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Nito 08-08-2005 07:35 PM

History of Black Belt?
Possible stupid question alert (in my defense, please see Introductions and note that I am a new/old student.)

The black belt. I know that it originally signified a serious student, one who has some of the tools to continue in his/her training. Here in the US, it signifies a bit more. My questions are as follows. When/how did the black belt change in its importance? If it is even possible to guesstimate, what would the equivalent of a Japanese black belt be to an American student? And for the Japanese/trained in Japan Aikido students out there, what are your thoughts on the US importance/weight of the black belt?

I dunno if this has already been hashed out somewhere, if so, I would appreciate a link to the thread. Joyful training to all,


Charlie 08-08-2005 09:03 PM

Re: History of Black Belt?
I'm a little confused. Are you saying that by your definition, a black belt earned in the US holds more importance than one gained in Japan?

Mr Greyhame 08-08-2005 11:50 PM

Re: History of Black Belt?
At the risk of being horrendously wrong and at making false generalizations, I will state things as I see them.

From what I hear and see the populace of the US has raised the level of black to an almost glorified level. Vast parts of the public particularly those without martial experience pay a great deal of regard to what a black belt signifies. They have placed a stigma that to attain a black belt is to be akin to having a mastery of the art, being a master fighter, or whatever is seen as being at the top of your training. which is in stark contrast to the meaning of the belt in Japan.

At least to my understanding (which is limited) in Japan the organizations and people(?) view the belt as a sign of becoming a serious student. A sign that you have developed a firm grip on the basics and are now capable of truly training and learning with the intensity warranted by the art.

It is as far as I can discern a difference of points of view of the two cultures. I think that nito is trying to ascertain what caused this difference in value of the belt(who what when where why how[reporter stuff]) and what would be an equivalency from Japan to America when accounting for "inflation" of ranks value that is rampant in the US, and most western nations.

Sadly I am not a great shakes at this kind of technical waffle and am hardly better a faking it, but now I wouldn't want to do that. However I do hope I have provided a starting base and perhaps clarified a few questions.

Nito please let me know if I am way off base interpreting you.

But FWIW I feel that the American value of the belt stemmed from the fact that we are a rewards based culture and as when the belt system was designed the black was the highest color we awarded it some special consideration. Since it was perceived as the top belt(color) it was also seen as the end of the ranking system and therefore a symbol of completed training, and I feel that this belief took firm root and has refused to leave. But it could be something much more deeply rooted in our culture, if it is then I am out of ideas.

Just a few ideas from me,

Charles Hill 08-09-2005 07:04 AM

Re: History of Black Belt?
It's been my expeience that the image of "black belt" is the same in both Japan and the US in regards to the average person.


Jorx 08-09-2005 07:17 AM

Re: History of Black Belt?
Nowadays you can't veiw the black belt symbol per se.
If a 7-year-old is awarded TKD blackbelt it tells one thing...
One the other hand most people know what it takes to be a competitive Judo or BJJ blackbelt...

ElizabethCastor 08-09-2005 09:16 AM

Re: History of Black Belt?

Matthew McKnight wrote:
FWIW I feel that the American value of the belt stemmed from the fact that we are a rewards based culture and as when the belt system was designed the black was the highest color we awarded it some special consideration. Since it was perceived as the top belt(color) it was also seen as the end of the ranking system and therefore a symbol of completed training, and I feel that this belief took firm root and has refused to leave.

My best guess is along these very lines... the stereotypic American wants to know when he'll see "results" and in the spirit of competitiveness and one-upsmanship measures according to belt color. Nevermind that you can see these "results" and changes from day one.

I picked up a book in the library the other day that was a guide to the parent seeking a martial art for thier kid. On a worksheet designed to bring to "interview" the dojo was the question "How long to reach black belt?" Granted, it *didn't* place any extra value on this question but it still caught my attention.

That's my bit of info...


senshincenter 08-09-2005 10:14 AM

Re: History of Black Belt?
I agree with Charles here.

If I would add anything more as it pertains to a division between "west" and "east," it is this: It seems a Western notion to posit the East/Japan as more capable of holding pre-modern sets of wisdom. In other words, it is very Western to say, "We don't understand correctly, but them there Japanese do." This doesn't make such a statement very true - just very Western. It is part of our fascination with the Exotic Other.

