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.

Why we wear white

It is the bane of every dojo parent’s existence – the white karate suit. Why dress children in white? Of all the colours, why choose the most unforgiving, most difficult to maintain, most revealing colour of all? Why something that will get dirty 20 minutes before a grading?

I get it, I do. And after all these years, I still get annoyed when something stains my precious Shureido gi. I save up for literal years to buy each one, and then my toddler son comes up from behind me with sticky hands and leaves stains on the hem of my jacket. It is in those moments that I wish I trained in a practical black gi. Luckily, I have a special care guide for maintaining the quality of my suits – you can read it here.

But the white keikogi (gi for short) is a relatively new phenomenon, instituted by Kanō Jigorō, founder of Judo. He adapted it from kimono around the turn of the 20th century. Japanese martial arts historian Dave Lowry speculates Kanō derived the uniform’s design from the uniforms of Japanese firefighters’ heavy hemp jackets, hanten (半纏). In the 1920s, to help market karate in Japan, Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi adapted Kano’s design and introduced it to karate. The gi is not that ancient and mystic – it is only around 100 years old. For context, Wimbledon has been played since 1877.

Two young judo-ka in keikogi.

While the length of the sleeves and pants are different from style to style, the overall look is that of a white jacket that folds over itself, a belt, and pants. (And a shirt underneath for women, which sucks in the summer but is a bonus in the winter.) The gi ensures that everyone is dressed the same, that issues of class and income are somewhat equalised. It also allows for the rank system, since the only way to stand out is to excel. We see this same principle in school uniforms and blazers. (At my high school, we used to call overachievers Christmas trees, because their blazers would be laden with shiny badges and braiding). When Chojun Miyagi started teaching, everyone wore whatever they could. Mostly, their work clothes. Okinawa was desperately poor after the Second World War, and students made do with what they could find. Sensei Teruo Chinen Sensei writes in his biography about his first gi:

“Because I could not afford a new uniform, my first karate gi was tailored by my oldest sister, Shigeko…I borrowed my friend’s commercially-made gi and my sister copied it. Shigeko collected flour sacks donated by the US Red Cross. She reversed the sacks so the printed part was inside. She used a Singer treadle sewing machine and tailored the top, bottom and belt. That was great!” Forty Years of Chamber, Teruo Chinen.

As you can see, not all the students are wearing suits – some are just wearing casual clothes.

But why white? Especially since Judo has got blue suits, and some of the weapons-based styles (Iado, Kendo) wear black. (The black is to prevent staining from some of the oils used in maintaining weapons.) Why not adopt something more practical? Here we must delve into Japanese culture, which is deeply concerned with matters of hygiene. I always knew about this, but I only really understood the depth of it when I visited Japan and Okinawa and saw how the Japanese prize hygiene and cleanliness. From the absence of litter to the lack of body odour on a crowded train, the Japanese do not tolerate breaches of hygiene. It is why shoes are left at the door, people wear face masks when sick, and the toilets are the most magical monuments to personal cleanliness (my kingdom for my own TOTO washlet!)

And so we come to the white gi, all the easier to see dirt with. But a white gi is more than just a symbol of humility – it shows us the seriousness of the practitioner. The condition of the gi is a reflection of the state of the martial artist’s mind. It should be spotlessly clean, and mended as necessary. The belt is properly tied and the ends are the exact same length. Preferably, there is only a federation badge, and maybe some subtle embroidery of the name. The white gi is simple, humble and pure. It should reflect these qualities in the practitioner.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account the general rambunctious nature of children and their ability to get grass stains on a newly laundered gi, but it is also important to remember that Japanese children are held to the same high standards as adults. Japanese children are expected to keep their own schools clean, instead of janitors, unlike Western children. They are raised to take better care of their environments, and one might assume that this same attention to detail applies to their karate uniform as well.

How Japanese children clean the floors at school – from TheJapanGuy.com

And finally, and the best reason I’ve found for wearing white – it shows up blood immediately. For the same reason nurses started wearing white in the 1900s, we wear white in the dojo so that blood stands out and injuries can be immediately attended to. Overall, I feel like this is the best reason, but I also like the philosophical reasons as well.

