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THE OBI - Is it ritual or money motivated?

Martial art systems from all walks of life have belts they use to signify rank of their students. This month we will take a look at where the belt system came from, how it used for good and bad and even if it is a necessary part of our training.

History of the Obi system in ranking.
The obi, or belt as we know it today came from the early system of Judo which was developed by Jigoro Kano, its founder. There are many theories on how and why the belt system was developed but we were able to assemble a general view for how it came to be through our research.

The first known use of the black belt to signify rank was done by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo in or about the 1882 mark. The "Shodan" was probably best directly related to original ranking system of Japanese martial arts known as the "Menkyo" where Shoden was the first grade awarded and the coveted Menkyo Kaiden, or Total Transmission, rank was the final stage in the students accomplishments. The Menkyo system is still used in many martial arts today that place more emphasis on training than rank. Kano Sensei used his great academic training to dismantle the systems of jujitsu he had learned to develop a safer and more adaptable way of teaching martial arts to the general public. He soon realized that people needed some sort of "step" process to keep interested in their training and thus the belt system was devised. Kano Sensei originally had a ten step process to attaining the Shodan rank in Judo and began to award belts based on this "Kyu", or under black belt level ranking structure. In Judo a kyu rank student typically wears a white belt and sometimes they will wear a brown belt to signify they are more of an advanced student of the Kyu. The colored belts actually began coming about from England which were imported into the US during the 1950's.

Karate adapts the ranking system.
The ranking system developed by Kano Sensei was adapted to Karate for the first time after Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan, demonstrated his system in Japan at the Kodokan (Kano's Dojo) in the 1920's. Eventually the Kyu / Dan ranking system would be adapted to virtually all martial art systems from Japan...and other places across the world. What is important to note is that the true meaning we have found from our research indicates that the belt ranking system was devised to "keep students interested" in their training. The black belt was never meant to be a signal of one's end to their training but rather a symbol that they have perfected the basics and now are considered a true student.

The Obi Ranking System...is good or evil?
Most schools today use some sort of belt ranking system. Although this considered generally acceptable, many schools use this system to devise ways to increase profits by charging fees...sometimes outrageous fees. The question on if it is considered correct to use belt testing fees and actually test a student for rank is one of great controversy. Should a Sensei charge a student to test since they are a paying member of the dojo? To get to the heart of this matter one should consider that most Sensei from respectable dojo very often charge just enough to cover the expenses of the dojo and the test fees are often used to purchase equipment, upgrade the school or fix and repair items damaged from training. Even the Kodokan charges fees to register Dan rank, but to what length is it acceptable?

In today's day and age most schools that have more than a 5 kyu system and charge for testing that is held almost every two months are seen as a "McDojo", or a school just in it for profits. During our research we looked at over ten associations that are the most profitable when it comes to linking martial art lessons with money charged. What we found that was the most upsetting was one association not only has over 15 belts before a black belt can be earned but also uses colors such as pink and camouflage. Their test fees range from $50 to $500 per test and the students quite often are promoted to their new rank even if they do not have the requirements perfected to attain that rank...simply because they paid for it. We had the chance to speak to a school owner of this association, who asked not to be named, and he stated that their entire business policy states that belts are to be used to reward the students for their hard work...regardless of the fact if they are even qualified to wear that rank. This same association believes that anyone can be a black belt, even if they do not have the quality and technical merits to have earned such a rank.

It is true that in general the color black belt has been degraded by such commercialization of the martial arts. When a Sensei will promote a student, or even permit a student to test for rank knowing they are not qualified to earn that rank there is a problem. The martial arts were founded based on principle and one of those principles is integrity. Each time a Sensei promotes a student who is not good enough to be a certain rank, they degrade both the martial arts and their own worth as a Sensei. This has become common place in many dojos today and even the largest business associations promote this concept by trying to convince Sensei that they should teach "life skills" in place of perfection of techniques.

Is belt ranking, or testing essential to martial arts or not?
If a student were to sign up for classes and trained without every getting a colored belt to signify progression martial arts would probably have half, or less in numbers of people training in them today. Today's world is much different than it was when the belt system was first devised and used in martial arts. People live faster paced lives and most children are taught that it is alright to get things the may or may not have earned the right to. Parent's also see their child differently than most Sensei do and they use the saying that if they are paying for it then their child deserves it. We have forgotten that the Sensei is in charge because they have earned that right through thousands of hours of sweat, tears and sometimes blood. It all boils down to the Sensei's decision in reality though.

The belt system used properly can be an invaluable tool within a dojo. It also helps to signify who is a senior student and who is junior, the Sempai/Cohai relationship that is very valuable to properly helping students grow within the Ryu. When the belt system  becomes more of a profit center for the dojo is when it looses its traditional sense and integrity. When a Sensei determines who is ready to test, they must review the student and insure they are of the quality, integrity and technical aptitude to earn and wear the belt they are testing for. This can be a difficult process and you will loose students because "they feel" they are better than to one's who are testing and so forth, but in the end we will maintained the integrity our Sensei instilled in us.

Earning the Shodan, or first Dan level of rank is invaluable to boost a student's confidence but we need to realize that there are many Shodans running around today...many of who should never have earned the right to become a Dan ranked student since they often quit, fall out of or come and go from their training after getting their Shodan. It is hard to remind people that the martial arts are a way of life and that we train to better our lives. They typically ask how long does it take to get a black belt and if you don't give them a direct answer they will run down to the dojo that does or sells them a package promising a black belt. If you loose a student to that type of dojo, or miss out on getting a new student because of this you really should not sweat it since they would not have been a dedicated member of your dojo anyway and probably would have quit eventually.

The belt system came from a long history of integrity in martial arts. Over the past twenty years it has become a profit center and degraded by some systems but if used properly can be an invaluable tool within a Ryu. The rank of Shodan has also become a final goal at most schools who forget that this rank is not an expert but rather the beginning of true martial arts training. As for determining if you should have five, ten or twenty kyu ranks and the prices...well we will leave that up to you and your understanding of integrity in the martial arts.