Things to know if you’re a black belt…

For those who don’t know me I am a very traditional Karate guy. Not only has my life consisted of non-stop training every day since 1978 I also have spent many years reading, studying and researching traditions and etiquette in relation to the martial arts. Over the past 15 or so years I have witnessed all sorts of things, both inside and outside of my dojo, that truly have me disappointed in some people who wear a black belt. While I am sitting in Okinawa right now, after two weeks of training, I was checking out Facebook and a recent post caught my attention. A strong desire to write a do and do not guideline hit me because of what I saw taking place. The martial arts, especially Karate, have a very heavily set standard of conduct for those who wear a black belt. That belt is about a lot more than just being good at Kata or Kumite. So, tonight, while winding down after a great day of Kata and Yakusoku Kumite training I decided to write a few notes about what a good, and true black belt would never do.

The first thing is to understand that one must have permission to open a school. It seems it is a popular idea that when a student gets a black belt level they think they are qualified to teach others. While being a black belt does mean you possess the basic skill set of your art it doesn’t mean you understand the art well enough to teach others. I have witnessed everything from a black belt taking on students in their garage without their Sensei knowing all the way to a black belt leaving their school and opening one right across the street from their Sensei. A true black belt would NEVER do such a thing…not  because of tradition but out of respect for their teacher.

Let be very clear on something…every student out there will disagree with their Sensei over time. These disagreements can range from everything involving how a dojo is ran to what is being taught. Disagreeing with your Sensei is going to happen but when it does it is not your right to leave that dojo and run out to open your own…no matter what it was. I have a friend who was a 3rd degree black belt and assistant instructor in the dojo he trained at. His teacher was, more or less, a very immoral man. This teacher would beat up students, drink a lot (not during classes though) and had a potty mouth on him that would make even the most hard core sailor blush. My friend had 15 years of training in with this man and finally had enough. He just quit. After a few years, and being prodded by friends, he rented a building in the same town and started teaching. As you can imagine a verbal fight of atrocities occurred between the two which made all martial arts schools in that town look terrible. After my friend was open for a year he called me and asked what he did so wrong that, in his own words, his “piss poor excuse of human being teacher was mad at him for”. I simply stated that he never got permission to open a school and teach from HIS Sensei. Well, as you can imagine, my friend said he didn’t need to but in reality, no matter what level of disagreement the two had, he should’ve got permission or opened one up in another town.

You see this man who taught him gave him 15 years of life of studying the martial arts. Sure he was a scoundrel and a bit of low life, but my friend had stayed training with him regardless. It was only respectful, no matter what the reason he left was over, to seek permission to open a school or do it far enough away from his Sensei that it would have no effect on either school. That is proper, that is the right way and that is integrity. Today neither school are open and neither person train in martial arts.

Next, over the years I have owned a martial arts dojo (26 years to be exact) I have had many visiting black belts from other area schools, including several states away. Some are very respectful, very nice and very fun to train with. Others are just assholes who come in with something to prove. Even others are just “fishing” for information about my school or trying to bait me into saying bad things about their school. It always shocks me when these negative things occur because they evidently believe I am some fool or some fake mcdojo.

When visiting a school, regardless of the system taught there, it is pre-defined as to your conduct if you wear a black belt period. First off you call ahead and request permission to stop in for a visit. You never just show up. If permission is given (which most of the time it will be unless the instructor is a fraud) you show up early or right on time. You bow when entering the dojo, you bow and introduce yourself to the Sensei of the dojo. If you are there to just visit and watch you sit down quietly and observe classes. When you have questions you ask after the class has been dismissed and the Sensei has time for you. If you are there to train you show up with a clean and pressed Gi but do not put your Obi (belt) on. You ask permission to wear it for classes. If you are handed a white belt you put it on with no complaints or animosity for having to do so. It is just a belt. You line up in the proper place in class, do the warm ups, train and learn as much as you can as the STUDENT. You are not there to teach or try and prove anything nor say the all ever popular dumbass statement of “In my style this is how we do it”.