And this is where opinions start to differ. I cannot take anyone seriously when their suit looks like a Nascar racer. It’s like those chops who cover their cars in stickers saying “Ass or grass – no free rides!” and “no fat chicks!” Thanks for the heads up – now we know how insecure you are. It’s the bro version of a karate suit, the Cobra Kai sleeveless black gi. (Although, I admittedly love the new Cobra Kai series far more than the original Karate Kid movies). A gi covered in patches looks untidy and kitsch, and that’s before we even start on American flag suits, or camouflage belts.

Like this unmitigated garbage.

A uniform can command respect: Florence Nightingale realised this, and introduced uniforms for her nurses, which also included “colored bands that indicated their level of experience; pastel colors for young nurses, black bands for senior nurses.” A gi, well cared for and proudly worn, can command respect, and it is the instructor’s first impression when meeting possible new students. Let the gi speak for itself, and let your karate speak for you.

It doesn’t have to be an expensive gi – heaven knows there are plenty of rank amateurs wearing monstrously overpriced suits, while some of the best practitioners are wearing second-hand suits that they have meticulously repaired and cleaned. I’m not impressed by an Arawaza gi when some tedious boor is wearing it. A gi can hide your gut, but it can’t hide a bad attitude, and it especially can’t turn a MacDojo black belt into a real one.

Tameshiwari: Boardbreaking

I remember a kid asking me once, “when do we learn to break boards?” and I responded with “when trees attack!”

(Shut up, I thought it was funny.)

For the most part, that usually settles the discussion, but tameshiwari (translated as ‘trial by wood’) keeps cropping up in my reading and research. I remember the Taekwondo club at my university dojo also incorporating board breaking.  They were our perpetual rivals, because they always got way more money than we did and had more sign-ups because they did the flashy stuff people wanted to see. Some of my skepticism is definitely rooted in that, I admit.

For the most part, I have always seen it within a showmanship, McDojo-ish kind of situation. Something done in malls to attract students, a display of sheer machismo. But like my attitude towards tournament karate, I am finding that this opinion needs to undergo some revision as I expand my understanding over time.

(But, it turns out my gut feel was right in the first place, as we’ll see closer to the end.)

In Know Karate-do by Bryn Williams, he writes,

The body’s various striking points can be backed by quite remarkable power but this power can only be released when one has removed the fear of hitting something hard. Breaking is therefore a psychological as well as a physical ordeal, especially when performed in public…If one believes oneself capable of breaking the object then one can release one’s entire physical energies into the act. Any mental reservations inhibit the maximum use of power….Its successful execution gives self-confidence and self-knowledge. – Know Karate-Do, Bryn Williams, 1975

Tameshiwari by Mas Oyama

A scan taken from Essential Karate by Mas Oyama

The Benefits: 

Perhaps the definition that encompasses the value of tameshiwari is best given by Mas Oyama in his book Essential Karate: 

Tameshiwari…is not a purpose of karate, but rather serves as a barometer of acquired strength and technique..[It] requires exceptional balance, form, concentration of spirit, and calmness. Essential Karate, Mas Oyama, 1975

Undoubtedly, anything that requires relentless self-discipline and practice that lends itself to honing the body can have some value. After all, hojo undo in Okinawan karate is entirely centred on strengthening the body through supplementary training with equipment, some of which is homemade.

The Cons: 

Like many things, tameshiwari is a tool that can be used for great self-improvement. But as observed well by Salick’s Karate and Martial Arts, board-breaking is at its worst when it is used by clubs to advertise with and for kids:

But again — and I hate to be a broken record here — my central disagreement with board and other breaking is the flawed message it sends to the adolescent mind . When instructors and parents shower praise upon a child for breaking little boards, what kid isn’t going to want to reach for more? What do you tell them? That breaking little things for applause is ok, but breaking big things for more applause is really dumb? Good luck with that one.

The human hand can only take so much damage, and this loops us back around to the same kind of damage done by ill-informed practitioners using makiwara. Big, calloused knuckles are cool in the same way that gothic dragon posters are cool – when one is thirteen and still easily impressed.

