Feb 12, 2024

(by Bernard Buys, 6th Dan, Chief Instructor)

Let’s talk about the JOURNEY to becoming a Black Belt or shodan (1stDan) as it is also more commonly known.

It is perhaps important to explain the PROCESS in a little bit more detail, in order for you to have a better understanding of what to expect with regards to this journey:

Karate associations PRIDE themselves on their “Dan” level standards worldwide and in particular the maturity they attach to the wearing of a black belt.

Some set the STANDARD of shodan extremely high. I myself only received my shodan at age 17 after having been a brown belt since the age of 12 and having started karate at the age of 4.

My sensei, at the time, told me to WAIT another year after my 16th birthday as he thought I wasn’t ready or as he explained – “mature” enough in my karate ability.

Candidates have to DISPLAY an exceptional karate ability and maturity beyond their years in all facets of karate in other words; kihonkata and kumite in order to pass the shodan grading, precisely because of the maturity level of what the black belt signifies in karate organisations.

Note that exceptional karate ABILITY in this case does not necessarily mean being the kata or kumite champion, but rather to have the maturity to handle oneself as a black belt in any given situation inside as well as outside of the dojo.

One such EXAMPLE of inside the dojo is that black belts are required to train with ANY other black belt for example in kumite regardless of rank.

NATIONAL Dan gradings are held twice a year, usually in the first and last quarter of the year. Candidates are graded under a panel of highly qualified examiners and have to demonstrate technical brilliance and maturity in all facets of karate as mentioned before.

The PASS rate is therefore significantly lower than in the lower coloured belt ranks in order to maintain this strict code of producing shodansworthy of wearing a black belt.

No SPECTATORS or video capturing of a black belt grading is allowed. This is done in order to maintain the exclusivity of the organisation and to keep the grading unique and uninfluenced.

Candidates attempting shodan grading are required to do at least 2 pre-grading COURSES. These are recorded in their memberships books in the form of a stamp once they are at brown belt or junior black belt level.

The 2nd pre-grading STAMP can be obtained on the day of the actual shodan grading during the two yearly gradings.

These pre-gradings are there for students to see what is EXPECTED of them in general terms of the shodan grading.

Students who are only there to attend pre-grading courses, for example pre-grading course no. 1, are not allowed to STAY AND WATCH the actual grading in the afternoon as these are closed events and not open to pre-grading students and/or their parents.

YOUNG JUNIOR BLACK BELTS (under the age of 16) can even do 3 pre-grading courses, although only 2 are required.

Candidates attempting shodan grading do so on the ADVICE AND RECOMMENDATION of their respective sensei at dojolevel.

It is actually considered INAPPROPRIATE to ask your sensei when you will be grading, as it is ultimately your sensei’s prerogative as to when he or she sends you for grading, once he or she is of the opinion that you are ready – as I found out when I asked my sensei about my readiness when I was 16 and was told to wait another year.

Your sensei will obviously INFORM you well in advance when he or she will send you off to attempt your shodan grading in order to prepare yourself physically as well as mentally.

Please remember – your sensei’s NAME AND REPUTATION is also at stake in producing successful shodans from his or her dojo,and failure is frowned upon by the Chief Instructor, inasmuch as it is also an evaluation of your sensei on the grading day by the Chief Instructor (obviously even more so if you are under the age of 16).

Candidates attempting shodan grading need to show a high level of COMMITMENT by attending classes regularly leading up the grading and missing training should only be in extraordinary circumstances.

Students should train with a fearless ATTITUDE, proper intent and mindset in order to ready themselves for the big day.

Your sensei will PUSH you beyond your limits to get you ready, but you also need to respond by “wanting it more than anything else”.

The last few months before your shodan grading will see INTENSE training with extra effort and time, including extra hours, and guidance put in by your sensei to iron out small mistakes and to push your fitness levels as well as technical skills to an even higher level.

It is usually your sensei’sHONOUR AND PRIVILEGE to buy you a black belt as you pass your shodan grading, and you are not allowed to wear it until you have done your initiation at dojo level, usually within 30 days after your shodan grading.

Of course your sensei may GIVE you one of his or her old black belts – this of course is considered an extremely honourable gesture and is the exception rather than the norm.

INITIATION of shodan graduates are done not to humiliate students but to test their skill of having passed their grading and to welcome them to the black belt fraternity.

As far as possible, only CURRENT BLACK BELTS initiate new shodan graduates. No spectators are allowed and a ceremonial handing over of the black belt is done with words of wisdom and encouragement from your sensei as well as by other black belts. These words stay with you and are intended for you to safeguard and cherish in your journey onward as a black belt.

The INITIATION AND CEREMONY thereafter are considered very special and every black belt recalls their own initiation and ceremony.

You need to WEAR your newly acquired black belt in order for it to mature naturally by wearing it often (which implies lots and lots of hours of training) so that the black belt effectively becomes a white belt again – thereby signifying that the circle is complete.

Black belts should therefore become as HUMBLE as a white belt again as eager and excited to learn as they once were when they were white belts.

Together with the students’ shodan grading application 1 month prior to grading, students simultaneously apply for their JAPANESE CERTIFICATE.

This certificate contains CALLIGRAPHY on authentic Japanese rice paper and is skillfully done by hand at your organization’s head office in Japan.

It takes about 1 year to COMPLETE the process.

It is an extremely huge HONOUR to receive this certificate with your name on. Shodan graduates will receive their certificate after about 1 year of passing their grading and your sensei will safe keep your certificate with him or her, because it is customary that new shodanstudents should continue training after passing their shodan grading before the certificate is handed over to them.

Many students sadly QUIT karate soon or even immediately after achieving their shodan as they are of the opinion that it is the end of the journey, where in fact it should be seen as merely the beginning.

I would like to end with a QUESTION that a student once asked of his sensei: He asked…

“How long does it take an AVERAGE PERSON to get a black belt?”

Whereby his sensei answered: “An average person does NOT get a black belt!”

Your sensei is LOOKING FORWARD to walking this journey with you. It is up to you to start the journey and ultimately your choice as to where the journey will take you.

One thing I can PROMISE you is this – you will not regret embarking on this lifelong journey of becoming a black belt and I wish you all the best in your quest to becoming a black belt.

It will be the most FULFILLING AND REWARDING experience of your life and you will never look back.

Take my WORD for it.

So my QUESTION TO YOU is this…

Are you READY?

Then what are you still waiting for, GO TRAIN!

Your BLACK BELT awaits you!