In karate training we wear a traditional, usually white, cotton top and pants known in Japanese as a “gi”. It is a simple, loose-fitting outfit that allows one to move freely. The outfit is tied at the waist with a belt, known in Japanese as an “obi”. For students of karate, the obi sometimes becomes the focus more than the practice of the martial art.
I was asked by someone recently what level of black belt that I am. My response to him was, “It doesn’t matter as much what level of black belt you are as it does who grades you for your level. And it matters how you practice the martial art in your training and how you live your life.” It matters who your teachers are and what lineage you come from in your martial arts practice. In karate and in kobudo (traditional weapons training), there are 10 levels of black belt. These are called degrees or, in Japanese, “dan” levels. All levels have strict and rigourous requirements. I have two black belts since I practice two martial arts – one in karate and one in kobudo – and I am working on the requirements for my next levels in both.
I received my last levels from two of the masters in karate and kobudo – two of the most respected martial artists in the world. Morio Higaonna Sensei is my karate sensei. He is a 10th degree black belt. His training lineage goes directly back to the beginnings of karate in Okinawa, Japan. He has a dojo in Naha, Okinawa, and his sensei was a student of the founder of our style of karate, Goju ryu. This direct lineage ensures the highest quality of teaching and practice and it ensures that the expectations of students is high. Tamayose Hidemi Sensei is my sensei in kobdo. He is also a 10th degree black belt and has his dojo in Okinawa. The lineage of his teachers and their practice goes back several hundred years in Okinawa.
Before karate and kobudo were brought to western countries, there were only two belt colours – white and black. This meant that students were white belts for many years, doing very rigourous training without the reward of achieving belt levels. When the sensei felt the student was ready, he would grade him for a black belt. When martial arts was brought to the western countries as a recreational activity, however, it was thought that grading for several belt levels would keep students motivated. Karate now has about 10 levels of coloured belts for a student to grade for before grading for black belt.
Students of martial arts should choose their sensei (teacher) carefully. The person teaching and grading them through their levels should be someone who is still learning from his own teachers, still improving and still practicing through his own levels of black belt. Even for white belts, yellow belts, blue belts … it matters not as much what belt level you are but who is teaching you and who is grading you for those belts.
Sensei Mac Newton