Karate and martial arts in general contain many intricacies, specifics and details surrounding ceremony and respect. Compared to other sports, this is one of the appeals (and hindrances) of training in the martial arts, as most people aren’t aware of them and often don’t know about them. And sometimes, even when they do, they don’t provide the respect that the culture deserves. I’ve written some previous posts about dojo etiquette, which you can read here and here, but it dawns on me that I’ve never really covered off something that’s not only important within martial arts circles, but is a serious disrespect and breach of etiquette when addressing someone in karate: asking about their black belt.
I’ll speak strictly from the karate standpoint, since this is what I’ve been studying my entire life. Training to reach black belt is a false goal. Any traditional karate instructor will usually tell you that the only thing belts are good for, are holding your pants up. In fact, I’ll push it one step further and point out that if you’re in my dojo and you tell me that you’re in karate with the sole purpose of obtaining a black belt, I’ll politely ask you to train elsewhere.
You may be asking, why would I say this? Well, first of all because it would be my dojo and I teach any who want to learn but only those whom I choose to teach. Truthfully, the use of coloured belts or any grading system in Japanese and/or Okinawan martial arts started in the late 1800’s with Judo. Prior to that, either everyone was dressed exactly the same or trained in whatever they might happen to be learning. In the 1880’s, Shotokan Karate was among the first to begin using this coloured belt system as well, and other karate systems followed suit soon thereafter.
But the honest reason I would ask a student who has the goal of achieving black belt to leave my dojo isn’t because they would be an inherently bad student or they wouldn’t work hard. The truth is that although there no truly “bad” reasons for training in karate (except for wanting to harm or suppress others), obtaining a black belt should be an incidental occurrence in your martial journey, not the end goal. In fact, my Sensei has always said that passing your black belt is a student’s way of formally asking their Sensei to teach them karate.
But one of the most disrespectful things a person can do, is ask a black belt ABOUT their black belt. Want to hear some stories about how I got here? No problem. Are you able to acknowledge the FACT that I’m a black belt? Unless you’re colour blind, you should, considering I’ll be wearing a black belt around my waist when you walk into the dojo. The disrespectful part is asking what grade of black belt someone holds, or what degree they have. Generally speaking, there’s really no reason other than unnecessary curiosity to ask someone this.
If I happen to be the head instructor, you’ll be receiving my tutelage regardless of my rank. I’ve seen brown belts open their own dojos. Although it’s pretty uncommon, it isn’t unheard of. But a traditional black belt usually won’t WANT to “brag” about what level they’ve reached and it’s usually considered impolite to ask. It reminds me of an exchange I had with someone a few years ago that went a little something like this:
CuriousGeorge: So, you do karate eh?
Me: That’s right…
CuriousGeorge: How long have you been doing it?
Me: A little over twenty years…
CuriousGeorge: TWENTY YEARS! Wow, you must be a black belt, right?
Me: Umm, well… yeah…
CuriousGeorge: What kind?
Me: Excuse me?
CuriousGeorge: What kind of belt?
Me: Black. I think we just established that…
CuriousGeorge: No, no, I mean what level!
Me: Black! I don’t think we’re understanding each other…
CuriousGeorge: No, I mean what level? What level of black belt are you? There are different levels right? Or degrees, I think?
Me: What does that matter?
CuriousGeorge: Well, I just want to know how high up you are…
Me: I’m a black belt. Anything else is an unimportant and private detail…
In this guy’s defence, despite being presumptuous in assuming that being in karate as long as I had at the time meant I held a black belt, he likely didn’t KNOW that I considered it disrespectful to ask about my rank. This is where the conversation became what many of us like to call a “teachable moment.” I know some people who have trained for decades and have never gone beyond white belt. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Karate and martial arts in general doesn’t REQUIRE you to progress through a ranking system. For some, the simple act of training is all they want/need.
But traditional black belts won’t usually want to brag about rank. You’ll rarely hear one saying, “I’m a 3rd degree black belt,” or “I’m a 5th degree black belt.” As I had indicated earlier, you’ll know I’m a black belt when you walk into the dojo and see me wearing one. To what degree matters very little. And it’s considered a faux pas in the dojo to ask. And karate is almost unique in the sense that I could drop my black belt on the ground and walk away today, and I would continue to retain my knowledge and skills. The belt is just a piece of cloth. So there you have it! A small piece of dojo etiquette that I haven’t covered before that you probably didn’t know. ☯