thoughts on the belt system

it has been grading time again at my club - it is never too far away from a grading, truth be told - and once again people are strapping on new colours and looking forward to the next segment of their training: new kata, new techniques, new combinations, and so forth. a few months ago i wrote a short article (link at the bottom of this article) about a belt that i hadn't seen before, and it prompted some discussion around the subject of belts - specifically the kyu grade belt system, and how it is implemented by different clubs. here follows some further thoughts on the matter.

origins

the belt system as it is currently used in KUGB karate clubs (including mine), has come through several iterations. depending on where you go in the world, and also which martial art you look at, you may come across simpler or more complex versions. suffice to say there is no standardisation of belt systems, in the same way that karate associations have splintered and so while there is generally the same pattern, nothing is ever quite the same.

in it's simplest form, the belt system comprises of white and black, representing whether you are deemed 'competent' or not. then there is the system that introduces green and brown between the two, with each belt representing several grades that are not necessarily distinct. some clubs add a purple to this, between green and brown. then the come to the more familiar one-belt-per-grade system, which adds orange, red, blue, yellow, and some stripes also to the later belts. the adding of stripes is not consistent either; in the run up to black, brown belts may have white stripes, two white stripes, a red stripe, or a black stripe. there may also be others that i personally haven't seen, i wouldn't be too surprised.

the black belts too are not without their variations; the KUGB does not distinguish dan grades in a visual way on the belt, though wear-and-tear on the fashionable black-silk-over-white-canvas can be vaguely indicative. some styles have tags on the black belt to indicate dan grade. in some arts, the black belt is replaced by other colours, including block design belts, at high enough rank.

it is apparent, then, that the belt system doesn't mean anything in itself, since it always requires context, but it may be useful to those who understand it - that is to say, those operating within that system. if your belt is awarded to you by someone whose opinion you value, then your belt has value to you. you would hope that that would be a requirement in order to continue training at that club/association. if your awarding instructor/affiliation is respected widely, then you may enjoy a wider recognition of your rank. but don't bet on it; the belt system is for you, and other people who choose to recognise it. no-one has to buy into it just because you do.

criticisms

criticisms of the belt system tend to come down to money in the end; most commonly, belts are seen to be given too freely in exchange for money, and this can be seen to be degrading the worth of the belt. clubs that hand out belts essentially to make money, rather than as a critical assessment of ability, are commonly called 'belt factories', in the pejorative sense. you may see accelerated courses that offer faster progression up to black belt, which naturally (in a cynical way) cost more money. does the black belt earned in a hundred hours have the same value as the belt earned in five thousand? does that person have the same skill? probably not, but don't fall into the trap of assuming that belts are comparable across clubs and styles! you got your fifth dan in six months? good for you; now let's train together.

i have heard of belts that are intermediates between kyu grades, that operate as 'permission' to grade, or signify 'readiness'. no, honestly, it happens. and these belts, wouldn't you guess, are not free, and you cannot progress without buying them.

in such cases, it is clear that the belts are being offered as multi-coloured carrots, and the underlying (if false) feeling of attained rank or skill is being used to disguise the fact that anyone could just buy them. because you can, you know, just walk into a sports shop and buy the whole range. no-one is going to ask you to demonstrate anything. if you are getting your belt through your instructor, it needs to be more than going to the shops. your grading is about appropriate, agreed-in-advance milestones in ability, and a clear demonstration of having achieved said target. it is not merely a chance to hand over your money. because if your instructor spends a lot of time caring about money, they may not be spending enough time caring about your karate.

what rank means at the top end

one genuine problem with the belt system, specific to the higher dan ranks rather than the kyu ranks, relates to the fact that the belt system does not consistently represent the same thing. at low grades, rank denotes ability (measured against the syllabus) and, to some degree, time served. at high dan, rank represents not only ability but also time served, and also services to the association and to karate as a whole. under the KUGB grading rules, you cannot become 6th dan without having had over 20 years of training, and cannot also be under 36 years old (this is a theoretical minimum; no-one actually does this). the 6th dan is the last grading with a physical element; in recognition of the likely advancing age of the candidate, further dan grades are conferred by committee. but does 6th dan mean you are more physically able than the teenagers fighting on the national teams, many of whom are 1st or 2nd dan? most likely, no, but the rank is now taken to encompass experience also. the whole thing is rather unhelpful, and never really clarified.

why i use the belt system

in short, i use the belt system that the association i belong to uses. i use it because i have chosen the framework in which i am prepared to teach karate, and i operate within that framework and thus have adopted their syllabus and ranking criteria. and that's it. if i were entirely free to decide what i would want, then i perhaps would opt for the more basic three-belt system. if that is revealing about me, then perhaps it is only that i dislike organising events, rather than a reflection of my views about the system itself. i think the way the KUGB operates is, on balance, very good, and the small things i might personally change are far outweighed by the deeply embedded attributes of courtesy, attitude, quality, and not-really-caring-about-money.

