The Dynamics of a Black Belt

By Jesse | 60 Comments

A while back, we received a phone call to the dojo.

The call came from somebody who had been training Karate once (a long time ago), and now wanted to continue. Obviously, somewhere along the way his career, wife and kids had come along, leaving Karate pushed aside. But now he was ready to rock ‘n roll again!

“Sure, why not? No problem at all, just come by the dojo when we have class. You can just wear regular clothes if your old gi doesn’t fit.” I told him.

But… even though I didn’t have a problem with anything he said, it seems he had a problem with what I’d just said.

Listen:

“Oh, but… can I have my blue belt on?”

“Say what?”

Freeze.

At this point I’m wondering if I just heard right, or if I needed to dewax my ears. Apparently, this fella’ who hasn’t been training for 10+ years, feels like turning up for his first session wearing his blue belt. A real blast from the past.

Just like his real skills weren’t as important as his perceived skills.

“Umm… well… of course, you can wear whatever you feel like” I hesitantly replied. “But then we presume you remember everything for the blue belt, of course.”

I could hear his face turning red.

That was being kind. Really, I would have wanted to say: “Hey, you know what? I have an even better idea: Why not just wear my black belt instead? Sure, it’s a little worn, but that just adds to the blackbeltness! And it has “Jesse” written on it, but you can just scratch that away. What the heck, you can probably special order a golden belt with red stripes and built in laser cannons on it from the internet and wear that instead!”

Really, I couldn’t care less.

Apparently he was bringing his wife along with him, so it was probably a “man” thing.

But nontheless, it seems we have a problem here.

Because this wasn’t the first time an old-timer had returned to train Karate, wearing his old sweaty belt (though this guy has yet to show up). Far from it. We’ve had brown belts and even black belts with the exact same question.

The problem, I think, lies in the very fact that many people think that the Karate belt is a static symbol of your skill level, and that once you’ve “earned” the belt it’s yours forever. And, if somebody says different they’ll simply have to rip the belt away from your cold, stiff corpse.

I just googled “karate+grand master”.

It’s like, “Who DARES question my rank?!”

I do.

Because it’s not static.

It’s dynamic.

Your black belt (brown belt, blue belt, green belt…) is just as dynamic as Usain Bolt’s three Olympic gold medals, which are probably stuffed away in a locker under a pair of dirty socks somewhere in Jamaica.

And even though Mr. Bolt happens to hold the 100m, 200m and 4 x 100 m world records, he lost his last race.

Lost.

Imagine if he would call up the guys at the Olympic committee, asking if he could “wear his old medals” at the next Olympic Games.

He doesn’t.

Because he knows they’re not static.

The black belt, or any other belt/rank, is just like an Olympic medal. You train very hard for years, step up, do your best, spill some blood and earn it. It is a measurement of the level you showed at that occasion (the grading/the Olympic race), which was in the past. Not now. It is up to you to keep that level.

To believe that a Karate belt is a static, fixed, symbol of your current skill level can be likened to an old, retired military officer who walks around proudly with his Medal of Honor at the military reunion, bragging to his old pals.

We see the medal, and acknowledge it for what it is.

An old merit.

The grey-haired officer wears it to remind everyone at the reunion that he once did a heroic deed “above and beyond the call of duty”, and has the potential inside him to do it again, if necessary. He doesn’t need to prove anything again. He’s not in a war anymore, so he doesn’t need to back it up.

Then I googled “karate+soke”.

But we need to.

Constantly.

Because you’re never better than your last technique. And if you’re training in my dojo; that technique  better correspond to the piece of cloth (belt) dangling around your waist.

Or else you’re confusing this dojo for a military reunion.

I mean, even in rural Okinawa some old 10th dan “grand master” hanshi dudes are training like crazy (CRAZY)! They’re not covering anything up with corny lines such as “Sorry, young grasshopper, I cannot show you this technique because it is too deadly/you are not ready yet/you don’t pay me enough/the stars and planets are not aligned properly”.

No, not at all. On the contrary, these ol’ motherlovers regularely hold demonstrations, camps and seminars everywhere (even internationally), gladly doing a thousand shiko-dachi punches with you just for fun. And most of them are somewhere between 65 and 75 years young.

In short, they always represent their belt.

Compare that to many modern Western 10th dan “grand master” hanshi-soke-elite-dudes who probably haven’t done a single full speed kata or self-defense move (I’m talking that “ikken hissatsu”, kill-or-be-killed stuff here) since they got their first (!) black belt.

And that was 30 years ago.

In fact, they quite proudly walk around representing their 30 year younger self. 

How uninteresting is that?

But let’s forget those sad has-beens for now (who are not exclusive to the Western world, mind you), and let me just tell you briefly about a member of our dojo who really impressed me lately. Let’s call him Ted.

Ted, who could easily be mistaken for a tall, dark, handsome stranger in his late twenties, recently came up to me before class was about to start, and asked for permission to – listen closely here – wear his brown belt. “What’s so special about that?”, you’re wondering. Well, nothing…

Except for the fact that Ted is really a black belt holder.

Ted, in his own words, felt like he “couldn’t uphold the standards of a black belt anymore” and humbly asked for permission to degrade himself(!), if only temporarily, until he feels his skills match his black belt again.

Lately, he had been feeling like a brown belt, apparently.

After nearly stumbling on my jaw (which was lying somewhere on the floor), I told him that he really didn’t need to. He had been bestowed the black belt for a reason, and it should be his goal to push himself every session to that black belt limit, showing his true colors. In fact, some teachers might find it offensive if their students just “degrade” themselves like that, because it implies that the teacher had shown bad judgement when awarding the student his belt.

But he was having none of that.

Ted wore his brown belt for almost a month. And don’t tell me that’s not a refreshing point of view.

In fact, Ted perfectly embodies what that guy who called a couple of weeks ago (asking to wear his blue belt) totally failed to comprehend.

Your belt is not static.

It is dynamic.

And you’d better be prepared to back it up – irregardless of your age, ethnicity, gender or grade.

