Coloured Belts – A Western affectation or a valuable evolution?

I often ponder over the seemingly opposing values of traditionalism, versus progressive modernism in karate. Traditionalists often cite all kinds of arguments in support of their entrenched rituals, some of which may be indeed be very valuable, whilst others are entirely meaningless in the modern world.

Still from the movie Kuro Obi showing the black belt ceremonially foldded in a storage box
Movies like the awesome "Kuro Obi" only go to demonstrate what happens when people fixate on the belt instead of what it represents.
One such belief that my old sensei used to espouse to me, was the need to free my mind from the pursuit of coloured belts (or grades), and concentrate purely on the quest for excellence in my karate. - "Aim to be the grade, not to get the grade" as he put it. Now I can totally appreciate his point that the pursuit of arbitrary bits of coloured cloth may be meaningless in and of itself, but I feel that on one level he was part of the system that created the fixation on grades, and now he was telling me that they were not important. There's a fantastic lesson about this in Doug Aoki's brilliant essay Killing the Self. I reprint the story below:

"At times, a karateka gets outraged because he didn’t receive the promotion he thought he deserved, while someone he holds to be his inferior gets graded up. Suppose that the comparison is accurate in terms of kicks, punches, blocks, etc. If the discontented karateka, who I will call S., is truly superior in all technical respects, then what he got from karate-dō was genuine proficiency. What the other got was a belt.
hen who was robbed?"

Returning to my sensei, he related an urban legend about the masters only ever having a single white belt, which became dirty over time, eventually resulting in a black belt. “We never wash our belts”, he told me, “to do so, is like washing the spirit from it.”

Now I really liked and greatly respected my sensei, but this is exactly the kind of “wisdom” that makes us look ridiculous. It seems to me to be no different to a footballer putting on lucky scoring underpants before a big game. In fact, it's exactly how religions get started. You can easily imagine the progression.

  1. Someone wears a belt to train in
  2. They become emotionally attached to the belt over a long period of time
  3. Because the belt has been with them for years, they start to think of it as "part of their journey"
  4. They start to become protective of it develop little habits like "It must never touch the floor"
  5. The habits become rituals
  6. Everyone else is expected to show the same reverence to the belt that they do
  7. They build a shrine for their belt. All hail, mighty obi - spirit of the karateka!
  8. They get carted off to the nut house (or form The religion of the sacred belt)
Of course, I try to be mindful of the fact that my training is about more than short-term gratification, but I didn't start karate with any high-minded goals of attaining spiritual perfection, character betterment, or supreme humbleness – I was quite happy with my personality and strength of character before I started thanks very much. In fact, if someone had knocked on my door offering those things, I would have sent them away pretty sharpish! I started karate so that I wouldn’t have to fear getting the bejaysus kicked out of me by drunken thugs, and because I enjoy sparring.

As any psychologist will tell you, setting little, achievable goals is the key to achieving success on a grand scale. Now it may be that aiming for a perfect punch, or a high side kick provides immediate enough short-term gratification for some students, but for me, up tt about my brown belt, my next belt was a target that helped to motivate me on those “don't feel like it” days. Sure, I worked hard in the hope of achieving amazing karate abilities, but that prospect was too distant and too uncertain to keep me training even on my most exhausted days.

Still from the movie Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, showing Jackie Chan doing pressups whilst an old man rests his feet on Chan's back
The brutal training portrayed in classic movies such as Jackie Chan's Snake in the Eagle's Shadow make for great theatre, but few people can endure them, and what then for the art?

You only have to look at the disappointingly high turnover of students, to see that karate is, and always has had a student retention problem. The fact is, Westerners just don't have the self-discipline of our Japanese brethren. Not initially at least. We live in a world that’s a million miles from the ascetic image portrayed in the martial arts movies, and if we didn’t, most people would never have started training in the first place! They would never have considered themselves tough enough to undergo the kind of brutal training that is standard in the old movies.

Traditionalists will argue that the pursuit of excellence should be motivation enough, and in an ideal world, maybe it would be. But we don't live in that world, nor are Westerners raised with the Japanese mindset of Kaizen (constant and never-ending improvement). Transplanting an ancient Japanese mindset into modern Western dojos and expecting them to sit well together is craziness. There are so many things about the Japanese that simply don't fit with our world view. Some of them, such as extreme hard work, duty to society and family loyalty, are values that we could benefit from. Others, such as obedience and submission to the state, are the scars left on Japanese society by the iron-fisted rule of generations of tyrannical rulers, and we have no need to accept them too.

Traditionalists would argue that the art doesn't change to fit the practitioners - it doesn't need them. The students change to fit the art (for an extreme example of this world view, read this "welcome" letter written world reknowned martial artist and author, Dave Lowry). But the fact is, that world view is not accurate; karate in general, and individual ryu (schools or styles) within it have constantly evolved to fit the changing needs of the art, and of the world in which it resides.

I might just add at this point, that the formalisation of ten pre-black-belt ranks and a black belt was invented by Jigaro Kano, the founder of Judo, one of the most traditional of Budo, and was gladly acepted by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, the martial arts organisation that speaks for and guides traditional martial arts in Japan in their desire to modernise.

Modern karate carries within it, a system to gently wean students off their fixation on grades. Over time, as gradings get further apart, karateka naturally shift their focus away from the next belt, in favour of other hopefully more laudible goals, such as self-mastery, perpetuation of the art, being a good role model, etc. This is a natural process that I feel works well and harmoniously with the Western achievement-oriented mindset.

I used to cringe when I saw styles that had three or five tags on each belt, and a dozen further achievement tags that junior students could earn. I saw it as pandering to a decadent and lily-livered mindset. But now, especially since I have had a class full of 5-7 year olds who are going nowhere on their gradings, I can really appreciate the value of little motivations to keep them focussed and looking forwards. Perhaps in Japanese dojos, where patience and obedience to one's parents or senseis is a given, and attending a karate class may be mandatory, the senseis don't even need to worry about such "new-fangled" ideas as motivation and student satisfaction, they can afford to ignore whether or not the student feels any incentive to train beyond parental obligation.

 I think that if karate is to achieve the success that something so exciting and potentially life-enhancing deserves, then those in control may have to consider a more modern methodology to entice, motivate and retain today’s students. Purists can stamp their feet and complain about dilution of the warrior ethos all they like, but the bottom line is this: you can't train to be a warrior, a person who has quit the art!