What is a Black Belt
What is a Black Belt?
Warrior dreams: The martial arts & the American Imagination written by John J. Donohue. In the “Media Review” by Danial Rosenberg, Ph.D., Rosenberg quotes Donohue as pointing the finger at us when he says; “The martial arts in the United States have tended to both exaggerate and distort the mystical and magical elements.” (104).
Think back to the early films produced in Japan and Hong Kong portraying Oriental masters glowing in the dark, performing triple back flips twenty-five feet through the air, all the while kicking and punching their adversaries. China is most guilty for propagating and exaggerating the magical and mystical elements of the martial arts, laying claims from delayed death touches to defending bullets with Iron Palm techniques.
Rosenberg says; “American pressure to succeed may be responsible for the proliferation of belts signifying rank, and for the common urgency to attain them. Donohue concludes, “The obsession with rank is a problem unique to the Western martial arts here in the United States.” (105).
During the late fifties, and early sixties and seventies, martial artists came back from serving in Korea, Japan, and Okinawa with black belts attained in just a little over a year of training. Donohue says; “The most crucial [myth] suffusing the martial arts here is that of the [warrior].” Part of the antecedent ideology of Asian martial systems, it takes on new qualities in the United States.” (105).
The search for functionality in techniques is less important in Asian martial arts then it is here in the US. Japan's technical proficiency as a warrior takes a back seat to national interest and perfection of one’s characters as it relates to the benefits of the national structure.
During the sixteenth century, in his “Book of Five Rings” Musashi the great samurai warrior wrote; “The martial arts was a vocation for a select few.” He held in contempt his contemporaries. Musashi writes; “In the present day there are no warriors with certain knowledge of the way of martial arts.” (5) Musashi also criticized martial artists of his time for affecting the trappings of a warrior without understanding the substance of the warrior.
Rosenberg writes; “Beyond the lurking of warrior myths in the national culture, Donohue feels the mass media, a profitable enterprise, stokes the fire of distortion in the martial arts. The media transmit more pervasively the wrong picture than any one thinker or teacher.” (106)
Musashi addressed this problem back in the sixteenth century when he wrote, “As I see society people make the arts into commercial products. They think of themselves as commodities and also make implements as items of commerce... (Amateuristic martial arts are a source of serious wounds.)” (8)
The first martial arts films were produced in Japan and Hong Kong. They portrayed the young heroes fighting and defeating thirty or forty villains, all trained black belts, armed with swords, knife’s, and clubs. “Can you tell me there’s no distortion there”? Muhammad Ali once joked with me about wanting to do martial arts films. Ali teased about how one guy whips forty men in two minutes than takes an hour to beat the last guy. Ali laughed as he described how the hero beats thirty fellows, and then they all get up and run away together.
Anyone who has read "Musashi" written by Eiji Yoshikawa can recount the tremendous parallels between the martial arts during Musashi's time and the martial arts of today. Time, cultural contrariety, social changes and political differences haven't altered the heart of humankind. We tend to think that since the martial arts were more or less in the embryonic stages they were more pure.
Musashi saw the martial arts as a selective occupation (profession) and a life style demanding technical expertise with the goal of victory on the battlefield. Glory and blood was as much a part of Musashi’s heiho (way to enlightenment) as Christ is to Christianity. In Musashi’s world techniques, which did not work on the battlefield were a delusion, a dishonesty that kept serious practitioners from understanding the way to victory. If self-improvement did not equate to winning on the battlefield then it was a delusion.
If we juxtapose the historical Musashi with the idealist and populist values, the professional versus the amateur the idealized warrior represents a transcendent spiritual force in possession of moral certitude rooted in service and loyalty open to anyone willing to practice a martial discipline. The image and beliefs behind the idealized warrior proselytize that seisin and shugyo (austere training) will lead naturally to victory, even if many of the techniques practiced are not particularly effective or relevant to combat. Somehow technical deficiencies can be compensated by intuitive knowledge or flashy showmanship.
The Samurai has achieved the status of icon in American martial arts culture. The Samurai image has transcended historical truth into a mythical being representing a disciplined, morally congruent, and spiritually whole personality. The image portrayed in the mainstream media of the Samurai shows an undefeatable, loyal, implacable, spiritually enlightened warrior. Martial arts instructors often use this image for the ideal warrior. Imbued with seishen or spiritual energy generated by hard and severe training a student could experience the spiritual aspect of a warrior-even if their technical ability was lacking.
The Samurai image, i.e. a spiritually endowed warrior, was used by the Japanese militarist of the early 20th century to inspire the populace to the belief that they were superior in every way to other cultures. The late Donn F. Draeger wrote in his book “Modern Bujutsu and Bundo.” “Every fighting man came to believe that seishin would enable him to perform on the battlefield with a mind that would make possible unfaltering and unerring decisions in any emergency.” The concept of seishin helped fabricate the myth that the Japanese fighting man was invincible in battle.
Within this construct, the way of the warrior was no longer the vocation of a select few, but was open to anyone who was willing to submit to rigorous and difficult training. One of the most controversial subjects in the martial arts is and always will be the definition of rank. The mass media’s portrayal of the martial arts master is of the wise old instructor endowed with mystical, magical, powers and extraordinary fighting skills, up into his fifties, sixties, and even into the seventies, e.g., Myaggi in the “Karate Kid” movies. Rank automatically brings with it the image of phenomenal martial arts skills accompanied by comparable fighting techniques. Thus brings the temptation to exaggerate, falsify and abuse rank.
People frequently criticize and condemn schools or systems that award Jr. Black Belts to children as young as eight or ten years of age. What constitutes a Black Belt is like asking someone to describe what makes a man a man or a woman a woman. Rank has very little to do with one’s ability to perform under combat situations. A Black Belt is not a measure of one’s fighting prowess or toughness. Industry standards require approximately four years of uninterrupted training and require that you demonstrate leadership skills and have shown loyalty and humility by displaying these qualities in your daily life. You have set good examples and gained the respect of both juniors and senior students. You have conformed to and obeyed the rules of conduct established by your school, and have developed good work ethics and are a proven finisher. The industry views a first degree Black Belt as some one that has proven he or she is now ready for serious training. One that looks forward to giving back to a system that developed within you the evidence of maturity, compassion for your juniors, patience, understanding and kindness. Of course you must develop a significant level of technique. First degree Black Belt is not considered an expert by any stretch of the imagination. Mentally challenged children obtain the level of a first degree Black Belt every day. We are building confidence, self esteem and the fortitude that enable children to cope with life’s everyday problems in the real world not hard core road warriors.
This allows every child the ability to be respected not turned into an invincible fighting machine or a national or world champion. Team sports are great to develop a higher level of athleticism. Millions of kids benefit from playing Base Ball even though they don’t turn pro. And millions of kids worldwide have their lives greatly enhanced through good martial arts programs. Some of the greatest instructors are the unsung heroes, the mom and pop instructors without world titles and significant rank that enhance their student’s lives that guide with genuine love and patients.
Children that are awarded junior Black Belts automatically become senior Black Belts when they turn sixteen years of age providing they have continued their training. Can you honestly say Tiger Woods needed to start to play golf all over again when he turned sixteen?
Don’t choose your school based solely on the instructors professed rank or competition record. Go in to the schools in your area and meet with the instructors and staff and ask questions regarding philosophy and teaching techniques.
By Written by Grand Master Bob Chaney