“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”

-Thomas Jefferson

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

60 Comments

  1. Jan Brashear

    August 21, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    How does one return to training with humble dignity and respect to the art? And how do those currently training encourage others to return? I am realizing that it is very difficult for black belts to resume training after a gap, so this article hits home. Would appreciate suggestions from Karate by Jesse fans of how to encourage people my age (50+)to return to the dojo now that they do have more time and need the excercise, comradere, and life balance more than ever.

    • Sean

      October 7, 2010 at 11:45 pm

      I am neither a black belt nor in my 50s (33-year-old orange belt), but I made return to the dojo two years ago. When I left I was an in-shape green belt, but 12 years and 80 pounds later, I had to start to over at white belt(also because of some changes in the syllabus). But there are many students in my class who 45+ that are in that situation you described. They differ in ability and rank, and for some it may take a good while before they reach shodan, or even become a good fighter…but then again, they’re really not in it for that. In fact, I find that some students in that category tend to already motivate themselves. No matter how difficult it can get for them, or injuries they incur, they keep coming back for more. And that’s what really matters, isn’t it?

      We have one gentleman in his 50′s who got his black belt in TKD, so his kicks extremely good for one his age. But even as a green belt in our system, the switch to karate is presents a challenge to him. He struggles with remembering the kata, but he’s had to defend himself a couple of times, so he remembers what to do when he needs.

      As one who made the return myself, I would just tell them to remember that you’re not in it to compete with nor compare yourself to anyone, because every martial arts has their own path that only they must walk. Also, remember the reasons that compelled you to return, for those are the things that will keep you going back.

    • Dennis Gervin

      September 14, 2012 at 2:14 am

      Thank you for a good article. There is nothing new in differences the Real Reality vs our personal perceptions -- of fx our abilities.

      I had my own puzzling experience coming back to practise shotokan karate after 4 years break due to injuries. There was no real guide lines, as I experienced it.

      Recently, I had a rather good experience with a brown belt old-timer coming back to practice after some 10 years awáy from karate. He was happy to wear white belt and start practice with our other beginners. Soon he re-learned most of the first levels of kyu kata and kihon. He showed good example in respect, humility and focused hard work. Great.

  2. Batman

    August 21, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    I recently returned to ninjutsu after a couple of years off. I REALLY didn’t want to wear my green belt but was told it was fine. I felt like such a fraud fumbling my way through rusty technique with a belt that suggested I at least had a rough idea of basic wrist locks and ukemi. It was embarassing. I’d never dream of calling up the teacher beforehand and insisting I wear it despite my time off, that would only lead to humiliation on my part. I’m embarassed on behalf of those people who don’t strive to live up to their belt. I’m happy being a white belt in karate, because I’m too busy busting my ass to get good at it to worry about how foolish I look in my stretched-tight-across-my-considerable-gut-and-transparent-around-the-shins-from-all-the-sweating gi lol. Would much rather be a high standard white belt than a low standard black belt any day.

  3. Shadowfax

    August 22, 2010 at 1:10 am

    Great article, and I couldn’t agree more. When we have a new/returning student we start them back at white belt. If they were previously dan rank we respect that and allow them to wear it, but they do not test in ourbstyle until they are ready to be confirmed in their dan rank.

    On another note, I recently had the pleasure of working out with Grandmaster Fusei Kise (10th dan Matsumura, 75 years old.) his kata has slowed down a bit, but watching him throw a 6’2″ secret service agent like a rag doll was pretty spectacular. I also did koteatie with him and his bones are as tough as iron…

  4. Ed

    August 22, 2010 at 7:05 am

    I agree that people coming to a new style should never expect to keep their rank. This is a courtesy and an expectation that they should understand and appreciate. If Jesse’s blue belt was returning to the same style/dojo I think that he should keep the belt regardless of how long he’s been gone but he should understand that he doesn’t progress until he can demonstrate ability.
    As for Jan’s question, onegai shimasu, even the highest black belt will say this to a beginning white belt. Karate is about the friendship and training together with dignity and respect. Something has to be said for the courtesy of asking someone to train with you whether it is in the dojo or even in their backyard.
    For those dojo heads wanting to get people to come back -- if you build the environment they are looking for, they will come! However, sometime people long for things of their yesterdays -- you don’t want nostalgic people training. Their memories are deceiving them.

  5. Chris | Martial Development

    August 22, 2010 at 9:27 am

    I earned my college degree many years ago.

    Maybe half the stuff I learned to earn it, I have since forgotten.

    I have forgotten it because I don’t use it--because I don’t need it.

    But I think I’ll keep my degree anyway. I’m certainly not going to convert it to a 40-hour certificate, in order to appear more honest or humble!

    If anyone asks, I am now and forever a graduate. Nobody can take that away from me.

  6. Leo

    August 22, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Now I also looked up karate+master and had a good laugh at their website!

    “Our unique method of instruction is unlike any other…ANYWHERE. Our system incorprates traditional Chinese and Japanese martial arts techniques, taught with today’s high standards. This will ensure that you learn the most effective, well rounded, practical art of self-defense…EVER.”

    Seriously: the bad thing is, that people actually believe this. And the even worse things is, that people tend to take it more serious than the “real thing”.

  7. Mohammade

    August 22, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    I have been thinking a lot about that college degree analogy recently and I don’t think it’s valid.
    A college degree is often transferring theoretical knowledge to the students -- which is different from any craftsmanship, know-how or practical knowledge.
    Your belt is a consequence of an art mastery (or progress on the way towards mastery) and I think that’s where the difference lies.

    Being Awarded a new belt (or putting your old belt) will not increase speed, strength or anything but it is by improving these things that you’ll eventually get to your (old) new belt.

    Why did this man want to put his blue belt on?

    Is it because he thinks he can get back to a blue belt level in no-time (through hard work I mean) and don’t want to go through the grading process again?
    If that was the case I guess I would be ok with that.
    Or is it because of a certain prestige he is after?

    I did karate when I was a kid and stopped when I was 17 at 2nd kyu. I am now 25 and started karate again around 6 months ago at white belt and have been walking my way up since then and I’m very happy with that.

