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Belts (Again)

I often speak to people who are interested in joining our school's Karate class. Many have had some martial arts experience.

One thing I notice is how deeply the concept of belts is ingrained in the general public. A potential student who has trained in the past will usually make sure to tell me what belt they earned, whether it is blue, purple, green, or even pink! It could have been many years ago, but they are still wearing that belt in their minds.

I understand that the potential student is proud of their accomplishment. That is natural (to some extent). What gets me is that the concept is so concrete. The idea of earning a belt and the belt having meaning is as widespread as... well, money.

Let's say you had a pocketful of change. If you took out the coins, each one would have a certain denomination -- a penny, a nickel, a dime, a quarter, etc. Each coin would be worth a certain amount.

In the same way, people think that a certain colored belt means something.

Does it? In my experience, one school's belt has no equivalence in another school. It would be like having coins with varying worth. Say you had a nickel. You could say that in one dojo the nickel is worth 5 cents, but in another it is worth 25 cents, and in another it is worthless!

Sad to say, but the same goes for most black belts. What the belt means does not translate across different dojo.

So when a potential student tells me about their prior rank, I will try to be polite, but that belt means nothing to me. If the student seems particularly attached to their prior rank, I will gently suggest that they return to their former dojo and sensei. Sometimes this is not possible because the student has moved to Hawaii from the mainland. But other times, the student will say, "Oh no, I would not go back there. I did not like the Sensei!"

He did not like the sensei but he remains attached to the belt.

I would say, "Let it go."

In any event, students must start from scratch when they train with me (unless they have trained with my Sensei or my Sensei's direct students). I do not care about prior rank. In fact, the more a student has trained in another style of Karate, the harder it will be for me. It might actually be impossible for me to convert the student to our ways of moving. It is much easier to work with a pure beginner with no baggage.

Don't get me wrong. Prior experience is good. But for Karate training, it is usually more helpful for that prior experience to have been in Judo, Kendo, Aikido, or another martial art rather than Karate.

I have mentioned that students in the dojo of my good friend and senior, Sensei Pat Nakata, do not wear belts. Neither does he. I wanted to add that Nakata Sensei does not even give any kyu or dan rankings. It is not just that they do not wear belts in his dojo -- they do not have any rank. Students in Nakata Sensei's dojo simply know their relative seniority.

I have not gone that far yet. I do award dan rankings, but not kyu rankings. And it seems that wearing a belt is optional in our dojo since my second son became the head Sensei. He and my third son do not like wearing belts and other students have followed their example.

This can lead to some pretty strange expressions when potential students visit. Since there are only white belts and no belts much of the time, they do not know who the instructors are.

I can guess that Nakata Sensei would explain that the instructors are the ones who know what they are doing. What counts is ability.


Charles C. Goodin