it is the privilege of dan grades to say that grades aren't important, of course, the same way rich people say that money doesn't matter; the belt system is fair game for criticism, but certainly has things in its favour also. here are a few ways that i view that breakdown:

useful things

the belt system allows delineation of grades for easy lesson planning; in a class that spans a large number of grades, it is a simple shorthand for roughly - and yes, it is only roughly - figuring out who should be doing what. rank doesn't exactly code for ability, or experience, but its a way of getting close, quickly and easily. after that, additional attention to individuals within these broad groups, either to offer simplification or subtlety, allows more accurate personalisation of feedback.

in my view the most useful application is the delineation of grades for competitions. there is no sense in grossly mismatched abilities coming together in competition; it can feel demoralising for the lower grade who may be beaten easily, and feel trivial for the higher grade. apples and oranges need to be compared separately in order for the comparison to have meaning, and competition brackets - like grades themselves - offer incentives for progression.

again only roughly, the idea that rank codes for experience and ability allows junior students to know who may be able to help them with any specific issues or queries they may have, in particular with kata. within a single club, everyone will know everyone anyway and so this is trivial, but those visiting different clubs may appreciate this shorthand.

along the same lines, there is something to be said for same-grade solidarity, where you train the same techniques with the same people and work to advance together, learning the kata and working things through together. this is often the way people like to work, rather than always feeling like they are taking up the time of a senior grade, and helps to create strong working relationships within the club. this is not required for learning and becoming proficient at karate, but is merely pleasant and makes the training more fun.

the level of gradation from 'novice' to 'proficient' allows for a clear syllabus for standardisation of advancement; a larger number of grades (10) allows for a finer distinction between stages of progression. the binary white/black offers none whatsoever, whereas having a striped belt in between each of the standard(ish) ten to make twenty probably offers a false and unhelpful quantisation of progression. how many grades offers the ideal step size between levels on the way to 'expert' is a matter for debate, but somewhere in there there is a number. ten seems like it might be somewhere close. the minimum time spacing between gradings (and minimum training requirements) will also play a role here, since they equate to experience with each stage of the syllabus.

the belt system, or rather belt systems, do afford some sort of standardisation across clubs/organisations/styles. while there is no flat equivalence between arts, styles, or even associations, a rank within a system offers some notion of where a person is within that system - even if the system is different to yours. to assume equivalency between styles is too much to hope for, and across arts is doomed to fail, but the fact that each art has a system at all allows for some sort of murky understanding.

useless things

perhaps the most recognisable (or imagined) result of the rigidly enforced belt system, is the ability of higher ranks to exploit such over those of lower rank. requiring to bow, rather being willing to bow, to higher grades, or defer to them in other ways - i heard recently from another instructor how club members would enter a lift in grade order - is entirely unhelpful, and (if it should matter) against the principle ('respect') that bowing is supposed to enshrine both in japanese clubs and in the west.

respect is earned, and given freely; shouting about 'respect' and enforcing behaviours is not the same as having people who are grateful to train with each other.

by far the most reprehensible use of the belt system is, in my opinion, getting increased revenue from students. of course belts, being tangible things, do cost money, but should only generate revenue as a side-product to student progression rather than driving conferment of rank in order to generate revenue. the belt should indicate progression, an advancement in rank, not a 'temporary' status or a 'ready' status. having such distinctions within grades can be useful, especially for younger children, but being required to buy a new belt to signify these things really is taking it too far. a piece of tape on the existing belt, or a mark on a record card, fulfils this purpose equally well and is free. you can take this argument further to belts in general, of course, but i believe there is a balance and drawing the line somewhere roughly sensible lets you have confidence that you're not merely being fleeced in a run through the belt factory.

warning signs

martial arts training involves a certain amount of things that are not otherwise present in your life; being 'rude' to people, attacking them, hitting them, shouting at full force, and so forth, are behaviours that are conditioned out of us the entire rest our whole lives. it is common then that there is a certain amount of martial arts training that seems contrary to your sensibilities. be prepared for this, and embrace the opportunity to work outside of this conditioning with like-minded others who actively want you to train with you. kiai like you mean it! but never surrender a critical mindset of what you are doing: everythig should have a purpose, and the purpose should be apparent to you so you can choose whether you agree with it or not. for example: while it is inevitable that you will accidentally sustain minor injuries from time to time, being hurt is not part of your training. any club that wants to you stand and be hurt deliberately? a sensei that asks you to stand still then hits you full force? walk away. that's one's (hopefully!) fairly obvious. similarly: gradings will cost you money and the belts sold to you by your club will subsidise part of that expense. but a belt that confers no advantage, that you must buy, and buy only from the instructor, at a premium? walk away. there are enough good martial arts clubs around, perhaps a mile or so further away, that offer you far more for your money and need your support.


after all of that, i hope at least to have conveyed my general thoughts regarding the belt system. while i remain with the KUGB, and while they offer a valuable structure for karate training and beyond, i embrace their grading structure and belt system and syllabus. it is potentially a flawed system, i readily acknowledge, but i believe its advantages largely outweigh the disadvantages. and like all 'things', the belt system can be used or abused, and the thing itself is neither good nor bad. it is how it is used that matters; the same might be said of karate itself.

- neil jerome, 2013


read the article on the white/orange belt
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