Thursday, June 7, 2012

By Any Other Name...

After my very first class following my nidan grading, training partner Ed handed me a new belt he'd ordered a few weeks before, embroidered with two shiny new red stripes. Although it is absolutely beautiful (it is much thicker and heavier than the belt I was given at my shodan grading) and I was quite flattered he'd thought of me, I promptly tucked into my gear bag where it slipped underneath my sparring gear. For class two days later, my very first black belt - Ol' Faithful (the brand without the stripes) - was the one I tied around my waist.

The next week, Ed had switched bags and forgot to grab his belt when he packed his gi. When we got to the dojo - which is an hour away from home - he asked if I had an extra one he could borrow, so I left both the one he'd given me and my old one on top of my bag when I dashed into the locker room to get changed. I had a mild panic attack when I came out and found he'd taken Ol' Faithful and left the new belt for me to wear.

Now, I'm not even remotely superstitious or feel like my obi has any magical powers or anything, but I hafta tell you that tying that new belt was a hard thing for me to do - not just because it was so stiff, LOL, but because it was so BIG and had TWO STRIPES on it. Strappng it on felt a bit pretentious, like I was shouting to anyone within earshot that I was a nidan now, damnit! - and that just ain't me.

Everyone in the room was at the grading. They saw me do kata, miss one of my breaks, get pummeled by the seniors I sparred and eventually get a new certificate. But no stripes were added to my belt during the grading. It seemed to go without saying that no further outward recognition of the new rank was needed - which was totally fine with me.

But as I stood there trying to tie that new belt and remember which side the stipes had to start on to end up where they belonged (hey, it had been years since I'd had any stripes, for crying out loud!), I felt so conspicuous and, well...showy.

There are only a few folks I train with who wear their full rank on the mat. My sensei is not one of them. We all know his rank - but most importantly, he knows his rank. Although some of the other seniors I train with occassionally don their stripes for promotions, seminars or other formal functions (and I don't see anything wrong with that), my sensei never does (and I don't see anything wrong with that, either). It is what it is.

Last weekend, I headed to a tournament in Connecticut and met a karateka I'd only known before via the Internet. A fellow Goju practitioner, she and I talked about all things karate between rounds of her watching the competition me jumping into the mix for kata and kumite. When I noticed that one of the judges in the ring we were watching had eight stripes on her black obi, I asked my compadre what she thought about the wearing of full rank after shodan. She said she thought practioners should always display who they were - meaning it may be a bit disengenuous to suit up in an unadorned black obi if you are actually a yondan - and that makes sense to me.

But still I wore Ol' Faithful last night to train. It is what it is, I guess.

If you a nidan equivalent or higher, do you wear your full rank on your obi when you train? When you compete or travel to other places like seminars to learn? Why or why not? If you haven't yet gotten that second or third or sixth or eighth stripe, will you wear it/them when you do?


  1. Really nice post today.

    If you a nidan equivalent or higher, do you wear your full rank on your obi when you train?

    Yes and no. At one time I wore a black belt then graduated to the red/white panel belt but since have gone to no belt at all. If I do wear a karate-gi on a visit or occasion then I wear a custom white belt with red ends to accentuate the kanji for my system, Isshinryu.

    When you compete or travel to other places like seminars to learn?

    When I went to such events long ago I wore a white belt otherwise simply street clothes.

    Why or why not?

    I have come to the belief that the belt serves the purpose of holding the karate-gi jacket closed, etc. It doesn't matter what color and once I get out there my level and proficiency is on display through actions and deeds - not the color belt worn. I often do things today in my street clothes, after all that is what I will be wearing if I have to do anything including use karate.

    If you haven't yet gotten that second or third or sixth or eighth stripe, will you wear it/them when you do?

    Stripes. One stripe is when a practitioner reaches a level of skill that is deemed extraordinary. This is where one is first recognized as a person of character and one at a level that is considered a Sensei in the true nature of that title. They are awarded a teaching certificate and the title of Ren-shi, 6th level dan-sha at minimum age of 35 years. The second stripe, total of two gold strips, is indicative that person has reached a level commensurate with a professorship. This title is Ren-shi, 7th level and an age of 48 years. The third stripe, total of three stripes, is indicative of a person who has reached a level that they are literally a "model" to those in the martial systems. This title is Han-shi, 8th level dan-sha at a minimum age of 58 years.

