What Black Belt Means To Me

This is a much longer version of the essay I submitted with my recent grading.

Just as the gold standard was once the international backing for currency, the black belt standard is the closest thing karate has to a global, understood standard. Even those who don’t do karate know what it is, even if they’ve never stepped in a dojo. Between movies and TV, the coveted black belt is world famous. Thanks to Cobra Kai, we’re seeing a resurgence in karate interest and sign-ups.

Cobra Kai - Rotten Tomatoes
The karate is so terrible, but I love this show

But what it means to others, and to me, and its value, often don’t have much overlap.

I have been a black belt since 2014, about half of my karate career so far. But what has changed from grading to grading is where I find myself; not only as a martial artist, but as a junior instructor, and a mother. When I last graded, I was (unknowingly!) a few weeks pregnant, with no idea how much my life would change, and how much my karate would be affected. (Oh, how naïve.) The ink still fresh on on my second dan certificate, I threw myself back into training, still working towards finishing up for my instructor’s license.

And then, trying to do karate while pregnant. (More on that here). When everything else was so difficult – the heartburn, the fatigue, the anxiety of impending motherhood, foolishly trying to move house in the last trimester – I still had my kata. I still had the dojo, and the students. I didn’t let pregnancy take away my karate, even though it would have been so much easier to hang up my gi for a few months. I finally understood why so many women do.

While I haven’t been able to train at nearly the same level as I did in my late twenties (with plenty of karate, no children, and marathon running to turn me into a stamina monster), I have genuinely tried to juggle full-time childcare, running a business, starting a Youtube channel (not just for the dojo, but to ensure Che’s amazing knowledge doesn’t get lost before we can write it down) and the demands of family and marriage on top of my karate. It hasn’t been easy, but I have tried my best.

Sally Ride: The celebrity-shy, first US woman in space - CSMonitor.com
Sally Ride, 1951 – 2012

Sally Ride, the first US woman in space, said once in an interview with Harvard Business Review:

I never went into physics or the astronaut corps to become a role model. But after my first flight, it became clear to me that I was one. And I began to understand the importance of that to people. Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.

I started karate entirely for myself, a long time ago in a very small dojo. But over the years, as I have advanced and outlasted many more who are far more talented, I have found myself becoming a little bit of a role model that I never set out to be. When little girls look up in the dojo, and look up at the nafudakake boards, they should see women there. Not just boys, not just men. They should see that there is space up at the top of the mountain, and at the table. Their path will be beset by challenges that no male practitioner will face (menstruation, childbearing, menopause, the list goes on), but they need to know that they are more than equal to those challenges. And yes, sometimes, they’ll have to fight harder to be taken seriously, but as Shirley Chisholm once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

So what makes a good black belt? Talent? Time? Effort? The ability to fight off multiple attackers while wearing sunglasses? Spinning jump kicks? There should absolutely be a level of technical ability, and especially maturity. The black belt is cheapened when it is given to seven year olds in American dojos.

But black belts aren’t always given fairly, or on time, or to good people – there are enough egomaniacs with self-given titles who should have been kicked out of karate by the rest of us a long time ago. There are some who have been waiting patiently while less talented, less driven people grade past them. Karate, like life, isn’t always fair.

But perhaps character still counts for something. It should count for something, because plenty of sociopaths, bullies, charlatans and narcissists bring shame to the black belts we wear. Self-appointed shihans and owners of McDojos have tarnished the meaning of the belt. Everyone knows an asshole with a black belt.

But even though we can’t control what other dojos and federations do, we can at least account for our own members. Good character is the prerequisite to grading, and technical ability confers value on the black belt. Good people, and good karate – this is all that should truly matter. Not wealth, not shining and wasted talent, not influence: just the quality of our character, and our karate.

My black belt represents much more than just my work, more than the years and years of effort, of sacrifice and sweat and patience. It represents the time that others have invested in me – my instructors, past and present, my federation, my students, my training partners. It represents my capability in an area still very much dominated by men. It represents a path forward for the girls who walk behind me, just as I have walked behind other women more senior than me.1 We each carve a path forward, to make it better for those who come after us.

