In English history, a man of valour and dignity who excelled in the arts of combat and social amenities was rewarded with the title of Knighthood. A designation which let it be known to all that he was a man not only of honor, but also of great fighting ability. This was also true in Japan, where the same dedication was rewarded with the title of Samurai. In neither country was the man or his rank to be taken lightly, for the prowess and title commanded respect! At this time both of these countries consisted of feudal states in which men, like the knights and Samurai, were a product of the social conditions in which they lived. This situation does not exist today, yet the desire for a man to excel in a martial art for discipline and self-defence, continues to survive.
Today the goal of becoming a ‘Black Belt’ is to learn to fight. But as the student’s training progresses he should become aware of a stronger calling, the moulding of himself into a better person, not only in fighting ability but also in dignity and honour. This has traditionally been the goal of the martial arts student. The Black Belt is an award or honour given to the modern knight or Samurai who has sacrificed many hours to the discipline and honing of his body and mind, to achieve the epitome of physical and mental attainment. The Black Belt is the symbol of an honourable accomplishment in all of these trials.
Originally, the ranking system was established to provide a series of levels by which students could measure their progress. The first Black Belt awarded is known as a “Sho-dan.” This means the student has mastered the basics of the art and is now ready for a more advanced form of training. The student who continues training will now receive "Dan" ranks or degrees of Black Belt as he progresses. This ranking system has worked very well in motivating the student, but it also has developed some problems.
First, there is a disparity of standards. A proper ranking system should remain universally constant; just as on a ruler one inch is always equal to one inch, so should the standard of rank be equal. However, it must be remembered that the ranking in the martial arts consists of testing human reaction and because of the individuality of each person it is difficult to declare a definite set of standards. Yet this is what must be done if the rank of Black Belt is to retain its significance.
Judo and Kendo have one international standard of testing which prevails through the world. This is due in part to both of them having their origins in Japan, where the rules of rank grew with the art. But with karate and many other martial arts disciplines, there were many different schools, each with their own set of standards when it came to testing. So, when karate (for example) was propagated internationally, the various countries embraced each style and each set of standards.
This made possible a situation in which unscrupulous individuals were able to set up their own organisations in which they handed out Black Belts to many unqualified students, who in return decided to set up their own schools and hand out yet more Black Belts. Many of these same people also decided to promotes themselves for financial gain. The end result is that many Black Belts are a disgrace not only to themselves but to the martial arts. Someone once commented that just as there are international money exchange counters to re-evaluate foreign money, there will have to be Black Belt re-evaluation centres also. To this another added, that if these ever came about, “the exchange list would be as thick as a telephone book.”
Since the public is not aware of the differences in ranking and the ability of a true Black Belt they are easily lured into clubs which will award a Black Belt to students after only a short period of training. This is not only dangerous to the student but degrades the quality of all martial arts. The public should be wary of those clubs that use the word “Black Belt” as a sales gimmick, to cheat people out of their money. In a reputable club a Black Belt can be earned in three to five years of hard work, and only under competent instruction.
It is for these reasons that all martial arts should have a standard system of testing as soon as possible. It is also the responsibility for those of us in martial arts to educate the public of the significance of a Black Belt.
Likewise each martial artist must realise that the Black Belt is not a gift, but a goal; it is a symbol of great effort. In setting up a high quality ranking system, the student and martial arts as a whole will benefit. It will also instil a greater sense of pride and achievement in the receiving of a Black Belt. The knights and samurai of old allowed nothing to tarnish their honor. Should the Sensei and Black Belts of today desire anything less?