Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Jan de Jong Pt 19 - What Does a Black Belt Mean?

The photograph to the right was taken in the mid-1990s of Maggie de Jong demonstrating a hojo jutsu (rope tying art) technique on me at a seminar given by Jan de Jong in Sweden. Firstly, it was the 1990s, so both Maggie and myself have aged somewhat. Secondly, the very blond hair of mine is explained by my desire to assimilate with my very dear Swedish friends, or, maybe I was bored one day in Helsingborg and was talked into a 'dye-job' by Maggie and a very cute blonde female Swedish hair stylist. As a footnote to this story, De Jong was not happy with my new look.

What does a black belt mean? The above photograph suggests it might be useful for tying someone up. Mr Miyagi, from the classic Karate Kid (and don't dismiss that movie) explains to Daniel that, 'In Okinawa, belt mean no need rope to hold up pants.' All very practical observations, but belts are also symbolic in the martial arts. Symbolic of status, proficiency, knowledge, ... mastery?

Recall from previous blogs that Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan judo, was the initiator of the black belt to signify ... something. When I was researching the development of the coloured belt system for the kyu grades, I came across these comments regarding the black belt from the International Judo Federation(IJF):
The ranking system in judo includes two types of ranks -kyu and dan grades. The dan grades are the more senior grades of judo, and are signified by the wearing of the black belt. High dan holders from 6th to 8th dan have the option of wearing a checkered red-and-white belt instead of their black belt; 9th and 10th dan holders have the option of wearing a red belt.

The kyu grades are signified by non-black belt colors. The original system of judo developed in Japan included 6 kyu ranks. In current-day judo around the world, however, each country is recognized to have its own ranking system, and its own promotion policies and criteria. ... The only common denominator across countries and organizations is that all beginners begin at white belt, and all dan holders wear a black belt. ...

While each country and organization has its own criteria and policies for the conferral of rank, there is a general consensus that the change from kyu to dan, that is, from 1st kyu to 1st dan, represents a qualitative development in the student. The student awarded the black belt has developed some degree of proficiency in the various techniques of judo. In particular, he or she will have developed one or several tokui waza [favourite technique], and will have demonstrated its effectiveness in competition against same rank opponents. More importantly, this student will have shown enough maturity, commitment, and fortitude to be a serious student of judo, having internalized some of the values and ethics of the educational system of judo. While the general public often believes that wearing a black belt means that one is an expert, in reality the awarding of the 1st degree black belt in judo signifies instead that the student is now truly ready to begin learning judo.
The acclaimed Neil Ohlenkamp expresses similar sentiments:
Professor Kano was an educator and used a hierarchy in setting learning objectives for Judo students, just as students typically pass from one grade to another in the public school system. The Judo rank system represents a progression of learning with a syllabus and a corresponding grade indicating an individual's level of proficiency. Earning a black belt is like graduating from high school or college. It indicates you have achieved a basic level of proficiency, learned the fundamental skills and can perform them in a functional manner, and you are now ready to pursue Judo on a more serious and advanced level as a professional or a person seeking an advanced degree would.
OK. According to the IJF, a student who attains a black belt is ready to begin learning judo. And according to Ohlenkamp, it indicates a basic level of proficiency and that the fundamental skills have been learnt and can be employed in a functional manner, and now the student is ready to pursue the study of judo. Does this describe the qualities of an expert that the IJF suggest the general public ascribes to the holder of a black belt?

What does a black belt mean? Is it the equivalent of a high school diploma as Ohlenkamp suggests, or is it the equivalent of an undergraduate degree? Should we be replacing the word is with should be? This also raises the question of what do higher black belts mean? Are they suppose to be the equivalent of post graduate degrees?

What does a black belt mean? Recall from previous blogs on the Jan de Jong jujutsu grading system that shodan includes practical, revision, theory, teaching, first aid, and more gradings. Is this a belt/qualification that signifies a student is ready to begin learning, or, is this a grading that is designed to produce a teacher, or an expert.

In the latter part of his life, De Jong expressed the concerned that the quality of his instructors/black belts may not be appreciated because of the different perceptions of a black belt in the world. He was toying with the idea of including the grading requirements on the black belt certificates to advertise the extensive requirements to obtain a black belt under his grading system. Unfortunately I had to rain on his parade and, while I acknowledged the merit of what he was trying to do, I had to suggest that nobody actually looks at most martial arts grading certificates.

Is this just a theoretical discussion? Absolutely not! Those who have continued teaching after De Jong's demise have assumed a responsibility for what they teach, and their grading system. THEY have to answer the question, what does a black belt mean in their grading system. Most adopt what was handed down to them from De Jong (although I suspect it was also developed by De Jong). But some, or only one that I know of, Peter Clarke of his Tsutsumi Jugo Ryu, is looking critically at the grading system he inherited. Clarke is like an ice berg. He is a powerful force of nature, but dear God in heaven he moves slowly. Not physically, because I vividly remember seeing him move so fast with a particular technique in our instructor's class that it is embedded in my memory as a slow motion, flicker frame movement. Clarke is a lawyer by profession, so everything he does is considered, but then everything he does is considered. We've discussed the disproportionate length of time it takes to get a black belt in Jan de Jong jujutsu compared to most other martial arts. At the heart of the discussion, at the heart of the solution, is, what does a black belt mean.

A logical extension of this argument which is suggested above is, what do the gradings past shodan actually mean. If, as the IJF and Ohlenkamp suggest, shodan is the beginning of one's learning experience, then it's obvious ... sort of. You should question, what is each and every grading contributing to my knowledge base or proficiency. And I don't exempt De Jong, or his instructors that have followed on to head their own schools. What does each and every grade from shodan onwards contribute to the knowledge base or proficiency of the student? I have to confront this question as I am in the position of grading the prospective sixth person to complete the Jan de Jong jujutsu grading system - Jamie Francis. We both, initially, wanted him to go through all of the gradings that I and the other four sandans went through. However, as I critically examine these gradings, I ask myself, and wonder, what is this grading adding to his knowledge base or proficiency. In turn, this causes me to reflect on the entire grading system.

This blog is intended to encourage the reader to reflect on what a black belt means to them. It's not meant to take anything away from the endeavours or achievements of those aspiring and tirelessly training towards their black belt. It's simply meant to encourage the reader to critically evaluate what their black belt means, and what other people's black belts mean, and to not ascribe any preconceived notions to those who are wearing black belts.


  1. Hi

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  2. I just got referenced to this post and wanted to say, well done. It reflects many of my concerns on this topic. It speaks to the misconceptions many have and assume, both MA's and the uninitiated.

    Domo Dude,



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