Karate Halloween Costumes | Boy costumes, Halloween costumes for kids,  Themed halloween costumes
I mean…

Yes, anyone can have a black belt. Anyone can literally just buy one and wear it – there’s no karate police to stop that. (When I was a kid, I thought one had to present a certificate to get a black belt, at a special store. It just seemed so magical.) People wear them for Halloween. Any dojo can hand them out as they wish. There are dojos and federations that do – to children, to rich people who buy their way into the black belt club, to administrators that have never stepped on the mat.

But not everyone can be a black belt, a real yudansha, who gives back as much, if not more than, they are given. Time to your dojo, mentorship to juniors, dedication to the craft. Exemplifying the best qualities of a martial artist and representing the art well to the outside world. To give the black belt the credibility and weight it deserves. To try and restore some honest value to the idea of the belt and the milestone it represents.

Just as quacks do harm to the medical profession, McDojos do real harm to serious dojos. They undermine our work by handing out ranks like candy to those willing to pay instead of working for it. They give people a false sense of their ability, which is as dangerous as it is foolish. They think they can handle themselves, but under pressure we fall to the level of our training, not our expectations.

It takes years to get a serious black belt. It’s dozens of weekends spent at gashuku (seminars) instead of birthday parties, and missing family events. It’s week after week of studious application, month after month of showing up and putting in the time. And not just the bare minimum of classes, but every opportunity to train is taken. It’s an achievement measured in years. There is a price for a black belt: one that cannot be measured in currency, but in spirit and character, time and effort.

It should be hard to get. To steal a cheesy quote, hard is what makes it great. Whether it is marathon running, or parenting, or karate, it is the difficulty that yields such beautiful rewards. Easy is for instant noodles and Netflix. Easy is for weekend warriors. Real karate, and real progress and rewards, is like chipping jewels out of a mountain using a butter knife. (Or at least, it feels that way.)

There are hundreds of thousands of people wearing black belts all over the world. It’s not exactly rare. And sometimes, a belt is just something that holds your gi jacket together. But to me, it represents a decade and a half of karate, and I value it as much as my two degrees, which usually impress people more than my black belt does (even though they took half the time it took me to get to Shodan, and were much easier to accomplish). It is the symbol of my sweat, my sacrifice, the work of my teachers and my peers and my juniors, and what I have to offer others.

I am grateful that I have been considered worthy, and that the path was not easy. I know that it was not given lightly, and I hope to live up to the expectations of my instructors, as well as my students, and the parents that entrust their children’s karate journey to me (and my husband, obviously). Hopefully, I can help more girls, and young women, stay on this path and not give up. And with time, I hope to be able to give back more to the art that has given me so much.

  1. I stand on the shoulders of giants. Thank you to Sensei Lillian, Sensei Davina, Sensei Mutsuko Minegishi and Sensei Mary, and even though I’ve never met her but I’m inspired still, Sensei AND Doctor Mary Roe, of Jundokan International.

Maybe You Shouldn’t Be a Sensei

We’ve done two videos on opening and running a dojo, but there’s also something to be said for whether this is the right path for everyone. Oh, it looks great in the movies, and Cobra Kai actually does have a beautiful tribute to what it means to be a real Sensei:

Ali, you’re right. It’s crazy how things change. For a long time, I didn’t have much direction in my life. But then things got better. I met a kid who needed some help. So I got back into karate and became a sensei. There were ups and downs. I even gave up for a while. But I can’t give up anymore. I have a long way to be a better man, a better father, a better teacher. But I can make a difference in these kids’ lives. It’s a tough world out there, and I can help them be ready for it. That’s what I’ve been up to. That’s who I am. I’m a sensei.

– Johnny Lawrence, season 3 of Cobra Kai

And you know what? It is great. It is amazing, and I would have to lose everything before I crawled back to corporate and dealing exclusively with adults and their agendas. And meetings. So many meetings.

(For now, let’s set aside the etiquette and challenges of who gets to call themselves a Sensei, what the word means etc etc. I know some big karate Youtubers have discussed this recently – we’ll get to that another day.)

But this life isn’t easy. And I was warned, no doubt, by those who have gone before me. But maybe it needs to be written down somewhere, where everyone who is thinking about quitting their day job, opening a scrappy underdog dojo and becoming a full-time karate bum, can see it.

These kids are going to break your heart.