    • balanvenu

      August 2, 2011 at 6:05 am

      Howdy this subject is hugely interesting. Keep it going teammate

  8. Pez

    August 22, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    I totally agree with Jesse.

    Having trained in Shotokan Karate for many years I then found Ju Jutsu starting over again with a beginners mind and a white belt. This training was a complete eye opener and informed my earlier years of kata practise, allowing me to relate many of the techniques of both styles and see the practical application in each style. During this time I also started boxing and again entered the gym with an open mind as a beginner gaining a facinating insight into impactive training and fitness. This eventually led me to traditional Okinawan Goju Ryu. Again back to white belt and starting all over again. Admittedly because of the similarities between Goju and Shotokan I was guilty at times of entering the dojo with preconcieved ideas and opinions. It is only when you let these ideas and opinions go and embrace the teaching with and open mind that you will really progress. Of course, a student’s previous training will always influence his/her fighting style and if it works use it. The main consideration should be practise. This is where the student will truly be worthy of the belt they wear. Without individual practise and analysis of techniques used in the dojo the student’s art will only ever be a hobby.

  9. marcus-san

    August 22, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Dear Jesse, and fellow readers. Thanks again for an interesting topic/posting!

    I’ve had some wonderings concerning gradings etc and perhaps they to some extent fit in into this current posting.

    My thoughts arose a couple of weeks ago after a 1½ months summer vacation/injury period. The incident started when entering the dojo, doing some stretch-and warming up, and a fellow karateka asked me whether I still had my old belts back home. Without hesitation I simply replied, “yeah” -- sure I do.

    This question, however, lead to much more for me than just wondering where I have my old belts and what I should do with them.

    My first thougt was whether I had become so “rusty” that I perhaps should be thinking of degrading from my recently achieved (1½ moths ago!)blue belt back to my green? (-when yes, how would it be perceived in the dojo when karatekas switch back-and-forth between belts simply based on their current spiritual or physical mood?)

    Second question that disturbed my focus during the training was: had I actually earned the blue belt (Sempai responsible for evaluating my performance had had some (several!) comments regarding my grading performance), or was I granted the blue belt in order to remain satisfied and motivated to continue my training….

    I personally believe I had earned the new belt-status, however, how can one be sure? I am sure it is very tricky for the Sensei and Sempai responsible for the gradings to evaluate when a performance is “good-enough”, when to fail the karateka or when to actually award for a great progress and performance.

    Probably most karatekas never think about topics like mine, however, I never wanted to be mainstream and think the way others do.

    Ending my posting I would like to raise the humble question to all of you readers: when can I consider myself worth the specific kyu or dan? Will the “true” judgement take place after reaching my first black belt, or already after reaching my yellow or orange belt?

    In any case, I really enjoy training at my dojo and will continue doing my outmost to over achieve myself as well as the expectations of my dear Sensei and Sempai(s).

    Arigato! (do not know whether it fits in, but for the ones knowing even less japanese than me, it may appear cool:)

    • Jesse

      August 25, 2010 at 5:37 pm

      Marcus-san,

      First: Just like people tend to overestimate their abilities, they also tend to underestimate them. Maybe this applies to your situation.

      Second: Just because someone is a “sempai” doesn’t necessarily mean he/she has superior technical skills or abilities. The term sempai is simply a label for seniority in the dojo hierarchy, and is often confused with superior skills and/or knowledge. This is not the case, since a sempai can be incompetent, for sure. There are different reasons for being/becoming a sempai, including “political”, if you know what I mean…

      Nothing is ever black or white.

      Keep rockin’!

    • Brian

      December 8, 2011 at 11:02 pm

      I know this reply is well past a year of the original post, but I have a similar situation. I currently hold the rank of Godan in my school and I don’t want it. I actually feel my skill set should be Nidan. I resent the position I was put in by my instructor. I feel embarrassed to tell others my rank if they ask. Why? Cause I’ve been in “part time” mode for a couple of years as I raise a family. This on top of the fact that I was more of less given the rank for reasons I don’t know about.

      Don’t get me wrong, I think my instructor brings the best out in me, but his motivation behind promoting me was off base. I want to just demote myself, but it’s not easy without burning bridges. Ugh! I just want to start all over again sometimes.

      • Sean

        December 9, 2011 at 12:12 am

        I certainly understand where you’re coming from, though I believe you are deserving of then rank you receive for one reason: humility. My sensei was promoted to Renshi (rokudan) this past April, though he almost never wanted to be called by that title. In truth, he didn’t want the promotion either, as he talks more about his weaknesses than he does his strengths. I believe it is qualities such as those that are highly important for senior yudansha, and all karateka.

        Just last Saturday we had a belt test where six white belts were going their yellow. They all passed, though one still had a sad look on his face. I asked him what’s wrong, and he was upset about how many mistakes he made, and he felt like he didn’t even deserve the belt. I told him it’s actually a good thing you feel that way, because that’s what proves you do deserve it; you don’t think too highly of yourself, and you wish to be better than you are right now. I told him instead using that self-reflection to beat yourself up, use it to push you towards where you want to go and who you want to be. I would say the same to you, sir.

        Self-examination and impartial self- assessementare perhaps the best things we have constantly going for us a martial artists. It keeps honest and motivated to do and be better. You may physically feel like you’re not up to snuff, but that, as you know, is fixable. But I would say your heart is in the right place. OSU!!

        • Uzmaki

          April 15, 2012 at 7:03 am

          totally agree with sean san lets build people not demolish

  10. Tashi

    August 22, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    I completely agree with you Jesse, and I also I really admire the behavior of Ted: “Ted, good luck and good job!!

  11. Tobias

    August 22, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    “(…) gladly doing a thousand shiko-dachi punches with you just for fun.” -- I knew there was something fishy at that seminar in Okinawa…I think I´ve been screwed…

  12. Ken

    August 23, 2010 at 11:56 am

    After a gap of 13 years I returned to Karate at the age of 55. I found the best way to build fitness was to join the kids class and eventually join the adults. I am now a sempai and do not regret starting again. Go slowly and work up to your previous belt level.

