When people walk into a martial arts dojo, the first thing they look for is a black belt. Part of this is to identify who the instructor might be, and discuss the actual joining of the class. Part of it is because most people associate perfected skill with a practitioner who wears a black belt. But this is EXTREMELY far from the truth…
First and foremost, the use of coloured belts to denote rank is a reasonably recent innovation. Believe it or not, the use of the belt system as most of us know it, was first used in Judo. Back in the 1880’s, the founder of Judo (Jigoro Kano) would have his students wear either a white sash for all students or a black sash for advanced students who demonstrated proficiency. It wasn’t until the turn of the 1900’s when Judo practitioners started wearing the traditional, white martial arts uniforms we all recognize, that the system of belts expanded to include the colours we still use today.
“Belts Are Only Good For Holding Up Your Pants.”Bruce Lee
The most common belt colours in karate are white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and black. What belts are used also depends greatly on what style you happen to be in. My style of Okinawan karate (Uechi-Ryu) only uses white, green, brown and black (and yellow, if you’re under a certain age). That being said, we use a number of taped stripes on each belt in order to denote different levels.
But the reality is that achieving the rank of black belt is only the beginning. In fact, I started Uechi-Ryu karate in 1989, and only reached black belt level in 2002. And even after all that time, training and development of my skills, my Sensei explained that graduating to your first-degree black belt is a student’s way of formally asking your Sensei to teach you karate.
“A Black Belt Only Covers Two Inches Of Your Ass. You Have To Cover The Rest.”Royce Gracie
Some styles have even adopted weird, unusual belt colours, such as pink, camouflage or rainbow belts. These are not real martial arts ranks, and you should be wary of joining these clubs if such belts are used. You should also be wary if the club you’re visiting seems to have an inordinate number of black belt students. But having trained in various clubs and schools, I can attest to the fact that some students can wear a black belt and still not have any idea what they’re doing.
Being a black belt is not the be all and end all of karate. It’s not a destination, but rather one more step along the journey. Although there are very few “bad” reasons to join the martial arts, if you join with achieving black belt as a goal, karate is not for you. After all, the martial arts are not about the prestige and common misconceptions associated to black belt practitioners. ☯