Strangers to the martial arts sometimes take the black belt to signify the acquisition of some remarkable abilities: levitation perhaps, or the ability to bend steel bars or leap twenty feet straight up in the air. These misconceptions are popularised through celluloid images, the products of Hollywood and Hong Kong. Real martial artists, however, have fewer illusions about what a black belt symbolises and to Karateka, the black belt has a very specific and very special meaning.
The award of the black belt signifies mastery of the most basic skills of Karate to that student’s fullest potential. A black belt candidate must also demonstrate mastery of all the required kata’s and other formal matters unique to our studio and association. Not all students have the capacity to become perfect athletes. Physical limitations should not prevent them from realising the best possible results, however there is more to being a black belt than being able to whip out a perfect spinning hook kick [Ushiro Mawashi Uchi]. The black belt also signifies the wearer’s maturity as a student of martial arts and preparedness to undertake training on a more serious level. It is perhaps more important to demonstrate an understanding of the deeper values underlying Karate training than it is to embody perfect technique or be able to do a thousand push-ups. A student’s respect, indomitable spirit, sense of compassion and justice, loyalty and trustworthiness all matter when a coach [Sensei] deliberates upon that student’s readiness to take the black belt grading. After all, nothing reflects so much upon a coach’s ability as the quality of his students. When a coach permits a student to take the black belt grading, technical excellence is only one of the qualities that a student is expected to display. Stamina, self-assurance and courage must also be evident. The grading ought to be difficult and rightly so: it must provide the student an opportunity to demonstrate more than quality kicks and sharp hand techniques – strength and resilient mettle must also shine through. A student who has been permitted to take the grading has already proven readiness in the course of training. Now it is time to display prowess and composure, together.
Older students are natural candidates for the black belt, once they have sufficient training. A fifty-year-old will usually have much more trouble mastering the techniques, especially those that require flexibility, than will younger students and if such a student has also neglected his or her physical health, then that student will have farther to go than others in achieving a satisfactory level of fitness. But as we have said, physical and technical performance, are not the sole criteria determining one’s readiness to take a black belt grading. Character also matters and older students have a great deal to offer a studio [dojo] in terms of their life experience and their leadership ability.
Little matters more to the entire persona and character of the dojo than the quality of its black belts. They are its representatives to the public and to the martial arts community. Far more than their junior, they stand for what that dojo and the sensei of the dojo are able to achieve. Black belts must always maintain a sense of dignity, composure and tact. It is up to them to set a standard of behaviour in the dojo; others will follow their example. When their sensei walks in they should line out – as should everyone else. They take care to bow properly, to help perform whatever tasks are necessary to make running the class easier. To whatever extent is possible, they should seek to remain active in the affairs of the class and if they desire, to be active on a larger level in the Karate world.
At the same time, they must strive to improve their skills – achieving the rank of black belt is a substantial goal, but it is not an end in itself, nor is it the end of one’s Karate education. In fact, the opposite is true. The black belt is like a bachelor’s degree: the culmination of intensive study that prepares the student to undertake deeper studies. Black belts need to train even more assiduously then they had before, if possible and they need to focus their energies towards understanding and applying techniques in new ways, expanding the boundaries of their abilities. If they are tournament competitors, this is the level where their careers become more serious. All black belts should attempt to improve their kumite [sparring], kata [patterns] as well as beginning to learn more advanced techniques.
With the honour of the black belt comes another responsibility as well. For black belts that responsibility is fulfilled by leading by example in and out of class or teaching. All students are obliged to assist their juniors, but black belts must do more. At this point, it is important that they make every effort to help others with their Karate education. Being a black belt is a humbling experience, It is one thing to tie a belt around one’s waist and work out. It is a very different thing to re-earn the right to wear that belt and everything the belt symbolises, every time one steps on to the mat. Of all things in Karate or any other martial arts discipline, the right to wear the black belt is last thing to be taken for granted.