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What Does it Mean to be a Blackbelt

By Neil Ohlenkamp

Side Kick

One of the questions most commonly asked of martial artists is, "How long does it take to get a black belt?"

There are many different answers to this question and most people would be happy if I would say it takes just a couple of years to get a black belt, but unfortunately it does not. And though I am afraid some people would not be happy with my answer, I think the general misconceptions about "what is a black belt?" should be clarified as much as possible. This is not a popular subject to discuss in the way I am going to. Indeed, I don't expect my students to ask the question in the first place. The answer is not what they want to hear.

The general public today sees black belts worn by very young children, contracts at martial arts schools that gaurantee a black belt within a short time, mail-order black belts for sale in martial arts magazines, and demonstrations of black belt skill involving walking on nails, swallowing swords and other feats. This raises general questions about the meaning of the black belt, and threatens the legitimacy of all martial arts ranks.

The founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, created the rank system used by almost all modern martial arts. The black belt was the first rank he created to signify completion of the first step of training, and it was the first time a belt rank was awarded in martial arts. At the time it replaced the traditional scrolls or diplomas used in older martial arts. Essentially it was a symbol of a student's graduation to another step in training.

How do you get a black belt? You find a competent teacher and a good school, begin training and work hard. Someday, who knows when, it will come. It is not easy, but it's worth it. It may take one year, or it may take ten years. You may never achieve it. When you come to realize that the black belt is not as important as the practice itself, you are probably approaching black belt level. When you realize that no matter how long or how hard you train, there is a lifetime of study and practice ahead of you, you are probably getting close to a black belt.

At whatever level you achieve, if you think you "deserve" a black belt, or if you think you are now "good enough" to be a black belt, you are probably a long way from reaching your black belt. This is why ranks are earned by the student, but awarded by the instructor who is more likely to recognize all the factors that make up a black belt. These factors include more than just the physical skills and techniques. They also include conduct, character, and internalization of the principles of Judo. Application of the Judo principles to life outside the dojo is one of the unifying commonalities that brings black belts together. As a black belt, you strive to apply all the principles you have learned in class to the rest of your life. For example, when you learn that you must be committed to a Judo throw and follow through to make it work, as a black belt you should become conscious of how these same principles will help you to achieve other goals off the mats.
[tai otoshi]

Train hard, be humble, don't show off or complain, and do your best in everything in your life. This is what it means to be a black belt. Black belts are often ordinary people who try harder and don't give up. Black belt can be achieved in spite of any weaknesses you may have. I have promoted men and women who began training very late in life, people who were disabled or blind, and people who were very afraid of physical activity when they started. It is how you face and overcome difficulties that determines your character, an important component of a black belt.

To be overconfident, to show off your skill, to look down on others, and to show a lack of respect characterize the student who will have difficulty achieving black belt. This is not to say that black belts don't have faults, they are just the ones working on improving themselves. Striving for perfection as a whole person is a sign of the black belt. What they wear around their waist will always be more than simply a piece of merchandise bought for a few dollars in a martial arts supply store.

The first level of black belt in Japanese is called shodan. It literally means "first level" or "beginning step". Sho (first) is an interesting ideograph. It is comprised of two radicals meaning "cloth" and "knife". To make a piece of clothing, one first cuts out the pattern on the cloth. The pattern determines the style and look of the final product. If the pattern is out of proportion or in error, the clothes will look bad and not fit properly. In the same way, your initial training to reach black belt is very important; it determines how you will eventually turn out as a black belt. After years of training you have cut the pattern and learned the basic techniques. The promotion to black belt is a recognition of this hard work and a level of accomplishment that one can be proud of. On the other hand, shodan is really just the beginning, the base, for learning Judo or any martial art.

In many years of teaching, I have noticed that the students who are solely concerned with getting their promotion discourage easily, as soon as they realize it is harder than they expected. Students who come in just for practice, without concern for rank, always do well. They are not crushed by shallow or unrealistic goals.

There is a famous story about Yagyu Matajuro, who was a son of the famous Yagyu family of swordsmen in 17th century feudal Japan. He was kicked out of the house for lack of talent and potential, and sought out instruction of the swordmaster Tsukahara Bokuden, with the hope of achieving mastery of the sword and regaining his family position.

On their initial interview, Matajuro asked Tsukahara Bokuden, "How long will it take me to master the sword?" Bokuden replied, "Oh, about five years if you train very hard." "If I train twice as hard, how long will it take?" inquired Matajuro. "In that case, ten years," retorted Bokuden.

Neil Ohlenkamp
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