How Old Should a Black Belt Be?

taido is athletic, and you can only expect performance of certain movements in students who are relatively young. i certainly feel that we should continue to encourage young taidoka to reach the goal of black belt. eventually, we are going to have to hand them the reigns all together. i know i can’t keep performing at my level forever, so i want to make sure that there is someone ready to step up and keep creating new taido after i’m too old to eat anything but oatmeal.

Taido is athletic, and you can only expect performance of certain movements in students who are relatively young. I certainly feel that we should continue to encourage young Taidoka to reach the goal of black belt. Eventually, we are going to have to hand them the reigns all together. I know I can’t keep performing at my level forever, so I want to make sure that there is someone ready to step up and keep creating new Taido after I’m too old to eat anything but oatmeal.

But then I hear stuff about four year old black belts and junior high school students making 3dan at some American martial arts schools, and I think “No!!!!! That can’t be right. They’re way too young to be that good. There’s no way they can understand what it means to be a black belt.” But of course, that’s the problem – black belt doesn’t “mean” anything – not objectively.

It isn’t really about meaning though. The black belt is an award, given from teacher to student for meeting certain requirements and achieving a certain level of proficiency in an art. Those certain requirements and levels of proficiency are at the teacher’s discretion. Students have to trust their teachers to use that discretion wisely – in a way that benefits the students.

On the Karate Underground Forums, we’ve had a lot of discussions about what age a student should be in order to obtain a black belt ranking. We also had some discussion over the age requirements for higher degrees. It’s interesting to note a certain consistency here: there is a “tradition” of a year per degree number between levels. This gives support to the two most common markers of sixteen for shodan and thirty for 5dan. At a year per, that matches perfectly: eighteen for 2dan, twenty-one for 3dan, twenty-five for 4dan. These are minimums, kind of.

I remember replying to the initial post about minimum ages, almost without thinking: “sixteen years old.” Only after hitting the “submit” button, I realized that I had not even been that old when I reached shodan.

I wrote that, to me, a black belt is someone who is going to be teaching – even if not immediately. Someone under, say high school age isn’t going to have attained the psychological development to understand the interpersonal relations involved in teaching others. Younger students can be assistant instructors (I was from the time I was twelve), but they are not going to able to feasibly lead large classes or organize a lesson without supervision. Looking at it now, I can see that most of my arguments on that thread were inspired by specific difficulties I had as a young black belt in my dojo.

Other forum members posted various ages. Some suggested that children should not even be allowed to practice martial arts. There was an opinion that fighting ability should be a requisite for black belt, so any black belt should be able to win a fight against any lower belt. Since a child wouldn’t likely be able to defeat an older, larger student, that child should not be allowed to become a black belt. Some folks said that age should not be a factor – if an infant could perform the required techniques with proper form, then nobody had the right to say that infant was any less of a black belt than an older student.

That viewpoint really resonated with me, for obvious reasons. Not the infant part, but the age-as-non-issue part. To a point. I hate to think about what would happen to a twelve year old kid who goes to his first day of junior high school and tells people that he is a third degree black belt. At my school, that kid would have been used as the ball in a game of smear the queer. All the technically-accurate punches and kicks in the world would not do anything to stop the junior varsity basketball team from having their way with any runt who had the audacity to claim such a credential.

Perhaps the designation of black belt may require some level of “maturity.” This was also suggested on the forums, and the flames poured in: “Who has the right to decide when a student is ‘mature’? There are many immature adult black belts,” etc. And then we had a lot of debate about what was meant by maturity. To make a long story short, there was no consensus on much of anything. Come to think of it, there never really seems to be much consensus issues of any significant weight. Maybe that’s what makes it stimulating. Anyway…

As a schoolteacher, I work with lots of children from the ages of about three to fifteen. Let me inform you definitively that there are many differences between children of various ages, and also between physically mature children and adults. Some of my junior high school students are bigger than I am, but there is no question that they are children. They have underdeveloped interpersonal awareness, i.e. they are still selfish. Their cognition struggles with complicated relationships, ie they understand cause and effect, but they still believe that correlation is the same as causation.

Besides physical size, there are other types of maturity to consider. Though they aren’t easy to pin down with a casual analysis, there is more to it than designating someone as either a child or an adult. I can see my students moving through levels of cognitive ability, physical coordination and strength, spacial awareness, interpersonal awareness, and responsibility. Though I couldn’t tell you a specific age at which these characteristics are sure to be fully developed, they all seem to be approaching adult-level by about the end of junior high. There’s still plenty they don’t know, but they are almost grown up, developmentally speaking.

