Should We Really Give Belt Ranks??? — Karate Philosophy

Hello and onegaishimasu! Some might say that
I’m a master of karate. Others would say that I’m still a beginner. Either way, I’m definitely
still learning. So, what does my belt really mean? That’s what I’m here to find out!
When I introduce myself to fellow karateka, I’m a shodan, or first dan, student of Goju
Ryu, but non-martial artists usually don’t recognize those terms. If I am talking to
someone else, I just call myself a black belt. And we all know what a black belt is, right?
Namely that I know all of karate and I could take anyone, except another black belt, in
a fight! Just kidding! It’s more complicated than
that. But the belt ranking system encourages us to think in terms of who would beat whom,
whose skill level is higher, who is the best at karate. And I think the art is poorly served
by that kind of discussion. So, lets take a deeper look at the belt ranking system to
see what it’s all about. My favorite story to tell in the dojo is that
way back in the day, karate had two ranks, the equivalent of white and black
belts nowadays. You either knew karate, or you didn’t. Back then, people also trained
in their street clothes, so you couldn’t tell at a glance who was a fighting master
and who was a novice. The invention of the ranking system is credited
to Kano Jigoro who also is credited with inventing the art of judo by combining
jujutsu, a grappling technique, with aikijutsu, the samurai skill that has been adopted into
the modern art of aikido. Kano Sensei established two types of rank.
The kyuu ranks are the beginning ranks, represented by white or colored belts, though
Kano Sensei initially only used a white belt for these ranks. These ranks start with higher
numbers, and progress to lower numbers. After passing through kyuu, Kano Sensei awarded
black belts for the dan ranks. These begin at first dan and go upwards. These two
types of rank might have been inspired by the system which GO players use to rank their
skill. While there is no upper limit to Kano Sensei’s original system, in practice, no
judoka or karateka has achieved a rank above 10th dan, which is itself incredibly rare.
Karate adopted this system of ranking when it was brought to the Japanese mainland
and the school systems, primarily due to the influence of Funakoshi Gichin and Itosu Anko
Senseis, along with other masters of the time. Part of this change was aesthetic, designed
to make karate seem more Japanese and appeal to the mainlanders who were distrustful of
Okinawa. However, the Japanese Dai Nippon Butoku Kai,
an organization for the preservation, standardization and promulgation of martial arts, was
key in influencing karate to adopt the ranking system. When Okinawan Senseis registered their
arts with the organization, they standardized belt ranks, and named some previously
unnamed styles. Now that we know where the ranking system
comes from, we can look at what some of the more common ones are. Though Kano Sensei only
used white and black belts, modern dojos have introduced all manner of ranks so that students
can track their progress. Most dojos I’ve visited at have a lot in
common. White belts are reserved for the first rank, sometimes even before you’ve earned a kyuu
rank. Black belt also universally represents a dan rank, though some karateka approach being
a black belt a little differently, which I’ll cover in more depth later in this video. Very
common intermediate ranks include green and brown, usually in that order. While some schools
add ranks like purple, blue and yellow belts in between those.
While these belts make for many ranks between beginning martial arts training and reaching
black belt, some dojos add even more ranks for one reason or another. In addition to
more colored belts, many schools use colored stripes or belts that have more than one color
as a way of denoting further progress between solid belt colors. Moreover, some dojos indicate
higher dan ranks by adding stripes, usually red, to the black belt.
So now I want to go over some of the reasons why the ranking system helps students and
dojos. One of the first and most recognizable of these,
to me at least, is that the belt system makes students feel like they’re improving. I’ve
trained with a lot of people who missed promotions, even though they were making tangible improvements
in their skill, and got frustrated as a result. Even if you’re improving,
having a new color of fabric around your waist feels like a recognition of the work
you’ve put in. This is especially important for children, who often have shorter
attention spans, which is why many dojos, including my home dojo, have introduced extra ranks specifically for children in between solid color ranks to keep them engaged.
Another benefit is that ranking can help to standardize the curriculum within a dojo.
A green belt, for instance, is guaranteed to know everything that’s expected for whatever
belt comes before green belt. In a future video, I’m going to talk about a key part
of the dojo system, which is senior students assisting their juniors, but for now I just want to mention that with a ranking system like many dojos have, it becomes easy to tell at a glance
who in your dojo can be your mentor. The last big point that I want to mention
is that many dojos ascribe symbolism to their belt’s colors, which, just like the aesthetic
of a karateka I mentioned in my video about why we wear the gi, can be a psychological
benefit to the training. One school I’ve trained with gives their symbolism as follows: a
student starts with a white belt. After training a while, it gets stained with grass and becomes
green. From there, training on the mat causes them to bleed, which mixes to form purple.
