Please take a look at Articles on self-defense/conflict/violence for introductions to the references found in the bibliography page.

Please take a look at my bibliography if you do not see a proper reference to a post.

Please take a look at my Notable Quotes

Hey, Attention on Deck!

Hey, NOTHING here is PERSONAL, get over it - Teach Me and I will Learn!

When you begin to feel like you are a tough guy, a warrior, a master of the martial arts or that you have lived a tough life, just take a moment and get some perspective with the following:

I've stopped knives that were coming to disembowel me

I've clawed for my gun while bullets ripped past me

I've dodged as someone tried to put an ax in my skull

I've fought screaming steel and left rubber on the road to avoid death

I've clawed broken glass out of my body after their opening attack failed

I've spit blood and body parts and broke strangle holds before gouging eyes

I've charged into fires, fought through blizzards and run from tornados

I've survived being hunted by gangs, killers and contract killers

The streets were my home, I hunted in the night and was hunted in turn

Please don't brag to me that you're a survivor because someone hit you. And don't tell me how 'tough' you are because of your training. As much as I've been through I know people who have survived much, much worse. - Marc MacYoung


The postings on this blog are my interpretation of readings, studies and experiences therefore errors and omissions are mine and mine alone. The content surrounding the extracts of books, see bibliography on this blog site, are also mine and mine alone therefore errors and omissions are also mine and mine alone and therefore why I highly recommended one read, study, research and fact find the material for clarity. My effort here is self-clarity toward a fuller understanding of the subject matter. See the bibliography for information on the books. Please make note that this article/post is my personal analysis of the subject and the information used was chosen or picked by me. It is not an analysis piece because it lacks complete and comprehensive research, it was not adequately and completely investigated and it is not balanced, i.e., it is my personal view without the views of others including subject experts, etc. Look at this as “Infotainment rather then expert research.” This is an opinion/editorial article/post meant to persuade the reader to think, decide and accept or reject my premise. It is an attempt to cause change or reinforce attitudes, beliefs and values as they apply to martial arts and/or self-defense. It is merely a commentary on the subject in the particular article presented.

Note: I will endevor to provide a bibliography and italicize any direct quotes from the materials I use for this blog. If there are mistakes, errors, and/or omissions, I take full responsibility for them as they are mine and mine alone. If you find any mistakes, errors, and/or omissions please comment and let me know along with the correct information and/or sources.

“What you are reading right now is a blog. It’s written and posted by me, because I want to. I get no financial remuneration for writing it. I don’t have to meet anyone’s criteria in order to post it. Not only I don’t have an employer or publisher, but I’m not even constrained by having to please an audience. If people won’t like it, they won’t read it, but I won’t lose anything by it. Provided I don’t break any laws (libel, incitement to violence, etc.), I can post whatever I want. This means that I can write openly and honestly, however controversial my opinions may be. It also means that I could write total bullshit; there is no quality control. I could be biased. I could be insane. I could be trolling. … not all sources are equivalent, and all sources have their pros and cons. These needs to be taken into account when evaluating information, and all information should be evaluated. - God’s Bastard, Sourcing Sources (this applies to this and other blogs by me as well; if you follow the idea's, advice or information you are on your own, don't come crying to me, it is all on you do do the work to make sure it works for you!)

“You should prepare yourself to dedicate at least five or six years to your training and practice to understand the philosophy and physiokinetics of martial arts and karate so that you can understand the true spirit of everything and dedicate your mind, body and spirit to the discipline of the art.” - cejames (note: you are on your own, make sure you get expert hands-on guidance in all things martial and self-defense)

“All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice. I should not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed.” - Montaigne

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Black Belt in One Year

In my early years one could earn a black belt, sho-dan, in about a year. How is this possible you might ask today? It was the way it was in the fifties and sixties and some in the seventies. I would use the Isshinryu system as an example.

Tatsuo-san started teaching the military stationed on Okinawa. The Marines, mostly, would be there for one tour of duty that equaled about a year. In that year if they could learn the basics of the system, i.e. the upper and lower basic techniques, the kata, sparring with participation in local contests, and a few other things then they would be awarded a black belt when they finished provided it was within that year of service or tour of duty. 

Today one would consider this and say that it was not truly a black belt because there is so much to learn about a system that cannot be done in a one year period no matter how many hours a day dedicated to training and practice. I would agree if being a sho-dan actually meant you were an expert in karate or in this instance Isshinryu Karate. 

But, this is how it all began for Isshinryu back in those days, i.e. the late fifties and early sixties. When you consider that the supposed, not provable or actually documented anywhere, idea of the sho-dan black belt was to indicate that one achieved a status of student and that they proved that they were serious about karate then it might start to make sense. Black belt came to signify that one was an expert in karate or martial arts when in reality under the older guise of sho-dan awards you are no where near expert. Today, the idea is when you achieve the black belt you are considered an expert and that makes me wonder where, when and why this changed. 

I have a theory, our ego's as Americans and/or Westerners with our culture and belief systems tend toward viewing a symbol like the black belt as meaning more than it does to fit some concept and context that all the work leading up to that sho-dan should be recognized. How can that be if all the sho-dan means is beginner student? In addition if one has to work three, four or five years to just achieve beginner student that concept is not acceptable to our way of thinking so you end up losing students, losing attendance and then losing the dojo or training hall because it doesn't work that way here. 

Back to the one year thing. If we assume that sho-dan is truly a beginner student symbol of both dedication and seriousness then it could work that way if the requirements fit the level awarded. When you then consider that no one teaches or owns a dojo at that level then you know that you continue your practice, training and learning up through ni-dan and san-dan where at san-dan you are a beginner expert or what westerners call an apprentice or in this case an apprentice sensei. 