It’s really hard to say if age should be a factor in belt promotion. It’s easy to say that the technical requirements should stand on their own, but there is no objective technical requirement. Since everyone has different bodies and capabilities, a rigid testing curriculum is pretty impracticable. As a result, we bring in criteria like age, teaching, and “organizational contribution.” The idea is to “soften up” the requirements a bit to allow for differences between students. The problem is that these things are all so subjective – there’s really no way to say that the requirements for black belt should be any particular way or other.

Looking at things now, I can really understand a lot of what my teacher must have been thinking as I entered my third year as a brown belt. My techniques were very good, and I was more knowledgeable than most of the adult black belts, but I was small and a bit of a know-it-all too. In the end, I had just been a brown belt for too damn long. Ready or not, he had to test me, even though I was only fifteen years old.

As for now, age is certainly a non-issue in american Taido, and I prefer that to having it as a strict requirement. Perhaps some sort of flexible guideline could be developed that would acknowledge the accomplishments of children without setting up false comparisons between older and younger students. And no “junior black belt” ranks, please – that’s just patronizing in all the wrong ways.

What i’d like to see is a flexible system of mentorship wherein older black belts would assist and guide younger black belts and black belt candidates in the transition to adulthood as it pertains to Taido and dojo activities. For all outward purposes, any black belt would be considered a full black belt. Younger black belts wouldn’t be able to become instructors until they were older, but they would be given the same respect as any other black belt. And when they graduate high school, they are considered adults, no questions asked. At this point, all mentoring-type “assistance”, no matter how well-meaning would have to cease.

I don’t know how I would outline such a system, because I think it should operate on a pretty much case-by-case basis, as should initial consideration for promotion to shodan. However, I think it would be workable if the dojo instructors supported it. I like the idea of having young people acknowledged as subject experts after practicing for a sufficient amount of time, but I also hope to save them some of the frustration I had when I was that age, while at the same time protecting the integrity of our art by ensuring that all instructors are highly qualified.

What do you think? How can we be fair to young students without weakening the value of the black belt?

More Thoughts on Young Black Belts

Anyone who has read much of this site knows that I have a lot of opinions about the belt/ranking system and some internal conflicts regarding promotion to black belt – especially at very young ages. This is because I feel that a black belt should understand what Taido is about. While I don’t wish to diminish the accomplishments of younger candidates, the research still stands that humans do not develop their full cognitive abilities (and I’m speaking in a purely neuro-function sense) until they have completed puberty. Younger and younger children are now becoming black belts, even as young at ten or eleven years old.

At the risk of sounding like a conservative, I’m not entirely comfortable with that. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that I was doing that much better when I passed shodan. But I was a little older, and I knew a little more about what Taido was meant to accomplish. At test a few years ago, I watched boys and girls do their tentai and tenin hokei (routines I didn’t learn until I was 2dan and 3dan), and I felt nothing. I wasn’t moved one way or the other. It was like watching those mechanical elves at Disney World – you think “Wow! How do they get those machines to move so well?” No offense to the candidates, who I know work very hard and far surpass my own capabilities when I was that age, but hokei is not just a string of movements. It has meaning, and a black belt should know that meaning.

I’m constantly telling my adult students that they have to understand the difference between doing Taido and mimicking the movements of Taido techniques. A monkey (or a small child) can do one of those, but not the other. I’m not picking on young Taido students – if anyone understands their situation, I certainly do. It’s just that wearing a black belt should be a signal to others that you “get it.” It’s psychologically impossible for students that young to truly get it until they pass through a couple of further stages of cognitive development. I remember thinking I had it until I really did get it. I’ve been where these guys are, so I can be sure of this.

And it might upset some people. Oh well. I still teach children (professionally), and I want to support them to continue to grow in Taido, but I don’t want to tell them that they have achieved a level of ability that they have not. Children can sense bullshit. I think the children’s curriculum in Taido is in drastic need of overhaul, because children should not be required to perform poorly at a bastardized version of the adult curriculum – they should have a separate system that teaches them what they are able to learn. I don’t want to hold them back because they are young, I want to give them a better chance to build their skills and understanding in an organic and logical manner that will allow them to eventually be much, much better than the current group of adult black belts.