Another thing, from my experience of training all over the Kansai and with many folks from Hombu, and with many folks within the States, an average Shodan in Japan (in my experience) is like a second or third kyu from the States or even a fourth kyu from a really good dojo in the States. Nevertheless, this never stops the average Shodan in Japan from shoving his rank around and/or trying to utilize some of the cultural capital contained within that rank in some less than honorable way.

For me, the real division is between Modern and Pre-modern - not East and West. In many ways, Japan is a very modern nation (which should go without say - right?). In many ways, the States are very traditional, very attached to pre-modern cultural values. As such, there is much more similarity than Western martial artists are willing to admit between the two nations - there's a lot of overlap.

Why do some avoid seeing this overlap? I think using Japan in the way they do serves them in their own pedagogy, in the running of their dojo, in the stating of their own expertise - in much the same way that one may make use of the phrases, "Jesus said" or "the Buddha did." When you talk like that, you get to mark a difference at the same time that you side yourself with the difference you are making. Thus, such statements actually work like this:

"The Japanese (who are wiser and who I am like) are different from 'us' Westerners (who you are like, but which I am not like, though I be a Westerner myself)."

After that kind of position gets passed around enough, you are going to have students wanting to play the same game but not really wondering if the rules are all that accurate. Hence, such ideas get repeated and the "unsaid" elements get more unsaid as the potency of the statement consequently increasing (for he/she that is using it).

just my opinion,

bcole23 08-09-2005 01:12 PM

Re: History of Black Belt?
Excellent post.. 10 Aikido points to you.

maikerus 08-09-2005 04:59 PM

Re: History of Black Belt?
Another thing to consider is that - and yes I may be wrong, but this is what I have been told - traditionally dojos in Japan have existed for the purpose of giving the head of the dojo someplace to train and someplace to show off their stuff.

Dojos were *not* there for the express purpose of developing students. Regular students were/are(?) just a way to pay the rent. However, a student on the uchideshi track and taking care of the master of the dojo is worth putting effort into. So the skill level between a "regular student" and an "uchideshi" is fairly pronounced for more than just the obvious time and dedication reason.

My impression is that elsewhere dojos are there for students and to pass on knowledge to the best of the instructors ability. This was certainly the case when I trained in Canada!

This difference might lead to the requirements for a regular black belt test being markedly different between Japan and elsewhere, in that the Japanese standards for Regular students is not as high as it is elsewhere. I would also submit that the standards for Japanese Uchideshi are *higher* than elsewhere, based upon my experience.

I confess that for myself, I do not care what a person's rank is as that I believe it is very subjective and changes markedly from dojo to dojo, instructor to instructor and (here in Japan) type of student you are. To me questions on lineage and then seeing/feeling your training are better to judge ability.

My few yen...



Charles Hill 08-09-2005 07:33 PM

Re: History of Black Belt?

Michael Stuempel wrote:
Regular students were/are(?) just a way to pay the rent. However, a student on the uchideshi track and taking care of the master of the dojo is worth putting effort into. So the skill level between a "regular student" and an "uchideshi" is fairly pronounced for more than just the obvious time and dedication reason.

I strongly second this opinion/observation. Now, the interesting thing for me is that the VAST majority of dojo both in Japan and out are headed by people who were NOT "uchideshi." Nor are they connected to people who were "uchideshi." I am using quotes for "uchideshi" to point out that it is not a title. Uchideshi is a word to divide students in the minds of instructors. Also noteworthy to this line of thinking is Aikikai Honbu's insistence that there were no uchideshi at Honbu after the war.

Charles Hill

Nito 08-09-2005 08:13 PM

Re: History of Black Belt?
Thank you very much for some very interesting posts!
Mr. Burmeister, I hope the posts cleared perhaps a muddled question. If not, my opinion closely resembles that of Mr. Stuempel. Whatever the rank or lineage, there is not much that can take the place of feeling the technique. What I was trying to convey was wondering how the significance of the black belt went from a committed student to one of high esteem.
About 7yr old TKD black belts, I have seen some of them, and whatever you think of their technique, they can be cute lil' stinkers!
Thanks again,


senshincenter 08-09-2005 08:33 PM

Re: History of Black Belt?
Well maybe the question doesn't quite fit the history - as it assumes that a "black belt" meant to recognize commitment. Perhaps, way back when (whenever that might be), commitment wasn't in so much need of recognition - it just was (unlike today where it comes with all kinds of conveniences and all kinds of considerations). I think you might want to be asking, "When did the black belt get the meaning of 'expert'?" That probably happened right from its inception or right near there - when its existence made it possible to mark those who do not have one as "less skilled."

