In the "old days," earning your black belt was perceived as mastery. You were now entitled to call yourself a bad dude (or dudette), and it was a sign that you could kick some serious butt. Ironically, this was also when everyone cross trained, traveled to work out with whoever would share knowledge and earned their stripes through blood, sweat, tears and broken bones. The myth that all black belts have to register their hands as deadly weapons stems from this perceived status of invincibility, along with the elitist mindset. It's human nature to want to belong to a special club, to obtain something that very few people have, so we have elevated the rank of black belt to the pedestal of things nearly impossible to obtain. But then, there's that other cliché saying that black belt is just the beginning, so which is it?
In some schools, black belts are given out like Halloween candy while other instructors hold on, making their students wait 7-10 years before their first degree. I'm somewhere in the middle, with the average time from white to black in my school at about 4 years, and that seems to be the most common from what I can gather. But how can there be a devaluing of the black belt alongside it's nearly unobtainable status? Is the practitioner who earns their black belt in 2 years any less skilled than the one who earns it in eight? How does one define skill? For that matter, how does one define black belt?
This is MY definition of FIRST DEGREE black belt. A shodan is someone who has enough of a foundation and understanding, and has proven their loyalty and dedication, to be exposed to the true essence of Budo. An old Judo friend of mine put it like this - black belt just means you won't hurt yourself, now you can start learning. If that seems to be the consensus, that black belt is truly the beginning, then why do we make it seem like it's so special? Why do we place it on such a high pedestal? Is it our lack of self esteem, of wanting to belong to that special club? Now, I do object to 5 year old children being promoted to black belt, and I have seen it. But what about an 8 year old? Is it even fair to make a blanket statement or set-in-stone regulations regarding age and time training? Surely there are exceptions to the norm. In any other endeavor, they would be called prodigies. In martial arts, we condemn them for not "really earning it" or coming from a "paper mill." What mystical powers does a practitioner need to possess to be ready for this coveted piece of cotton, that costs roughly $3 from most manufacturers?
When someone approaches me and says they're a black belt, my reaction is always the same. "That's cool, keep going." Not to be judgmental or condescending, but going back to my definition of what a black belt is, that doesn't impress me. What impresses me is those who stick around after black belt, those who further their education, those who don't have the "well I'm a black belt, on to the next thing" mentality. With the abundance of black belts awarded each day, the extreme variance in quality among schools, along with the majority of practitioners who drop out before they reach second degree, just being a black belt isn't what it used to be.
And if you really want to impress me, whether you're a first or a tenth degree black belt, take your belt off and get on the mat. Let's train, share knowledge and grow in the spirit of Budo!