belts and responsibility

English: simple image of ICHF black belt denot...
English: simple image of ICHF black belt denoting rank of 1st Dan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Urban Samurai has a good post about martial arts belt ranks and the idea that they confer some sort of responsibility. I posted the following comment on it;

Hmmm…I’m a little split on this issue. At its root, belts were developed by Dr Kano solely as an indicator of skill, not as some form of status, power or authority. In our western culture I believe that people easily confuse the idea of “rank” in martial arts and “rank” in military terms. In the martial arts “rank” should simply be a way of telling who knows what by sight IMO. The rest of it should be expected of EVERYBODY in equal measure. In the military, “rank” has to do with authority over subordinates (and responsibility for mission accomplishment) for the accomplishment of military goals. It is limited in terms of span and scope. In the dojo rank should be a mutually accepted system that helps in should NOT be a system of “authority” or “command”.

I think there is a real “danger” when people invest too much in the concept of “belt responsibility”. Belts having “responsibility” within the walls of a dojo or the political responsibilities of an Art as you describe here are perfectly reasonable, as they have much to do with Kanos initial concept..the transfer of skill and knowledge. When it comes to “morals/honor/duty/warriorship/etc”, I have a few issues with the idea that a belt confers any more or less responsibility than what would be expected of anybody else within a dojo or outside of one. Sure, a black belt who has been around the schools “honor code” longer than a white belt would be expected to “know better” when they behave in a manner that conflicts with it. But when it comes to behavior and personal traits like honor, does anybody think that coming to a dojo a few times a week to move your limbs around confers some sort of moral authority that is superior to any other physical activity? I know..I know.. the “yes except in the martial arts we teach people how to injure others and with that comes responsibility…” explanation will invariably arise. Except for the fact that there are many activities like boxing, shooting, wrestling..etc. that do the same thing. They just dont have the benefit of exotic origins, nifty uniforms and philosophic associations.

It’s my .02 that the idea a belt means that someone is “superior” in anything except physical skill within the art is all mystical “mumbo jumbo”. Yeah you can “kick my ass”, but you are in no way proven to be more honorable, courageous, dutiful, or more of a “warrior” than I am. That sort of “ranking” comes from a lifetime of influences and many many more sources than the martial arts…from upbringing, to the influences of teachers, friends, employment and other “life experiences”. I think that the “mystical awe” some people seem to ascribe to high rank comes from watching too many movies. I can list a veritable “rouges gallery” of high ranking martial artists who have been involved in nefarious criminal activity.

I have a longstanding criticism of people who walk around living fantasies of “warriorship” based solely on martial arts training. The types who like to spice up an otherwise “ordinary” existence by believing themselves “warriors” because they drive down to the dojo for a few hours every week. There are many more authentic “warriors” out there who have ZERO martial arts experience. Unless you are out in the world putting your ass on the line for “something” you are a warrior in thought rather than deed. In my environment I look at people who spend a fortune in weapons, weapon schools, tactical gear and training in much the same way. You may be able to purchase all the stuff and train in all the skills of an SAS trooper on your own time. But to say “Im as good as..therefore I am equal to” is a warning that this is about ones Ego..nothing else.

Whew…enough of my opinionated rambling…dont let that lead you to believe that I find ANYTHING objectionable with this post though. When it comes to the issue of “belt responsibilities” as they SHOULD apply I think you are dead on. The belt should represent a standard to live up to for YOU. An..”as a black belt I expect myself to live up to a standard”….vs a “Im a black belt and THEY are not” mindset. It’s about what you expect from YOURSELF, not what you expect from others.

Originally posted as a comment by tgace on Urban Samurai using Disqus.

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5 thoughts on “belts and responsibility”

  1. Belt Ranking, in it’s best use, is no different than ‘year’ distinctions in a school. It’s an academic indication of where you are in the progression. If instructors were honest with themselves, it would be obvious. Instructors spent 99% of their instructional time teaching, coaching, and developing physical techniques. Belt tests are an evaluation of that physical skill level. A bit of tactical skill is assessed during any free sparring. At best, there is some verbal aspect which amounts to little more than spitting back some memorized statements.

    If martial arts rank were truly an indicator of authority, that would mean that there would be leadership training that was as organized and detailed and tested with the same level of dedication as the physical techniques.

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