When karate came to Europe from Japan, it was very much a martial art for young men. Kumite among students was often full contact and with just thinly padded gloves designed to protect the knuckles, not your opponent’s face. The training was sometimes so harsh that very few children and women participated (also, in the past, the social stigma of women fighting). This is in stark contrast to karate in 2016.
Athletes and fighters are now trained with the help of science. Today, we know much more about nutrition, physical fitness and psychology than previous generations. Thankfully many of the brutal training methods of old are extinct. Safety is now paramount in the dojo and injuries are few. Karate is now something that everyone can do. But has a black belt become too easy to achieve?
Essentially, belt grades are only internal markers for one specific club or association. It’s difficult to compare grades across groups. But in any club or association, gaining a black belt should have some value. It should mean years of regular training, commitment, adversity and sometimes suffering.
A black belt karateka should be very fit and strong as well as being technically good at fighting. One yardstick, frequently used in the past, was that a black belt should be able to do 50 consecutive press ups, run 2 miles or fight for 15 minutes, non-stop. In recent years, I haven’t met many black belts who can do this.
Sadly, the rise of McDojos (clubs that give belts away purely for profit) means that the hallowed black belt no longer has the same mysticism that it once held. Achieving black belt status used to mean that you were very good. But I have recently met a 10 year old 2nd dan and 15 year old 4th dan, black belts in kick boxing. Their kick boxing instructors have no credentials to award dan grades but they don’t let these minor details get in the way of making a fast buck.
Some clubs run a junior grading system where children can attain a junior black belt then when they’re 16 years old, they have to go through the grades all over again!
I feel sorry for these young people who believe that they have earned a real black belt. They’ve been cheated by greedy instructors. An easy black belt is worthless.
I’ve even seen black belts awarded to adults just for organising social events for their karate club. The bottom line is that a black belt should take several years of blood, sweat and tears to attain or it’s not a real black belt.
At Loughton Karate Club, the black belt is earned the traditional way and usually takes several years. We have two new black belts to be proud of.
Sensei Stephen O’Brien
4th dan Wado Ryu, 1st dan Full Contact Karate