I have visited many schools and trained at many. It is never about me while I am a “visitor” there nor does my style of Karate matter. I am simply a student training in the class as you are too when visiting any dojo. A few years back I had a black belt from another style visit my school. He came in, didn’t ask permission to wear his gi or obi and dressed out without permission to attend classes. We lined up and tried to go to the head of the line and I put him in the back based on his attitude up to that point. He was a 5th degree black belt in a completely different system of martial art. He was clearly upset that he had to be in the back with the white belts. During our warm ups he put little effort into them. When we began Kata he stepped back and didn’t even try to work them. When Kumite time came he ran over, put on his gear and came out bouncing all over my floor throwing kicks and combos…showing off. I paired him up with one of my green belt adults and he began to try and thump my student making all sorts of “my style” type of comments. My green belt was visibly upset and look over to me for guidance. I gave him a nod and he laid the guy out. I went over to make sure he was ok but before I got there he got up threw off his gear and went to the dressing room to change. We continued on as if he had never been there. A about 5 months later I heard he was going to open a school in my town and “put me out of business because I sucked”. Needless to say he never did open one but he sure did talk a lot of smack for a year until he moved away. This is a prime example what not to be as a black belt.

We must remember that a dojo is the house of the Sensei. We have to respect their ways, their methods and the fact that it is not our home. Behaving in any other manner doesn’t just make you look bad but your Sensei and entire system you represent. Whenever I am out visiting a school I make sure to set the same example I would like to see in my students and to never embarrass my own Sensei. It doesn’t matter if I am attending a hard core school or a mcdojo, I behave very respectfully because that is part of what wearing that black belt means.

Buying rank has become synonymous with martial arts over the past 25 or so years. It is clear that many people forget you cannot be awarded rank outside of your system nor by people who aren’t higher rank than you inside of your own system. There is an instructor in town near me that was promoted to 2nd degree black belt by his teacher. They had a falling out and he opened a school (without permission – see first example). While his school is not in the same town, the system they taught was made up and called Freestyle Karate. After a couple of years a newspaper article showed up where this person had been awarded their 5th degree black belt by some association / hall of fame group. I am sure to him this meant he was a master but to those that know the proper ways he will always be seen as a fraud. You can’t get rank outside of your system no matter what anyone tells you…especially when it is a made up system of martial art where the “founder” was self promoted.

I ran into this guy at a tournament a few months after the article came out. He was introducing himself as Master so and so. When he came up to talk to me I called him by his first name and he immediately corrected me saying it was Master. Sorry but I was a 3rd degree black belt before he began training and the entire day I referred to him by his first name. Finally he asked why and I explained that you can buy all the rank you want but none of that makes you a master in anything. Luckily he did compete that day and didn’t place…but I did get to fight him…the score was 5-0 in 40 seconds…enough said.

Next on our list is the use of titles. Every where I go today there are Shihan, Kyoshi, Hanshi, O’Sensei, Soke, Shodai Soke and a plethora of other titles. Earning a title is not the same as earning rank. They are completely separate from each other. You are not a Sensei just because you are a black belt. You are Sensei when you begin to teach others and given that right (see next article). I have met many people who got to 4th degree or 5th degree black belt and actually refer to themselves, or their students refer to them, as Shihan / Kyoshi / Master. While it is alright for one’s students to refer to their teacher by their last name and title it is NEVER ok for one to do so in reference to their own self. This includes putting your title in your Facebook name. All one has to do is type in Kyoshi in the search bar in Facebook and thousands of people pop up. While I am sure many of them are legitimate Kyoshi it is important to note that using one’s title in their Facebook name is actually taboo and very arrogant.

Some time ago I was at a tournament and a certain black belt was demanding everyone call them Grand Master. Their senior student at the event was correcting people when they didn’t including those who have been 8th degree black belts longer than this grand master had been training. I was the head official for the event and it was a small fund raiser we put together for fun. When this person’s student corrected me I looked at them and repeated myself not using the title. They got all huffy and upset. I wasn’t doing it to be disrespectful but rather because I know the person was self promoted and I refuse to recognize those who do such things by their title. Eventually, said grand master, came up to me and told me I had to refer to her as Grand Master so and so. I asked to see their certificate that stated they were a grand master to which they were visually upset. Without needing to say more that person left the tournament and everything after went very smoothly…once they were gone we had a great time.

