“Black Belt isn’t an award for which you can test. It’s the person you have become.”
In 1924, in his very humble upstairs room, Funakoshi Gichin invited his seven senior students to a gathering. They had been studying with him for about two years. Funakoshi had dug up some black ribbon and cut it into seven pieces, each long enough to fit around a person’s waist. Funakoshi presented those ribbons, along with a hand written certificate, to his seven students, Ohtsuka, Gima, Tokuda, Katsuya, Akiba, Shimazu, and Hirose, as an expression of his gratitude for their commitment to his art.
Thus began the tradition of belt rank in karate.
Of all the misunderstood aspects of karate, there is possibly nothing more misunderstood than this perceived pinnacle of the art, the nadir of the struggle – the black belt. And what the black belt has come to represent is literally the story of modern karate. There had never been rank associated with karate during its 400-year gestation in Okinawa. It was a way of survival, not a political event. It would be like Wild Bill Hickok testing for a rank in gun fighting. Many Okinawans ridiculed the idea in the beginning, but, after the Second World War, most came to accept it, although the standards and time spent to achieve each level often vary so much as to be meaningless. The black belt took on a brand new meaning when the ancient martial art met up with western media. The idea of a “black belt”, a person who achieved the apex of martial prowess, caught on in the west like fire in a Eucalyptus forest and a culture blossomed around it. Movie writers quickly picked up on the symbolism and the financial potential. Karate school owners saw the marketing prospects. Black Belt Magazine opened publication.
Soon the idea reached the ludicrous. One karate school created a membership card for its students who received their black belt rank. Alongside a photo of the recipient was placed a photo of their open hands, palms forward. The claim was that these black belts were so deadly their hands had to be registered.
So what is a black belt, if not the ultimate warrior? Anyone who wears one, unless they are deranged, will quickly admit they are not the ultimate warrior (except me, of course, I really am). At its heart, the black belt is a bond between a teacher and a student. Teachers have set a target based on their own or someone else’s standards and the student has achieved it. Anything else is what we bring to it.
But, in its essence, the black belt is not an award that can be bequeathed. It is a symbol of what we have become, the person into which we have molded ourselves. The idea that a person could cram for a black belt test, honing fundamentals and two person drills and reviewing kata for the testing floor is ridiculous. That should be what we have been doing the entire time we have been studying – building strength and endurance, balance, movement and kata, power, speed and reflexes through endless practice. We can’t cram for it like an Algebra test. We can’t try out the test to see if we can pass and test again next year if we don’t. We are either there or not. The test is redundant. The black belt person has already been born out of the discipline of years of practice.
Not until modern times did it appear and almost immediately get caught up in human illusion and mythology. Funakoshi and the Okinawan teachers who followed him from Okinawa to Japan in the 1920’s wanted karate to be accepted by mainstream Japan, which meant acceptance by a semi-governmental organization of the times called the Dai Nippon Butokukai which oversaw the development of the modern martial arts such as kendo and judo.
Kano Jigoro created modern Judo out of Jujutsu in the 1890’s and became a leading martial artist of the burgeoning 20th century do arts. Kano developed a grading system based on color belts, to
introduce judo to schools and accommodate the idea of school grades. The ranks were six basic (kyu) levels, 3 white and 3 brown, and 10 advanced (dan) levels of black. Funakoshi mimicked the idea. Karate flourished in Japan and dozens of styles eventually developed. The Butokukai began to take notice and in 1938 called for the styles to present their syllabi and ranking systems for acceptance as Japanese martial arts. Over a hundred applied. Ultimately seven were accepted – Wado-Ryu, Shito-Ryu, Kushin-Ryu, Japanese Kenpo, Shotokan, Shindo Jinen Ryu and Goju Ryu.
With that move, karate was brought under one organization and standardized into 10 kyu (color belt) levels and 10 dan (black belt) levels. It has remained more or less the same ever since, with the world accepting Japan’s lead, except for the occasional deviate who seeks more than a humble 10th degree and proclaims himself 12th, or 15th or even 20th.
Funakoshi, by the way, never received more than 5th degree and many of his students, Shotokan ikon, Oshima Tsutomu, for one, would therefore never claim higher. The Butokukai was dissolved after the war. In time, the various organizations began to award rank themselves, a practice which continues today. The question of authority always arises. Who awarded what to whom? Some who had been around longest simply claimed whatever rank to which they felt entitled. Everyone mostly looked the other way – you accept me and I’ll accept you.
The general structure has endured ever since and, even though much of the karate world no longer has ties to Japan, most modern schools based on Okinawan/Japanese karate use the idea of ten degrees of colored belts and ten degrees of black.
If we work towards a goal, a rank, and finally become it, no matter what happens, we will always have the abilities we honed along the way. If we accept a political position, just for the sake of recognition, we will never gain the knowledge, but instead always remain just another politician. The karate journey, however, and the quest for the black belt has changed lives, thousands of them. Karate holds within it the seeds of greatness, of not giving up, of striving for perfection – at one time, perfection of technique for survival, but also perfection of our internal spirit.
Therein lies the meaning – shodan is the first milestone on an endless journey toward the perfection of the human spirit.
This article was assembled from personal experience, research and interviews, as well as the work of John Sells (Unante), various works of Patrick McCarthy, Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, Meibukan Magazine, Joe Swift, Sal Canzonieri (Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles), Benny Meng (Ving Tsun Museum), Earnest Estrada, Scot Mertz, Andreas Quast, the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).
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