This would support the idea of sho-dan as it may have originally meant to be and that expert status only begins at san-dan level. Progression above san-dan should be credited to continued growth of expertise up to and including master expert status. Our ego's here have bumped up the black belt system to fit pride, ego and inflated gradings.

If we go back to all this at this point we can begin to understand why a person could achieve sho-dan in such a short period of time. Those who practice Isshinryu may remember that Tatsuo-san always expressed that one needed to practice for a period of years to truly learn karate and that if possible all of them should return to continue their practice and training. He did understand that the majority would never return and only the few truly dedicated karate-ka would return for continued training and practice and knowledge. I have explained this through his awarding the ken-po goku-i and other efforts on his part.

It was once stated that supposedly Tatsuo-san said that if he had to qualify for black belt today, not literally today but the day he made the statement if he even actually made the statement, he would not qualify for sho-dan. I would provide this caveat that we don't actually know if he said this or if this is just one of those legends or folklore that seems to follow the martial arts, karate. 

It also might have been expected that because one had only a year and to make the military happy with the product provided through the then special services, now MWR or Moral, Welfare and Recreation, that they expected to get a black belt and as time went on they assumed that one year would achieve a black belt that to keep the contracts, they provided a lot of money compared to normal economic earnings of those days for other Okinawans, or lose the income that Tatsuo-san needed for survival. 

Today, because the symbolism and requirements of black belt in general have grown in accordance with beliefs and needs and commercialism making black belt now takes a minimum of four to five years. There are many factors involved.

One, for the early birds in the fifties, etc. a one year turn around for black belt was supported by the hours and days spent in training and practice. Tatsuo-san was once quoted as saying Americans didn't do good karate but there efforts, discipline and dedication to hard work was inspiring. They also did far better than their Okinawan counterparts in the contests, i.e. tournaments of competition. One folklore or legend is one luminary of American Isshinryu was promoted to black belt simply because he won all his contests. It was also said that this person didn't know but two or three kata when this occurred. This story is open to debate and cannot be validated but if true gives you a sense of the lack of standards and practices that still cause great concern in today's martial arts arena.

Two, today's karate-ka want to believe that making sho-dan makes them an expert. So many fall out of the martial arts when they do reach sho-dan because they then feel that now they are experts there is no reason to continue. The retentions rates of many training facilities is a dismal one because of this and other more obscure reasons, i.e. boredom, repetition, lack of instant gratifications, etc. 

As you can see by this process of analysis through writing that ranking, grading or level designations in martial arts actually cause more harm than good. It would probably benefit true classical/traditional martial arts if the dan-i system were discontinued. Yet if it were removed then a lot of the commercialized versions would suffer both in the arena of student attendance and income losses. Because such symbolism has connected so well to both perceptions and income they would never give up the current uncontrolled and unregulated and unstandardized methods created by each person and group to maximize their flow of money. 

Also consider that the creation of dan-i may have come from a need for recognition and control. Look at where it came from, Japanese cultural belief systems as they apply to martial arts that are also derived from feudal era perceptions and beliefs where everything was controlled strictly by a form called "shikata."

Everyone began to see how dan-i system of belts and colors could benefit martial practices but didn't stop to think about the possible abuses that would taint the martial arts and detract from their original meaning and methods.

The dan system has promoted a higher standard for black belt while actually diminishing the true standard of being a true traditional combative art form. Then you might ask, how can this be as it sounds like a double negative type thing?

You can because you can create all sorts of nonsensical requirements like time in grade to make it seem like someone is paying a high price and accomplishing a great deal toward expert black belt. Time in grade is something that came from military influences where one had to hold a rank for a minimum timer period to become eligible for promotion to the next higher grade. The spirit of time in grade is it ensures a specified amount of time gaining experience at a certain rank but even if a person simply does the minimal work with no effort toward gaining more experience beyond that would still become eligible for promotion. 

Time in grade requirements in martial arts does ensure time to gain experience (what kind does matter) but it also ensures that a person attends the dojo training religiously and ensures they remain paying participants over that period of time regardless of whether they could qualify for sho-dan in one, two or five years. This is just one example of the abuses heaped upon the requirements for sho-dan.

I have over the years encountered black belts that should not be even white belts and encountered green belts who should be black belts, at least from my perspective that is in all probability skewed due to my belief system, etc. 

I have used this belt system for most of my time in martial arts both as practitioner and as a teacher/leader and today if I were running a training system I would leave the belt system outside the doors. I would have maybe three or four fellow karate-ka to train and practice with and would leave the expertise aspects out of sight and mind while focusing on making things work. I would begin to focus on the full spectrum as it pertains to both a self-defense view and a moral spiritual view for balance. It would include the type of knowledge necessary to make it work along with things like avoidance, deescalation and as a last resort physical intervention, so to speak. 

If I had one wish, I would wish that this could have been the model I learned from in the seventies to present day and that it was the model I used while training others through the time I had a dojo or training hall. 

Rank sucks, it detracts from what is truly needed in the practice of combative/SD type martial systems and becomes a distraction toward focusing on what matters in real life conflict. Consider this, karate and the like are born from conflict with fighting and combat so it is the essence of why it exists. If that is your direction then remove all the distractions and focus on what matters.

Yes, you can achieve a black belt in one year but is that truly the focus you should have? If you are focused on sho-dan then are you missing the stuff that matters? Will this ever be resolved? The last questions answer is - NO!

1 comment:

Zacky Chan said...

I totally agree about the shodan and it's "beginner student" translation. In Japan it's definitely seen that way. I don't know any phenomenal masters that have only achieved shodan, and most of them are embarrassed or at least definitely not boasting of their skills. A lot of that has to do with Japanese culture, but the belt system is Japanese culture! The black belt can mean a completely different thing, or many different things in the States, or elsewhere, as you skillfully noted. Great piece.