Or a better question might be: "When does a 'black belt' come to mean more about commitment and less about expertise?" Answer: When you mature enough in your training to realize the color of your belt and the title of your rank don't mean crap.

Tubig 08-09-2005 11:23 PM

Re: History of Black Belt?
There is a legend/myth that the reason that black belts are black. Apparently in old Japan there is only one colour in the kyu grades which is white. The more they wear it the more it gets dirty until it becomes brown and eventually black. To get the white belt to that dirty black colour... maybe it does mean that one has to train hard enough and long enough that it became a badge of honour. Or maybe hygiene issues are on high priority.

In Australia as far as I am concerned we do not have 10th Dan shihans in aikido walking and teaching around. To achieve a shodan is already a big deal to the common Australian. Where as in Japan there are still high ranking Shihans, and shodan is just the initial step to that skill level. Regardless that it is Japan or Australia the shodan should be the same level. Culturally maybe it is a bit more glorified here in Australia, it is certainly a good line to drop in pub to impress someone :D

PeterR 08-09-2005 11:55 PM

Re: History of Black Belt?
The Shodokan curriculum is standard inside and outside of Japan. All things being equal there is a difference between those that spend time at Honbu and those that don't. As for uchideshi they are taken from a pool of talented students that have usually had extra attention paid for some time. The end result is always something quite special.

Statements along the line of a Japanese Shodan is worth only a 3rd or 4th Kyu is outside of my experience and essentially meaningless. How long have you been doing Aikido and who with, followed very quickly by let's see what you got. That's what's important.

nekobaka 08-09-2005 11:57 PM

Re: History of Black Belt?
One member of my dojo was really shocked that it would take at least 4 years to get shodan in aikido, he was thinking about 2 years or so. for me I think shodan was more like 6 years. last year an exchange student took a shodan test for kendo after 9 months, she didn't pass but she was close apparently. a teacher at my school (I work at a high school) was a 5 dan in kendo and was about 23, 24. in aikido that was would be pretty impossible. a friend of mine doing judo got shodan after about a year and a half. a lot of my students who are in their last year of high school, who started shorinji kempo 3 years ago are taking 2 dan this year.
that's all I know about other martial arts, but to me, it seems a black belt isn't that big a deal in japan.

I am often surprised when I see that some members of my dojo get shodan. it makes me feel that shodan really is the beginning and not even close to the middle.

PeterR 08-10-2005 12:15 AM

Re: History of Black Belt?
I think Sandan is the barrier for many of these arts and then there are arts where promotion is based on shiai - a young talented Judo or Kendo player can have an advanced dan rank especially if he's been at the game since he was 5.

I think what I'm trying to say is that there is so much variation that a comparison is essentially meaningless.

Ani - didn't you in a previous thread complain that a Japanese Shodan was not particularly impressed with yours. He of course might have been using different criteria than your previous instructor but he is probably also convinced that Shodans outside of Japan aren't worth much.

nekobaka 08-10-2005 12:47 AM

Re: History of Black Belt?
well he was 2 dan, but yes. that's why I think he was being harsh, because the reality is that most shodan aren't up to his standards, and he isn't the one to decide, the instructor is. I see shodan as a line between learning techniques based on order of events to learning techniques and training based on manipulation of ki, balance, and so on.
the thing is I've practiced in japan longer than i did in the US, and while he may have been implying I don't meet his standards (could be a misunderstanding as well) I don't think he was saying that because I'm a foreigner.