Of course, I realize that the “junior black belt” is a new development and an experimental one at that. That’s cool. I would have suggested some different ways to do it, but I doubt anyone would have listened. My ideas on teaching children Taido are a little radical, and though children cope easily, radical change tends to be uncomfortable to most instructors and parents. I guess that’s OK, but the current (new) system is going to open up problems in addition to the ones we used to have (and still do). Personally, I’m fine with giving anyone whatever belt color they think looks nice (Bryan has a tie-dyed belt), but the reality is that people judge a school on the quality of its black belt students. If it were my personal reputation as an instructor and manager on the line (as it is at Tech), I would be very selective about graduating students to shodan and above.

At any rate, I wish these new, young (and not so young) black belts the best and hope to assist their development in any way I can. It will be very interesting to watch them grow up as Taido black belts. To any of them or their parents who may happen to be reading this: don’t take any of this the wrong way – I want you to do well. I’ll be watching, and I’ll help if you let me. Good luck.

Written Tests for Belt Promotions

It’s potentially interesting to note that there have been no written examinations for black belt promotions in America for several years.

I believe that Taido requires intellectual understanding as well as physical ability, and as a result, have always taught in a manner that I feel provides both. When Bryan and I began discussing the possibility of promoting students to black belt, we had no doubts as the quality of our teaching, but we were concerned about the quality of the evaluation.

To that end, we decided that we would require a written examination and essay/creative component in addition to the physical test administered by the american headquarters. I’ve discussed the hokei assignment previously. In writing the theory exam, I wanted to be careful that the questions were actually testing the things I hope to have taught. For those of you with no experience at test-writing, i’ll let you know right now that it is difficult to write a good test – this from someone whose job requires him to do it often.

I feel pretty strongly that rote is awful pedagogy, so I wanted to avoid a test that would allow a passing score by simple memorization. The idea was to attempt to test not knowledge, but understanding of Taido’s theory. Understanding combined with practice leads to mastery (says I). I put this exam together carefully, attempting to focus on open-ended prompts rather than questions with one-word answers. I did include some simple vocabulary, but there was no memorization required.

Instead, I made a provision that candidates could consult reference materials to a certain degree (though they still had to work within a time limit) rather than force them to memorize anything. The catch is that they had to convince me in their answers that they actually understand the concept. I felt pretty confident to judge this because I have read just about everything ever written about Taido in english – at least all of it that has been made publicly available. Besides that, knowing the candidates well gives me an advantage to determine their grok-level.

On the black belt written test I took, I had to write word-for-word the Taido 5jokun. I had to memorize all of the unsoku jigata patterns. I had to know the doko5kai in japanese and be able to explain it in english. Understanding these things has helped me immensely, but memorizing them has done little for my Taido. On this exam, I told the candidates to look up the answers and interpret their own meanings.

The acid test for each prompt I included on this exam was “Will answering this question demonstrate potential for mastery?” In some places it may not be so obvious how that stipulation was met, but as I mentioned, knowing the candidates allows me to extrapolate meaning from the manner in which they responded. Lexical and syntactic decisions betray a lot about the level of a person’s familiarity with a subject (provided you know how to decode that meaning – and I spent a good deal of university study developing just that capacity).

It was interesting to me to read the responses and think to myself “OK, that comes from my article on Taido/Blog”, or “that comes from a pamphlet I printed up a few years ago,” or “that’s straight from Alvar’s .pdf.” I did deduct points in places where I felt that the candidate seemed to value a “correct” answer over their own answer, but usually, I was very impressed to find that, even in cases in which I could see a particular influence, the candidates gave serious thought to the prompts and responded with a Taido answer to the best of their present levels of understanding.

And so that’s how it went. I’m glad we did this test, and will be making similar exams for future black belt candidates from my clubs.

Skipping Shinsa

On June 11th 2006, many Japanese Taido black belts met in Ito, Shizuoka prefecture for the chance to be promoted to the next rank. The high-rank shinsa is held only once a year, and getting invited is the only way to test for 4dan or above in Japan. It’s also the only way to receive the renshi, kyoshi, and hanshi teaching certifications, respectively for 4dan, 6dan, and 8dan instructors.

In 2005, two members of the Yokohama dojo passed 5dan and 6dan. At the time of this writing, two of our instructors are testing for 4dan and 7dan. I was also invited to attend the grading, but I terminated my application.

Why would I do such a thing?

First, I guess I should refer you to a few of my other articles that have to do with martial arts gradings and the belt/ranking system – check out this, this, and this. It should be pretty obvious that I’m not enamored of the way these issues are currently being handled in Japanese or American Taido. I’ve offered some ideas for improvement, but have yet to come up with what I believe to be a definitive solution to the numerous problems I’ve pointed out.