    1. I agree with you about the belt holding closed the gi top/holding up the pants; to me it is only that. Perhaps I've seen too many folks with lots and lots of rank who train and look like underbelts/mudansha. I'm just sayin'...

      My style - USA Goju - uses the stripes to mark progress from one rank to the next. For example, we only have four belts - white, green, brown and black; two stripes on a white belt = seventh kyu, two stripes on a green belt = fourth kyu, three strips on a brown belt = first kyu, etc. Conversely, two stripes on a black belt = nidan; four stripes = yondan, six stripes = rokudan, etc. Two color belts (i.e. one half red and the other half white or black) for yondan (white on the top), godan (white on the bottom) and tend up to be used ceremonially - for gradings and other formal affairs, but I do know that traditionally, stripes are used differently. You can attribute that change to Master Peter Urban, I suppose...

  2. Felicia,

    I have a similar issue.

    In our organization, we receive a special obi at shodan, complete with our name embroidered, the Chito-ryu symbol on it, and "Canadian Chito-Ryu Karatedo Association" written in Kanji. You receive no other obi until you reach Shihan (Usually around yondan or godan). It takes time to get it ordered, so in the meantime, a student will be given a temporary obi at the time of their shodan grading. I'm actually quite partial to mine. This is the one I received on THAT day. This is the one that my Sensei gave me. There is a bit of sentimental value attached to that particular "temp" obi.

    On top of that, I'm not sure I want the added flair on the obi, especially for a regular class. Maybe I'll wear it for my next grading, but other than that, it might just be for "display purposes only" :)

    1. Embroidered belts are beautiful, Terry. I think it is a huge honor to receive one from your sensei, I really do. But, unless my school/organization required it, I would probably only wear it to formal functions and most likely not even in competition (because I'm not sure I want my competitors to know my name, LOL; on the other hand my skill - or lack there of - will be demonstrated to them in the ring in short order anyway, so I don't feel comfortable announcing it via my obi - but that's just me).

      BTW, I checked out your blog and love it! Thanks for stopping by :-)

  3. I still have about two years to go before my 2nd dan test, but here's what I've seen in regards to rank.

    The belt I received after my 1st dan test was embroidered with one stripe. I'll have another stripe embroidered when I earn my 2nd, and so on and so forth. We keep our same belt for as long as it holds out (I'm assuming), so deciding whether I'll wear a plain black belt vs. full rank when I earn my 2nd isn't a decision I'll have to make.

    Personally, I think that other than what the standard is at your dojo, it's an individual, "whatever floats your boat" kind of thing as to wearing full rank vs. a plain black belt. I do prefer being able to see the rank, as it gives me some indication as to what kind of experience that person has.

    1. Hi, Ariel - and congrats again on your not-so-recent grading :-).

      I agree with you about the dojo standard being the marker. That only one person in my school (and no one in my sensei's sensei's school) wears anything other than a black belt speaks a lot about what that standard is. I'm fine with that. But it seems to me that rank does not always equal experience. There are a lot of high-ranking seniors who USE TO train lots of days a week - but who haven't been to anything other than gradings in many years - who have gone beyond rusty to knowing MA as something that they don't really do too much anymore. Conversely, there are lots of 10-year-old black belts walking around who couldn't possibly have more than six years of "experience" under their belts but...

      I guess sometimes, those lots and lots of stripes only serve to intimidate - at least to me, anyway, as I've competed against third dans in tournament that I was slightly afraid of for a minute when I looked at their rank (but trust me, it all comes out in the wash for sure). Who's to say what a yondan or even a nidan SHOULD be able to do or fight like? It's like your car's MPG: individual results may vary.

      I always think of training partner Ed who stopped training - due to life, well, happening - after about 10 to 12 years of martial arts experience. To look at him three years ago as an ikkyu (brown belt about to grade for black), he looked like he was at least a sondan in the kumite ring because he had sondan experience. His belt never really was an accurate indication of his capabilities until last month when he was given his sandan, so...

      Quite the conundrum, huh?

  4. This question comes back to 'humility' vs 'false humility'. If people really don't give a dam about displaying their dan stripes on their belt why do thy bother to grade for higher dans? If showing how good one is through their actions is really the important thing then perhaps people shouldn't bother putting themselves through gradings. To do the grading (and everyone will know they've done it) and then refuse to wear the stripes because they think it makes them seem more humble seems like false humility to me. At seminars, to not wear the stripes draws more attention to oneself because people will be trying to guess what grade they are and will keep watching them. If one wears their stripes they are telling the truth about who they are as a martial artist and they will maintain their humility because there will always be other people in attendance with more dan stripes than them. To not wear the stripes allows one to hide who they are - if they perform badly then hopefully people will just think they are a new shodan but if they perform well then perhaps people will think they are a high dan grade! Either way it hides the truth of who you are and confuses people. I believe in honesty as well as humility.

