. We have evolved some different perspectives in the roughly half-century that budo has been widely practiced in the United States, some of them fairly strange. I can remember back in the 1960s when some people seriously believed that in order to get a black belt, you had to kill a person. Or that you had to open handedly chop through a requisite number of boards successfully. The general public has become a little more sophisticated now, but that’s not to say they don’t still have some odd ideas. The status of the black belt is among them.
This morning’s paper contains a story about a “black belt” in a local karate school. He has been training for about two years and has competed successfully in several tournaments. He was recently promoted to a black belt rank. He is nine years old.
How do you react to a nine-year-old with a black belt? On one hand, I can look at it from a Japanese perspective (though even in Japan this would be a bit young). The kid’s been training hard regularly and the teacher is giving him a rank that reflects that.
I tend to look at it, though, from a Western perspective. And from that side of things, there is nothing good that comes from awarding a black belt to a child. Here’s why: As we have discussed, for better or worse, the perception of a black belt is different here than in Japan. The public sees a child with a black belt and they assume that, in this dojo at least, training is literally kid’s stuff. They expect some level of competence and skill in a black belt that they know no child that age has or could have. How well would that nine-year-old do against a twenty-one-year-old black belt in competition, they would ask. Since karate is inextricably linked with personal defense, they wonder too how the kid would do against a serious threat by an adult attacker. And while you could try to explain that this is a special junior rank or that a black belt does not necessarily signify an objective level of technical competence in all holders, it all sounds like rationalization to the public. You are giving the kid a black belt either because you want to encourage more children to enroll and thus pay the bills, or because it has to do with some other profit-motivated scheme, or because you just do not take your art seriously. That is going to be the assumption. Come on. If a child can get a black belt in your art, how much is a black belt worth? Or for that matter, how much can your art itself be worth?
Awarding a black belt to a preadolescent smacks of the kind of grade inflation we have all heard so much about in education. Students are being awarded A’s merely for showing up to class regularly. High school students graduate without being able to competently read the words on this page—and I am not talking about the words in Japanese. As a result, straight A’s or a high school diploma no longer have the value or meaning they once did. The same can be said about a black belt. And certainly the argument can be made that if the black belt does not convey the aura of mastery or great, almost magical, expertise it once did, that’s really a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, I think martial arts schools should do a lot of thinking before making promotions of this type.
Unless we are training in that school, it is impossible for us to make a complete judgment on the quality of skill necessary to obtain a black belt. So we do not know if the child in question deserves such a rank or not. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I am suggesting is that the perception of the public, when they see a kid walking around in a dojo wearing a black belt, has some considerable resonances in how the public will view your art and your school. Indeed, I am told that some schools are having trouble attracting adolescents or young adults for that very reason. These are the age groups who have the maturity, the physical abilities, and the income to make training in a martial art a long-term investment of time and energy. They are the group that will stick around long enough to keep the dojo solvent and healthy. If they are turned away by the sight of a black belt not that many years out of diapers, that does not portend well for the future of the school.
Sure, it is great publicity. A black belt promotion—“and he’s only nine years old!”—is the stuff of local news stories. And it may attract other kids. You can argue further that having a big children’s class is your way to pay the bills, to make it possible for the dojo to operate so that older, more serious students will have a place to train. You might want to look around though, and see if your means—giving black belts to children—is actually producing the ends you say you want: a mature dojo where mature people are coming to follow a serious Way.