Nonetheless, if I’m going to be part of organizations that employ a ranking system, I do want to continue being promoted to higher and higher levels. I want to be careful to avoid giving the impression that I’m avoiding this shinsa to make some kind of political statement. Further, I don’t want to belittle anyone else’s grade in Taido. Though my decision not to test did include considerations beyond my own personal development, it was my own decision, made in light of examining my own values.

Let’s start with those values:

  • My own development as a person and as a martial artist
  • The development of my students as people and as martial artists

I place the highest premium on my own development. This is a natural thing to value, but I think many people overlook the obvious when it comes to making big decisions. I like to think of myself as somebody who doesn’t mistake the obvious. I feel that my development as a person is the primary concern of my life – the more I better myself, the better I can to any other thing I want to do. Just as Dr. Timothy Leary said that social intelligence increase could be exponential if pursued in earnest (because we would have smarter people studying ways to get even smarter), I believe that any improvement I make to myself improves my abilities to make other improvements to myself and anything else that needs improving.

That includes my students, which is not to suggest that I feel they are undeveloped. But they obviously would not engage in difficult work for self-improvment unless they felt a real desire to make some sort of gain. Helping them achieve their own goals in Taido is almost as important to me as achieving my own. This is because sharing something you love is much more fun than doing it by yourself. I’m really honored to have people choose me as one of their mentors in their personal development, and I have to take them into consideration in every choice I make.

Reasons to Test

Renshi Certification

Renshi in Taido equates to an instructor’s license. It used to be available from 3dan, but now only 4dan or above qualify. We don’t use the renshi (or kyoshi or hanshi) designation in America, partly because it was only a few years ago that we had more than one or two 4dan in our organization. In addition, until Bryan and I opened up shop at Georgia Tech, nobody in the States taught outside of the headquarters school, making certification beyond verbal consent unnecessary. Tom DeVenny and I are the only two instructors in America who have ever received any kind of teaching credential that extended beyond the door of the honbu dojo.

If I were to test for promotion in Japan, I would have the option to register myself as renshi, and this would theoretically give me authorization to go anywhere in the world and teach Taido. I would like to do this. In fact, testing for renshi was the original rationale for even thinking about shinsa. It was only a couple of weeks ago that a few people told me that I may as well test for 5dan while I had the opportunity. We don’t have any renshi in America. Uchida Sensei’s kyoshi is the only official teaching license in US Taido, so I figured it might be cool if I were to obtain such certification as well.

Benefit to My Students

After all, boosting the head instructor of a group has the potential to boost all of the students in that group. Me having a higher rank and the renshi title might get my club some consideration in world Taido events. It would theoretically earn me the blessing of Taido Honin to teach and test students. It may open a few doors for me in my attempts at Taido internationalization.

Multi-Color Belt

Sometimes, black is just a little boring. Maybe this is why Uchida Sensei has shifted toward the giant block-font names and multiple stripes on the black belts he gives out. I haven’t had more than one color on my belt (excluding embroidery, and I absolutely refuse to wear a belt that has stripes on it) in almost fifteen years. Outside of America, 5dan and above get to wear a fancy black/green belt that has both colors running lengthwise. They look pretty cool – or at least used to. Recently, Japan Taido is having some trouble with their uniform suppliers, and the new belts (not to mention the hakama) look like crap. People often compliment me on my good-looking belt (which I had custom made for myself), so maybe I should stick with that for now.

Novelty

I’ve never taken a grading in Japan. It would have been something interesting that I could have said I did.

I’m Good Enough

This is the most important reason. I’m very much good enough to be 5dan in Taido. I don’t always show this in the right ways to the right people, but I think this website offers a certain amount of evidence that my passion for and thinking about Taido go at least a little beyond what most practitioners exhibit.

Maybe I don’t always give the “correct” answers about Taido theory, but it’s usually not for lack of understanding. I do an average of 15 hours per week of reading and research in fields related to Taido. I am involved in physical exploration and practice for at least a solid hour every single day. When I do something that’s a little different, there’s a reason. Taido is supposed to be evolving, and I’m dedicated to pushing that envelope to the extremes. I think this is more important than playing it safe and copying the Taido everyone else is doing.