We also know that damaging the growth plates at the end of bones will cause those bones to stop growing. These plates only close over at the end of puberty, and must be protected as best as possible. With the knowledge available to the modern instructor, we need to do what we can to protect the health of our students, even when it means stopping them from doing what they think is cool stuff, like smashing super hard punching bags and makiwara. No doubt, sponge and bag work is invaluable for teaching them how to generate power (and fresh air doesn’t teach us anything about the quality of a technique) but breaking boards? That’s only going to end in tears, and not the useful kind.


Courtesy of the Mayo Clinic

Overall, if an experienced adult student or instructor wants to commit themselves to a challenge, and does it in the privacy of their garden/dojo/garage, and with supervision and care, then they will probably(?) be fine. But I would not recommend it for children, novices or anyone with any predisposition to injury or overzealousness. The same concept can be taught with a sponge or training pads, and allows some cushioning to prevent damage. Staying safe and training for decades is far more important than a moment of glory (and the cost of roof tiles that no one can use afterwards). 

Real Futureproofing

We get it, parents: you are trying to make sure your child, the centre of your universe, your precious genetic legacy, is going to handle whatever the future can throw at them. We see it in the extra classes they do, the vast number of extra-curricular activities. We see it in their burdensome homework schedules, in their weekends packed with events and commitments. You are doing everything in your power to make sure that they can meet whatever challenges the future holds. We don’t blame you.

Of course, it doesn’t help that schools are adding the burden, promising to grant access to the most exclusive universities through a punishing regime of academics, sports and extracurriculars. Everyone with the means is trying to make their kid futureproof.

But honestly? How do you know what the future looks like? Does anybody?

I used to be a social media manager, a job unheard of when I matriculated. I tried to explain digital content marketing to my Yiayia, and eventually gave up, because how do you explain something that only makes sense to annoying power-yuppies who work in advertising? When I chose my subjects at school, at university, I never thought for a moment that I’d end up being a karate instructor. I just stuck with what I loved, and it worked out for me.

There are jobs that are being invented right now that will be antiquated in 15, 20 years. Some are predicting that humans need not apply, as many jobs will be outsourced to robots and drones. While it should free us to pursue our dreams and enjoy leisure, capitalism ensures that it will not. (Booo, capitalism!)

However, this isn’t really a discussion about AI and job replacement. My point is (and I do have one) is that by overloading our kids with stress, accolade-chasing and a shallow knowledge of many things but no time to develop true passion, we are only burning them out before they can find out who they are. Which brings me around to the reason I wrote this.

Kids get put in a dojo “because they need discipline”, or “because [vomit] a black belt will get them into university”. While we cannot do all the discipline work, and yes, a black belt looks nice on a university application, this isn’t the point. Dojos are being pushed to become grading mills, lest they lose students to the other activities competing for their time. We lose students because parents are not seeing ‘progress’ fast enough. Kids complain its too hard, and parents let them quit just when they were starting to show progress. (If I had ten bucks for every time I’ve heard ‘I wish I hadn’t quit karate when I was a kid’…) When they don’t see their child cracking a shodan in five years, they pack up and go. And yes, there are dojos who will hand out gradings like birdseed and devalue the entire point of it all.


They know who they are

But if you really want to futureproof your child, maybe teaching them that good things come to those who work is a better bet. By letting them quit as soon as the going gets tough, they don’t learn to stick anything out. The dojo should teach them patience, resilience, humility, confidence and compassion. We try to teach kids to learn to work on their own, and to work with others. We teach them the value of listening, of doing the boring grunt work that is part of any achievement. When everything around them tells them that success is glamorous and easy and sexy, the dojo reminds them that progress is often boring and success is not guaranteed. That they will fail, and they will have to learn to dig themselves out of the dirt repeatedly.

And yes, sometimes training will be so tedious. Oh my god, there are days when I want to die from boredom because it’s drill after drill on my own of the same stepping sequence. But like any subject, there will be boring days. Like any career, or ambition, there will be many times when the glorious achievements and progress will be preceded by doing stuff you don’t want to do. Just as there will be days where something bright and precious is uncovered, and becomes your own, forever.

Skills wax and wane in their demand and value. Now we have too many lawyers, and not enough nurses. Accountants will soon be replaced by a few lines of code. What is fashionable to study now will be the white elephant degree of the future. Think of all the MBAs who couldn’t become CEOs. But some things are eternal: hard work, ethical conduct, courage, humility and determination.

These are the things machines cannot replace.