September 5, 2022

5 Myths About the Black Belt

Legendary as they are – these myth-busters are as fascinating as they are true.

A black belt indicates the level of prowess one has achieved in a specific branch of East-Asian martial arts. Different colors of belts indicate different levels of expertise in martial arts. The most popular ones include Judo, a Japanese form of combat, and Karate.

Asian martial art forms of combat are intriguing. They combine agility, self-defense, and military fighting forms. You hear the single word ‘Karate’ and all these thoughts make an appearance. And face it, only a learner of martial arts can distinguish one form from another.

The black belt is as recognizable as a police badge or army fatigues.

There’s little wonder that it sparks a dozen stories. The fascination surrounding Jiu-Jitsu, Taekwondo, Judo, ‘drunken fist’ Kung Fu, and several more names one would struggle pronounce hooks you.

The kimono is the robe-like garment and the obi is the sash. The use of the obi dates back to nearly two centuries. colored sashes came about only from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Until then, they were only white or black.

Thanks to the exotic feel of the Karate black belt, one may believe unfounded rumors and half-truths about martial arts. The various belts awarded to each level of expertise a student holds attract a legendary amount of attention. To make any amount of headway in the area of martial arts, learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Close-Up Of Karate Black Belt On Cloth

Here is a list of rumors that often go unchallenged:

1. The black belt is the highest level of achievement in martial arts.

Wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. You don’t automatically achieve poise, skill, agility, and fearlessness by virtue of the black belt. Nor is expertise signified by the black belt itself. It only signifies that a certain level of skill, more like a beginner’s training, has been completed successfully by the wearer of the black belt.

There is a Shodan black belt upon the award of which the sensei considers the individual ‘ready to walk’ once they have attained the level. The nidan and sandan are also extant. They represent the second and third levels of proficiency.

This association of status (or the lack thereof) is not something one would realize straightaway, even after signing up for Karate lessons. It may be part of your sensei’s introductory talk or not. Either way, see this myth-buster as more of an attitude you cultivate as much as a factoid.

It’s a world of techniques that you unravel by signing up for martial art lessons of any style. Call it a tradition, a life-skill, a mode of self-preservation, or a spiritual journey. Whichever way you see it, you will always find more to discover within, long after you’ve scaled the “black belt” milestone.

Several students of martial arts attain the distinction and recognition of the black belt. They, in turn, begin to Mentor newly-initiated learners and even offer some instruction. They conduct mock-combat sessions. Good instructors with black belts enjoy senpai or sometimes even sensei titles among their pupils.

2. A black belt takes years to achieve.

True. But this is not an interminable amount of time. Depending on your enthusiasm and ability, you can scale this peak in three years or six.

In short, it is not an unquantifiable, unpredictable period. It is a set of basic skills, principles, and learning you put in. When you put in the study and practice entailed, you get awarded the black belt. If you’re in it for the long haul, you will continue the study of the discipline with as much gusto as ever.

Five years is a bankable bet in which adult students can score the black belt and move on to more complex modules of a martial art tradition. And institutions further go on to clarify that students who take as little as two classes a week can reach the stage of the black belt in 5 years. Some can reach it faster by training harder and with more frequent sessions.

  • Taekwondo – 3-5 years
  • Karate – 5 years
  • Judo – 3-5 years
  • Jiu-Jitsu – 10 years

This list is by no means exhaustive in the possibilities and styles in martial arts. It tells you how long you can expect to take to reach the level of a black belt.

3. The black belt is a test of your skill only

Not so. In fact, nothing about a martial art, any martial art, is uni-dimensional. It involves your Mind, Body, and Spirit. Sounds corny? Read on…

You hone a fine sense of balance with both the mind and body. It won’t do if you get frazzled in the face of an offensive attack. Grappling and other devious moves need you to be alert, agile, and above all, unfazed.

But at the same time, the principles of scoring a black belt do not mean that you never lose balance. Rather, it is about regaining the equanimity and self-possession within seconds and keeping level with the attack.

This calls for self-control at the mind-level, bodily level, and spiritual level as well. Ardent pursuers of martial arts get calmer and tap into inner energies over time. In this way, it becomes a form of self-discipline that’s not merely physical.

When the quest for mastery in a martial art is understood correctly, you seek to explore your limits in every aspect and conquer them by degrees.

This can be about facing a particular fear, breaking a stack of bricks, or any other mode of conquering a new realm.

4. The origin of the Karate black belt is a moving story of poor farmers developing an art – or a Karate black belt has no hierarchy

Both these statements have little truth in them. The truth is that the masters of many martial arts, including Karate, come from privileged families. This form of artful combat then trickled down through the hierarchy of Japanese society. Trained warriors in every economic and social class enjoy prominence.

Princes, Lords, and priests learned and became masters in the art. They passed it on in turn to those who could prove themselves worthy in a variety of areas. Bodyguards often trained in martial arts. Farmers rarely ascended to this level of training to receive a black belt. They were better suited for other labors, mainly physical ones.

Also, the black belt in Karate is not the same as the one obtained in Jiu-Jitsu. As pointed out above in point.2, you might take anything between 8 to 12 years to reach the black level of prowess in Jiu-Jitsu. It would not be erroneous to note that a Jiu-Jitsu black-belt holder is an expert. Such an individual would, therefore, command respect.

Also noteworthy: Most martial art styles allow those ranks who have achieved the black belt to impart instruction to beginners. So yes, there is a clear hierarchy. It commands respect, recognition, and the possibility to advance to more complex levels.

Another fact that might shock those who get stuck on the idea of the black belt is that it’s more of a social badge that gained mileage with marketing. Unwavering pursuers of a martial see a black belt as merely incidental in their learning journey.

5. The karate black belt was first awarded in China

This is a statement that stems from ignorance of East-Asian diversity.

The first black belt as a symbol of prowess in a martial art, in this case Judo, was awarded by Jigoro Kano in the 1880s. Jigoro Kano is a Japanese athlete and instructor who famously founded Judo. There are more than 170 different martial art traditions among the recognizable ones.

Asian male black belt practicing karate

Karate and several other martial arts were born in the Ryukyu Kingdom, the Okinawa region of Japan. There are some influences from Chinese Kung-Fu. But the spread of these traditions owes itself to the vivid trade and travel relationship that China and Japan nourished. The name Karate is younger than the traditions themselves.

There are complicated traditions, literature about the style of combat, and characters used to depict Karate. They have multiple connotations and significance. They are now at an evolved stage and make for an interesting study.

The general agreement about the origin of Karate black belts now centers on the use of “empty hands”. They are for grappling, locking joints, delivering throws, punches, kicks, and attacking vulnerable points on the opponent’s body. The practitioner often uses the strong elbows, heels of the palm, or the open palm to deliver knife-like strikes and blows.

There are no solid records to indicate that Karate is a Chinese form of martial art. The first written records from ancient masters of the art are in Japanese, with broad references to China.

Unraveling these rumors reveals truths about martial arts. The codification of ranks through a black belt (and several other shades of the obi) is even more fascinating than the rumors.

You might be surprised to know that black belts are not the holy grail of martial arts. Several art forms that do not use a ranking system at all.

You can learn one or more of these art forms through a formalized Martial Arts Program. Or, you can learn more about the possibilities through a course online and then take the plunge.

Eugene Hardy

Eugene is a professional Muay Thai fighter, with several years of experience. Also, a black belt holder. He actively participates in tournaments and provides training to his students. Eugene started this blog to share his experiences with Martial Arts.

View all posts by Eugene Hardy →

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