I personally know a lot of renshi in Taido who are terrible instructors. I feel I should be offered every recognition of my teaching efforts and skills in contrast to those who are teachers in name, but not in action. I also know a lot of 5dan. Some of them are really good, and I would be honored to be counted among them. Others of them are not very good at all, and I have just enough ego to admit that this bothers me.

Setting an Example

Beyond the above, 4dan has some serious kind of inertia. This seems to be true of all martial arts. There seems to be some sort of almost gravitational force that holds martial artists down to 4dan for extremely long periods of time. Many instructors just stop grading at this point, even though they are actively teaching and practicing. I can respect the reasons why they may wish to do this, because I too am extremely disillusioned with politics that surround high-rank promotions, but I’ve always looked at giving up as a bit of a cop out. If more of us who actually are qualified and actually do practice were to actively seek promotion, it might do something to change the sad state of the current ranking system for the better.

Reasons Not To Test

It’s Silly Expensive

The test for any level above 3dan is almost $200 in Japan. That’s probably consistent with what most martial arts organizations charge for advanced gradings, but there’s really no justification for that kind of price.

I’ve helped to arrange large events and track registrations in American Taido for a very long time. Making some rough assumptions about the transportation costs of the examiners, the number of people grading, and the costs of the venue, I don’t see any reason why this grading should cost any more than sixty or seventy American dollars. Karate ranking organizations often cite the cost of “registering” ranks, but I could build a database for tracking worldwide belt promotions in about an hour, and my office has equipment that could reproduce the certificates quite easily.

Actually, the fee was one of the reasons I considering an attempt at 5dan. Since I am already 4dan, it seems ridiculous to pay that kind of money to test for 4dan again just so I could register for renshi. Speaking of renshi – that costs close to $300. For that price, I would want a half-day seminar on theory and methods and some sort of printed materials. I have attended hundred-dollar seminars and that have damn-near changed my life, but I’ve never paid $300 for a piece of paper before. Which brings me to my next point:

It’s Just a Piece of Paper

Now some folks might disagree with me here. That’s fine. But I’m not trying to open a dojo in Japan, so a fancy certification in fancy kanji with a big red stamp does not do anything for me (and I can actually read what all those squiggles are supposed to mean).

The first time I thought about grading in Japan, I was having a talk with Saito Sensei about some of the things I want to do in the future (specifically, opening more clubs in the States). He asked me if I was renshi, and I said “nope.” He told me that I should grade so I can teach, and I just took it at face value because I know that he likes me and wants to help me out. Thinking more deeply a few hours later, I realized what a strange reason that was to test. Especially considering that I’ve been teaching independently for about ten years now. Certainly, my lack of renshi papers has not done anything to diminish the quality of my instruction, as anyone familiar with the program at Tech can attest.

What Saito Sensei meant was that I would have the official certification from Taido Honin. Though I already have a nice certificate announcing my credentials to teach in America, I am not recognized by Taido Honin as a real instructor. However, nobody in America recognizes Taido Honin as anything at all, so it’s not such a big deal (and I’m not writing that to be snide – it’s just that they haven’t really done very much to make themselves known in America). Even assuming some “moral” responsibility to be certified, do I really expect that I would receive any actual support for my troubles? I have plenty of people who want to support my Taido, so it’s really moot, but I seriously doubt that anyone from honin is going to be offering me much help in the things I hope to accomplish.

Politics

The first issue that comes up is that, even though I was in Japan then, I wasn’t going to be for long. I’m still an American, and plan to do much of my Taido in America in the future. Everyone in Japan knows this, as does everyone in America. By cross-ranking I would be inviting all sorts of irrelevant comparisons, questions as to where my loyalty lay (the answer: to myself and my students), and other stupidity.

Not to mention that there are a few people over here who don’t get along with my teacher very well. I would not like to be creating a situation in which they felt that I could be used as some sort of bargaining chip in negotiations with American Taido in the future. For that matter, what do we need to negotiate about anyway? Why is ranking so fucking political anyway? I don’t know, but most martial artists who know anything will readily admit that anything above 4dan has very little to do with ability and a lot to do with politics. I work in the public school system, so I don’t need any more politics when it comes to Taido.

Detriment to My Students

There’s the possibility that my testing could have some negative impacts on relations between Japan Taido and American Taido. Since I have some great friends in Japan and obligations to students in Atlanta, I don’t want to do anything that might make it difficult for them to benefit from what I do. I don’t want to end up on anybody’s don’t-talk-to-this-guy list because I took some stupid test. I feel that my students have a lot to gain from my extended network of Taido contacts, so I want to work hard to maintain and improve them.

