What’s in a belt?

Kind of a confusing title isn’t it? We all know that a Karate belt (Obi) is made of cotton, has several layers with an outside layer that has been dyed a certain rank color and includes stitching. So you may wonder why I would pick such an obvious title for this blog post. Let me begin by saying that an Obi is much more than just the piece of cloth you wear around your waist to hold your gi shut. For many people the belt is a symbol of achievement. A marking of their hard work, sacrifice and effort as it pays off. As they progress in their study of Karate the belt will change colors. On this journey to the all inspiring “black belt” most students have witnessed their lives change right before their eyes. They are more confident, stronger, more focused and able to face challenges they would have ran away from in the past.

Now that we have cleared that up let’s talk plainly about the Karate belt, or Obi as it is called in its proper context. Without going into a long, drawn out history of the use of the Obi it is safe to say that Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, was the first to implement a belt system in the martial arts. Kano Sensei recognized a need to split his students into groups based on their abilities, knowledge and time in training. Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate, used this belt system in Karate when he moved to Japan to popularize his system of martial art. The Okinawa Karate community took much longer to begin using the belt ranking system but eventually did so.

In the beginning we had only three belts. It was very simple. White denoted a beginner or novice student. Brown denoted a student with intermediate level of ability and knowledge. Black was given to those who had gained a strong foundation and developed their skills to great lengths. So there it was, very easy…white, brown and black. Over time other colors were added into the mix such as Orange, Blue, Yellow, Green and Purple. Today it is not uncommon to find as many as 10 to 15 different colors of belt before black is achieved in many dojo. The thought process behind this was to have a step level to entice students to train longer because they can see their progress through the different colors of belts. In short, people need to be rewarded for their efforts so more belt colors were added.

When I began training we had white, yellow, green, brown and black colors for belts. Over the years I trained a blue was added in and then eventually orange and red colors. Our current belt structure is white, orange, blue, green, purple, brown and black with varying levels of tape in between. The structure is noted as the Kyu / Dan grading platform. Below black belt a student is a Kyu and at black belt and above they are a Dan rank. We have 10 Kyu ranks below our first level of Dan called Shodan. Then we have 10 Dan ranks for those in the black belt levels.

Over the years I have wanted to take my belt system back to the way it was when I began training. We all wore a white belt. After our first belt exam we would dip the tip in yellow dye. Then we would take another exam and dip the other tip in the dye. Then we would take another exam and the entire belt would be dyed yellow. We did this with our yellow belt to green and then again with our green to brown. The only time we were given a new belt was when we outgrew it. That would happen back then because it took a very long time to progress through the ranks. Some of my students and peers think that is a great idea but then I remember how badly my newly dyed belt would stain my uniform so I get away from that idea. It also took a few days for the dye to dry out before we could wear the Obi again and since we have classes four to six days a week in most dojo that makes it impossible.

The belt colors are there to help the Sensei determine what a student should be able to do as well as what they are ready to learn. Karate is a step process. No one can rush through it if they want to actually learn it. This being said, in my dojo, students are always learning one more belt up from the next rank they are preparing to take an exam for. I do this so they understand that they must always be learning and studying their art. The belt exams in my dojo are a bit old school, so to speak. Students will perform many exercises, all the Kata required for previous and current rank as well as the entire syllabus of Kihon denoted to the rank they wish to achieve. Add in self defense combatives and several Kumite matches and you have a very hard exam…even for beginners. I have had visiting black belts tell me my exams are too hard or “will scare away” students but I feel the exact opposite…it will push them, build them and only the ones who can step up to challenge will graduate to the next belt level. It makes me sad when I watch people take a belt exam and barely break a sweat or are hardly challenged to go a step higher than they are capable of.

Since we have walked down memory lane and my open ramblings on this subject let me get to meat of the topic at hand…What’s in a belt? While I cannot speak for other people I am capable of sharing what my belt means to me. I wear a ragged, old black belt with fraying sides. It has quite a bit of white showing through the black colored cover. This is my 3rd black belt I have ever owned and the other two have fallen apart to the point I can no longer wear them at all. Over all the years I have trained I have cried, sweat, passed out, been knocked out, broken a few bones and jammed all my fingers and toes. I have bled many times but no matter what happened, no matter how much I was injured I got up and kept moving forward. As a Sensei I have given up so much just to build and have a dojo to teach in that most people think I am completely insane. When I put on my belt I am wrapping around me a symbol of all that I have struggled through and achieved in my life. It is more than a piece of cloth…it represents my journey on my  martial arts path. It is not just something I treat with the utmost dignity and respect it is something that I use as a tool to remind me what it took to get me this far and how far I have yet to travel. It is part of me like my arm, my foot and my mind. My Obi is my heart and my love for the art of Karate-Do. It is more than just something I have to wear out of tradition. When it is not around my waist it is folded up neatly and placed safely where I will never lose it. It is my belt and it is a symbol of my life. That’s what my Obi means to me.

So, those of you reading this, think twice next time before you walk up and grab a black belts Obi. Those of you training think about this before you get one just by simply paying a fee. Those of you in martial arts think about this before you believe you are entitled to any sort of rank what so ever. Remember that integrity, honor, commitment and discipline are not just words to a real martial artist but they are their entire way of life. This is what is in a belt…earn yours the right way.