View Full Version : What does a 1st degre black belt mean?

14th June 2000, 06:29
I agree with your assessment of the Shodan rank as a sort of marker that one is a serious student, or to be more precise, a serious beginning student. I too have seen the difference between Japanese and American ranking systems. One substantial difference may be that in Japan, there is a substantial and concentrated martial arts population in which there are a great number of experienced, rightfully high ranked practitioners. Indeed, some of these ladies and gentlemen have been training since before the Second World War. This has the effect of keeping the younger generation in it's place. The black belt is probably not equated with "mastery" the way it sometimes is here.

Krzysztof M. Mathews
" For I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me"
-Rudyard Kipling

Jody Holeton
14th June 2000, 17:59
Dear all,

From my last posting on "should martial arts schools be for profit" I had a reply of someone saying that in Japan, in some Kendo schools, Aikido schools etc etc., people can get their shoudan in a year.

I've seen that in Japan but I think the Japanese martial arts are geared for long-term practice and dan ranking is percieved differently. All the dojo I went to in Japan were all like clubs, not profit oriented BUT the instructors were looking for serious students.

Here in America I've seen people get a black belt in a year, in Aikido, TKD, Karate etc. I've also seen black belt contracts (also cases of "ringers", if your hurt you cant train).

My thinking is a 1st dan means your a serious student. Doesnt mean your a teacher or a bada@@, those are more individual characteristics. In my opinion I think teachers should be certified over longterm (like in Japan) so they actual experience to draw from.

What do you all think?--Jody

14th June 2000, 20:14
In Japan, I received a "honorary" shodan rank in judo long before I ever passed my examination for 1st dan at the Kodokan Judo Institute. This was probably because I started practicing there later in life. Most Japanese start judo in junior high school. My instructor and dojo owner felt as though I should have a rank equal to my age and presented me with a black belt. I took the present as such, but never claimed the rank outside of his dojo until I earned it several years later.

I already had my nidan in judo when I started kendo in Japan. I had a couple of months practice in the U.S. before I joined the Japanese kendo club in my company. Within a few weeks, the instructor was urging me to take my shodan test. I don't know if it was because of my competitive nature or my age again, although there were frequently many Japanese kendo players closer to my age in the company club than at the typical Japanese judo dojo. I politely declined from taking the examination, but was later passed to a kyu rank following a tournament in the U.S.

My point is that a black belt or shodan rank does not have the same meaning or symbolism in Japan as it is often portrayed here in the U.S. I suspect many U.S. martial arts practitioners have gone to Japan, received an honorary yudansha rank after a brief training period, then returned to proclaim themselves as the U.S. representative or hombu director for the respective style. What gets me is how many people believe them.

Just my opinion...

Don Cunningham

15th June 2000, 05:17

It took me 1,007 2 hour classes ,in 6 1/2 years to attain Shodan. In our non-profit school of Korean Karate and Self-Defense, there is no reason to promote until the student meets the standards and is ready.

I have been a Shodan for over 7 years, (attending 2 hour classes 3 times a week) and have been considered for Nidan for almost 2 years. Obviously, I don't 'have it' yet but I may be close. In our school, a little over 1 person per year, statistically, have attained Shodan in the 28 years our school has been around. L

Less than 12 have attained rank higher than Shodan. Currently, the school's Chief Instructor is a 5th dan, we have 1 4th dan, 2 3rd dans, and 2 2nd dans, at this time.

In our school Shodan does mean something!


Tommy K. Militello

15th June 2000, 05:30
"...woman teenager about 16 who had 2nd degree in both TDK and Judo!"

I don't know much about TKD, but the judo organizations in the U.S. (and most of the rest of the world) don't allow those under 18 to hold dan rank. For one thing, they can not even do the full range of techniques in competition until after that age. (Shimewaza is restricted to over 12 and kansetsuwaza is restricted to over 17.) In Japan, they can hold up to a brown belt rank, but the actual dan rank is reserved until they are older. There may have been a few exceptions, but only to really outstanding competitors who have played above their age category.