95% of the kids that walk in aren’t going to stay. Let’s rip off that particular band-aid first. Because no matter how much you may throw yourself wholly into the work, into being the most committed, caring and invested instructor you can possibly be, these kids, these teens, and even adults, are going to quit. They’re going to move away. They’re going to emigrate. They’ll get bored. Their parents will run out of money. Or the parents will get divorced and karate falls by the wayside when the kid needs it most. Parents will ghost you when you follow up. They and their kids will disappear without a goodbye, even if you have spent years getting to know them. Students get injured. They might get ill. They might be so talented that they get in their own way, and end up quitting anyway. You might have the next Miyagi walk into your dojo, train for three or four years, and then scream out of frustration when they quit because “karate isn’t cool, Sensei.”

That no matter how much you try, the nature of this beast dictates that most of them aren’t going to make it. Most of them won’t want to. And that’s okay.

Good karate, real karate, is hard. Damned hard. It is sweat, and repetition, and showing up over and over and over again. It is slow progress and constant feedback. It is a years-long marathon of effort that requires dedication and time and money, and the willingness to be humble, take that constructive criticism, and to keep coming back. To go to the dojo when it’s cold, when it’s too hot, when there’s a couch and Netflix and no one telling you to pull your hand back into chamber.

Nothing great is easy. Karate is the best thing that happened to my young adult self, and saved me from my worst impulses. I genuinely believe that karate has many answers to various questions, but they must be worked for. The answers will reveal themselves, in time.

But these kids are going to quit on you. A blessed, beloved handful will stick with you, and they really do go a long way to making it worth it. My husband has some students who have been with him since they were knee-high to a meerkat, and they’re young adults now. I dream of the same. But now, 5 years into this journey, I’ve come to realize that no matter how much you try, most of them go. You get used to it. Mostly. When you stop caring, then maybe it is time to quit.

You can only hope that the best of what you said made it through, and they take it with them. You hope that they remember how much you believed in them, and wanted the best for them, and that some of the lessons stick with them. If you do your job right, they might not stay with you in the dojo, but maybe a little part of you stays with them.

(And if you are reading this and you are thinking of your Sensei? Reach out to them. I promise they will be glad to hear from you.)

Your Own Training Will Slide

I thought I would get in SO MUCH training when I started teaching. Doing all that karate, all the time? Yeehah! Effortless kata, here I come. I am going to be a karate goddess.

And as the Yiddish saying goes: we plan, God laughs.

Yes, you will do the most basic kata three hundred times a month. Those will be your better kata – you’ll know them inside out, you can spot the wrong hand/wrong foot from the other side of the room using the mirror – but your senior kata? Your actual grading kata? Not so much. I am not on speaking terms with Seipai; that poor kata is so neglected. I have to make a serious, concerted effort to train by myself to work on everything I need to work on. I can’t do that when teaching, because it is absolutely not about me, but about everything from correcting foot placement to fielding a thousand questions to managing the “SENSAAAYYYYYY HE ISN’T DOING THE KATA RIGHT” tattle-tailing to barking constant reminders about wearing masks correctly.

(I can’t wait until we can be free of masks. If you are reading this in 2022, 2023, I hope we don’t need masks anymore.)

However, one of my favourite teaching aphorisms is “to teach is to learn twice”, so that does help somewhat. And one day, I will become one of those people that gets up at 5am to train. One day is one day.

Karate Wife, Hard Life

I can’t even remember where this came from – it has been said of every patient wife of an instructor, dutifully managing the rest of his life so that he can be a great sensei. Taking care of the minutia of daily life, so that he need never think about finding a clean gi, paying bills or making a meal.

For the most part, I think those days are increasingly behind us, and for good reasons. But being a karate spouse is still hard, even when you are both in the dojo, all the time, together. And just as there are many schools and dojo that are run by spouses, there are many more that are being run by a single instructor. And that instructor is not just teaching all the classes, but they are also taking care of the accounts, running all the marketing, doing repairs and lesson planning, managing a website and fielding calls and whatsapps from dojo parents. I’ve written before about a day in the life of an instructor, but I didn’t add the strain it can put on a relationship. Especially if that instructor can and does travel to compete, or coach, or improve their own karate. If you are both in it, then the sacrifice makes sense and can be shared. When Che used to travel as team coach, I would miss him but I was also proud of him, and knew what he was doing and the extent of it. But if I were a civilian, and didn’t get this karate life? I’m not sure I could be patient for years and years.

