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Guest Post: What Constitutes A "Black Belt?"

This Guest Post is by Mario McKenna of the Okinawa Karatedo Kitsilano Dojo in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Mario is an instructor of Tou'on-ryu Karatedo and Ryukyu Kobudo. He is the English translator of Kobo Jizai Goshinjutsu Karate Kenpo (Kenwa Mabuni, 1934) and Seipai no Kenkyu Kobo Jizai Karate Kenpo (Kenwa Mabuni, 1934). His article Okinawa Kata Classification: An Historical Overview appears at the Hawaii Karate Seinenkai website. Mario also has an excellent Okinawa Karate and Kobudo Blog.

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What constitutes a yudansha or blackbelt? My observation of most Japanese karate is that it is heavily criterion based with respect to gradings and promotion. That is, there is usually a group of examiners with a predetermined set of techniques, kata, kumite, ect. that a student must perform successfully for each respective rank.

Those kind of proficiency tests are known as norm-referenced tests and are by no means unique to Japanese karate. That is, they are specifically intended to show the overall ability of someone in karate or to show proficiency in a specific area. Specifically they:
  1. Compare an individual performance to an over-all group mean or average
  2. Are global in nature; that is they test over-all ability
  3. Will follow a normal distribution when individual scores are plotted on a frequency distribution curve - a bell curve
So, norm-referenced tests provide information regarding the student's performance in comparison to a norm or average of performance by similar students. Unfortunately, norm-referenced tests are not intended to assess individual learning or progress in relation to program goals or objectives*.

The flip side to this can be found in some Okinawa karate dojo where testing is less formal and largely student focused. Generally, speaking the criteria for "testing" the student is less specific and defined. In many instances the test may simply consists of the student performing one kata! However, this type of testing is more student focused as it does not aim to compare one student with another or with a predetermined standard or criterion. Instead it focuses on how well the student has advanced in his/her understanding of karate relative to him/herself. This kind of testing is referred to as criterion-referenced testing.

These are just general observations and not necessarily indicative of what constitutes testing in Japanese or Okinawa karate dojo. But it is my opinion that criterion-referenced testing is far superior and more consistent with karate's historical, moral and philosophical foundation. That being student-centered instruction, introspection, elimination of ego-related distractions and ultimately self-realization. Comparing someone to someone else as a basis for determining what is a yudansha is self-defeating I feel and does not lie at the heart of karate-do.

In closing I would like to quote Murakami Katsumi sensei when he explained the purpose of budo. I think it sums up nicely what a yudansha should be.

"All the students whom my teachers [Toyama, Kyoda, Chibana, Inoue, Sato] instructed all gave something back to society. They refused to instruct anyone of low character or moral standing because these people would give nothing back to society. Their instruction was for helping you become a valuable and productive member of society. It must be that way. This is how all my teacher's taught and instructed me how to teach. When I studied under Kyoda Juhatsu, he always said that our training was to build both a strong body and a strong mind. A person learning Budo only for the sake of learning to fight gives nothing back to society and is beaten by the smallest things he may encounter in life. This kind of person is useless. If however your mind is strong, no matter what trials you may encounter in life your will power and your determination will see you through them. However, the first and most important thing to develop is a strong and healthy body. I honestly feel that this is the proper way to train."

*(This is not surprising since traditionally norm-referenced tests were developed from psychology and it's tradition of psychometrics whose purpose was to measure individual differences).