If I fuck things up politically in Japan, Uchida Sensei won’t have a lot of choice to have me as part of his organization – and that’s something neither of us wants. I can’t become a liability for him because it jeopardizes Taido for everyone in the States. Of course, I will always have the ability to practice and teach Taido, regardless of what anybody else says, but I’d much prefer to do it in a way that benefits as many people as possible. There is enough negativity in the world. If I can’t have my promotion in a healthy and positive way, I’m not interested in testing.

Seeking Council

Man, I talked to a lot of people about this, and I was leaning toward testing until a couple of days before the deadline. Lots of Japanese black belts were behind me testing, including most of the guys who would have been evaluating me. The original suggestion to go for 5dan came from someone whose opinion I respect very much.

I sought advice from Negishi Sensei (as I often do about such matters), and he told me pretty much what I could have expected: figure out what’s best for you, and do that. He said I should consult Uchida Sensei (duh), but that I should make my own choice to do what’s best for myself, even if it meant going against Uchida. I thought about this.

When I called Uchida, he was excited to hear from me, probably because he had been planning to test three of my students for shodan at the time. I told him that I needed some advice and explained the situation, including the pros and cons I had determined, as listed above (yes, even about the fancy belt). He told me to do what I wanted to do. He didn’t seem to have a problem with the idea of me testing for 5dan (and he’s the one who brought that up – not me), and he seemed to think the renshi certification was viable. But he also warned me to remember the political factor, and told me to be sure that I was comfortable with the possible consequences that could arise if I were to test. And I have to admit – that thought did sway my decision.

Soooooo…

Well, as I said at the beginning of the article, I didn’t test. I could have done so, and there would have been some possible benefits, but there was a risk that I could create some serious political tension by grading outside of my own organization.

It’s really a shame that situations like this arise, and I know some of my friends will argue that they only come up in Taido between Japan and America. Maybe they’re right, but I’m not so sure. What I know for a fact is that a big part of the political stuff is just ego crap that doesn’t interest me. Not at all. It didn’t in Japan, and it doesn’t in America either.

I still plan to someday pass 5dan (and at least a couple more levels after that) and register an instructor’s rank, but neither one is a big priority to me at the moment. Especially since I don’t believe that the qualification criteria and examination procedures are indicative of the healthy and positive recognition of individual achievements I would like to see replace the current belt/rank system.

So, in light of this experience, I will go back to the drawing board on my own solutions for a better system that will work for the highest good of all in Taido. I hope that, in an easy and relaxed manner, we can begin to reorganize our art’s administration to respond fairly and appropriately to changes and shifts that meet the needs of all practitioners. This, in lieu of the current hierarchy (pyramid scheme) of senior authority being centralized according to tradition in Japan, is one of my dreams for the future of Taido.

Belt/Rank Meaning

Ok. So if you know me at all, or have read many of the things I’ve written, you know that one of my serious gripes about Asian martial arts (and their western copies) is the custom of “ranking” or awarding level-markers to practitioners. I’m not going to spend too much space in this article discussing the carrot-on-a-stick principle, the love of rankings as a japanese cultural phenomenon, or my opinions about the mental health of those who place too much importance on what belt they wear. I do plan to discuss a particular philosophy of meaning as it applies to martial arts ranks.

Before I get on a roll here, I would like to direct your attention to this belt-related article at 24fc.

Let me also point out that the irony of me downplaying the importance of belt rank in an article I have written about that very subject does not escape me (and for the record, I have yet to make any claims to mental health on this web site). I think belt ranks have exactly the meaning and importance that we ascribe to them. I tend to take a semiotic view of meaning and a transactional view of value, so don’t expect for a second that this article is going to try and analyze the concept of ranking in some sort of rational vacuum.

Martial arts are founded in competition – they are about combat (internal and external). Anyone who tries to tell you differently is trying to get you to enroll your child in his McDojo. Competitiveness is pervasive in the martial arts world. The kinds of people who do this sort of thing (develop and test their physical abilities against opposing parties) are competitive by nature, though some may deny it. I used to believe that I was not competitive, but I have since realized that I was merely fooling myself. I am competitive – just not when it comes to fighting ability or belt rank.

I can jump and shout all day long that belts are not a big deal, but the fact is very clear that a great many martial artists care a great deal about the issues surrounding belts and rankings. Thus, belt rank is an issue of great importance, by definition.