We have weird hours, and often lose weekends to seminars, morning classes, gradings and away camps. There are so many unwritten rules and expectations and habits that we don’t even realize we have, and that can be hard on someone who isn’t immersed in this world. (I know its not specific to karate, but this is me staying in my lane and writing what I know.)

Props to those who love their karate wives, and boyfriends, and girlfriends, and husbands, without being karate people themselves. The friends that don’t get half of what we do, but wait for us to get to the braai as soon as our Saturday seminar is finished. (My merchants – I love you for this.)
We see you and appreciate you.

But still, no regrets

I used to work in corporate. It was neat and tidy; 8am to 4pm, dedicated lunch breaks, lots of colleagues to go to lunch with. Paycheck regular as clockwork. I had no real power, so no real responsibility. Just a copywriting and marketing minion. I had my evenings and weekends uninterrupted, and while I have done karate my whole adult life, I got the fun part of just showing up to train and then going home. I didn’t have to worry about liability insurance, or affiliation money, or whether I was going to get another WhatsApp telling me a dear student was quitting.

Would I go back?

Absolutely not. I love being an instructor, and I hope that I have done enough to earn the title of Sensei. It isn’t one you can claim for yourself – it can only be given. And it is only given meaning when someone calls you that freely and without hesitation. When they see you as the one who has gone before, and has something worth teaching, worth imparting.

Otherwise, you’re just some chop in angry white pajamas.

Video: The Anatomy of Sanchin Kata

Using decades of insight, as well as his anatomy studies at Wits University, Che Jagger breaks down the anatomical aspects of Sanchin kata, looking at everything from toe placement to shoulder height. An easy to follow, detailed and fascinating look at how Sanchin kata should be performed for long-term joint safety and strengthening, as well as building leg strength and improving lung capacity.

Please like and subscribe for new videos every Friday at 2pm CAT, and share your Sanchin stories with us in the comments. Visit our Teespring store for great karate merchandise: https://teespring.com/stores/grkc

Video: Seiyunchin Part 3

Some tips and finer detail to follow on from the previous two videos, with some help from a particular South African snake to illustrate some of the finer points of Seiyunchin kata. We look at common mistakes in the kata, the different types of breathing, as well as improving hip vibration and hand placement.

Video: Warm ups and Exercises for Goju Ryu

Warm ups, or jumbi undo, are an essential part of karate. Proper warm ups improve our flexibility, strength and agility, and help reduce injuries. This is just a small snippet to help instructors and students improve their warm ups. Includes exercises to improve your stances, hip flexibility and vibration to improve power.

Intro to Saifa Kata

Saifa is traditionally the third kata taught in Goju Ryu, and the name translates to “smash and tear”.

Welcome to Saifa 101! This is a step-by-step walkthrough of the kata, explaining the finer points of the kata as taught in our OGKK affiliated dojo. Learn the stepping, hand techniques and subtle detail of this beautiful and deadly kata.

Once you’ve watched this, please check out our Saifa bunkai video to expand your knowledge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGrr3…

Che Jagger, 5th Dan, OGKK
Head instructor and owner,
Goju Ryu Karate Centre

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Video producer:
Zoe Jagger-Hinis, 2nd Dan, OGKK
Assistant instructor, dojo administrator, blogger and karate historian

Video: Goju Ryu Seiyunchin Bunkai

Three moves, many bunkai – we take some signature moves from Seiyunchin and demonstrate bunkai oyo.

This is one of the twelve kata of Goju Ryu, and is usually used as a grading kata from purple belt onwards, depending on the federation.

Instructor: Che Jagger 5th Dan, OGKK

Uke: Zoe Jagger-Hinis 2nd Dan, OGKK
Blogger at http://www.zoehinis.com

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Instagram: @GojuRyuKarateCentre

Video: Geki Sai Dai Ichi Bunkai

Just because it is the first kata, that doesn’t mean it has boring bunkai.

Three bunkai oyo applications for the first kata in Goju Ryu, including throws! With demonstrations by karate spouses included.

Instructor: Che Jagger, 5th Dan OGKK Goju Ryu

Find us online!
Instagram: @GojuRyuKarateCentre

But Still. I’m So Sorry.