    • Jan

      August 25, 2010 at 8:28 pm

      Returning to the kids class is an excellent suggestion! That way internal dignity is preserved for those feeling embarrased they are out of shape, and more kids get individual help (or get to help the adult as is often the case -- good for both parties!) Thanks!

  13. Fraser

    August 23, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Who really cares? When Mr Bluebelt puts his body in unpracticed positions and is too slow to get out the way he will soon shape up or ship out. Of course I have not noticed anyone giving free gradings so perhaps the people who charged him for his belt fostered his attitude. Do you blame the student or the guide?

    The belt system has become an end in it’s self, most say the want to be a black belt rather than learn to do something.
    Why do blackbelts keep picking the black bits off and seem unable to read the washing instructions?

    You must join our association becuase of the insurance and start from the beginning it is cheapest I can charge nothing to do with the money I am going to make from you.

    Have a nice day as I guess it matters to someone

  14. Igor

    September 2, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    One of our best karateka’s loves wearing his black belt… When ever he is asked to go for his 3rd dan he is like: Eeeeh, whats the use? Or asked to compete: No use, someone is always stronger / faster then you are, Ill just train, perfect and learn new things as long as Im having fun and have cool people in the class, if that stops, Im changing arts… (and his kimono’s are in karate longer then I am…)

  15. Rob

    September 2, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    There’s a similar article on 24FC, that has a slight counter argument. From memory I think it says that the belt does represent your ability on the day you graded not your ability today (the military reunion analogy was perfect!). If it didn’t wouldn’t we have to strip our high ranking and older karateka when they are no longer have the athletic abilities of their younger self?

    Just found the article!
    http://www.24fightingchickens.com/2005/10/29/recognition-of-rank/

    It also discusses the merit of everyone wearing a white belt or whatever belt they want!

    In our association I think the line is that people can wear whatever belt they want, but they will be taught at their actual level and for any future gradings they will need to know the appropriate sylabus.

    So if a green belt from another association turns up and wants to wear a green belt he’s more than welcome, but if he doesn’t know the green belt kata and pair work he’ll be training with the yellow belts for those parts of the lesson. He also wouldn’t be able to pass his next grading until he is up to speed.

    This seems like a good system as the student is happy he’s not being ‘demoted’, it might just take a bit longer for the next grading.

    Although I have been told a story about a guy that turned up to train in a black gi with flames on it, who then told our chief instructor that we weren’t doing ‘real karate’ when he couldn’t do the techniques and never came back.

    Thanks for a great site, I really enjoy reading your articles

  16. ar ga ge

    September 8, 2010 at 7:50 am

    crap man, you just wrote a bunch of nonsense stuff up there, i could just read the first paragraphs cause i got bored of what you said, the belt thing, i do not know about you but if my belt costed me sweat, blood and a lot of more things, i would wear it even if i was 100 years old and i could not move a finger; and that does not mean that i would underestimate the younger generations or the ones that had a lower degree, it means that i am proud of what ive done and that i am not trowing to the garbage my past efforts, it is like a father, if he is your father, HE IS YOUR FATHER, and even if he dies or he leaves your mother etc… he will always be your father, that is the same thing with the belt, it has some deep meanings, but if you dont have enough IQ you will never understand it, it is not the matter of the belt itself, the belt is in you, so if you are a black belt that is what you are, and there is no reason to be ashamed of.

    • Jesse

      September 8, 2010 at 11:29 am

      Sorry for the nonsense, hard to make everybody happy :)

      A question: If the “black belt is inside” (as you write) why do you feel so compelled to wear it on the outside? Do you wear it for you, or for someone else?

      And if you don’t remember the stuff you’re supposed to for your belt, then how can the belt system even work? Isn’nt it based on the fact that we are supposed to have certain skills at certain levels (“belts”)? So that equal belts can safely train with each other?

      Just some thoughts your comment spurred! Thanks! :)

      • Szilard

        October 22, 2010 at 12:27 am

        The belt system does not really work. Just think of a black belt seminar. Everyone wears the same type of belt: black. Some older senseis keep getting new black belt every few years, so sometimes the most worn belt does not even signify seniority. During training often not the higher dan level leads a given part of the training but someone who can do it the best. Every sensei knows his students, I don’t think anyone goes by belt level in pairing up opponents or workout partners or giving out responsibilities in the dojo. Very often the belt color does not reflect at all what a person can do for you. (and what he is willing to do)

        Give me an example of the belt system working. Maybe I just don’t understand what you are saying here.

        • Fraser

          October 22, 2010 at 2:34 am

          I have trained with various balckbelts in various styles, without wishing to offend, the worst being a blackbelt who was so clumsy that it was difficult to train with him without risk of injuring him. I believe if he was in another club he would be at risk of a junior grade injuring him to prove a point. Others would pretend they had injury rather than face me. Many may just accuse me of lack of control but I have never damaged anyone in a dojo. Just trying show another side of the coin and that I am disappointed that a blackbelt has become worthless at least to me. Of course if you turn in a white belt tell them you have trained before they don’t believe you they seem equally displeased. There no pleasing some people. Perhaps you can tell a blackbelt by his depleated bank balance.

        • Bengt

          January 27, 2011 at 11:11 pm

          I would say that the belt system works if it is respected and implemented as i think it was meant to. I would say that a similar system (not with belts though) is the handicap system of golf. There you constantly up and downgrade depending on your current skill. Just because you sometime where a “scratch” player does not mean that you always will no matter how much blood sweat and tears you did put in to it to get down to zero in handicap. I would say it is the same with Karate. Be proud of the level you currently are at and don’t be ashamed of what you no longer are.

  17. marcus-san

    September 8, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    A darn interesting discussion I think!

    I guess questions always arise when talking about grading something/someone that can be perceived differently depending on who’s evaluating the performance.

    However, a couple of comments from my side:
    First of all, I believe that once somone has reached the dan-level, he should REALLY be good i.e competent, own both the “hard” skills as well as the “humble” menthality. Thus meaning that these skills should not dissappear even though having a “pause” in practise.