So belt rank is important. There is no denying it. It may not be very important to you, or you may not want anybody to know how important it really is to you, but it is important, and understanding this does matter to you. With that out of the way, we can turn to what belt ranks actually mean. This will be a much more difficult exploration.

Belt Equivalence Concepts

One popular notion of the meanings of various belts is the idea that the rank of shodan is akin to a bachelor’s degree from a university. The argument goes that the four years of traditional post-secondary education are thought of as preparation for entering the workforce. This is supposed to be roughly equivalent to the idea that a shodan will have basically learned the technical curriculum of a martial art.

I have also seen the comparison stretched to suggest that higher degrees of black belt may be likened to graduate studies. I can only hope that this is intended as a joke. Though I have yet to participate in any graduate-level studies in university, I know a lot of extremely “educated” people, and I do not consider my relatively high rank in Taido to be any kind of match-up to that level.

Though martial art grading syllabi often require “research” or some kind of “thesis,” close examination reveals that the actual requirements are very light. For shodan and 2dan, the world-standard Taido examination requires the applicant to answer 5 fill-in-the-blank questions. For 3dan, the requirement is a 3 to 5 page paper on the topic of “Taido.” I wrote five page papers on more specific topics in high school. Yet, this “academic requirement” is one justification for exalting higher belt ranks.

I would suggest that, if one were truly serious about drawing a comparison between martial arts education and standard western academia, the analogy receive a thorough overhaul. I say that reaching shodan does not require anywhere near the amount of work or learning we expect of college graduates. I would place shodan as a high school graduate.

We could look at it this way:

White belt is like kindergarten. You learn the rules. You get indoctrinated into the group. You figure out what is expected. You move around a little bit, but you still can’t really read or work with numbers too well.

Purple belt would be the primary school of martial art education. You learn the basics and simple combinations. You build vocabulary. You gain core competencies and study skills.

Green belt is junior high. Here you start to have a little more autonomy in your training, but more is expected of you. There is more sense of competition among classmates. Classes are harder. Tests are harder. You realize that it is very possible to fail your next grading.

In high school, you have to demonstrate that you have learned all the stuff the school system has told you to learn. Brown belts must do the same if they wish to reach black belt level. Upon graduation, many students get jobs at the video store. Upon reaching shodan, many martial artists cease to practice.

I’ll suggest that shodan is like freshman year of college in that students have to learn how to teach themselves. Perhaps 2dan and 3dan could be seen to represent the remaining three university years, such that reaching 4dan would equal a college degree (in a very figurative sense). If actual research were presented, I would have no problem calling 5dan a master’s and 7dan a doctorate in that martial art.

Actually, scratch that

Looking back over those last few paragraphs, I still believe the comparison to be really, really limp. An academic education requires codified and objective standards to be met. Furthermore, grades are awarded. Graduating high school with a 2.0 average does not guarantee admission to college. Graduating college with a BA in comparative religion will not do much to land a steady job (nor will a PhD in astrophysics, in case you were curious).

In the martial arts, a black belt is a black belt. We don’t qualify black belts based on their grades at the time of promotion (though perhaps we should). Would it be ridiculous to suggest that a 2dan with a 4.0 outranks a 4dan that barely passed his last exam with a D? Maybe it would, but we could easily see a student failing to reach brown belt because he couldn’t pass punching.

Another thing we don’t do is specify someone as a 3dan in sparring or a shodan in basics. Martial art belt ranks are supposed to be comprehensive (though they seldom are) in the scope of expertise they signify. I often hear martial artists talking about their senior instructors in terms of being good at one aspect but not another. Why don’t we just go ahead and specify the rank to a particular skill? My guess is because it would destroy the hierarchy our egos demand.

For the above reasons, I have to say the analogy to any real educational system (designed by trained educators and tested by objective third-parties such as prospective employers) is seriously lacking. However, I wouldn’t mind using a system that made use of letter grades, subject concentrations, objective standards, and verifiable research. Under such a system, my transcript might look something like this:

  • Date passed 4dan: 10/2004
  • Cumulative Grade Point Average: 3.3
  • Major course of study: Education, with concentration in Taido Theory
  • Minor course of study: Hokei

Of course, this transcript doesn’t show that I barely passed my sparring requirement, still can’t do shajogeri worth a damn, have a knack for pissing off my instructor, was the founder and head instructor of my own Taido club, and have participated in several “study abroad” programs. Nor does it include a list of publications or shit-lists I’ve landed in, but I don’t think it’s anything to worry about – somehow, I doubt if the majority of the Taido community is going to go for this system.