I read something the other day about anticipatory grief, and how globally we are all mourning present and future loss. Not just the lost lives, the covid dead, but things, and events, and traditions.

This Grown and Flown article encompasses the pain us parents are feeling all around the world. There is so much we are sorry to see – the missed graduations, matric dances, and big matches. At least my son is little and hopefully won’t be too affected by everything we are going through. All he has had to endure so far is a birthday in lockdown, and frazzled parents who are trying their best but can’t get it right or together every day.

Dojo life has been put on hold, for who knows how long. In South Africa, we are unlikely to be allowed to operate until maybe level 1, and even then, only under very stringent conditions. And I respect this, and applaud the efforts made by our government to try keep us all safe. The dojo, unfortunately, is the kind of place the ‘Rona would love. Lots of communal surfaces, physical interaction, shouting and hugs after class. Keeping students safe, and alive, comes before any grading or kata.

But still. I am sorry.

I am sorry, for the gradings that will have to be changed and taken online, all the thrill and pressure gone. I am sorry for the students hoping to grade to black belt, who were hoping to make this coveted grade after so, so many years.

I am sorry that you can’t be with your dojo mates, with the friends you’ve made over the years and shared memories and snacks and gradings with. For adults, the friends you’ve made at the dojo are ones you’ve bonded with in sweat and self-conscious laughter and shared gashuku adventures. They’re people that you might only see in the dojo, but damn if you don’t miss them when they’re not there.

I’m sorry, for all the cancelled events. The tournaments, the trials, the gashukus. The Olympic dream, that so many have dreamed of, karate’s one shot at gold medal glory, has been deferred. It doesn’t matter, in this moment, whether sport karate is the same as traditional; what matters is that so many athletes have been training for so long, and they have been robbed of their time to shine.

I am sorry for all the instructors who will have to close their dojo doors. I am sorry for all those lost pockets of martial arts, regardless of style. It is heartbreaking to see instructors lose their day jobs, and/or their dojo too. I am sorry for the students who will lose access to the benefits of martial arts, to the mentorship of a good instructor and the proving ground that is the mat.

There is so much we have already lost, and it has been less than six months. With more than 200,000 dead and waves of trauma rippling across the planet as economies tank and livelihoods are lost, we are all living through collective turbulence with no frame of reference for how we should handle it.

What gives me hope, though, is that the men who gave us karate lived through the horror of world war, and Okinawa was an especially brutal theatre of war.

Because of the Battle of Okinawa, a great number of very talented karate instructors and students were killed. Miyagi Sensei himself lost three children (his third and fourth daughters, and his third son). The neighbourhood had been reduced to scorched earth, and all the valuable Karate and Kenpo equipment and literature that had been collected over the years was lost in the fires. It was a time of overwhelming grief and mourning.

Okinawan Den Goju Ryu Karate-Do, Eii’chi Miyazato, 1978

Miyagi buried his children and his most promising student, Jinan Shinzato. He lost his home, his dojo, his collected works. And yet. He returned to the work of karate, continued to teach and realised that for karate to survive and be of use, it had to be shared. And now, more than 60 years since his passing, his style still continues, all over the world, across dozens of countries and languages.

There will be losses. There have already been losses. But I also have seen a wellspring of hope, and a resilience shining through. We can get through this, but not alone. Instructors must now rely on more than just good karate knowledge – we need to be creative, resilient, humble and patient. We need to find new ways to teach, and flex our different skill sets, and hold on with our entire spirit, even if it’s just by our fingernails, we must hold on.

Karate has survived two world wars, Spanish flu, numerous recessions and the worst McDojos in the world. It will survive this. I’m not worried about karate – I am worried about you. The student. The instructor. The dojo parent. Wherever you land in the constellation of people that make up a dojo, I worry. I hope you are okay. I hope you have your health and your livelihood.

We will do everything we can to make sure we are still here when this blows over. From hardcore social distancing to extra work to online classes, we will do our best to make sure that Goju Ryu Karate Centre does not close its doors after 42 years.

We are sorry that so much is going on, and we can’t fix it. But we will do everything we can to still be here when it is over, and try pick up again where we all left off, ready to welcome our students back to the tatami.

When your body gets tired, fight with your heart, and remember who you are.