Coloured Belts A Western affectation or a valuable evolution?
I often ponder over the seemingly opposing values of traditionalism, versus progressive modernism in karate. Traditionalists often cite all kinds of arguments in support of their entrenched rituals, some of which may be indeed be very valuable, whilst others are entirely meaningless in the modern world.
"At times, a karateka gets outraged because he didn’t receive the promotion he thought he deserved, while someone he holds to be his inferior gets graded up. Suppose that the comparison is accurate in terms of kicks, punches, blocks, etc. If the discontented karateka, who I will call S., is truly superior in all technical respects, then what he got from karate-dō was genuine proficiency. What the other got was a belt.
Returning to my sensei, he related an urban legend about the masters only ever having a single white belt, which became dirty over time, eventually resulting in a black belt. “We never wash our belts”, he told me, “to do so, is like washing the spirit from it.”
Now I really liked and greatly respected my sensei, but this is exactly the kind of “wisdom” that makes us look ridiculous. It seems to me to be no different to a footballer putting on lucky scoring underpants before a big game. In fact, it's exactly how religions get started. You can easily imagine the progression.
As any psychologist will tell you, setting little, achievable goals is the key to achieving success on a grand scale. Now it may be that aiming for a perfect punch, or a high side kick provides immediate enough short-term gratification for some students, but for me, up tt about my brown belt, my next belt was a target that helped to motivate me on those “don't feel like it” days. Sure, I worked hard in the hope of achieving amazing karate abilities, but that prospect was too distant and too uncertain to keep me training even on my most exhausted days.
You only have to look at the disappointingly high turnover of students, to see that karate is, and always has had a student retention problem. The fact is, Westerners just don't have the self-discipline of our Japanese brethren. Not initially at least. We live in a world that’s a million miles from the ascetic image portrayed in the martial arts movies, and if we didn’t, most people would never have started training in the first place! They would never have considered themselves tough enough to undergo the kind of brutal training that is standard in the old movies.
Traditionalists will argue that the pursuit of excellence should be motivation enough, and in an ideal world, maybe it would be. But we don't live in that world, nor are Westerners raised with the Japanese mindset of Kaizen (constant and never-ending improvement). Transplanting an ancient Japanese mindset into modern Western dojos and expecting them to sit well together is craziness. There are so many things about the Japanese that simply don't fit with our world view. Some of them, such as extreme hard work, duty to society and family loyalty, are values that we could benefit from. Others, such as obedience and submission to the state, are the scars left on Japanese society by the iron-fisted rule of generations of tyrannical rulers, and we have no need to accept them too.
Traditionalists would argue that the art doesn't change to fit the practitioners - it doesn't need them. The students change to fit the art (for an extreme example of this world view, read this "welcome" letter written world reknowned martial artist and author, Dave Lowry). But the fact is, that world view is not accurate; karate in general, and individual ryu (schools or styles) within it have constantly evolved to fit the changing needs of the art, and of the world in which it resides.
I might just add at this point, that the formalisation of ten pre-black-belt ranks and a black belt was invented by Jigaro Kano, the founder of Judo, one of the most traditional of Budo, and was gladly acepted by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, the martial arts organisation that speaks for and guides traditional martial arts in Japan in their desire to modernise.
Modern karate carries within it, a system to gently wean students off their fixation on grades. Over time, as gradings get further apart, karateka naturally shift their focus away from the next belt, in favour of other hopefully more laudible goals, such as self-mastery, perpetuation of the art, being a good role model, etc. This is a natural process that I feel works well and harmoniously with the Western achievement-oriented mindset.
I used to cringe when I saw styles that had three or five tags on each belt, and a dozen further achievement tags that junior students could earn. I saw it as pandering to a decadent and lily-livered mindset. But now, especially since I have had a class full of 5-7 year olds who are going nowhere on their gradings, I can really appreciate the value of little motivations to keep them focussed and looking forwards. Perhaps in Japanese dojos, where patience and obedience to one's parents or senseis is a given, and attending a karate class may be mandatory, the senseis don't even need to worry about such "new-fangled" ideas as motivation and student satisfaction, they can afford to ignore whether or not the student feels any incentive to train beyond parental obligation.
I think that if karate is to achieve the success that something so exciting and potentially life-enhancing deserves, then those in control may have to consider a more modern methodology to entice, motivate and retain today’s students. Purists can stamp their feet and complain about dilution of the warrior ethos all they like, but the bottom line is this: you can't train to be a warrior, a person who has quit the art!