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Black Belt

What does it mean to be a black belt? Somehow, there is something wrong with the question itself.

I don't think that Itosu Sensei had a black belt. There was no dan/kyu system in Karate at that time. Black belts and colored belts are a relatively modern invention/convention, borrowed from Judo. I know of many seniors in Hawaii who never had any belts at all.

But today, we seem to accept the black belt as a sign of accomplishment -- a marker that separates beginners from what... advanced?

If you ask many sensei to rate the level of first degree black belts in their system, each will probably give a different answer. Personally, I would say that a shodan gets about 10% of the art. That means that upon receiving his shodan, a student has 90% to go. I could be wrong with these numbers. It could be that 5% is more accurate. But of course, it depends on the student, the sensei, the dojo, and the curriculum followed.

The age of the student also makes a big difference. A 7 year old shodan's understanding will differ from a 35 year old shodan's -- shouldn't it?

I say that shodan marks the beginning of being a serious student -- not teacher, sensei, or senior -- but student. It means that you are starting to walk the path.

In my experience, two things happen when a student makes shodan. For some students, shodan was their goal. Having attained this goal, they can now quit. I would say that about 20% of my students have quit within a relatively short time of earning their shodan.

For the majority of students, however, shodan marks their beginning. It now becomes very difficult to quit. Even if they do quit, they will always be and feel that they are Karate students.

I had a friend. Because of work and family, he had to stop going to class. He mentioned to me that his Karate bag was packed and placed in the corner of his office. Every day, he would look at the bag and think, "Will I go back to class today?" He did this for years. Every day for several years, he thought about going back to class. It ate at him. Day after day, month after month, year after year. When would he go back?

This doesn't happen when white belts or green belts quit. But once a student becomes shodan, and remains in the dojo (does not quit right away), he or she is hooked.

Shodan means that the student is serious about practicing Karate. After that, it seems that one dan per decade is about right. An 80 year old 8th dan is someone to admire. A 20 or 30 year old 8th dan is something else. Wouldn't it be great if 10th dan was reserved for 100 year old sensei? Perhaps, health and longevity would be more emphasized.

I have three college degrees (B.A., M.M., and J.D.). I don't think that anyone thinks of me in terms of these degrees. No one says, "All the people with graduate degrees line up on this side of the room and everyone else line up on the other." We are much more likly to do this with Karate students. "All the black belts line up here..." Perhaps this is because we do not wear our college degrees around our waists.

What does it mean to be a black belt? Perhaps there is something wrong with the question itself. Perhaps instead we should ask, "What does it mean to be skilled at Karate?" and "What does it mean to be a good person?"


Charles C. Goodin