When you hear the term “black belt” I am sure it means more than just a black colored belt to you. For the karate practitioners it means our pride and many years of hard training. For the non-practitioners it may mean an expertise in karate or a dangerous person which we think funny.
Because of the movie, Kuro Obi, this Japanese term has become well known to many of the karate practitioners. The movie was not at a Hollywood level but a JKA instructor, Sensei Naka, co-starred. I would say it is interesting to see a real Shotokan instructor playing in a karate movie. Here is the URL to watch the entire movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urQQBsoTjfw
Whatever the color your belt may be, you certainly wear it every time you train. It is so much a part of our karate training, yet there are many facts about karate belts that you may not know. You might have wondered about something related to a karate belt in the past and maybe you are still looking for the answers. The subjects here are, more or less, only the trivia of karate but I think they are interesting. To some extent, it is important for all of us to know and appreciate some facts. For that reason, I hope this article will help you with your better understanding of karate and its culture.
The dan rank and the black belt system in karate is itself an interesting and a puzzling subject. We must look at the history to understand where this belt system came from. Many of the readers may already know that there was no belt system in the Okinawa karate that was introduced to Japan by Master Funakoshi. Did you know that Funakoshi adopted this system from judo? The founder of judo, Jigoro Kano (1860 – 1938) was a very educated man who was also very talented and successful in business and academic arena. For instance, he founded judo in late 19th century (1882 to be exact) and within a short period of time the membership of his dojo increased to several thousand members. He was also one the first representatives of the Olympic Committee from Japan. I suspect he invented the dan system about the same time he created judo from jujitsu. As you may know that judo and Kano had a huge influence on Shotokan karate at the early stage of Funakoshi teaching in Tokyo. In fact, the name of the style, Shotokan, believe it or not, shows its influence. The name of judo headquarters was Kodokan and it was a very reputable name in the martial arts society in Tokyo at that time. Thus, Funakoshi adopted the “kan” (館Hall or Building) part in Shotokan, probably, hoping to build his dojo as big as Kodokan. There was another reason why Funakoshi chose Shotokan for his dojo name. He believed in having one karate and did not want to create his style, ryu. There was only one organization, Kodokan, in judo and he liked it. This is exactly what he wanted to see with karate and he used Shotokan for his dojo and refused to use “ryu”. This is why Shotokan has no ryu at the end of its name like Shito-ryu and Goju-ryu. Some people recently (ignorant, I am afraid) are referring our karate as Shotokan-ryu which I do not think Master Funakoshi would appreciate or approve. Here is a link to Wikipedia on Jigoro Kano if you are interested in learning more about this interesting man: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jigoro_Kano
OK let’s go back to kuro obi, Funakoshi granted the first dan diploma to a few of his students as early as in 1924, two years after he migrated to Tokyo. In the early period of Shotokan karate the highest rank one could attain was Godan (5th degree) as they followed suit to the system in judo. As the population of judo increased Kodokan expanded its highest dan rank to 10th dan. Thus karate followed the rule change and the highest rank in Shotokan is 10th dan now. In some styles of karate a higher degree wears a different color belt. A practitioner of 6th, 7th or 8th dan would wear a red and white belt. For 9th and 10th dan a full red belt may be worn. These belts are also the imitation from the judo policy. Obviously Funakoshi did not like this idea so he did not adopt it. The Shotokan practitioners only use a black belt for all dan ranks.
In other styles, the stripes are embroidered on the belt to show one’s rank. It is true that you cannot tell one’s rank if his belt is plain. I personally do not like this idea to make the ranks visible. I do not wish to criticize the other styles but I do not like it. In fact, I like the idea of a black belt turning into almost white after many years of wearing. I am proud to wear an old belt as it shared my daily training for many years. I sometimes come across with a few Shotokan practitioners who wear a belt with the stripes. I am sure they are ignorant about our tradition. I want them to know that it is Shotokan tradition to use only a plain black belt.
Kendo is another budo that has a dan system and their highest rank used to be 10th dan rank. It is interesting that in the year of 2000 the All Japan Kendo Federation decided to drop the 9th and the 10th dan ranks thus 8th dan is the highest rank one can attain now in kendo.
What I will bring up next is one particular subject about the karate dan rank system that, I consider, should be discussed more frequently. This is something that you all know well but it has not been discussed openly.
In many of the sports or athletic events they have their own ranking systems. For instance, in boxing it is divided into many weight divisions or classes and in each division they have the world ranks. I am also aware that there are different groups such as WBC, WBA, WBO, etc. and each one has its own ranks but I will not go into this part for our discussion today. The point I wish to bring up is the fact that the ranking systems in boxing are fluid and not permanent. In other words, your rank whether it is first (champion) or 100 will not stay permanently (though such a record may be kept as the historical ranking). It goes down when you lose in a fight and your rank disappears when you retire from the fighting. This is not the case in karate as well as in all budo. Once a dan rank is granted a practitioner will have that rank permanently. He can get promoted but the rank will never come down. I am aware that ranking system of the sports (boxing, tennis, etc.) are different in its objective from the budo’s dan ranks. In fact, judo now has the competitors ranking system called World Ranking (by IJF) that is unrelated to the dan rank system. I believe a dan rank is given on the belief that this particular practitioner will continue his training so that his ability will not deteriorate, in fact, it is expected only to improve. But the sad fact is that many people do not continue their training and quit. Only a handful will remain and train throughout their life. In addition, at a certain age one reaches the maximum of his physical ability and the skill level may even come down despite the continuing of the practice. It is an honorable thing to receive a dan rank and we should be proud of it. At the same time, I feel that the integrity and the substance of the dan ranks must be there to mean anything to us. It is a big shame but there are too many bogus and self-promoted ranks. I can truly understand why Funakoshi sensei refused to receive any dan ranks.
