The beginning or the end?
Before World War II, colored belts were not a normal aspect of any traditional dojo. Martial arts students started with a white belt—not because of what it signified, but because it was made of the same material as the white uniforms. Many instructors and lead teachers even had white belts because they were just used to hold the kimono or jacket together. In the early 1900s the more expensive uniforms or kimonos were made of different material and usually dyed black. Typically, only senior instructors or higher-status family members could afford these jackets, so colored belts to match were initially instituted as a sign of status or wealth.
As time went on, black became more associated with knowledge because dojo owners would gift expensive kimonos and belts to their leaders and senior instructors. Newer and junior students witnessing these events started to strive for that recognition and the myth of the black belt was born. And sometime during the 1950s, or maybe a little earlier, other belt colors began to make an appearance as a natural progression from earlier classification systems.
Colored belts are now used as a tool to see where a student is in their training, and what skills they’ve mastered. While students typically continue to associate belts with rank and status, they’re mostly used for teachers to quickly assign groups and partners for working on specific techniques. Belts categorize students to their respective knowledge bases, but also signify rank and seniority since those bases are acquired through time spent studying and practicing.
What does a black belt truly mean?
The Japanese word for the first-degree black belt, Shodan, literally means beginning degree; rank levels are called dan ranks from this root. Levels under black in Japanese schools are kyu (pronounced like the letter q with a soft w after it), which means “graded level” rather than a rank. In essence, traditional Japanese systems saw students’ myths about the black belt and created ego checks in the form of levels (kyu) and ranks (dan) they obtain.
Many people associate the martial arts black belt with the end of the road, showing the student has learned all there is to learn—they’ve passed their tests, they’ve achieved the dan rank, and their training is complete. Many also think black belts are capable of fighting and defending themselves on an extremely high level, with few opponents available who might have more skill. The reality is that most systems treat the black belt as the first of several stages of techniques: there’s usually four or five times more to learn once the black belt is acquired.
In Total Ryu Martial Arts, a black belt is extremely capable of defending themselves, and will have a high-level knowledge of jujitsu and/or karate. But we see a black belt as the beginning of a real martial arts student. Black belts have learned the alphabet and can put it together into basic words and sentences but need more training and study to be completely fluent and effective. A black-belted student of Total Ryu has earned the right to study the system and its true capabilities, beyond the basics they’ve learned so far.
What are those basics?
In jujitsu, the path to a black belt includes 22 throws, applications of those throws, and about 30 individual self-defense techniques that combine those throws with striking and other basic principles. In karate, a black belt learns 14 kata, basic applications contained within those kata, and how to apply striking, blocking, and kicking principles.
Since a Total Ryu black belt is only really beginning, jujitsu students still have about 40 additional basic throws to learns—as well as combinations of all the throws, how to apply them in different situations, and how to move quickly and smoothly from each technique to something completely different. They’ll still need to learn how to apply powerful striking, how to throw from different kinds of motion, and ground-combat tactics beyond the basic evade and escape; how to defend against two or three or more attackers, using different principles and tactics with each; and mastering weapons systems such as the staff, knife, and sticks.
Karate black belts in the Total Ryu system have an additional 40 kata to learn, as well as throwing techniques and applications for each one. They’ll also have a lot more to learn about how to apply fighting tactics and principles to different situations on a reaction rather than conscious-thinking level.
Combine the two arts, jujitsu and karate, and students have even more to learn—not only the other half of the system, but how to seamlessly combine the two into one approach to fighting. Imagine being able to move from powerful kicking and striking techniques to our smooth and effortless throws meant to quickly debilitate an attacker. Studying both allows students to learn when to use each, or a combination of the two: that is powerful.
Since the knowledge and skill base built by Total Ryu students with a black belt comes from study and continued training, there are many side effects: leadership skills, health and fitness, a good understanding of physiology and kinesiology, increased confidence, and clear communication. For instance, one of the steps to acquiring a black belt is teaching their peers, which requires all these embedded skills to relate the effects of techniques and share understanding of the required movements. The whole-body physical health and confidence obtained in our system can’t come from any other single sport—it would take mastery of at least a dozen to mimic.
A black belt is not the end; it’s the beginning of a lifelong martial arts journey. A common adage in traditional schools is “The most important belts in martial arts are the white belt—the start of training, and the black belt—the beginning of understanding”. Let’s set the goal to beyond the black belt, to learn as much as you can and see where that takes you. I promise you won’t be disappointed.