Following is a selection from Dave Lowry’s essay collection, The Karate Way.
We have to admit that the popular image of the black belt is inextricably woven into the general perception of these arts we follow. While we may have a more comprehensive view of the belt, we need to see that in the population outside the dojo, in the world at large, it usually means something else. When a black belt is conferred upon a karateka, that has implications in the popular imagination. And we should consider some ramifications that perception and those implications have upon what people think about karate-do.
Most readers will know that the belt system (dan-i) was created entirely by judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano. It has no ancient, feudal, or samurai connections. Belts in black or any other color were not a part of martial arts practice before the twilight of the feudal period in Japan, which ended in 1867. Kano awarded the first black belts around the turn of the last century. Karate-do and other Japanese arts adopted the system, and later on so did most Korean combat arts.
Nearly all classical martial arts of the feudal period used some variation of the menkyo ranking system, and those extant today continue to use it. A series of licenses and sometimes accompanying scrolls were given to the student at various periods in their education, and their message was usually clear: the recipient is officially recognized in some capacity by the headmaster of that school. It is relatively easy to determine what this capacity is in the wording of the document. What exactly the black belt signifies in the modern dojo is another question entirely.
The public sees a child with a black belt and they assume that training is literally kid’s stuff.
In Japan, it is not uncommon to see sixteen- or seventeen-year-old children with black belts. No one in Japan would regard them as anything like a “master,” of course, just because they were wearing a black belt. It would be nice if we had a similar understanding of what a black belt means here, but we do not.
I can remember in the 1960s when some people seriously believed that in order to get a black belt, you had to kill a person. Or that you had to open-handedly chop through a requisite number of boards successfully. The general public has become a little more sophisticated now, but that’s not to say they don’t still have some odd ideas.
This morning’s paper contains a story about a “black belt” in a local karate school. He has been training for about two years and has completed successfully in several tournaments. He was recently promoted to a black belt rank. He is nine years old.
From a Western perspective, there is nothing good that comes from awarding a black belt to a child. For better or worse, the perception of the black belt is different here than in Japan. The public sees a child with a black belt and they assume that, in this dojo at least, training is literally kid’s stuff. They expect some level of competence and skill in a black belt that they know no child that age has or could have. Since Karate is inextricably linked with personal defense, they wonder too how the kid would do against a serious threat by an adult attacker.
While you could try to explain that this is a special junior rank…it all sounds like rationalization to the public. You are giving the kid a black belt because you want to encourage more children to enroll and thus pay the bills, or because it has to do with some other profit-motivated scheme, or because you just do not take your art seriously. That is going to be the assumption.
Come on. If a child can get a black belt in your art, how much is a black belt worth? Or for that matter, how much can your art itself be worth?