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

Directions to the Dojo

(My Life for the past 40 years)

September 1, 2014

On September 19th, Alberta Shito-Ryu Itosu-Kai celebrates its 35th anniversary.  That was the first date that our style of karate was taught in the Edmonton area in 1979.  I remember it like yesterday, nervous energy coupled with a missionary zeal to impart what little martial arts knowledge I had picked up under Shihan Kei Tsumura in the preceding years.

That first class was taught (in jeans and a T-shirt) to a group of what was to become our first wave of “lifers”.  Mario DiLullo was one (now a 5th Dan Karate).  Not knowing any better, I had found a sponsoring community group (Londonderry Community League) that arranged for us to practice in the brand new Lion’s Senior Citizens Centre in NE Edmonton.  Ads were placed with Edmonton Parks and Recreation and the first batch of Shito-Ryu Karate-ka were launched into the beginnings of what was to become the Alberta Shito-Ryu Itosu-Kai Karate and Kobudo Association.

2014 is an auspicious year in many ways, not the least of which saw milestones for many of us that have “grown up” practicing Itosu Ryu.

  • Tony Baller, a 30-plus year fellow instructor attained the exalted rank of 5th Dan (Godan) in Kobudo.  Along with his Godan in Karate his devotion to the traditions and history of Shito Ryu Itosu Kai put him in a rare position of being recognized worldwide in traditional Karate.
  • August 30, 2014 saw the marriage of one of our trio of Molina brothers.  They all started their respective Karate careers at the tender age of 7, spaced one year apart. Juan married the love of his life, Felicia.  His wedding was attended by his brothers, sister, parents, close friends and co-workers.   2013 was also a special year when the youngest of the 3 brothers, Ernesto, married Brittny Wangler, also one of our Black Belts. Both weddings were attended by a strong contingent of fellow instructors and students from the Devon club. Like two proud Uncles, Tony Baller and I were there.
  • September 19 will be the 35th Anniversary of teaching Shito-Ryu Karate in Alberta.  In all that time we have taught literally thousands of students, seen people from every walk of life, and made some life-long friendships that are more like family.  In 35 years we have taught Karate to people who have traveled the world and practiced Shito Ryu Itosu Kai in places as diverse as Ireland, England, South America, Hawaii, Central America, all over North America coast to coast, Japan, and Australia.  There are few hobbies that can say that.

It’s easy to wax a bit profane when you are reflecting on a life-long journey filled with positives.  There were some negatives as well but through it all Karate provided a haven that allowed me to refocus and collect the energy needed to greet the day.  As I enter my 60th year I am thankful for the part Karate has played in my life.  I am grateful for the life-long friendships that have evolved and continue to this day.  I am most grateful for my lifelong relationship with my Sensei, Shihan Kei Tsumura, 8th Dan, and his family.  I am thankful for all of it.  I hope those of you that follow will find Shito Ryu Karate and forge new paths.  Welcome to our family and thank you for almost 40 years of family and friends and yes, fun.

Yours in Karate-Do,

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

Chief Instructor, Alberta Shitoryu Itosu Kai Karate & Kobudo

30 Years of Dojo Kun

September 15, 2009 marks the 30th anniversary of teaching Itosu Ryu Karate in Alberta. It is a milestone in more ways than one and definitely time for some introspection. When I started the club in Edmonton at the bequest of Tsumura Shihan all I wanted was a place to continue working out. After training in Toronto with Shihan, I wanted to continue our brand of Karate in Edmonton somehow. Anyone that has tried to train alone knows how hard it is and unless you’re a special person, almost impossible. It took me 9 months to research how the martial arts worked in Edmonton, which club (s) was legit, did I really want to start my own thing and the list goes on and on. Needless to say none of them represented to me what I had come to expect so the Edmonton club was started; simple as that with the Londonderry Community League.

One of the things that drew me to Karate and in particular our style of Karate was the man leading the club in Toronto. From the first time I met him and right up to today he has represented to me the epitome of all a martial artist should be; calm, cool, in control and most importantly humble. He was always expounding on martial art philosophy, he read voraciously and held forth on a variety of subjects. I learned a lot from him and still do to this day.

One area that he taught me way back when and recently re-introduced is “Dojo Kun”. If you’re asking, “what is that?” you obviously haven’t read the back of your Itosu Kai membership card. You need to do so now. I am referring to that little blurb on the back that is clearly marked “Dojo Precepts”. They are quite simple words to live by inside and out side the dojo.

One, to value respect and courtesy,

One, to be revered through possession of a moral heart,

One, to refrain from intemperate speech or action,

One, to mutually trust and complement,

One, to never relinquish the spirit of the ultimate path

They are all “numbered” as one because none is more important than the next or the preceding. The words hold forth whether you are in a dojo or out and if you truly read them you will find meaning and strength from the words. The precept that stands out for me is the third “One, to refrain form intemperate speech or action”. As our economy falters, jobs lost and families effected, we have the unique opportunity to be a haven in all of this chaos and offer a modicum of civility, courtesy and mutual respect that isn’t always present in our lives today. Let’s try and remember that everyone comes to Karate for different personal reasons and not all are there to practice till they drop, train so hard that human frailty is forgotten and injuries occur, and most importantly go home feeling worse than when they arrived. Injuries are a fact of life in any percussive activity and no one is immune to them, but injuries that are caused by a fellow Karate-Ka in anger or in frustration is not in keeping with our precepts.

Back in 1979 when we started there was no need to carry liability insurance. We were a non-profit club and while we practiced under the umbrella of a Community League, we did not need it. In recent years due to numerous incidents in other martial arts, pugilistic and organized sports we now have to carry a multi-million dollar insurance policy to carry on our activities. It is not a “license” to train harder or injure other students because they signed a waiver form. It’s very important we all recognize the risk and the responsibility we carry as students and instructors of a legitimate martial art. Read the Dojo Precepts. It’s simple, easy to read and it works. We read it at every class. I encourage you to do the same.

Yours in Karate-Do

Joe Barrau, Chief Instructor,

Godan-Karate, Yondan-Kobudo

Alberta Shito Ryu Itosu Kai Karate