Thoughts on Karate Belt Ranks

Karate is a new martial art. Our Shotokan style began in Japan in about 1922, when Master Funakoshi came to Japan to demonstrate Okinawan Karate to the Japanese for the first time. Okinawan Karate might be about 400 years old, and Chinese martial art is about 1000 years old. The history of both Okinawan Karate and Japanese Karate in the 20th century displays an ever- increasing emphasis on the bestowing on students of colored belts used to denote their time spent studying karate. 

Most of the modern schools of both Okinawan and Japanese Karate had no ranks at all around the turn of the century.  Then a system of white belt for beginners and black belt for advanced students came into play for a short while.  Some schools added a brown belt between white and black.  I remember this system being used by some styles even into the nineteen-seventies.  Finally, Mr. Kano, the founding sensei of Judo started using a multi-colored array of belts to reward his students’ progress.  This system is used by most styles of karate at the present time.

I think this system of marking students’ progress through their hopefully life time karate journey is in general an useful idea.  It is good for a karate student to set goals during his or her training, and to be given recognition when these goals are achieved by regular and motivated practice.  However, and this is an extremely important point, karate ranks are not like advancing a grade at school, or obtaining a trade school certificate, or a university degree.  Those certificates of achievement verify that someone has gained some sort of knowledge that can be used for the rest of their lives without any more schooling being required.  Karate, however, is a physical, as well as a spiritual activity.  Karateka are athletes, and as such, must dedicate themselves to constant training in order to maintain, and hopefully, continue to improve their skills.  Thus, one does not achieve karate rank at some point, and then stop training and maintaining one’s skills, health, and overall physical conditioning.  Rather, one tries to deepen one’s karate knowledge through regular practice over a lifetime of endeavor.  As Master Nakayama has said, “Karate is lifetime budo.” 

Thus, our system of belt ranks is a way of marking points of progress on our journey through life as karate practitioners.  We take examination for these advances in rank in front of our senior instructor, Master Yaguchi, 9th Dan, and he decides whether we are ready to advance a belt rank at the time we present ourselves for examination, or that we need to train a few more months before we advance.  Belt ranks are not merely for tenure at the dojo: they denote regular training and learning, and the maintenance and deepening of karate skills and knowledge as time goes by.  And this process is not age-specific: physical progress stops as we age, and then begins to decline, but learning continues indefinitely with regular training, and no-one is too old to train.  Certainly, one can keep a high degree of karate effectiveness through one’s fifties, and Master Yaguchi, who is 76 years old, still punches and kicks with real authority and effectiveness. The “secret” is constant training.

That having been said, all karate instructors have had experience with students who attend training sessions on a regular basis but who don’t make much of an effort in class, and this behavior is polar opposite to the meaning of karate.  We all pay constant lip service to the notion that the main goal of karate training is “character development”, and a big part of good karate character is disciplining yourself to give a strong effort every time you come to the dojo.  There is a wonderful group dynamic at play in a karate class, with every member of the group contributing by making his or her best effort to measure up, to improve , to learn karate to the limits of each person’s talents and abilities.  When we recite the “Dojo Kun” at the end of each class, we promise to “endeavor” and this is what we mean.  It is a simple, essential characteristic of our karate way.  The ranking system should reflect this: to advance in rank a karateka must train regularly, and with intensity.

Where do these ideals leave the faithful members of a dojo who, for a period in their lives, are not able to train for an extended period of time because of job commitments, family obligations, injuries , and so on?  Most karateka run into these periods in their karate lives from time-to-time, and we need to do what we can to maintain our connection with the dojo, while not expecting to advance in rank while we are unable to train regularly.  The meaning of karate is not rank advancement, but rather, constant attention to training, and the deepening of self-knowledge that this brings.  Rank is only recognition for this process, not a replacement for it.  Rank bestowed for something other than honest effort is empty, meaningless rank, and devalues the honest effort of those who have actually earned their ranks.

Ideally, a karate dojo should be a simple, straightforward meritocracy.  Advances in rank occur because a member of the dojo is displaying dedication and spirit, and is therefore exemplifying a deepening level of understanding and physical skill.  Karateka should not worry about advancing at the same rate as other members of the dojo, nor about being “left behind” by more talented dojo mates.  Karate is very much a long-term endeavor, and everyone advances at their own rate if they put in the time and effort.

That having been said, a group of new students who begin their karate journey together, and who are all able to dedicate themselves equally to training, will probably advance as a group until brown belt, whereupon higher expectations come in to play.  We expect those students who hold black belt rank to exemplify the standards and ideals of the dojo and the style.  Students with the appropriate combination of talent, and especially, of dedication, can expect to advance to shodan in about 4 years.  Others may take longer.  To repeat: karate is a meritocracy, with equal opportunity to train regularly and to advance in ability.  Karateka need only to keep their mind on their own training, and seek to emulate the small percentage of karateka who are exceptionally talented.  Envy has no place in martial art.  Standards are inevitably somewhat subjective, and what counts is the journey, not the destination.  “Affirmative action” in awarding black belts is a constant temptation for instructors, but will inevitably render standards meaningless. 

In summing up, I would like to say that the vast majority of dojo members given effort and the amount of the time spent practicing that is a appropriate to their respective talents, can expect to reach shodan level.   This is not to say that all dojo members can expect to reach a level of ability that qualifies them for shodan.  All instructors have had a student or two in the course of their teaching careers who simply could not learn karate to black belt standard.  No one should be surprised by this, nor is there any shame in it.  Karate is a challenge both physically and emotionally, and this challenge requires long-term commitment, with no guarantee that one will reach black belt level.  The time spent in working on karate will be more deeply rewarding than most other activities one could spend time and effort pursuing, and the lifetime benefit is immeasurable.

One final word on this theme: we welcome everyone to the dojo; male or female, young or old, athlete or non-athlete.  Karate is marvelously “democratic” in this way.  It is not realistic to expect that such diversity should result in everyone advancing in both ability and rank at the same pace.


Copyright © 2009 Fudoshin Karate Club All Rights Reserved.




10 Responses to “Article 3”

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  3. Georgina Ho says:

    Yes, Copyright © 2009 Fudoshin Karate Club All Rights Reserved.

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    Hi, Gary. Thanks for your interests. The schedule for the next article has not been determined yet. I will let you know when it is released. Thanks.

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