Judo belt ranking system in last half century became much more than just sporting ranking. “Black Belt” title became a household term and proliferated into arias completely unrelated to Judo, Martial Arts, or any type of jacket wrestling, where you even technically can wear black obi – the “black belt” – or obi of any other color, for this matter.
After Dr. Jigaro Kano established Kodokan in 1884 he wasn’t concern much with formal ranking attributes for more than 20 years – who needs to see formal ranking when true quality of judoka is tested on tatami day in and day out? But as educator, Dr. Kano saw the value in creating visible stimulus for his pupils to strive hard in there studies. For this he choose a black obi that his senior students wore on their white uniform (choice of colors is based on Japanese cultural symbolic). So, it was only two colors: black for senior students and white for everybody else.
As Judo grew in popularity and was adopted in Japan’s school system the two-level grading became not flexible enough for its task. So, Judo adapted additional belt colors for kui ranks (as all dan ranks are wearing black belt as on this level no visual distinctions apparently needed).
As Judo got out of a cloud of secrecy (that surrounded all martial arts in pre-Meiji Japan) more people got exposed to it, but Judo belt ranking system remains pretty much only its internal attribute till 1970th when Japanese martial arts took Western world by storm (only Judo and generic jujutsu where known in the West prior to it). By this time belt-ranking system was adapted by only two other Japanese martial arts that took a lot of inspiration from Judo: Karate-do of Master Gichin Funacoshi (but not other schools of Okinawa’s Rue) and Aikido of O’Sensey Morihei Ueshiba. This how things been at the end of “classic” era of the modern martial arts.
In the last quarter of 20th century things changed: belt system expended, with some small exceptions to [very traditional] Chinese schools, into all styles of martial arts and many combat sports. And not just sports – in the West “black belt” became synonym of top-notch professionalism in any area from computer programming to gourmet cooking to creative writing (however, I never saw it used in civil engineering, legal, medical, or any other arias where required licensing can’t be substituted by emotional “title”).
So, what is the “black belt” and what it’s really means?
By Judo modern tradition, which also was adapted by other Japanese Martial Art schools, 1st dan and attributing to it black belt is awarded to a student, who completed basic art study while showing determination and abilities and ready to advance to the next level – real study of the art. This it! It’s just a start of the real study, but no indication of mastery of the Art in any way.
Sure, this is not exactly followed by all martial art organizations, and even for Kodokan itself things changed a bit in last 120 years. For example, in 1920th even 1st dan black belt at times started their own Judo schools, especially outside of Japan, often (but not always) under patronage of Kodokan. For example, Vasili Oschepkov started Judo in Russia when he was only 1st dan and was awarded 2nd dan two years later (which means that his teaching activities as 1st dan were in line with Kodokan policies).
So, what is the situation (outside of Japan) with belt-ranking now?
As “black belt” in the West seen as prestigious and desirable social ranking attribute, many martial art schools attracting students by warrantied(!) attaining black belt in a short period of study – as short as six months at times – regardless of student’s age and (it is a promise) abilities! Schools that are follow this [commercial] practice in the Martial Arts community bear [derogatory] name “belt factory” and producing 7-year-old “black belts” (this is commonly seen low-age threshold as kids often starting “karate” as after-hours activity when in an elementary school, but in fascinated with this mass media even 5-year old “black belts” have been celebrated)!
The devaluation of black belt created another phenomenon that I see need to mention, but I won’t discuss in any depth: belt strips. In times of Dr. Kano black belt needed no other attributes, but nowadays in many organizations it “adored” with rank indicating strips as it understood by its wearier that black belt by itself is too broad to be admired as “top” rank. Seeing strips on a black belt telling me about Martial Art culture in the organization in not favorable terms.
Sure, no truly self-respected Martial Arts teacher will run “belt factory”, but true teacher is a rarity in every field, not just in Martial Arts.
In my personal humble opinion, “belt factory” schools doing bad service to Martial Arts, to their students, and to their own local communities.
However, my opinion is biased: I’m Martial Arts aficionado and I do have the luxury not to depend on my Martial Arts knowledge for earning a living.
Running any kind of business, be it car repair shop or martial arts school, based on the balance of expenses vs. revenue. “Belt factory” is a model that allows bringing in revenue to sustain a school and to provide a living for its owner. It works as a business model, but what is the trade-off? Is it ethical? Is anyone gets hurt?
As in highly protective modern Western society martial art skills aren’t critical live-saving skills anymore, inflation in “black belt” value doesn’t care with it immediate risk (as faulty car transmission repair, for example) as it duplicated by social protective mechanisms from self-awareness to police protection as long as limitations of actual training are well understood. Along with this attaining highly regarded “black belt” status serving as additional deterrent factor in the face of immediate social surrounding (most violent crimes in the United States involve people who know each other within a family, school, or work) that more often don’t have martial arts training and value the “title” without knowing what is (or isn’t) behind it.
So, in good cases “belt factory” martial art school can serve as a recreational activity and even contribute to reduction of violence by teaching self-awareness and discipline to (otherwise) anarchic youth. However, this can be only if instructor does clearly understand his and his school deficiencies and limitations. This is more exception then rule as to understand this instructor himself should be well qualified and capable Martial Artist. If this is the case, profitable “belt factory” model used to support small “expense-only” true Martial Art school under the same roof. When I can envision this model, I never saw it in real life (and, therefore, I don’t know if it was realized by anyone nowadays).
In not-so-good cases kids can bring from “belt factory” only inflated ego, distaste for true Martial Arts, and careless over-self-reliance (at times combined with aggressiveness). And I don’t even want to discuss results of putting elementary school kid in instructor’s position (requirement for “black belts” in many schools) with much older “students”.
I can’t tell you balance of “good belt factory” vs. “bad belt factory” schools. In each case you need to decide for yourself the schools character and if it what you need or not. I should admit that almost for a year I myself send my, then 7-year-old son, to a taekwondo/karate “belt factory” as it was doing exactly what I needed at the time: occupied his time, gave release to his energy, and catered to his fascination for [cartoon-based] martial art tradition.
The most common criteria for general identification of “belt factory” school among majority of real Martial Artists is what I listed above on this page, and most notably teenage (and younger) black belt instructors.