    However, I believe people learning karate or any other martial arts can be divided into 2 different main-categories:
    1. Hit’n’kickers”, those who go to trainings, camps, gradings etc and learn how to master some hit’n’kick techniques in order to be able to defend oneself as well as gaining a good physical shape
    2. “The Jedi”:), the true “believers” who see the karate or equivalent as a way of living, despite perhaps having the time and opportunity to own their complete lives to martial arts studies and meditation.

    The first “hit’kick” karatekas, will perhaps gain good techniques, be succesfull in competitions, and may even achieve black belts (unfortunatelly I believe they too often do), however, this is the category who own their grade simply based on their “hard” skills.

    The second category, “the true believers” differ from the first in following ways:
    - they learn things by understanding i.e first understand what and why. This group will hold/master their skills forever (perhaps becoming a bit rusty, but that can easily be polished away!)
    - they think, ask questions, search, -- and by doing so, they grow as an individuals. They learn how to master their own mindset and energy- CHI!
    - their grade is based on soft as well as hard skills, topped with the humbleness and manner which should be a part of the rules of behaviour.

    Having experienced it from my late sensei a long long time ago, I will never forget how he was able to demonstrate what true power really was/is. Why I also say is, is because I believe that once you have reached “this level” of mental performance, where you actually understand and can control our body, you will never loose it.

    This is something that unfortunatelly (or perhaps fortunatelly!? only a fraction of the todays karatekas will learn how to master, or even are interested in!

    So,to conclude: I believe people own their grades based on different values and reasons. Neither is wrong or right, however, I find it un-rewarding sparring with fellow karatekas who may have much higher belt grades but do not seem to be able to perform even close to my own level….

  18. Fraser

    September 22, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    I have been conducting a survey

    For your Blackbelt how many people did you spar/fight?
    Answers ranged between 0 and 40.

    For you Blackbelt how katas did you learn/perform?
    Answers ranged from 0 to 15.

    With kind of variation it hard to tell much about the person wearing a blackbelt. Funakoshi said ” you can tell a man who studies karate in every step he takes” Sting added to this with “every breath you take, every move you make” He may have been singing about something else.. This is what happens when you listen to music and read..

    • Szilard

      October 22, 2010 at 12:33 am

      Do you mean “on the test” or how many people I had to fight, and kata I had to learn before my sensei let me test?

      • Fraser

        October 22, 2010 at 1:57 am

        I mean whilst they where taking the test for a Blackbelt.

  19. Jake

    October 22, 2010 at 3:03 am

    “I am disappointed that a blackbelt has become worthless at least to me.”

    My, my…that’s a bit self centered. (unless this is the sensei you are paying)

    If people can’t tell by observing that you have trained before, then you probably shouldn’t verbalize it. That may be the reason for the look of displeasure from Black Belts. If you are good, they would be insulted that you felt the need to tell them. And if you are bad, they would be annoyed that you are talking about training they aren’t seeing evidence of.

    So I do agree, there is no pleasing some people! But keeping ones mouth closed when sparring is generally good advice when sparring a higher ranking belt of any ability. (and it keeps you from biting your tounge accidentally)

    • Fraser

      October 22, 2010 at 10:39 am

      Hi Jake thanks for replying, I can assure you I keep my mouth firmly shut out of politeness. They are not taking your advice as they are the lower rank. They seemed to have obtained their blackbelts without sparring for example. Belts can be of any ability that is the point. When I add up the money you have to hand over that is what makes it worthless. Happy to pay for training not for belts. I sorry if I have misunderstood what you are tryting to say.

      • Jake

        October 25, 2010 at 9:10 pm

        Ah, I was I that did not understand your perspective on the previous post. It is interesting the range of experience for black belt, and how different it can be between styles and individual dojo’s. I think once you have acheived one with the traditional blood, sweat and tears, a person realizes this even more! But now I think I know the “black belts” you mean….
        P.S. I know…no tears in karate…but it seemed to fit. And sometimes when I miss blocking a headshot…

      • Szilard

        February 28, 2011 at 6:38 pm

        I have trained with black belts who got their rank without sparring. They were from a version of Shotokan that apparently disproves any actual sparring. They had bunkai, and practiced it diligently. My immediate trainer was 2 years long a guy like this. He had 2nd dan. I just loved the ways he corrected my kata. He had such a deep insight, like nobody else I know. That 2 years of training was worth at least 10 with the trainer I have right now. Did he deserve his 2nd dan? I would say yes. The definition of dan levels for me is their functionality: on what level can you teach and at what level can you test. It doesn’t do anytihing with your actual performance. Of course when you teach something you should be able to show what you meant. But then again in junior high my wrestling teacher was seriously disabled, he couldn’t even do a bridge because of his back problems. Still he coached one of us into national finalist. So I would say your personal skills might not be that terribly important, especially on higher dan levels.

        The oldest sensei I know can not walk any more without a cane, can not execute a punch not to mention a kick. He is mentally OK, he can correct kata, kumite, bunkai, but he can not show what he meant in case there is some confusion. He does not come to train any more but still he attends all events in the area and is happy to answer any question. I wonder if Jesse San would question his black belt. I think he has the right to wear his blackbelt, even if there is no measurable dan level connected to it any more.

  20. DanielPyatt

    January 29, 2011 at 12:57 am

    Just on a slight side note, you will probably find interesting that there is a teacher (in France I’ve been lead to believe) who uses the idea that when you start you get your black straight away. And that there are coloured tags on the end and as you learn etc you remove the colours. Which worked brilliantly from a psuedo perspective because people felt like black belts and it was purely physcological. Not that I in any way support the idea but the whole concept of belts and grades is flawed because there is no one universal standard, anyone can be a black belt, just go an buy one from a sports shop. Makes me sad but hey ho can’t change anything. Anyways thought you may find this interesting.

