I agree with AikiTom on this point, actually. It sounds like Nick has some romanticized notions about my "fair" country. Most "modern" Japanse people I met when I was doing research there at a university in Tokyo were a lot more interested in sports like rugby and tennis. When I went back a few years back and told some of them that I was going to Aikikai Hombu Dojo to train, they made "karate chop" hand motions in indicating what they knew about the art -- hardly anything.
You're right that pretty much anyone in a university club or such can attain shodan in one year and that it doesn't mean much. I think that people outside of Japan have placed way too much fanfare in people's getting a black belt as though it implied mastery...