What is involved?

I feel we should attempt to relate the meaning of each level to the kinds of things we expect of people at those levels, or possibly to the kinds of things we expect of people prior to achieving that level. This means we will look at what students do at a particular belt rank. As one of my poetry professors once told me: adjectives describe reality; verbs define it.

Shu, Ha, Ri

The traditional Japanese view of the educational process works through three stages:

  • Obey (shu) – beginner-level.
  • Adapt (ha) – advanced-student level.
  • Break (ri) – mastery.

Shu, ha, and ri are said to mean obedience, divergence, and transcendence, respectively. A more accurate translation would be: follow, break, separate. For an in-depth discussion of shu, ha, and ri, see (once again) 24fc.

In a nutshell, the idea is that a student begins by doing as the instructor says to do. Eventually, he knows enough to make small adjustments for his own purposes. He goes from copying to adapting. Beyond a certain level, the student will have have learned all he is capable of learning from someone else, and he will have to teach himself. At this point, the student leaves his instructor and goes off to learn the lessons that will make him a master in his own right.

“Shu, ha, and ri” sounds nice and poetic. It would be great if things actually worked that way. After spending three years as a school teacher in Japan and as a member of a Japanese Taido dojo, let me give you a better description of the process:

obey, copy, obey, copy…

it goes on like that for a very long time. Eventually, a small percentage of students get to a point where they may: think, and try something new. The student will then: seek approval from his instructors. If they do approve, he will continue to obey. If they do not, the student has the option to: leave. Whichever path the student takes at this point, there is a good likelihood that he will then: teach, either as a representative of his own teacher (whom he will continue to obey), or as the leader of a new organization. In either case, he will expect his own students to obey and copy him.

Traditional Western Approach

In the west, we have a different terms for this process: indoctrination, memorization, practice, application, which would be roughly equivalent to the school analogy I gave above (primary, junior, secondary, university). I mention it again only for the purpose of comparison to the shu, ha, ri idea. Though focussing on what the student actually does at each level this time around, I still don’t see this way of looking at belt ranks as holding much water unless some very concrete changes are made to the way we administer gradings.

The Meaning of Meaning (or, what meaning means to me)

To come back to my earlier statement about value being transactional, my belief is that personal meaning of an object is tied to what one does to acquire that object. If one would willingly trade $10,000 for a Rolex, that watch means $10,000 to that person. If one believes that having a Rolex will allow him to sleep with beautiful women and impress other men, that watch means sex and power. The important questions surrounding meaning are:

  1. What would you do to acquire the thing?
  2. How do you expect to benefit by acquisition of the thing?

These two vital questions are just as true for objects (or situations) that we do not believe we are capable of acquiring, as well as those we have long-since acquired. With regard to belt ranking, we could sum it up by asking:

What are the requirements, responsibilities, and privileges associated with this level?

Looking at these factors scientifically would perhaps allow us greater understanding of why so many martial artists get their proverbial panties in a wad over belts. (Un?)fortunately for us, such subjective questions are outside the realm of science. The best we can hope to do is keep these subjective factors in mind when we think about belt rank issues, realizing that objective comparisons are not going to be attainable.

This is Not a Competition

So, let’s all get over ourselves. Martial arts are inherently individual sports. There is a social aspect to being a member of a dojo, but the actual practice is personal. In order to get the most out of our practice, I believe that we all need to spend less time comparing ourselves to others and a lot more time exploring our own experiences. Competition is an inherent part of that process, but the overall goal is not competitive in and of itself.

Instead of all this focus on requirements, responsibilities, and privileges (ranking and what they mean to us), we could all benefit from viewing our practice as a gateway to greater self-awareness and actualization. The irony is that, as we improve ourselves and our abilities form the inside out, we meet all of the external signifiers naturally and effortlessly. We also find greater joy in what we do. Finding this peace makes it difficult to be concerned with what other people say and do.

Looking at things this way, I suggest that ,if we’re not going to be rigorous about it, let’s just drop the belts. There’s nothing to be afraid of. People can still tell who’s good and who knows what he or she is talking about. Bullshit stinks in any form, but people will always know the genuine article when they see it. Talented martial artists and skillful teachers needn’t fear a lack of credential. Only the charlatans have anything to lose by relinquishing their fancy uniforms, titles, and stripy belts.

As instructors, the only thing we really have to lose is our integrity.