In reference to being called Sensei as stated above it is not something you automatically become once you get a black belt. Sure students almost always call a black belt by Sensei but that doesn’t mean you are the Sensei. In a dojo there is only one Sensei…that is the person who owns the school or opened it. Everyone else is just a student, regardless of their rank. Many people seem to forget this. I have watched in horror as a black belt begins teaching their own ideas without permission or changes Kata and makes statements that they are right and the Sensei is wrong. Doing this means you are worthless to your school and definitely have ego issues. Black belts are human and, no matter how long we train, we will make mistakes…as a matter of fact the longer we train, the more we are exposed to and we often make simple little mistakes. That being said a good Sensei will acknowledge the mistake and fix it…or get to their own Sensei and verify they are either correct or wrong. In my dojo I have dealt with my own black belts trying to teach things that are wrong, or how they “feel” they should be done. While I encourage my black belts to express their own ideas in Kumite and Self Defense we DO NOT change the Kata…ever. When I have a kyu rank student coming to me and telling me that one of my black belts showed them a kata this way I immediately correct the black belt, in private, and explain it is set in stone. Bunkai, however, is completely open for my black belts to teach their interpretations…as it should be.

My last indulgence this evening is when you go over your own Sensei’s head. This is very common place today but it is very wrong period. I have been in Okinawa the last two weeks training with my Sensei and his Sensei. Minoru Nakazato Hanshi is a real 10th degree black belt from a verifiable lineage of Karate that dates to the founding of the art. He is a very wonderful teacher, very helpful and full of information. While on this visit we were watch Nakazato Hanshi perform Kata and explain some corrections. I wasn’t clear on some things so I ask MY Sensei. I didn’t go up to Nakazato Hanshi and ask him. Why? Because a student must ask their Sensei first, then, if their Sensei doesn’t know, he/she is the one to ask the question of the Hanshi. There have been times I have asked my Sensei a question during our trips to Okinawa and he had me follow him to Hanshi and he asked my question. I watched every detail and thanked both of them for the time.

If you don’t know something you ask your own Sensei, not theirs. If your own Sensei is not sure he will ask his teacher. Sadly many people today don’t have a Sensei when they are running a school or their own ego won’t allow them to seek out the answer they don’t know. My students are very fortunate that I have an incredible Sensei and if I am not 100% sure on something I will say so and them seek clarification from my Sensei. This is proper, this is respectful and this is how it is done.

I have also witnessed people going over their Sensei’s head to seek out promotions in rank. If you are my students and did such a thing you would not be my student any longer…and I am lucky that I would know because I have great Sensei that would not do such a thing and would definitely let me know a student did this. On the flip side I have also seen people’s own teachers offer ranks to their students to “entice” them away. This happened to me years ago and I lost two of my “champion” level students. Needless to say I left that teacher and found a better one.

There are also many other things that a good black belt will never do but those can be held off for another time since I am tired and will be flying back to the USA in a few short hours. 22 hours on a plane is not fun but I am ready to be home and back to teaching my own students to share all the things I have learned here in Okinawa. Train hard, honor the way and be a good black belt…it isn’t about what you want, it is about what we all do together that makes the dojo and our system incredible.

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2 thoughts on “Things to know if you’re a black belt…

  1. This is a great educational read thank you! I have a question: If a black belt holds up his/her belt and says “see my belt?” Indicating the color is black and color belts need to obey. Is this a dishonorable act and misuse of power? In my opinion, respect should be gained through performance, trust, honor, dignity, and so on… please education me.

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    1. I am not sure because I don’t know the context of the situation in which occurred. If a student was not listening, being rude or disrespectful or even showing off and they said “See my belt” type of thing I wouldn’t think that is dishonorable or misuse of power. Since I don’t know the context, nor the dojo / Sensei / art in question I really can’t tell you if it was wrong or not. In the martial arts, though, a Sensei has already earned the right that students will respect them…at least in a legitimate dojo. It is a two way street however students should never be disrespectful towards the Sensei unless said teacher is immoral or requiring immoral activities be done. In that situation they should just quit that dojo and seek out a better one. Performance, as you stated, has little to do with earning respect in authentic Karate. Everyone performs differently. What does matter is how hard one trains, how dedicated they are to their art, their lineage, their knowledge and their ability to teach others effectively (if they are the teacher). Performance, as I see it, only matters to people who base opinion on sport martial arts which has little to do with determining quality in authentic martial arts training.

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