Don Cunningham

Jody Holeton
15th June 2000, 05:33
Dear Tommy,

I'm not writing this to be disrespectful, I'm writing this to see how people feel about a black belt and their own personal experiences in it.

There was a full contact fighter I knew from OU, who got his shodan in Korea in TKD and Hapkido. Took him 3 years, 5 days a week, 2 hour classes and full-contact fighting. He laughed at alot at Michigan schools. His perspective was on fighting and killing techniques, some styles have different perspectives on that.

My perspective is that a shodan means your a serious student. This guy "P" was a bada## before any martial arts training, not like he needed a belt for that.

Just my thoughts--Jody

Maybe someone should start a post on standards for blackbelts?

Karl Kuhn
15th June 2000, 07:12
Black Stripe = starting line.

Each organization has their own definition (and that is the source of it's value) and does need a board or panel to spell out requirements, because more than likely they're running in different heats.


Goon Jhuen Weng
15th June 2000, 07:54
My Iaido sensei told me that attaining a 1st degree black belt/shodan only means that you have learned the basics or the principles of the art. After that, the real learning begins as the student is now taught the application of the basics and principles he or she has learnt as a kyu grader. So yes, a shodan grade means something: it means that the real journey into the art has only just begun.

15th June 2000, 15:07
Did I miss something? Is anyone taking offense from Popie's remarks?

I did reply, but only to provide additional information about judo ranking traditions.

By the way, if you want to read an article about martial arts belt colors and rank traditions, I have one at:

Don Cunningham

[This message has been edited by budokai (edited 06-15-2000).]

Joanne Miller
15th June 2000, 15:58
<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR>Originally posted by Goon Jhuen Weng:
..attaining a 1st degree black belt/shodan only means that you have learned the basics or the principles of the art. <HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

I think it's not proper to put on this "Once-I-am-shodan-I-learned-the-basics-so-lets-move-more-on-to-more-application" approach. There shouldn't be a point where one stops & think that one is too good to review the basics.(Certainly not at Shodan level or any level unless one is conceited I cetainly have not heard from any sensei that I have trained with who thinks that their basics are "good enough" to stop there just because they have reached a certain rank.So,no I don't agree on the point that Shodan means one has LEARNED the basics of the art.

<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR>Originally posted by Goon Jhuen Weng:So yes, a shodan grade means something: it means that the real journey into the art has only just begun. <HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

I don't see rank as a marker "to begin the real journey" as you put it.It begins from the very day one choses to be a student of your art and it SHOULD continue all the way throughout one's life. If a shodan means a begining to the "real" journey ,what about all those things you learn before that ? Something less than a "real" journey maybe?

Maybe rank can be used as a comparision to tell that someone has started out earlier.Otherwise I don't see much point about ranks to affirm one's skills. If one is good the skill speaks for itself. (not the dan grading But sometimes rank are useful (even needed ) in becoming members or some organisation/groups so....

I am aware in most arts one has to attain a certain level before one is intitated more into the style.In that case I feel it's more of the exprience & skill of the student judged by her/his teacher who decides if the student is ready to learn something new not because of the rank itself which entitles one to learn "new stuff". Sometimes rank comes as a result of skill but it's not always the case of rank equals skill.

That being said I certain this can be seen quite clearly by certain exponents who don't have ranks (or low ranks) but display a high degree of skill in their art. Certainly their teacher did not restrict them to certain "theories" of their art just because they are not "Shodan "or whatever rank that matter. I think it's over generalizing to say "..now taught the application of the basics and principles he or she has learnt as a kyu grader." It really depends on the teacher-student relationship and how the teacher deems the student fit to learn something new.

I feel the situation about "markers" are not so acute in older forms of budo namely Ryugi Budo/bujutsu (those that still practice the traditional ways to grade their members.)where one is more concerned in learning than in acquiring "dan" markers at various stages to affirm one's ability.

Till than I would rather train until my sensei says "Ok you're ready to learn something new " than to "vie" for ranks.

Joanne Miller

[This message has been edited by Joanne Miller (edited 06-15-2000).]

