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Black Belt – Rank or Degree?

by on September 28, 2009

To earn the right to call ourselves a black belt we generally spend a few years training at least a couple days a week, and in the case of many karateka even a few hours a day both inside and outside the dojo. How different is this to the amount of effort put into earning a university degree? I would argue that it is not at all different.

Why then do none of us add letters to the end of our names, as is the norm with anything from Bachelors degrees to Doctorates? Should I not be able to add “初段” or “shodan” or some other “official” abbreviation to the end of my business cards or other official correspondence. If you are a professional karate instructor, the question is kind of moot. For the rest of us, we the “amateurs”, the question remains. For the sake of argument, let us compare the martial arts to a traditional educational institution.

Curriculum

Check, definately a defined curriculum. At the base level there is a set standard for each coloured belt level dictating what specific kata you should know / be learning, and generally what techniques you should be working on. More specifically, these are geared towards focusing your training on specifics – be it hip rotation or simply gaining a base understanding of the mechanics of a basic punch.

Examinations

Yep, we’ve all been through the gradings. Though you don’t get a %, neither do doctors at med school, a pass / fail system is just as valid as anything else.

Educational Faculty

Even the smallest club has  its head instructor, whether it is a grassroots association moving out on its own or a worldwide organization with hundreds of thousands of members, there is always someone at the top, and moving down from the head honcho there is always the heirarchy of teachers and instructors teaching and administering examinations.

Diploma

Shodan certificate: we all get them (unless they get lost in the mail…).

Graduation Ceremony

I can’t speak for everyone but even something as simple as “Congratz heres your shodan certificate!” should qualify. Then there’s special training in some clubs, and sometimes a banquet maybe once a year when more than a couple people have taken their black belt exams.

Time

For anyone training 2-3 times a week and “giving their all” in each class, it takes about 3-4 years to reach shodan and another 2-3 to reach nidan. This correlates pretty well with the amount of time it takes to receive an undergraduate degree and subsequently, a masters degree, respectively. I’m not suggesting that nidan should be considered “master” (although that’s debatable), but that the level of proficiency is about the same in relation to the two things. Then nidan onwards is like a professional career. 30 years after nidan and you could potentially be a rokudan or shichidan.

It seems to me that it is no coincidence that we refer to our university education as our “degree” in much the same way that people often ask “what degree black belt are you?”, so then there does not appear to be any hard-and-fast reason why we cannot use the “letters”.

However, I think perhaps this hints at another aspect of our training and our art. We are (well I was, I guess maybe you were too?) taught that upon reaching shodan the appropriate action is not to run out into the street proclaiming to the world “I am black belt! hear me roar!” but rather to accept this with humility and go on with life. This represents not a progression in our technical karate training, but our character. Many schools teach that we are supposed to have reached a state of “enlightenment” at this point, where we realize that for all we know there is still much that we do not. This is a valid aspect of training that many likely ignore, seeking only to perfect their technique. The question of whether this is “OK” or not is a topic for another discussion, however I would be remiss if I did not point out that each person sets their own goals in life… but I digress.

The point I am trying to make in a rather roundabout manner is that the question of Humility is somewhat overplayed by those of us who choose the path of physical and philosophical training. Dave Lowry in his The Karate Way speaks to this point, and I cannot think of a better example. To summarize his anecdote (both for simplicity and to encourage you to buy the book if you want the full story) a student upon being awarded their shodan made a comment to him that they did not deserve the rank. The question here is, is this an example of humility? Many would probably say yes, however as this is somewhat misguided, and is just as bad as running around proclaiming how great you are. True humility occurs when we recognize that we have earned something, and even if we do not believe that we are good enough, we acknowledge and respect our instructors’ judgement and recognize, and this is key, that they know more about karate than we do, and are in a better position to judge our abilities.

So then, what started as a discussion on business cards turns out to really be about humility. I would argue that true humility exists in the middle-ground between Pride and Self-abasement, or I guess to coin a phrase “negative Pride”. I would argue that humility is not the opposite of pride, but that it takes some level of pride and acknowledgment of our abilities and accomplishments to be truly humble. We just don’t need to go around proclaiming our worth from the rooftops. So should we put “shodan” on our business cards? In the end it all boils down to the fact that each person’s martial arts journey is personal. If you have earned the rank and want to acknowledge the hard work that you have put into it, and that your instructors have put into training you, then go for it. If you are simply trying to show off, well nobody can stop you from wanting to do that.

9 Comments
  1. An excellent post. I can’t believe it never occured to me to think about it from that angle (the college degree similarities). I like the thought. And, with this “degree” you can keep learning and doing something you love for a lot longer than 4 years. Keep it up!

  2. Rank: Karate is based entirely on the Japanese culture which is highly militaristic in its origins. Even outside of the military, civilian culture follows this pattern of hierarchical relationships between people. If you thought the class-gap was servere in North America, you’d be shocked in Japan.

    Karate was formed in the spirit of the samurai and Japanese military. Its no surprise, then, that traces of hierarchical relationships still live on in many (and possibly, most) clubs. In the ancient ways, 3rd degree black belts (for example) would “look down upon” shodans. Lower ranking karateka were not even allowed to approach sensei to ask a question as this was considered rude and inappropriate. The question had to go through a chain of increasing ranks in order to reach sensei through only his most devout students.

    So in this regard, black belt is a rank entirely, giving the holder the right to act elitist and disdainful to those below him/her and order them around.

    Degree: People actually do put “shodan” on official documentation, but only related to karate. The same is true with other qualifications. When filling out a contest entry form at Sobey’s, no one would write “First name, last name, PhD, P.Eng, CMA”. They would just write their name. When doing business with others, however, you’d include these credentials.

    This is true with karate too. When entering a tournament, registering for a clinic, or applying for an instructor’s training course, entrants write “First name, last name, nidan”. Because its relevant.

    I like both angles to this, but would call it “Black Belt – Rank AND Degree”.

  3. Thanks Mark, for the comment (great article btw). I think Phil has a really good point there, and we really need to remember the history behind the art, specifically the militaristic nature of its(/their) origins. In retrospect the comparison does not do the martial arts justice, but is still a valid one, though incomplete.

    A large part of the problem with the concept of using “shodan” on a business card is probably the abuse, and when you boil that down it does draw an amusing similarity between the McDojos and the online colleges offering a quick-and-easy degree… where’s the quality control?

    In any case, I’ve come to the same conclusion as Phil: use it when its relevant and appropriate, otherwise why are you using it? I don’t personally mind people knowing that I have my black belt, but I don’t go out of my way to tell them about it either.

  4. Frank Scurley permalink

    I don’t know If I said it already but …Cool site, love the info. I do a lot of research online on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,🙂

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    • Thanks🙂 Your comments are very much appreciated🙂 I’ll try to keep the substance there!

  5. Hello from Russia!
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