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.
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 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.
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.
- 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.