This is one I’ve been thinking about a lot. It would mean a lot more to address it after I get a black belt in something, but it’s a good topic of discussion regardless of who’s bringing it up. For those of you who aren’t too hip to the history of the East Asian martial arts, here’s a little secret: that gi and those colored belts you see everywhere, that was judo. The thing is, there’s a lot of perceptions about what a black belt is, and they vary.
So let’s start by discussing expectations. Remember when you started your first martial art? You thought a black belt meant that person knew everything. That faded black piece of stitched cotton meant they could kick your ass by looking at you. That’s pretty much how someone in mainstream society looks at a black belt – a battle hardened killing machine who knows everything there is to know about the art they practice/teach.
Then there are the so-called “traditional martial arts” or TMA. This is really just a term for East Asian martial arts because since the 90’s BJJ made us realize wrestling and boxing were martial arts too – we just always called them sports instead. TMA’s are famous for what we call “McDojos” or “belt factories” where someone comes in, pays each month, and every 3-4 months gets a new rank. By-and-large the MA community makes fun of this model of ranking because a black belt means you showed up for 4 years. To be fair, it’s a perfectly legitimate means of ranking someone – you’ve shown up for four years, congratulations, you’ve graduated. Outside of martial arts we call that model “high school.” A black belt in these systems is someone who’s been around and in enough classes that they could teach one, and it’s likely they know all of the basics and can show these to others. They’re clearly not well-oiled murder machines, but then again, who said they would be?
Then there’s the judo model. This model is used by other TMAs, but quite frankly judo is a sport and is definitely not what people think of when they think TMA. In fact, if I was allowed to kick the ass of everyone who went “Oh! JUDO CHOP! That’s like karate right?”, I’d be ankle deep in blood pretty much forever. The judo model is terrible – there’s no standard for any rank below black because none of them matter. Yep, that’s the sad truth. Every rank below black in judo is made up and doesn’t mean a thing. Literally a dyed piece of cotton on your waist to make you feel good about how long you’ve been showing up and how hard you’ve worked. Granted, at brown you can start reffing and get to fight the black belts, but it’s arbitrarily given based on competition experience, how long you’ve been coming to class, and a non-standard level of aptitude. You don’t even get issued a passport when you move at a kyu rank. You’re pretty much just someone who has a gi so the instructor can assume you know how to fall. By the way, that’s what the belt color system is – a series of kyu ranks (below black) which count down, followed by a series of dan ranks (degrees of black belt) which count up. Fun fact. Even the arts which aren’t Japanese and don’t use Japanese terminology really use this same system. BJJ is a great example. So is TKD (which even splits grades into dan and kup). If you’re not sure if you follow the kyu-dan system just ask yourself – do we have colored belts followed by black? Do we have an X degree black belt or Xdan? If the answer is yes, congratulations, someone ripped off judo at some point in the history of your art. So here’s the secret as to why every rank below shodan (black belt) is worthless: the expectations for a black belt aren’t that high. The average person can get one in 6 years, and if someone gets one in 4 years it’s really just a sign that they did well in competition as opposed to the school being a McDojo. Seriously. Look at the requirements put forth by the USJA, USJI, and USJF. Those black belts are internationally recognized by the IJF and it’s assumed that the standards in every country with a NGB will be similar to those. You’re probably shitting yourself now upon realizing that the requirements are pretty much knowing 40 throws, one kata, some ground work, and maybe winning a couple of tournaments. That’s it. Minimum time in rank for the whole thing is 4.25 years according to the USJF numbers (if you win five tournament matches at each rank). It’s a year and a half if you can win three tournaments of at least five people at each rank. Dead serious. Look it up. Time for non competitors is like 7 years.
The point here is really, for almost every martial art, the concept of a black belt is someone who’s been around for a little while and knows enough to lead classes. The analogous rank in BJJ is blue or purple depending on your association. We’ll say purple to make me feel better. That’s it. The universal expectation of a black belt is someone who has a grasp of the basics and is ready to start learning the art. In BJJ we tend to think of the basics as something that’s learned over the course of the white and blue belts, and then at purple you’re intermediate. Brown and black are considered more advanced ranks for the average practitioner while everyone else has their ranks structured so that a black belt is the rank an average practitioner can just expect from hanging around and doing some competition.
So that’s the thing – for a McDojo a black belt is the sign that you’ve been around long enough, for a more traditional sense the black belt is the point that you’re ready to start learning, and for BJJ it represents the point where you’re advanced. That’s the summation of my whole rant. When someone says they got a black belt in four years, ask what style, if it’s BJJ feel free to judge them, if it’s judo understand that they’re still going to throw your butt-scooting ass, and if it’s karate just nod and smile and act like it means more than having colored a picture and put it up on the refrigerator. Ranks are arbitrary, and for most arts they don’t mean what you want them to mean. It’s like how I got the blue and felt like I knew so much and then six months later I’m stripping my game.
So, ranks higher than black is really another rant. Strap in. In BJJ a 9th degree black belt (red belt) is the highest anyone can ever expect to get who doesn’t have a last name starting with “G”, but pronounced like it starts with “H”. I remember being told that and laughing. This was years before I would learn of Franca and really understand that BJJ has the same politics judo does, but are driven a little differently. In judo the rule is that you can get a judan (10th degree black belt), but it’s never going to be recognized by the Kodokan if you’re not a Japanese national. That’s part of the whole reason even though Helio Gracie is considered the founder of BJJ to whom almost all of our lineages can be traced back to, he’s only a 6th degree black belt by Kodokan standards. Yeah, the founder of your art was pretty good, he beat some good judoka, but he’s only like a rokudan. You can aim for the stars, but politics will always keep you down. For fun, here’s a list of everyone with a 10th degree black belt in judo. Keiko Fukuda is probably the perfect example of this phenomenon – she’s a 10th degree black belt as far as the international grading scale is concerned, but she’s only a 9th degree black belt as far as the Kodokan is concerned. Without a doubt she is
one of the greatest and most influential female judoka to have ever lived. My understanding is that’s what 10th degree black belt is. I’ve been raised in judo with the understanding that the dan grades represent different levels of knowledge, but the 10th degree black belt is really the recognition of major contributions to the sport/art. In reality, it’s a political rank based on the status quo. Past some rank it’s less about ability and almost entirely about the decisions of those in power.