Sora Zushi, March 2023
When people reach shodan (初段) – or first-degree black belt – in Japan, they tend not to refer to themselves as ‘black belts’.
It’s true that the term kuro-obi (黒帯, lit. ‘black sash’) does exist. It’s used to refer both to the accessory people used to wear over traditional Japanese clothing during the Heian Period (794-1185) and as a shorthand for yudansha (有段者, lit. ‘those who hold a Dan grade’).
But Japanese karate practitioners generally prefer to use the term -dan when referring to their yudansha status, whereas western karateka overwhelmingly refer to themselves as black belts. Why might this be?
One plausible reason, it seems to me, is commodity culture – specifically, the tendency (identified by Marx) of capitalist societies to translate everything of value into the language of products and services.
In societies in thrall to commodity culture, material goods can come to be confused with, or even replace, the things they signify.
This may be how an obi can have so much significance for many karateka in western capitalist societies, and why they have no issues conflating their identities with an arbitrary piece of fabric (‘I’m a black belt’).
It’s obvious that Japan, too, is a capitalist society – an uber-capitalist society or capitalist society par excellence.
But there seem to be pockets within Japanese culture in which commodity culture hasn’t penetrated and had a pernicious effect, and the traditional Shotokan Karate community (like many other budo communities) seems to be one of them.
In this community, individuals are encouraged to value and respect each other not for the colour of the belts they’re wearing, but for the hard work and dedication that the belts signify, as well as the knowledge and skills they’ve gained up to this time.
Because the focus is very much on the endeavour, not on the rank, Japanese karateka don’t tend to fetishise belts or imbue them with any mystical significance. A black belt is nothing but a black belt – no more, no less.
Another reason why I think the Japanese tend not to say ‘I’m a black belt’ is because ‘black belt’, as a compound noun denoting an item of clothing, can’t suggest an ongoing process of development in the way that shodan (lit. ‘first step’) can.
Shodan suggests that there are many more steps that one can take. It also reminds us that, even after three, five, seven or more years of training, we’re only just ready to begin walking (toddling?) unaided.
‘Black belt’, on the contrary, is a dead end; there’s nowhere to go after you’ve reached it. It suggests a state of being rather than a process of becoming. It implies mastery when mastery hasn’t been achieved. It’s not hard to see how this can fuel hubris.
Unfortunately, this is precisely the mentality that ‘black belt’ can engender. There are many karateka who, on reaching shodan (or sandan, or godan, or jyudan), mistakenly believe that they’ve made it – that they’ve reached the finish line. Some strut around with inflated egos demanding, not earning, respect from those who they perceive to be beneath them.
These individuals haven’t understood that there’s no final goal in karate, only a striving towards an ever-shifting goal. It’s the journey that matters, not the destination, which remains forever out of reach. And no one in the dojo is better than, or inferior to, another – just more or less experienced.
Incidentally, it’s precisely in order to counter this dead-end mentality that the Japanese martial arts, and traditional Shotokan karate in particular, place so much emphasis on the Zen Buddhist concept of shoshin (初心, lit. ‘beginner’s heart’).
Shoshin urges us to retain an attitude of humility and open-mindedness, remove all preconceptions, and sustain an eagerness for learning, even if we’re already advanced practitioners in a discipline. It encourages us to approach whatever it is that we’re doing with the minds of beginners, so as not to close ourselves off from new ideas, new approaches and new insights.
Needless to say, the I’m-a-black-belt mindset is antithetical to this way of seeing.
 This is one reason why the Japanese have no problems awarding black belts to children – as long as they’ve demonstrated the required levels of commitment.
 ‘Heart’ is more accurately translated here as something like ‘outlook’.