Gil Gillespie
16th June 2000, 06:35
I was taught that shodan means "Now you can read and write in [this art]. Now you are ready to learn." This in no way demeans the kihon that lead up to it. It puts the black belt in its proper perspective.

I would be highly suspicious of any shodan earned in a year,as I would of any shodan calling himself "sensei."

Goon Jhuen Weng
16th June 2000, 17:55
To Ms Joanne Miller:
You are quite right about what you said about my post. What I simply meant is that when you are a kyu grader, your basics should be practised well. When you are a Dan grader, you would learn advanced stuff but yes, you would certainly go back to your basics all the time. The basics are the ones that will help a Dan grade improve and refine the advance and application techniques as they are the principles. All the Dan grades in my Iaido class always practise Seitei Iai to continually improve their basics. And, when I stated that a black belt is only the start of the real journey, what I meant is that the student should not become complacent after attaining Shodan grade as there are even more things to learn and improve and the basics are certainly one of them. When I put the grade in my own perspective, Shodan for myself, is only the beginning. At the moment, I'm just learning how to walk before I can run, so to speak.

Mike Collins
16th June 2000, 19:48
It is my opinion that first degree black belt means that a student has mastered the physical mechanics of the basics of an art, and is now ready to advance to start to develop an understanding of the underlying princples, and/or more advanced techniques depending on the art and its' structure.

In Aikido, the techniques we learn the first day are the techniques we spend a lifetime trying to understand. Mastering the physical mechanics of ikkyo is a long way from understanding ikkyo and being able to apply the principles that art teaches. I think in most arts the techniques are only lessons to understand principles.

I know a teacher who is very advanced, and he says he is very "immature" in his development of the art. It's all a matter of perspective.

Chuck Clark
16th June 2000, 22:26
Over the years I've come to understand shodan rank as similar to leaving grade school (6th grade) and entering junior high school (7th grade). Nothing "mastered", but you should know some basic things well enough that you have the beginning tools to do some real practice. You've also earned respect for sticking with it and are considered on the way to being "serious" in your studies.

How long it takes depends on the your intent, the quality of your teacher, and the peer group you practice with.


Chuck Clark
Jiyushinkai Aikibudo

17th June 2000, 08:33
Nice article. I've always thought of rank as a tool. Given wisely and it can spark a student to work harder. It can also cause problems. It can bring out petty jealousies and inflate egos.
Just a question to everyone in general, If your teacher and organization gave out no rank, would you still train under him and belong to the same organization?

Tim Hillman

Joseph Svinth
17th June 2000, 10:59
For the past couple years I haven't awarded rank or worn uniforms or any of that. I still teach pretty much the same way I always did, I just decided to drop all the frivolous (and expensive, and judging from photographs and interviews, ahistoric) accretions and trappings.

The enrollment dropped like a rock -- the parents of little kids really hate systems without fancy suits and pretty belts -- but what the heck, it still didn't drop class size nearly as much as the time I quit charging altogether. Gads, students ran for the door then. But I must admit that couple guys who remained are my friends.

I guess it all depends on what you want, and how you want to do it.


18th June 2000, 02:47
Greetings to all, and especially to Joe,

I guess this proves that no one on this thread is a graduate of a McDojo, or as I like to say, a Burger Dojang (poor lol).

Anyway, I think that rank is important within your own system, but as discussed on other threads, there comes a time when you 'walk the talk'. I always felt that you can't lie on the mats! Either you know what you are doing, or you don't!

I don't think a fancy uniform, belt and/or other trappings can hide the skills we have, or don't. Its that simple.

For me, my rank denotes to those in my school, or visiting it, my mastery of the basics, I'm well on my way to the next step, and when I get there, I'll let Joe know.

Just one Middle Aged guys point of view.

Tommy K. Militello

Neil Hawkins
23rd June 2000, 01:17
Every school has it's own standards and requirements, Shodan means different things to different people.

In the style I study there are only three Dans and these relate roughly to the scrolls of the old style, 3rd being Menkyo Kaiden etc. In our style Shodan means something, there are not many and it takes considerable time to achieve. People usually start teaching by 1st Kyu and have many years of experience before getting Shodan.

