I decided to write this post because I have come across so many different ideologies as to what a "sho-dan" really means. I can say with certainty that there is no one accepted definition of a sho-dan or first grade black belt. There seems to be as many defining explanations of a black belt as there are actual black belts out there - almost.
Depending on with who you speak the meaning varies greatly. Some feel a special affinity with their first black belt. So much so that they tend to allow it to degrade in appearance to the point of ridiculous due to that attachment. I found that the one my Sensei gave to me was like that, for a while, but soon lost that luster and shine as I realized that he as well as many others placed no special significance on the belt when it was awarded. Sometimes it is a matter of luck, luck that you may be the first sho-dan he or she promotes at a time when he or she needs a new black belt.
Henry Sensei later told me he was a bit miffed when I handed over the new black belt I bought since the size was smaller than what he needed. I kind of chuckled and told him next time to let the person know what size to buy, etc. The significance I attached disappeared. I would have kept it for posterity purposes if I had not lost it in shipment when transferring around the country later.
I digress, sorry. Back to the subject. Much like many of my time, 1970's, I assumed that Sho-dan was more significant than it truly was. I tried to run a dojo shortly after leaving Okinawan as a fledgling Sho-dan. My only luck was I still looked to others for guidance in lieu of assuming I was the know all, end all Sensei - really, laughable today thinking of that time.
Sho-dan: First, the sho or the character for it " 初 " means "first," generally. As I utilize the Internet and my Kodansha dictionary I find that it can and does mean, "first, beginner, a first step, a beginner's course, elementary, rudiment, a novice [first, new, early, innocent, naive, artless, unsophisticated, inexperienced] and finally " 柔道 - Judo 初段 - first stage " being first stage or the first grade of the senior class for Kano Sensei's Judo.
The defining term for my perspective on Sho-dan is the words, "naive, artless, unsophisticated and inexperienced." Why? Because as been written in many articles one has barely achieved knowledge and a modicum of ability in the fundamentals of the particular system. A Sho-dan is naivety at its earliest stage; it is an artless form simply because a Shodan has not achieved anything greater than the mere physical, only a limited level has been achieved; the person lacks any true sophistication in the martial "arts" and they tend to lack any reality based experience which sometimes goes for an entire life time of practice and training - if your lucky.
Read that again, the paragraph above, for it speaks to many aspects of the grading system, i.e. belts and all the rainbow of colors. Black belt is truly the first door one enters on the journey and maturity, culture and morality tend to go a long way in awarding the sho-dan. To award black belt, sho-dan, at an early age than psychological ability is crucial. This means NOT award belts higher than 3rd brown to anyone before the age of at least 18 years; coupling that with a personalized assessment to maturity, etc.
This is not to diminish the accomplishment of attaining a sho-dan, black belt, for it is truly a milestone in anyone's efforts to achieve proficiency and enlightenment through a martial art such as Okinawan Karate-jutsu-do. A huge accomplishment yet also is a tempering of the mind. A reminder that there is a longer and more difficult road to follow. It is no wonder so many tend to end the trip at Sho-dan.
Many of the early American military assumed that false sense of mastery at the black belt. To some we applaud for realizing this and changing. Many not.
Ask yourself when you received your Sho-dan, "Did it feel like you achieved your bachelor's degree from University? Or, did it feel like you passed your entrance exams to University?"
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