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What Is A Black Belt?

Caveat: This article is mine and mine alone. I the author of this article assure you, the reader, that any of the opinions expressed here are my own and are a result of the way in which my meandering mind interprets a particular situation and/or concept. The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of other martial arts and/or conflict/violence professionals or authors of source materials. It should be quite obvious that the sources I used herein have not approved, endorsed, embraced, friended, liked, tweeted or authorized this article. (Everything I think and write is true, within the limits of my knowledge and understanding. Oh, and just because I wrote it and just because it sounds reasonable and just because it makes sense, does not mean it is true.) 

Please make note that this article/post is my personal analysis of the subject and the information used was chosen or picked by me. It is not an analysis piece because it lacks complete and comprehensive research, it was not adequately and completely investigated and it is not balanced, i.e., it is my personal view without the views of others including subject experts, etc. Look at this as “Infotainment rather then expert research.” This is an opinion/editorial article/post meant to persuade the reader to think, decide and accept or reject my premise. It is an attempt to cause change or reinforce attitudes, beliefs and values as they apply to martial arts and/or self-defense. It is merely a commentary on the subject in the particular article presented.

This question has plagued the martial arts and discipline community for darn near a hundred years. Folks assume that it has certain meaning and that one who wears one has certain abilities  but are they accepted standards and practices that govern that and do all those who wear a black belt actually meet or exceed those requirements? This, and a bit more, is what the post is about. It is an attempt to answer the many questions and have surrounded and clouded the meaning and usefulness of the coveted black belt.

What is a black belt, a question that comes in many flavors like 31 Ice Creams. Lets start with a literal answer. 

First, the belt is made of 100% cotton  strapping core surrounding by a 100% cotton colored covering (black for dan-sha ranks) that is stitched using a strong polyester thread. The ends are sewn using a matching color thread. There are various widths provided to suit the practitioner and dojo requirements, i.e., the common sizes are 1.5” to 1.75” to 2.0”, 2/5” and finally 3.0”. The thickness can be from 3.5mm for a softer core making it easy to tie and remain tied up to the 5.0mm that makes for a stiffer belt that can be hard to keep tied until it has been broken in by wearing it in training and practice. Then the sizes are often standard unless one orders a “Custom” belt. Todays’ belts also have “Styles” that are simple black belts to the red/white paneled belts worn to represent a certain status in the dojo. Add in custom embroidery along with care instructions and you have the martial art belt.

Second, most of the above description is of modern origins and the original belt or dan-i system that was adopted for Judo and later adopted by the Okinawan and Japanese karate systems were just black belts with no other additions. Even the Kyu belts and colors didn’t arrive until a bit later. The colors spectrum used for the kyu grades differ from one community or association to the next. 

Now that we have covered, “Just one of many,” ways to describe literally the black belt lets move on to a more interesting explanation of that black belt. 

First, it is a symbol. What it symbolizes is the question to start with here. The dan-i system came about when the Okinawan karate was adapted and adopted by the Japanese. The Japanese martial arts systems are based on a strong hierarchal system. That system uses a class and status hierarchal system that permeates their entire society even in modern times. It provided an easy means to readily see, identify and distinguish practitioners of all levels, grades and abilities in the dojo environment. Unlike the Okinawan brethren where dojo and participants remained informal and small the Japanese tended to be “Formal” and due to its feudal era hierarchal systems that became the way of the Japanese martial art dojo that absorbed the Okinawan karate system. 

Its meaning initially was to identify, in the Judo system, those who had accomplished a certain level of standards and practices that Sensei felt made them experts, professional judo-ka and sensei or instructors or teachers. The colored or mudansha grades came into being shortly there after to also identify and designate those not of the black belt levels, juniors or kohai. 

Here is where the rub comes in, in those early days, the standards and practices used to determine a black belt status were not examined, understood or documented as a means of evaluation of all those determined to be of black belt status. We will discuss it in a few minutes but that term, “Status,” is used here on purpose. 

Even today, the standards and practices to award the black belt status and level is random and made in some arbitrary way. The individual dojo tends to make its own determinations as to what constitutes requirements, i.e., standards and practices, that are to be met, at least at a minimal level, for award of a black belt. Some might say that this is good and appropriate but I resist that answer although I have used it to describe things black belt oriented. Lets go over this a bit.

First, everyone who enters the dojo to learn a marital discipline makes the assumption that the sensei, the teacher, has met and/or exceeded some requirements and standards and practices that made them a black belt and sensei. No one questions those credentials and assumes once again that the certificate often displayed is a valid and official testimony to their ability, knowledge, experience, etc., to study, teach and award a black belt. In a nutshell, “How do you or how does anyone know?”

Second, then came the associations, the governing bodies that everyone hoped would bring all martial artists together to provide that validation, etc., making it easier to determine when someone actually held appropriate credentials, I prefer experience, knowledge and ability, to wear a black belt and to teach a system. Where this falls down is those same folks who profess to be black belts depending on the same credentials of their teachers depending on what the believe means black belt holder, Yudansha, therefore creating standards, practices and requirements built on information, etc., that once again cannot be verified with some core standards, practices and requirements that are universally accepted by all the martial arts communities. 