However in other styles I have done, Dan grades have almost been handed out as rewards.

There is not real meaning only interpretation. You can have a Shodan and thirty years in a practical art, but still get ignored by a 6th dan with 15 years in a different style. Forget Koryu, rank breeds bigger snobs! :) Oops, can't believe I said that, please don't flame me!:D


24th June 2000, 14:40
I don't think it really matters what black belt grades mean in different martial arts. I believe it is more important to see the bigger picture from the perception of the general public. Many instructors fail to see that most of the students of the martial arts are ordinary people and part of the collective unconscious of the general public.

In Australia, and I imagine the same applies elsewhere, there is a public perception that a person who has a black belt in a martial art is an "expert" of the martial arts. Everyone reading this forum may or may not know this to be misguided but nevertheless it is the way it is.

At first glance this may seems harmless but the trouble is when you are handing over a black belt grade to a student you are handing over expert status and a leadership role. The intention of the instructor may simply have been to reward the student for his efforts however you are not dealing with the instructors perception you are dealing with the public perception. The status is bestowed unconsciously and automatically by the public and by default junior students as ordinary members of that public.

It would seem logical to me then that if you are going to give a person status in your class, and possibly outside your class, then that person needs to be impressive as a martial artist and as a person as a representaive of your school. This means they have to do the hard work.

If a grade is handed out too early then there can be several negative consequences for the school and for the student in question.

1) Any bad habits that the black belt student has as a senior student will be copied by more gullible junior students. Remember, unconsciously the blackbelt was given a leadership role.

2) Any visitors (prospective students)interested in that martial art will look at that blackbelt as representative of what they themselves can achieve by studying with the instructor at that school. The other side of that coin is that if they are not impressed with the senior students then they will not be impressed with the art or the teacher.

3) The grade will bring forward any ego issues the student has not dealt with or even become aware of.

A lot of students come to the martial arts looking to get power and control in their lives i.e. they unconsciously seek the living skills they see displayed by the "masters" in the movies and books. A shodan grade can instantly lead to the attention and power they desire i.e. the ego is gratified. Simply, they become a big fish in a little pond.

This can lead to a range of problems. It may simply mean the student stops learning (or training) because they have acheived their goal. (I find it mindboggling how many ex-students of the martial arts still refer to themselves as a black belt even though they have not trained for many years.)

At the other extreme is the creation of a primaddona. These students relish the attention bestowed on them and seek more. This becomes a real problem when they start to protect their status against any threat, whether it comes from other students or the teacher, to the detriment of the whole school and its students.

I am not saying these things happen all the time but it can happen and happen often, all from the innocent act of rewarding someone for their study.

There are so many "students" out there who seek quick grades without putting in the neccessary training and there are many instructors who placate them. Whatever the reason the intructors may do this they are doing themselves, their art and the martials arts in general considerable disservice.

Awarding a black belt grade is a huge responsibilty and should never be done lightly. I belive it should be done with the bigger picture in mind for the benefit of the student, the school, the art studied and the martial arts in general.

Cameron Wheeler
24th June 2000, 17:47
I have always been taught the puting on a black belt is like puting your foot on the first wrung of the ladder, until then you are just aquiring the nesasery skills to study and learn.

24th June 2000, 19:30
Originally posted by TimHillman
Nice article. I've always thought of rank as a tool. Given wisely and it can spark a student to work harder. It can also cause problems. It can bring out petty jealousies and inflate egos.
Just a question to everyone in general, If your teacher and organization gave out no rank, would you still train under him and belong to the same organization?

Tim Hillman

Well I have to say it's a sad day when someone says No to this..
Ultimately belts and so forth are just so much trappings (this from a 6th kyu aikidoka ;)). Surely there's got to be more to spending so much of your time, energy and dedication than getting a collection of belts..
That's the problem with sports - people see only the medals, not the dedication and commitment of people working to better themselves..
What does shodan mean to me? It means you've built the foundations and you're ready to start thinking about the house. If you forget about the foundations though, they will get water-logged. :)
My 2p worth,

[Edited by DJM on 06-24-2000 at 07:35 PM]