  21. Szilard

    February 28, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    I have googled for the same pictures. The soke dude is Geoffrey Spohn. He looks like a decent guy. He doesn’t even have a 10th dan in anything. He actually has a 1st dan in WTF Tae Kwon Do (WTF?), 2nd dan Aikido, 4th dan Okinawan Goju Ryu, which is absolutely beliveable.
    Then he has 7th dan in American Karate, which is I guess the same level as his 1st dan in WTF Tae Kwon Do, so that is still believable. He is an OK dude, who just had the idea to start his own system. It seems he had a lot of fun with it too.

  22. herrle 58

    May 26, 2011 at 10:09 am

    A lot of different opinions about belts, i see….
    so i feel free to add mine.
    Once you`ve earned a certain belt or wathever grading in YOUR system, it is your honor an duty to wear it for two reasons:
    first it reminds you to always keep the level of skill it symbolizes and strive further to be a worthy example for the lower grades….leads to
    second because every student is able to see what is expected at the next level.
    If somebody from another style is allowed to join class he/she himself should be humble enough to wear the lowest rank-sign or none at all…if not, i dont need a belt to judge a students skill! Do YOU???
    If a student from the same school comes back to class after a longer gap he should wear his/her former rank-sign, for its his duty to close up to the level as fast as possible!
    However both types train with the group of his/her skill.
    At least until i know how safe it is to try cross-level-exercise.
    If the student stays, the first grading has to reflect his ability.
    Even in different schools of the same style chances are good to find a green belt that equals a black of the other school.
    So i dont care about the ranking-system thaaat much.
    To Jan Brashear:
    just find yourself a good school/dojo and START,
    as you know: even the longest journey begins with the first step.
    I hope you already did, i know i`m little late, sorry just read the post today.

    • Jan

      May 26, 2011 at 9:02 pm

      When I posted in August, I was speaking of bringing other blackbelts back…but as fate would have it, I was injured in September. So now I am the one coming back and seeing the other side of the coin personally. It’s tough! But since I belong to the best dojo ever, it’s possible. :) Now I hope to use my experience to help others.

      • herrle 58

        May 28, 2011 at 11:09 am

        Oohps, my english seems to be not really good, sorry. (i come from bavaria)
        Really thought you were talking about yourself, good to hear you`ve recovered and love your dojo so much, that you didnt hesitate.

  23. marziotta

    June 30, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Only a yellow belt here.
    For me the belts are a way to know how to behave.
    If a yellow belt mate hurts me a bit, I don’t mind, they have problems as I do controlling their power, or their skills.
    I expect somebody with a brown belt to be stronger but able to control his power. What if that person didn’t train for 10 years? The result is usually pain. If the person would have worn a yellow belt, they wouldn’t have needed to overdo to show they can still fight, so they could have controlled the few energy used.
    But this is my idea of the belt system.

    The higher the belt, the bigger the needed balance.
    I dare with higher belt mates, I behave more and more with the others, because I know they probably cannot counter if I make a mistake.

    I wonder what will happen when life will force me to take a long break. We’ll see.

  24. Patrick G

    August 1, 2011 at 11:27 am

    I had a “break” from training for about 5yrs. Though my attendance card says I did 60 lessons in that 5 yrs which averages to 1 lesson a month. In truth, it was more like a bunch of lessons for a number of weeks and then nothing until the next year. I wouldn’t have cared if my Sensei told me not to wear my black belt.

    The reality is though, if you have trained hard to get to a certain level, it takes less effort to get back to that level because you have already learnt it once before. Especially if you have kept yourself fit and active otherwise. I had, which meant it was only a matter of weeks to get my Kihon to the level of the rest of the class (mostly 1st Dans and brown belts).

    But guess what? When I train at home, I don’t wear a belt of any colour.

  25. Jay Killeen

    October 20, 2011 at 6:58 am

    Thanks for that awesome and entertaining post! First one I have read on your site and will definitely be back for more.

    In our dojo it is quite common for anyone that comes back from an extended break to revert straight back to white belt. Once our instructors feel they are worthy to reclaim their rank then we put them through an internal grading to ensure they can still perform under the pressure usually imposed during grading environments.

    This is just one method for encouraging them to return but what you say is very true and at the same time discouraging to those that think they want to come back. But hey, it stops people dead in their tracks from thinking that the day after the successfully graded to Shodan they can all of a sudden stop coming to training.

  26. Kjetil K D

    November 25, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Thanks for awesome site Jesse! Can’t stop reading, and its affecting my worktime :S
    But over to the article here. I just returned to Shorin Ryu Karate after 14 years break ( 30 year old now ). Been training some TKD (yellow belt), Kobudo and AikiJutsu after Shorin Ryu Karte. Nothing big, just here and there. This was also 9 years ago. ( totaly of 9 years with no martial arts training)

    My son started in the local club (7 year old), and he wanted me to start again with him. And I thought hell YES!! I missed it, and wasnt possible for me to train until now. ( many reasons, single dad, etc etc. happily married now btw ;) )
    So I asked the sensei if I could join the adults. ( currently only 5 ppl training) No problem you can join, and train for free out this semester,he told me. ( 3 months free :) ) I also told him I had orange belt from other local Shorin Ryu school( he knows the school and their senseis), but 14 years since ive trained Shorin Ryu. He said ok ok cool. Come train next week. I went just wearing my TKD pants (my 14 year old karate gi doesnt fit lol) and a T-shirt, since I didnt feel I was ready to take on my orange belt yet. I then trained 1 month with the oter adults. Very nice ppl, 2 of them in blue belts 1 in yellow and 1 white started a few months b4 me. I just wore my pants and tshirt, until after 1 month, I gained back my katas and techniques. I then asked my sensei if it was ok to put on my orange belt. And he said, of course you can, and was supprised i hadnt done it earlier, since he had been paying closely attention to my skills, and I had progressed fast up to my “belt-skill”. So back to your article, I felt I could not wear my orange when i started, but when I myself felt like now im back! I asked my sensei, and he replied. If he had said no , do a grading then we will see, would be ok to.
    But knowing ur own skill vs ur belt is very important in my mind. And the test for green I pushed forward to 8 months, instead of asking for grading in 1 month from now. Since I myself know I need alot more training to be ready for green, then I know now.
    Now me and my son train with each other at home outside of normal practice times, and its like im in love with karate all over again. Thanks for the site again Jesse, I must get back to reading ur articels now :) And train :)

  27. Whitey Mc.StinkStink

    January 26, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    A belt is nothing more than a piece of clothing. Throw your belt to the side and tell it to “Kick!”… see what happens. The grading system that was brought on by the Japanese has created a bunch of retards with huge egos in the western world unfortunately. Leave ranks to the military where it actually has somewhat of a purpose.