Third, that age old argument arises that this is not possible because of the differences between styles. No one remembers that the birth of all styles are actually those individual and unique perspectives, perceptions and experiences of those who created the styles is what makes them styles. They forget that all styles have a foundation built from fundamental principles of marital systems that transcends the personal views that make styles, styles. This conundrum is about personal beliefs from training and practice along with their personal perceptions, environmental and social cultures and beliefs that make a perfectly human need and condition take over to make styles that are socially survival driven instincts into tribes of like minded humans who band together for solidarity, social cohesion our human instincts still need for survival purposes, and a way to have social cohesion through a like minded belief and discipline, the styles make that possible and breaking those beliefs systems is virtually impossible ergo styles, associations and a unique controllable belief system oriented requirement, standard and practice in awarding a black belt based on a class and status style hierarchal system. 

No one can truly tell anyone else what should and could be accepted as a base level of standards, practices and requirements necessary to designate and award a black belt to any one individual if for no other reason than the subjectivity of such an award through any type of testing and validation, etc.

In a nutshell the system came about due to the human nature and pension to gravitate toward a controlling class system, i.e., a lower, middle and upper class type structure. This structure is created through the needs of a large group that transcends and exceeds the human survival necessities of a smaller tribal type social structure. You are first born into and designated one of these three class structures and then within those smaller supporting groups or tribes are created. All of them have status driven class and hierarchal structures to control and protect the group or tribe. It has been this way since time began for human existence. 

The dan-i system is a symbolic one established in support of the “class structure” and that was the creation of the hierarchal system for control and survival that has not yet been discarded and our evolution as a species has not reached a level where it is no longer needed for our survival (good luck with that mother nature). 

Since the award of the black belt is totally a subjective and arbitrary one how does one tell, how does one know and how can one prove that the person you have delivered your life to is capable, experienced and qualified to teach you, the student. If a standard, practice and set of requirements don’t exist then one can expect as it is passed down to each generation that some of those standards, practices and requirements will fall aside and be lost therefore diminishing the importance and significance of the “Black Belt.” 

This is just a viewpoint that is narrow in scope since many modern black belt awards come from a system that caters to a more economic need along with categories that are also arbitrary and designations such as sport oriented, competitions vs. combatives, fighting, self-defense where one or all lean heavily toward a more philosophical need than a more concrete requirement, etc. 

When one awards you a black belt then consider that persons meaning, set of standards, their practices and requirements. Are they accepted and will they carry the weight of a true black belt. Then consider, what is really a true black belt. There is no one, absolutely no one - person or entity - that can tell you anyting that is not about that groups needs, wants and beliefs - often at odds with everyone else’s.

Example: I have a black belt. I was awarded said black belt by my sensei. I made assumptions as to his qualifications both as a black belt and as a teacher. Most of those assumptions came from my perceptions and perspectives of his teachings and abilities, totally subjective and subject to my life’s perceptions, beliefs and cultural influences from birth to this very moment. Over the last forty years of teaching, training and practice of my discipline I have come to understand that a lot of what my sensei, bless him, taught me was less than I had assumed. Beneficial still even today but lacking a lot, a lot I feel today would be more valid for a black belt designation. The danger with this is the inclination to make it tougher and take longer and require more to be a black belt and that leads to all kinds of additions that may or may not actually be beneficial but they exist just the same. Today, I would not have accepted a black belt at that time knowing what I know today. I would have reconsidered my black belt awards to students as well. All because there are not standards, practices and requirements that all must meet or exceed.

All of this brings about all the confusion and disillusions that many feel when it comes to the dan-i system. How to overcome this is also a part of the whole that permeates all we do in this discipline and martial community. How would I answer the question, “What requirements, standards and practices should I meet to be a good black belt that everyone would see, agree and accept?” There is just no enough paper, pen or ink to answer that question to the level of acceptance of all in our community. Maybe it is more about what would be the underlying principles of a black belt that would be accepted, a generic set that does not degrade, denigrate or affect the style or system or the individual beliefs, etc., of its members. 

In closing, unlike when I was first exposed to the martial arts, the coveted black belt has come to mean little or nothing to me. I don’t even wear the belt or uniform anymore. I practice and train in my every day clothing/apparel so it may be more relevant in a combative, fighting and self-defense meaning. Then again, that is a personal view and one that I don’t impose and require on others if they find themselves studying, practicing and training with me. It has just become another distraction in my Way of martial practice and I believe such distractions as unnecessary so warrant removal as much as “Humanly possible.”

The following graphics are for emphasis and instruction only and are not indicative of any disagreement in the sources information and beliefs regarding black belts, etc. Strictly informational purposes only. 

Kataaro Belt Presentation/Construction Comparison, not related to this
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thoughts and idea's or the product provided by Kataaro. 

Click to read, advice from Kataaro belt providers to the martial
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thoughts and idea's or the product provided by Kataaro.

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