PeterR 08-10-2005 12:53 AM

Re: History of Black Belt?
Ah ok - I did say before the guy probably has issues. For us Nidan isn't technically that much more involved over Shodan but is used to separate out potential Sandans or more to the point to differentiate from the mass of shodans. I suspect this model is quite common. In Judo the difference between Shodan and Nidan is huge but that is based on two levels of Shiai selection. The end result is that you have young guys being told that they have a certain level of talent beyond the ordinary. Some handle it well, while others ......

senshincenter 08-10-2005 01:27 AM

Re: History of Black Belt?
I think the meaning of such statements lies in the fact that we are talking about general experiences that mark differences from and in each others' experiences. One guy says, "Japan kicks ass, America sucks." Another guys says the opposite - another guy agrees with the first - a fourth guys with the second, etc. Combined you get something - you get a whole lot of room to ask more questions and to further formulate positions, etc. That's a whole lot better than just (only) saying, "Yeah, I agree" or "No, I don't agree." If anything is meaningless, it is those kind of final statements but I don't think there are many of those here in this thread. As long as a sharing of one's general experience is all tailored with phrases akin to "in my experience" it's all worthwhile - not meaningless, in my opinion.

Nick P. 08-10-2005 06:08 AM

Re: History of Black Belt?

Manuel Delgado-Eberhardt wrote:
What I was trying to convey was wondering how the significance of the black belt went from a committed student to one of high esteem.

Perhaps it came about during the boom in Bruce Lee (and others) movies; we are a culture that looks for absolutes and simple imagery.
Q. What coloured belt does that @$$-kicker have?
A. Black.

And bingo, a stereotype is born. Of course, no-one thought to ask "Hey. Is there more than one black belt?" Perhaps learning that in fact there are more levels to black than there are for white (in most grading schemes) would have avoided placing too much significance on black.

Nevermind the fact that some very talented and skilled 2nd kyus are "better" than your average shodan, or that some nidans should never have obtained a rank higher than ikkyu. IMO.

diesel 08-10-2005 09:29 AM

Re: History of Black Belt?
I'll point this out as I don't recall seeing it.. the whole belt system is a recent invention... If I recall correctly it was developed by Kano Jigoro for judo.. maybe in the 1920s? Before that, students were members of clubs or koryu's and each had their own ranking system.

As for a shodan in japan.. I came to japan a little under a year ago with almost 4 years of experience in aikido ( 3~4 times a week and ikkyu.) After training at my current dojo with some nidans and shodans and absolutely running them through the gauntlet, I realized that the training ideas in japan are completely different for a lot of people.. of course their styles are reflected in this (as anywhere else.) Also, you have to take in to account that japanese society, on a whole, is non-confrontational. With this in mind, watching a majority of native japanese people train and watching foreigners train, you can see a world of difference. This doesn't hold true for anyone I have seen above nidan though..

My current sensei studied closely under nishio shihan for quite some time and is high ranking in aikikai, and his style is very strong and what we in america would call 'street effective'. His shodans reflect this. After training with him for a while, he made the comment to me that as an ikkyu in america I could be a nidan in japan.. With this, it would seem even higher ranking aikido senseis recognize a difference between a majority of japanese shodans and american shodans.

As for the 'what belt is he question.' I think we can thank the Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies of the 60s and 70s for introducing america to the whole 'black belt master' idea.

thats my .02..

senshincenter 08-10-2005 10:06 AM

Re: History of Black Belt?
Aside from the reasons behind one's training, it might also be relative to note that in Japan it is not that common to find a dojo that actually trains more than two or three times a week (outside of a Hombu). When I was there, in order to train five or six days a week I had to go to about four to six different dojo. Aside from taking a lot of time traveling back and forth, it was also extremely expensive as there were train and subway costs and of course mat fees, etc.

diesel 08-10-2005 10:30 PM

Re: History of Black Belt?
David is 100% correct here. I train with two clubs, one is an 'adult' club at a budokan and the second is at a local high school.

The adult club meets twice a week whereas the high school is everyday but sunday. It isn't expensive though.. roughly 2000yen a month.

I'm lucky :D

Lyle Bogin 08-11-2005 08:29 AM

Re: History of Black Belt?
Didn't Bruce Lee help introduce the whole "black belt means nothing" thing?

If you train with Jeet Kune Do players and mention your black belt, you'll probably get especially kind treatment ;) .

ikkitosennomusha 08-16-2005 12:04 AM

Re: History of Black Belt?
A black belt means you are a serious student of Aikido and in many ways, your training has just begun.

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