    Wear your new belt with pride Felicia - it will make Ed very happy, after all it was a gift.

    1. I see it like this, Sue: nobody really "chooses" to grade - at least the black belts I know, unless you count/consider coming to class regularly for instruction a request to grade. Most karateka I know are either told "You'll be grading for _____dan on X date" or are just handed a belt after class one day. I know no one who asked "so when can I test?" or refused to grade when they were told by their instructors that they would possibly be promoted soon.

      I'm not saying that the folks I know REFUSE to wear their full rank; they just seem to not think it is all that necessary. No one is trying to hide who they are (after all, everyone in the school already knows not only their abilities and potential but their actual rank as well because they were there when they earned it); it's more like they see it as a "that's nice and I really appreciate the recognition - but let's get to the learning!" sort of thing. It's not about false humility by trying to prove how humble you are. Instead, it is about being modest/humble or not even really being all that concerned about the outward expression of that modesty/humility. I've said it before: If I never test again, I wouldn't care - so long as the learning and adding info to my "toolbox" doesn't stop. I'm proud of what I've earned, but I'd be just as proud of who I am as a MA without it as well. I AM being honest - I AM a black belt. If I walked into a room with a clothes line holding my jacket closed, the earning of that black belt would still be my reality. Now, if I were TEACHING at a seminar, then I might wear my full rank; it seems like others need a clear understanding of "how long have you been at this/what makes you qualified to teach a thing?" before they can be receptive to the idea that they can learn from everyone, which is kinda sad, I think. In other words, I wouldn't be wearing it for me, but for them if that makes sense...

      Maybe my feelings about this are more of a throwback to my track days than I realize. It always used to bother me when I was competing (and still does when athletes I work with do it today) when folks kept the medals they earned on long after they stepped off the awards podium then walk around with them on for the rest of the day - just so they can clang around and announce to the world you finished in the top three your event. Understand, I often was on that awards podium - as are many of the athletes I work with - but it seems like showboating to me. Those who are best at their events are most often the ones who aren't announcing to the world how good they are/were. Nothing wrong with speaking softly - or not even at all, that's all I'm saying.

      And I will wear the belt Ed gave me to the ceremonial stuff - just not every day. To me, it's not false advertising at all. And, just as equally important, that he wears his three-stripes to class (a belt given to him by his brother, who is also a martial artist), is OK, too...

  5. This came via email from a friend/sensei:

    Hi Felicia,

    Hope all is well. Congratulations on your Nidan -- nice work. I saw your post on wearing rank, and thought I would weigh in. I tested for Yondan this May, so my Sensei presented me with a Renshi belt at the end of the night. I previously told him I didn't want one, as (per Richard Kim) a Renshi is not less than 4th Dan, but 4th Dan alone does not a Renshi make. Still, I told him I wouldn't be a putz if he presented me with it. One went the Renshi belt than night, then off and into my bag. Won't see daylight again until next May.

    My wife bought me an instructor belt (stripes, kanji, nice embroidery) when I took over Iona Dojo 9 years ago. To me, instructor or other honorary belt shows your leadership position, while plain Black Belt shows the same, but that you're ready for work. At Iona, my guys/gals know I'm sparring on nights I wear my 'Ol Faithful.

    There's one more thing: Ed, himself a Nidan, might have taken your plain belt to wear, as a gentle prod for your to don the Nidan belt. It's a gift from him to you -- honor your training partner by putting it on. 'Ol Faithful will understand.


  6. Here's one from Michele that my big old thumbs accidentally deleted:

    Hi Felicia,

    Good post and interesting comments. I have two original obi and a Renshi belt. The Federation awards Renshi at 4th Dan with a teaching certificate. The Renshi belt has one gold stripe. I prefer to wear my original belt with no stripe. I wear the Renshi belt to Federation events and trainings.

  7. An update: My sensei recently requested I begin wearing my full rank to class. Out came the red tape and it was promptly applied to Ol' Faithful (I'll be saving the belt from training partner Ed for special occassions). First class since the request will be tomorrow night (7/3/12). I'll let you know how it goes...