  28. Gerry

    February 21, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    My situation is a bit different. I reached the level of 3kyu in Shotokan way back in 1981 when I was 20, then stopped formal training. Two years ago (January 2010) I decided to relearn the “kata of my youth” since there were many excellent examples on Youtube, and fell in love all over again with karate. In my case though I have no desire to join a dojo, but instead simply to self train in kata, some kihon and bag training.
    If I did decide to return to a dojo I certainly wouldn’t expect to wear by old brown belt, but would gladly wear a white belt and enjoy the process all over again. Since I have stayed in good shape over the years, and have prior experience, I would expect my progress to be steady and my former rank achievable and passable.
    While my method may not be for everyone it works for me. I train typically an hour and 15 minutes every day of the week with occasional days off as I feel are needed. I keep my training interesting and systematic so I don’t get bored and do progress in my knowledge.
    If you like feel free to look me up on Youtube search for “ShotokanGerry”.

  29. Uzmaki

    April 15, 2012 at 5:51 am

    I failed to understand if a say member of group was to leave for a lenghtened period of time say those 12years and 80pounds but come back to that same style that person shouldn’t be allowed to wear his hard earned belt? I’d imagine he would have to train himself back to that level or as close to it has he once was no matter the time required but wouldn’t it be a bit insulting for a high level practionner to be mistaken for a white belt especially if the style practised he’s the original one… wouldn’t it be ludacris to throw away all pass achievements n pretend he’s mind was blank as sheet mind you he might take time before he can do those axe kicks, high kicks and such but not because his body is a bit lacking his spirit is not… weren’t you the one to say that karate is more than punching and kicking… well must have been my sensei talking about how people my love karate but sometimes life keeps it away from them for different reason it does not means we should takeaway their identity, but rather help them recover it

    • Jesse

      April 15, 2012 at 7:45 pm

      Well, the sad thing is that some people actually refer to their belts as an “identity”.

      • Kjetil K D

        April 15, 2012 at 9:18 pm

        You are what you have done and experienced. Or is this completly wrong ?

        Yes you might not be flecsible and powerfull if you stop. But the techniques should still lie in yourself. Just my 2 cents.

        So if you acheived black belt when 20 year old, and stop training. When you then are 65 year old and your grandchildren asks if you know anything special. I would say to my grandkids, I got the black belt in X-Sport.

        But I understand what the discussion is about. But if you stop training, and get back into it, you will go fast since you still know the techniques, for me a kick is like how to ride a bike. It just sits in my muscle memory or what not..

    • Sean

      April 16, 2012 at 7:19 am

      Hey, saw your post, I’m that 12 yrs/ 80 pounds guy that you mentioned. I see what you mean, though there were extenuating circumstances:

      1) I showed my face for one class a year prior, and they would’ve let me continue at green belt (my last rank before I left), but I disappeared again, wasn’t ready yet. When I came back for good, Sensei wanted to make sure I was serious this time, so I started back at white.

      2) Secondly, Sensei had joined with a bigger organization (namely Dai Nippon Butokukai) and, though he kept some of our old ippon kumite drills, pressure points and combinations, we changed the kata and ranking systems.

      3) There were others in the class who had and had been learning the DNBK systems for years, so he didn’t want to show favortism to me just because we go way back.

      Those were the main reasons, but #1 was the real reason: I had to prove myself. And it was cool with me, I had forgotten virtually all of the kata I had learned. Basics, pressure points and ippon kumite were the same, as was the first kihon kata. Past that, I was learning from scratch. In the end it all worked out, I just had my brown belt (3rd kyu) test last weekend. I’m glad I started over, it gave me a deeper appreciation for karate, and now I’m bigger Karate Nerd than ever, LOL. And as far as the belt, my classmates saw me as leader after about a year into coming back, and Sensei has asked me last winter to register with the city recreation department so I could be an official backup to lead class when the black belts are out. So whatever rank I may have lost in the beginning, I earned much more respect in the end. So it turned out to be a very great blessing for me.

  30. anhieeeeeee

    May 19, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    A great article, and I think you nailed everything important. Well, at least it’s something I can agree with. Hrm, but it really is quite worrisome that people think of it as progression for the sake of belts, rather than for the sake of skill… I suppose they’re learning for different reasons…?

  31. J

    May 23, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    I agree, with much that you have posted. I had once earned my black belt. I quit karate six years ago and have not practiced since. If I were to return, I would be very much ashamed to return again wearing my old belt.

  32. kairu

    May 29, 2012 at 9:10 am

    Hello every one

    I am a nidan, or at least was, in Shotokan Karate. I am curently trauting around Japan wearing a white belt and training with seidokai, daidojuku, judo, Aikido and whatever dojo will let me stop by.

    I will admit the first time I was asked to tie a white belt around my waist, at a kyokushin club in Vancouver, I felt a little uneasy. I felt strong enough and skilled enough to go toe to toe with the Black belts. I thought why shouldn’t I also hold my black belt, but I soon relaxed.

    I began to realize what was more important than the badges I wore to tell people of my skill was the actual perception of my skill by others and my own personal progression. The sensei at the Kyuokushin club watched me closely and as he judged my capabilities he allowed me to train in higher Kata etc not that Kata is much of a big deal in most kyokushin clubs.

    The long and short of my story is one that i have passed on to my friends and students. A black belt costs 30-50 dollars at any store. Anyone can by one there are no special licenses needed. What matters is how much you sweat and that every day you learn something new. So try not to over think it and just enjoy training. If you feel like you are pushing yourself and learning new and exciting things even if it is just how to put a little more punch in your punch then you are moving in the right direction.

