Before I started on my karate path, I remember having the idea that Black Belts were Masters of Martial Arts. Of course, once I met my husband (who was a Nidan at the time), he set me straight right away – “a Black Belt just means that you know how to train”, he said “It means that you managed to drag your butt out to the dojo a couple of times a week for a few years”. What a disappointment! I was sure that Black Belts held some kind of mystical source of great power, like the in the movies. I liked thinking that my boyfriend could kill people with a flick of his finger, and simply refrained because he was so full of inner peace. But as I started to meet his fellow karate-ka, the Sensei in his life, I realized that Black Belts were actually pretty normal. There are good black belts, there are bad black belts. There are people who get their belt and never show up to the dojo again, and people who train with renewed vigour after they pass another level. I remember one or two who seemed like really awful, abusive people. Luckily, there were also a few precious examples of long-time practitioners who seemed full of the serenity and inner power that I had read about in Samurai novels and comics. Well, almost.
So what does it all mean? Is a Black Belt really just “a white belt who never gave up”?
To start with, let’s look at the ranking system of karate. I tell my young students that our belts tell the story of our training experience. At first, the belt is white, to remember the emptiness of the student, his or her great potential, as well as inexperience. The longer the student trains, the belt starts to stain with sweat (yellow) and then blood (orange) and continues to get darker and darker with each stage. This is obviously a silly story, but the ranks do serve a good purpose. They allow students to set attainable goals and achieve something. Not everyone will be able to dedicate the time and energy for the 5 or more years that it takes to gain a Black Belt, but almost anyone can put in a few months learn the requirements for Yellow Belt. After that, the 6 months of training to an Orange Belt seems manageable. Most students need these milestones; a place to focus that’s still in sight, but far enough that it requires focus and drive to achieve. These digestible chunks of time help students to develop the “habit” of training. It’s when you are showing up twice a week that the benefits of training really start to happen.
The Canadian Naha-te Goju Karate Black Belt test is physically and mentally demanding. Shodan candidates (first degree black belt) are required to perform the kata syllabus (11 empty handed kata, plus 9 weapons kata). They are expected to demonstrate the application of self-defence principles of the kata with a partner. They must have a working knowledge of the history of Okinawan and Canadian karate. They could be asked to perform any of a number of difference technical drills and partner exercises. They will be asked to spar in various forms, including point sparring, round sparring and against 2 or 3 attackers. They must demonstrate stopping power through board breaking. If they are able to perform these requirements, they will pass. If they do not meet the standard, they will be asked to return in 6 months to try again. It’s a system that rewards hard work, repetition and spirit.
There are other kinds of Black Belt, of course. There is the black belt that Mr Miyagi handed to young Daniel-san before the karate tournament in the original Karate Kid movie. There are black belts awarded posthumously to people who died before reaching their black belt. There are honorary black belts awarded to people, who may not even karate practitioners, but have made some kind of contribution to a particular association. There are Junior Black Belts, there are Club Black Belts and there are mail-order Black Belts. It really is just a piece of cloth.
My view is that standards are important. First, a student must meet the time and age requirements. The student must have trained for a minimum of 5 years in a qualified dojo. He or she must demonstrate a good understanding of the techniques, kata and concepts that are required for that level.
This seems rather straightforward, but it’s a little more than that. The path to Black Belt is in many ways more important than the actual grading experience. For most people, the goal of Black Belt starts the moment that they grade to Brown Belt. Some take longer, some know sooner. I remember a student who trained sporadically, as a brown belt, for over 15 years, but then buckled down for year, training hard to finally get that Shodan rank. Generally, it takes a year of focused training to prepare for your test.
Whenever I think about the “no standard” ranking system, one student always comes to mind. This teenager had been training in karate for 3 years and had been ranked to brown belt by his previous instructor. When his family moved, he came to our dojo to continue his training. I was shocked - the young man did not understand how to make a proper fist. He had never punched a target or kicked a shield. He did not seem to understand fighting stance or blocking concepts. His conditioning was terrible. I always felt bad for this kid – I’m sure that getting a Brown Belt was a huge accomplishment for him, and he was struggling to keep up with yellow belts who were half his age.
Once, I read a Facebook "news" item about an 8 year old “Black Belt” who competed at the “World Championships” with a kata that he made up himself and set to “the Eye of the Tiger” music. I used to be insulted by this type of pageantry, but now I just disregard it with a bit of amusement. It’s pretty good for martial arts movies. But when it comes to the standard of a Black Belt, children do not have the physical size or emotional maturity to endure the rigours of the adult level test. A Junior Black Belt (Shodan-ho) is a rank that recognizes the time spent in training as a child. The requirements are the exactly the same, but adjusts the expectations for board breaking and adult-level sparring. That Shodan-ho must then endure the full Shodan test to be recognized at age 16.
CNGK gradings are challenging, but my 1st Kyu (Brown/Black Stripe belt) was the toughest of my gradings. This grading represents the last chance for your Sensei to check you out before you go up before the board. I remember getting so winded and bruised at the end of the sparring portion that I nearly collapsed. As a result, I worked my butt off (literally) to build my conditioning. It worked. That’s the other thing a belt does for you. It elevates your spirit.
I am a healthier and stronger person from the years of training that I did before being tested for shodan, but really – the belt is just a piece of cloth. Martial arts training has little to do with belts or gis or even what kata you do (or don’t do). The point is that you are following a disciplined path of self-improvement. If you expect your black belt to do something for you, other than represent a milestone in your training, you will be sorely disappointed. It’s the path that is important, not the prize.