Friday, 2 March 2012

Black Belt Value

A guest post from Grant McMaster...

The goal of the black belt has become a greatly inflated ideal in the western mindset, and sadly is rarely a true reflection of an individual’s ability or understanding of the martial arts.

Historically the belt system was part implemented by Dr. Jigoro Kano, the Japanese founder of Judo and a well respected educator of his time.Some sources indicate that the belt system was simply limited to white and black belts with a black belt being awarded to a competing student, or more precisely to a student who was capable of receiving technique.
This belt implied that the student was sufficiently developed and trained as uke to withstand and respond appropriately to a technique applied by his instructor. It did not indicate that the student was ready to begin instruction and certainly didn’t indicate that the student was a master.

Within present day Japan the tradition of students wearing a white belt until they reach Shodan continues in many places, although some progressive schools have adopted brown belts to indicate their higher kyu grade students.
Within Japanese Martial history the belt system was predated by a system of written licences or ‘Densho’. These Four licences Shoden Menkyo, Chuden Menkyo, Okuden Menkyo and finally Menkyo Kaiden were hand written by the Soke of a ryu or school and clearly indicated a student’s ability, personal standard and rights within his school and style.

This practice was rendered largely obsolete at the turn of the 19th century as the massive variations between the separate ryu rendered the licences as unreliable as a form of standardised rating.
This was largely due to the enduring legacy of secrecy within Japanese martial arts evident during this period of history.

Although the Menkyo system remains in use in Japan and is used by clubs outside of Japan it is largely unrecognised except by a hard core of martial arts experts/enthusiasts or those with an interest in Japanese history.
The modern belt system was further expanded to include different colours for the kyu grades, and also for the dan grades after 4th or 5th dan, whereupon the Yudansha or ranked student would wear some combination of red or white upon his belt.
This system of grade indication is now widely entrenched in the martial arts world, but whilst it appears to indicate a uniform level of ability, in fact it does not.

The grade of Shodan or first degree black belt can now only be seen as an indication of knowledge within a schools technical syllabus. This subjective value causes a great deal of confusion both to the layman and to established martial arts students.

To explain this it is necessary to understand that there are vast differences between the many martial arts that arise out of historical origins, modern interpretations and the body of knowledge within the styles.
A good example of this is the time that is takes to reach Shodan within two markedly different systems, for example sport based Taekwondo and traditional Ju Jutsu.

Ju Jutsu is a system of unarmed combat that is adaptable to body type and ability and has evolved from the martial practices of the Samurai; it may be traced back roughly 800 years in its earliest form.

To gain a Shodan in Ju Jutsu may take a novice student as long as 10 years, or longer due to the large number of complex techniques required and manner in which they are required to be executed, it may also take less time depending on the time and effort put into training and practise. Further to this there are often no Kata or preset forms in traditional Ju Jutsu although some modern schools implement Kata for weapons training.
Taekwondo is a modern sport art which was heavily influenced by the Japanese Karate styles during Japan’s occupation of Korea in the first half of the 1900’s, whilst several techniques may be traced to some Chinese and early native Korean martial traditions, it is a far simpler art aimed at the sports arena.

It is possible for a novice student to gain a Black belt in Taekwondo in as little as 2 years with no prior training although the normal duration of training would generally be longer.There is even evidence of this period being markedly shorter if the student has prior experience or shows significant aptitude for the style.
This speed of grade acquisition is possible in Taekwondo as the style is comprised of many Kata, and its essential core techniques are restricted to striking and kicking variations.
This division between levels of attainment and the volume of learning between styles lies at the heart of the issue of the ‘Black Belt’ value argument.

The unfortunate appearance of commercial schools which hand out a black belt to students who pay their fees and attend regularly, regardless of their technical ability or knowledge further complicates the universal standard of a Black Belt.
The current methods of establishing the ability level of martial arts Yudansha (Black belt) tend to be limited to association based standards. Adaptability of technique, teaching ability, experience and overall aptitude is impossible to quantify without a general consensus among martial artists as to what constitutes a ‘Black Belt’.
The establishment within associations of ‘Masters Forums’, generally comprised of Instructors of Yondan (4th Dan) or above helps to maintain a standard within that Association, but only if the forum members are from different and contrasting styles.
In conclusion, there is no clear comparison across the various styles amongst the Yudansha or black belted grades, and it is unlikely that there will ever be an accepted standard between contrasting purist styles.

It may take 20 years for a student to master a single style, and many martial arts practitioners tend to mix styles once they have achieved a certain level of competence. Essentially the colour of the belt he wears is unimportant; the truest indicator of a practitioner’s knowledge and competence may lie in his ability to replicate any technique from his syllabus perfectly and adaptively, for himself and for his students.

Sensei Grant McMaster
Shoshin Ju Jitsu

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