Let’s move on to another interesting subject. Have you ever wondered why kyu rank starts from 8th (at some dojo from 10th) and the rank decreases down to one kyu as a student progresses? Once you reach Shodan or the first degree black belt, the rank increases as you get promoted. When I first joined JKA 50 years ago I wondered why I did not start from 1 kyu. I wondered why the kyu system would not take an increasing system like the dan system and of course I could not ask such a thing to our teacher. Many years later I found that the kyu system had been intentionally structured this way. Let me share the concept behind this system and hopefully you will see the logic.
The fundamental concept of martial arts is that a student is not expected to start a real karate training until you become Shodan (first degree black belt). Some of you may know or practice a custom of making a new Shodan to wear a white belt for a short period of time (a month or so). This custom is to let a new Shodan know that he is now starting a real karate training or he is finally at the starting point of real learning of karatedo. Until that level a student’s objective or a goal is to build the foundation and at the same time, reduce the bad habits or the “natural” ways of body movements.
This may be a difficult concept but is an important one. In other words a student will learn the basic karate ways or the conditions that are necessary to learn the real karate techniques. For an example, if you ask a street person to make a fist he can probably make something that is similar to a karate fist, seiken 正拳.However, if you ask him to show you an open hand he will show you something like Photo A (natural open hand, left above). You ask him next to put the fingers together, he will show you a hand like Photo B (right above) but never shuto 手刀(knife hand, Photo C below). It will require a little learning to make a shuto hand. It will require numerous repetition to “forget” your natural hand forms (A and B) and make this shuto hand (C) “natural” to you.
This is just a small example and the scope of the preparation (forgetting the natural ways) will extend to all those stances, body shifting, postures, breathing method, leg strength, ki-ai as well as the dojo etiquettes just to name a few. All the knowledge and the techniques, indeed, are necessary before a practitioner can “start” the karate training. Note: In a perfect world, all those “pre-requisites” should be learned in advance, but in a real situation the learning of these matters are done in parallel as he engages in karate training. This is why you start from 8th kyu and move up to one kyu as you get yourself prepared for the real karate training.
Another subject; we all know that a beginner starts with a white belt. Before he reaches a black belt there are many different colors such as yellow, blue, green, etc. When I started my karate training in early 60’s there were only two colors before black. They were white and brown. If I remember correctly I started from Mu-kyu (no kyu) and with the first exam I became 6th kyu. We were all white until we reached 3 kyu (brown belt). Now most of the dojos start from either 8th kyu or 10th kyu. Some dojo even give a stripe to show a half kyu advancement. In one dojo the chief instructor told me he would never advance a student by one full kyu. With the first exam a student will become 10 and a half kyu. With this system this student has to take 20 kyu examinations before he reaches 1 kyu to go for a black belt. I did not make any comment to this instructor (luckily he was and is not in the same organization) as he considered karate as a pure business. I am not here to make a judgment on making karate a pure business but I personally would not send my sons to his dojo. Each student is different in his development and speed of learning. Though it may not be good for a business but I do not like having so many examinations in order to receive more money from of the students (or their parents).
A popular question I receive is if the colors to the kyu ranks are fixed or if there is a universal order. The quick answer is no. The basic idea is to start from white (no color) and the belt gets darker towards black. At many dojo the next color to white is either yellow or light blue and I think it makes sense. However, some dojo start with a red belt for 10th and 9th kyu. It is indeed a very dark color but it is intentional. As we all know that the drop-out rate is the highest with the white belt. The instructors believe the red color belt will give more motivation than a yellow or a blue to the beginners and they will stay with the training longer. This may be true and that would be another business decision a dojo instructor needs to make. Incidentally I find it interesting because in judo and a few karate organizations, a red belt is allowed to 9th and 10 dan. In our organization, we have a guideline of the colors that are associated with the kyu ranks but it is not mandatory. We let the member dojo decide on the colors for the kyu ranks.
Here is another popular question. After having a lengthy absence or illness, say more than a year or longer, you may wonder if you deserve to wear your old black belt. You may not be sure what color of a belt you should wear when you return to your dojo. There is no universal rule on this subject and it is up to the policy of an individual dojo. Many dojos or organizations do not mind a member wearing his black belt even if had a long absence. Some dojos have a policy that a returned practitioner has to wear a white belt for a certain period of time. That length varies and again, it will depend on an organization’s rule or policy.
If you are a black belt but you had a long absence and today is your first day back. What belt should you wear? Ask yourself if you can perform just as good as you did right before your lengthy absence. If you are exceptionally talented and if you are confident in your performance, then you can wear your old kuro-obi. However, if you are an average person then you feel less coordinated and out of shape. You may even forget some of the kata. If this is the case, why not wear a white belt? Or does your self-pride or ego bother you? I would rather look as a great white belt than a very poor black belt. Believe me the color of a belt does not help you with your karate. It will not make you look any better or worse so why not wear a white belt for a few months until you gain back your coordination, your stamina, etc? Length of being a white belt depends on the length of one’s absence as well as that person’s ability to gain back to the black belt level. It can be only a couple of months to a half year. It will all depend on an individual and your sensei should be able to tell you when you are ready.
So, what do you think of your kuro obi now? One thing I can tell you is that even if your belt is black, it will not help you with your karate or make you look any better. On the other hand, if you wear a kuro obi there will be a certain amount of obligation and responsibility associated with your belt. For instance, you need to train not once or twice a week but every day. You must be in shape and lead a healthy life. Obesity must not be tolerated for a black belt. You also need to live by Dojo Kun and follow Niju Kun.