What is a karate belt anyway?

Black BeltUPDATED: 30-3-2015

This article was originally written to express my own support for the teaching of Karate to juniors by qualified instructors.  These are my personal views as a parent only (I am not an instructor) and may well differ from those who are charged with ensuring that Karate is properly administrated both here in Spain and the UK.

In Spain the law requires that instructors should  hold a recognised Dan Grading and be qualified to teach children aged 5 and upwards.  My own children started at an early age.  They were both 5 and 8 when they received their first martial arts lesson.

I am certain that I would not be alone in thinking that many karate techniques should NOT be taught to children or people who are insufficiently mature enough to learn these skills and use them responsibly.

So how do you measure maturity? Should there be a minimum age of say 16 before being considered for a black belt grading? How do you define a master of karate anyway?

Certainly, I have been playing guitar for over 40 years, but I still do not consider myself a master of the instrument. That said, few guitarists learn techniques that could result in serious injury or death if used in earnest.  The grading system in karate tries to remove some of the subjectivity when evaluating a person’s performance. It defines whether or not someone is mature enough to acquire knowledge that could, if misused, cause harm to others.  It also allows visiting instructors to quickly assess which are going to be appropriate pairings when students work together in groups.

I support the concept of  juniors learning basic karate in one form or another, as it does help build confidence, but they should go on to learn the full syllabus once they have shown the required level of maturity to do so.   In any event, this is a matter for their Sensei or teacher.

Many diverse disciplines have a grading system. With music there are the grades 1 to 8 and as far as I know, a similar system exists with ballet. Personally speaking, I believe it could be a mistake to get too hung up on the semantics of what a grade actually is. For me, it is simply a route map which clearly states what you need to achieve in order to eventually be considered a master.  There are a number of martial arts which do not have a belt or grading system at all.  For example Tai Chi, where you are the sum of the work that you have put in to attain the level you currently have.

Returning to the original point.  Ask a member of the public, what a Karate Black Belt is  and they will tell you that it is someone who is a master of a martial art. However, ask a black belt what a black belt is, he or she will most likely say, “It is only the beginning.”

Taking this into account, a karate belt is a way of measuring achievement on a road to becoming someone who could one day ‘maybe’ be called a master.  Sensei Chris Thompson after enquiring as to when I thought I would grade next, laughed at my reply, which was something along the lines of, “It is going to take a long time.”  He smiled and said, “Don’t worry, it’s not race.”

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