After even more training in the mud, the belt becomes brown, and once all of these have
sufficiently mixed, it becomes black, a symbol of all the dedication that they’ve put into their art.
Also, many karateka take pride in wearing their belts, especially black belts, until
they start to fray, become worn, and regress to being white belts again. They feel this
shows their perseverance in a special way. Now, though, I want to look at a few criticisms
of the ranking system. There’s a term I hadn’t heard before I
started exploring martial arts YouTube but that is relevant here: McDojo. There are a
lot of good explanations of what a McDojo is or isn’t, and I’ll link to one in a
card now, but the simplest explanation is that they are dojos that are more concerned
with providing their students with products to continually buy than with good training.
The more ranks in any given dojos ranking system, the more times that dojo can sell
you new physical belts, or new training programs designed to rapidly increase your rank. This
can cheat a student out of good training in exchange for money by selling them on the
idea of the new rank. Also, a student who achieves a black belt like this may have not
achieved as much as black belts, or even lower belts at other dojos, and may be shocked to
find that, if they move to another dojo, not only are they not on the level of that dojo’s
black belts, but they aren’t even able to keep up with some of the beginner students.
The other big problem is that no two dojos have the same ranking system, unless run by
the same organization, and therefore ranks can’t really translate well between different
dojos. The best example of this is that different dojos view the rank of black belt differently.
Many dojos, view a black belt as a symbol of mastery. However, even within dojos that
are nominally the same style, one black belt may know fewer forms than another, even if
their dan rank is exactly the same, or even if the one who knows fewer is of higher rank.
Other dojos take the opinion that a black belt is just meant to demonstrate that you’ve
achieved the minimum training to know the foundation of a style. Further black belt
training is to polish, expand and improve your training. The saying goes, “black belt
is not the end of your training, it’s the beginning.” Black belts from these schools
might not know everything their style has to offer, but almost certainly know how to
interpret, apply and expand that knowledge. Okay time for the opinions. This is just what
I think, and I’m not saying that other systems aren’t valid. Don’t just take my word
for it. If you’re a black belt, or an aspiring Sensei, figure out what sort of ranking system
works best for you, your art and your students. Firstly, though, I think that we do need a
ranking system. Especially in the US, since colored belts have caught on, it
would be hard to get rid of that, but even if there’s another method, there has to
be a system to show who is a senior or junior student. One of my senseis told me a story
of his 10 years training in Okinawa, where the only belt colors were black and white,
but rank was determined by a board where the students’ names were listed. I think this
is a neat idea, but whether it’s practical or not is up to the individual dojo to decide.
However, the biggest thing with ranks is that you have to teach students that ranks do not
constitute improvement, they are merely markers to show achievement. Take the example of a student who shows up to promotions, who is progressing from one belt to another. In terms of skill, there’s no difference
between a student attending promotions before and after she receives her new belt. The improvement
happened while she trained, not during the ceremony.
Finally, I think that black belt ranks ought not to be considered full mastery because
there’s no such thing. You can always get better. Certain styles don’t award black belts at all. Their highest rank is midnight blue an indication that, while this practitioner knows a lot of the art there is always more they can learn and improve. Once
you’ve made it to black belt, you know all the basics, and you’re ready to start applying
and building on them. It’s kind of like a bachelor’s degree.
I also can’t let this go without mentioning a slightly controversial opinion: I don’t
think that children should be awarded black belts. All the physical skills and techniques that you learn at the age 13 don’t necessarily
translate to being able to do that same technique well at 20, or 30. Since puberty is such a
period of rapid change both in the minds and the bodies of the children, there’s no real way you can be said to have fully mastered your art when you haven’t mastered it in the body that you’re going to be spending the rest of your life in. However, I do think that students who have worked hard who are still technically children should be recognized for their hard work. And in fact I think that probationary black belts, such as the one I held for a year before I moved on to my full first dan rank, are a really good way to bridge this gap and recognize the achievement while recognizing that the knowledge isn’t exactly the same. But that’s just my opinion. What do you
think? What is the best ranking system, and why is it useful? Is there even one best ranking
system? Leave your friendly comments down below, and as always, check the dooblydoo
for sources I used putting this script together. And as always, train hard, and arigatougozaimashita.

2 thoughts on “Should We Really Give Belt Ranks??? — Karate Philosophy

  1. For me my karate instructor gave us stripes and if we got 3 stripes from passing our tests we would move up to a different belt color

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