What Does a Judo Black Belt Really Mean?
By Neil Ohlenkamp
One of the questions most often asked of martial artists is, "How long does it take to get a black belt?"
There are many different answers to this question. Most people want to hear that it takes just a year or two of attendance in class to get a black belt. Misconceptions about what a black belt is tend to give students unrealistic expectations. At the same time, there is almost a superhuman and mythical character associated with black belts that tends to inflate the ego of those not properly prepared by their training.
The general public today sees black belts worn by very young children, contracts at martial arts schools that guarantee a black belt within a short time, mail-order black belts for sale in martial arts magazines, celebrities with honorary black belts, 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. Similar to other forms of graduation, a Judo rank is a recognition of accomplishment, but it is the education and training itself that is important.
To get a black belt you simply find a good teacher and begin training. A school in a convenient location helps so you can attend regularly. A wide range of serious training partners also helps. But most importantly you must devote yourself to your practice and work hard. It is not easy, but it is a step-by-step training process and someday, who knows when, it may come. It may take a few years, it may take ten years, or you may never achieve it. A candidate for black belt will realize that the belt is not as important as the lessons learned along the way.
If you think you deserve a black belt, you are probably a long way from reaching this rank. Strive to retain a sense of humility, and refrain from thinking "I am better than so-and-so". You cannot compare your struggle or achievements with other peoples'. This is why ranks are earned by the student, but awarded by the sensei (instructor). The sensei (literally meaning one who has gone before) has the responsibility for guiding you through the training and development that he or she has been through. The sensei 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.
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 your own personal difficulties that determines your character, an important component of a black belt.
On the other hand, 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 belt will represent their personal struggle to achieve excellence.
The first level of black belt in Japanese is called shodan. It literally means "first level" or "beginning step". Sho (first) is an ideograph that 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 because 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.