    Believe me it will feel better to have sensei tell you good job and be surprised at your ability in relation to the white belt than it will to have ever one snicker about how foolish you look with that black belt, beer belly and ten gold stripes.

    Ok one more thing. I think Jesse it is not only important for students to reframe how much importance they place on a belt but also the instructors. The goal should be to encourage students to progress regardless of their level. So when someone walks into a club hoping to wear an old belt perhaps the attitude should not be so much based on “can you prove your deserve that belt to me” but rather no matter the belt rank the question should be how can you aid this student in their journey through the martial arts.

    • Jan

      May 29, 2012 at 7:58 pm

      “no matter the belt rank the question should be how can you aid this student in their journey through the martial arts”

      Well said!!

  33. Benjamin

    June 15, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Before I began with my current organization I moved a lot and always had to start as a white belt when changing schools/styles. The instructor would then test me and promote me to what he felt was the appropriate rank. At first I hated it but then realized that it was the only way I could truly be integrated into my new style. My 2nd gup in Tae Kwon Do was not going to help me in Tang Soo Do. Had I tried to wear that belt right away I would have looked like a fool and not earned any respect from peers and lower ranks while advancing which is as important for an instructor as the belt itself.

  34. Fabio

    January 29, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    I think that a karateka who did not train for years should restart from white belt, in order to avoid people from expecting more than he can show.

    But I disagree that someone who is currently training should downgrade himself just because he felt short of his skills for some reason. If that was a valid point of view, old masters unable to train due to age would not be recognized for what they were and what they did.

    MY CASE…

    I trained karate in my teens and reached an orange belt (as far as I rememebrer, it was white, yellow, orange…). I never went very far because I was always getting into arguments with the sensei and I deeply disliked katas (I focused my training mainly into strenghtening punches and kicks).

    Up to today, I can throw some really heavy punches. I kick poorly, because years of not training rendered me flexibility-less, and unable to kick an adult person above the hip.

    The main reason I did not have a good relationship with my sensei was that he expected to be treated with some reverence. I wanted do learn to fight, I paid de dojo and looked at the sensei like I always looked at my teachers in college: a person who should teach what I paid to learn, not elaborate philosophy.

    Anyway…

    I never saw any practical reason for katas. I wanted to learn how to block, evade blows, train my reflexes, and perfect my bone-breaking skills.

    Nowadays, I have that orange belt somewhere in my house. There´s a piece of paper that says that I reached that rank. Even if I am unable to perform even 20% of what I did 15 years ago, I have the rank.

    If your theory was to be considered true, we would look at old Muhammad Ali as if he was just and old african-american guy… but he was the champion of the world! It can never be taken from him! the past does not get erased as if it never existed.

    OF COURSE…

    I am a long-untrained orange belt now. When I resume training (which I intend to do soon), I will buy myself a white belt to restart from the beginning (my old gi still fits me well).

    But if I decided to NEVER walk into a karate dojo again, I would stay in that condition: of a “retired” orange belted karateka.

    The only reason I will wear a white belt again is because I want to really learn the thing for real this time. But I understand that, if I WANTED to restart from where I stopped, I would have that right. And no man in this world would be able to prevent me from doing so.

  35. Juan Alfred Rodriguez

    November 10, 2013 at 1:08 am

    Very apt post, especially now that Im one of those “has been”s…

    But let me tell you my story…

    I started Shotokan Karate when I was 16 (yes, very late) when I was in the Philippines. The year was 1992. Eight years later, I was promoted to 3-Dan in Goju-Ryu in Kumamoto (Japan) in 2000 (never had any intention of taking the Grading, until my Sensei told me to try for it)… Which after I moved to Tokyo, continuing Karate for a few more years.

    As other priorities took over (mostly work), I had to take a 3-year hiatus from Karate. When I came back to the dojo, feeling that my skill wasnt up to par, I took it upon myself to wear a WHITE BELT and position myself at the end of the line.

    Bad mistake! The Shihan reprimanded me for that -- he basically said that if I feel my skill wasnt up to par, that I should put twice, ten times or hundred times the effort to become worthy of my rank!

    Ouch! Basically, what you wrote in your post. All I could do was to apologize to the Shihan and made a presumptuous mistake.

    • Juan Alfred Rodriguez

      November 10, 2013 at 1:21 am

      Past forward to the present -- I move to the United States, and havent been doing Karate for TEN-years!

      And now, with a more relaxed lifestyle (kids are in Primary School, living in the rural areas, etc.) -- would really like to get back!

      Of course, I wouldnt expect anyone to take me in as a Black Belt, much less, a 3-Dan…! Maybe so, if it were a JKF Goju-Kai-affiliated dojo (quite 20- to 30-miles out), but that is besides the point -- I am willing to become a WHITE BELT again!

      Once I enter the dojo, I wont even say my rank. If they ask me if I have any experience, “I’ll just reply ‘… a little…’” Let the Sensei of that dojo judge for himself what I am worthy of…

      And yes -- since I was out for a decade, I definitely need to get back in shape. Started self-training about 6-wks back, and have managed to improved my flexibility for Jodan kicks, remembering ALL kata that Ive learned (both from Shotokan and Goju-Ryu), starting to develop proper breathing, precision and focus in techniques. Albeit, endurance is still shot that I cant perform a Black Belt-level kata at full power in one go….

      For me, now, late 30s. Rank doesnt hold much meaning -- as Mr Miyagi (The Karate Kid) once said, ” … belt mean no need rope to hold up pants….”

      Looking forward to again growing in the martial arts…

  36. Jeff

    December 11, 2013 at 1:22 am

    I think the mentality is the main issue here. If you have a break in your training and are willing to put a white belt back on and the Sensei tells you to wear your rank that you earned at one point but to come to beginner classes until you catch back up I think that’s ok. The key is being willing to start over if necessary as opposed to assuming you will start where you left off even though you don’t remember any of it.

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