Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What a martial arts belt IS and ISN'T

     I have a drawer with a nice collection of martial arts belts.  Some are thicker belts, designed to hold a sword better, some have stripes sewn on them, some are solid colors, and one I have is brown and black.  I've studied 4 distinct arts in my time in the martial arts, and I have a good collection of these things that are supposed to mean something.  I've written before about what a shodan (black belt) is, but what do the belts themselves mean?

History of the martial arts belts

     Martial arts, historically, didn't have "belt ranks."  Again, my area of knowledge comes from Japanese martial arts, but I imagine, other arts have similar situations.  If you have knowledge of other arts, please post in the comments and let me and others know.  Originally in Japanese martial arts, there were "license" presented to students.  Eventually if you were a good student, and learned all the basics enough, you received a license which said you had learned the curriculum.  You would receive a menkyo.  This was sort of the equivalent to the idea of what a shodan is supposed to be.  If you continued, eventually you received a menkyo kaiden, or license of total transmission.
Kano Jigoro, the original black belt
    The idea of the kyu/dan ranking actually comes from go, the "chess-like" game.  The colored belts come all the way from the antiquity of 1883.  Less, than 150 years ago.  The colored belts were introduced by Kano Jigoro in 1886.  At first, the belts remained the same color, he just awarded students a shodan.  They didn't look like we think of them until 1907, and at first there was only white and black.  When martial arts started being taught internationally, then the colors started showing up.  Then other Japanese arts adapted the practice, and finally other Asian martial arts adapted it as well.

What a belt should be

    Belts signify different ranks.  That's all they should do.  They are a visual symbol showing different levels of knowledge gained, and skills performed.  The different ranks are ways of breaking up the huge amount of information that is "martial art" into smaller digestible bites.  In some people, maybe competitive people, the belts could be a goal to themselves, something to aim for.  "What do I have to know to get my next belt?" And that's fine too, if that helps you learn.

What a belt shouldn't be:

Who are you hiding from with these?
A money making opportunity
    I understand the testing fees, but I've also seen McDojo abuse the idea.  You know, where you have 15 belts, so that you test every three months,  and have to pay the fees to earn the next belt.  Your rank testing shouldn't be based on a calendar schedule.  It should be based on an ability schedule.  If you have people promising you a black belt "in just 2 years" then you should immediately be wary.  They either don't care about your proficiency (or their art), or they don't care about you (just your testing fees).
A bragging right.
    The belt is for you.  It only matters to you.  No one else (should) cares if have a green belt in Shotokan karate.  In fact, if you leave you art and and study a new one, most schools request that when you start again with a white belt.

A superior rank. 
    There are some cases, where I've seen a person get a belt, and assume he was now superior to those with a lower rank than him.  Again, the belt doesn't denote rank as far as a command structure, only knowledge and skill performance.  It doesn't even mean fighting ability, or self-defense ability.  It says you can perform those skills represented in your art, at a certain level of proficiency.  If it does represents a command structure, watch out for cultness.

The end result.
    My Dad had a great piece of wisdom that I want to share.  I once told him (as a kid), I want to live to be 80 years old.  He told me that was stupid.  What happens when you get there? Are you going to stop living?
    A belt ends up being a mile marker, not the journey itself.  I can't tell you how many people have achieved a shodan, assumed they knew everything in the system, and left.  No belt means "I've arrived at the pinnacle!" It means "I can see the top of the next mountain."

    No belt should mean anything to anyone but you.  You are the one who sweat into it.  You are the one who bled onto it.  If it works as a visual representation of a step, then yes it means something to you.  It does not denote superiority, or lethality, or any of the other things that people attach to them. 


  1. On superior rank:

    I had just started at a new school. I had experience (mid-level ranks in two different - but related - arts), but I was wearing a white belt while they were evaluating what rank I'd be in the new school.

    We were doing a technique that frankly bothered me a little bit (hitting a person behind you without looking - um, what if it's Grandma? Or a police officer?) and a guy wearing a purple belt condescendingly said, "You'll understand once you reach orange belt."


    1. Then you obviously haven't met my 15th Dan Ninjutsu Grandma!

      But, yes I agree, why does the belt designate understanding?