The Meaning of a “Black Belt”

I started my Karate journey over 40 years ago in Toronto at a Seneca College class being run in the large gym.  I was, at best, a sporadic attendee.  If I missed a class, no big deal, there was always next week.  My first year of college resembled my attendance at Karate, and I found myself making changes and course redirections in 2nd year to the point that I changed faculties, and then I changed schools for my 3rd and 4th year.  After a slight break, I joined a very good friend of mine (who had discovered the main club (Honbu) for Shito Ryu Itosu Kai in Canada in the west end where I lived) and we attended classes properly under the tutelage of Kei Tsumura.  At that time Tsumura Sensei was a 5th Dan in Karate and 5th Dan in Kobudo.

 We had no idea then what that all meant. We had all seen and enjoyed the Bruce Lee films, particularly where he showcased the use of Nanchuku.  We didn’t know it then, but it was a weapon well-entrenched in the history of Okinawan martial arts.  We didn’t really care about authenticity; we cared about flash in the 1970s.  The traditional martial arts flourished in Toronto and one man stood out as embodying the Karate life, Kei Tsumura.  He was more than my instructor; he became a confidant, a mentor and most of all, a friend.

In 1976 I moved to Alberta, returning in 1977 to Toronto for a year of training (and work).  In 1979 a permanent move was to be made and the rest as they say is history.  Over the course of 40 years there have been many discussions about what it means to be a “Black Belt.”  Tsumura Shihan and I have discussed and debated it often.  To put it into perspective, not one of these is more important than the other:

  1.  Time put in.  Plain and simple how much time has the karate-ka put in.  There is a humbling factor when it is not just a given.  We get asked often how long it will take.  The simple answer is “it depends on the person, circumstances, and time put in.”
  2.  Techniques learned and practiced. Karate is considered an art and a sport.  There is a requirement to learn specific ways of doing and practicing techniques.
  3.  Willingness to teach others.  The best way to practice is to teach others what you know.  Being willing to pass it on shows a maturity and commitment to carrying on the art.

Here’s another way to look at it, more in keeping with North American sensibilities:

  •  Blood, Sweat and Tears
  •  A journey of a thousand steps begins with a single step
  •  A state of mind

 It starts to sound a bit daunting, but here’s a few “truths” that categorize traditional Karate well:

  • Anyone can learn techniques
  • Anyone can learn steps
  • Anyone can accomplish the physical given enough time and encouragement

A Black Belt represents a never-ending quest to perfect the mind and body.  It also represents sincerity, self control, confidence, character, effort and respect. Most of all it represents discipline.  Being a Black Belt does not mean perfection.  It means you are on the journey or path to get there.  It is a life-long journey of discoveries, failing and trying again.  It’s knowing that you’ll never reach perfection but you will keep trying.  It is recognizing that no one, especially a Black Belt, is perfect.

The Black Belt represents the journey, not the end.  If you see a Black Belt that is worn and ragged, it means it’s been on a longer journey.  Black Belts are “black” because in the golden days of development centuries ago students wore a white cotton string belt to hold up their pants. As time progressed hands made the white cotton black with use and a “Black Belt” meant experience and time put in.

In North America there are far too many people that think achieving their first degree (Shodan) is the end of the journey. It truly isn’t, it is a stepping stone and represents merely the start of a life long study.  A black belt has definitely not accomplished all there is. They are trying to retain the “beginner’s mind”, no matter how long they have practiced or how many ranks they’ve attained.  When I visited Japan in the mid-1990s I was not asked what rank I was, I was asked rather how long I had practiced.  At that point it had been over 20 years.  Nobody was impressed that I was a 3rd Dan at the time and it seemed 20 years was the norm, not the exception.

It’s important we don’t get too caught up in rank, it is however important to recognize people that have given it all they can and keep coming back for more.  It was a long journey, but what a journey it was.  Stay the course and carry on the legacy that my teacher started over 50 years ago in Canada.  You’re in good company.

Yours in Karate Do,

Joe B. Barrau, Rokudan (6th Dan) Karate, Godan (5th Dan) Kobudo

Chief Instructor, Shito Ryu Itosu Kai Karate, Alberta

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