Monday, January 7, 2008

The Myth of the Colored Belt System

I’ve been doing a lot of martial arts reading lately, both from books and in the various MA-related forums online (I do not read any MA-related magazines, except for the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, and that only occasionally – this is because of what I view as questionable verification practices by periodicals such as Black Belt Magazine).

I’m noticing a pattern in what I’m reading, and I’m wondering if it’s something peculiar to the martial arts. I’ve certainly never seen this strange behavior in any other field of endeavor.
Many people who are involved in the martial arts evidently feel a need to be lied to, and further, a strong need to believe those lies, even if they know better. The MA community is awash with examples of this. The persistence of charlatans like “Ashida Kim” (only a complete idiot would ever buy into this crap) is proof enough of this phenomenon. I saw two “Ashida Kim” books on the shelf at Barnes & Noble yesterday, offering to teach the reader the secrets of “Ninja Mind Control” as if there were any such thing. I can’t believe that this lie that’s being perpetrated on the buyers of such books, in the year 2008, in one of the most sophisticated societies in the world, is simply a result of ignorance.

I believe people just want to be fooled by something. The same myths just continually pop up, and the same old people (and some new ones) just keep believing them.

This would explain politics, wouldn’t it? I mean, why else would so many scores of Americans believe the line that gets fed to them during political debates and other speeches? You can’t tell me that we, as a society, aren’t above that, from a purely intellectual perspective. But I digress.

Another example of this is the persistence of the myth of the colored belt system’s origin. We’ve all heard the story. In the old days, practitioners of this or that martial art would wear undyed clothing to the training hall, because it was less expensive than colored clothes. As their clothing became more like a uniform, they often washed their uniforms on a certain day, as specified by their teacher, but they never washed their belts. So, as the years wore on, their belts became more and more dingy, until eventually they were black.

And thus, the coveted black belt.

It’s a fun little story to tell the kiddies (and their mommies, who are shelling out the school's stay-in-business money), except that it’s an unmitigated load of crap.

The colored belt system, including the black belt, was originated solely by one man, Jigoro Kano, the refiner of Judo and founder of the Kodokan. Eventually, Kano's belt system took hold in the universities where judo was taught, and spread to other university-based systems as well (like aikido and karate). Teachers in other martial arts organizations followed suit, and eventually the colored belt system became more or less universally recognized. But it has absolutely nothing to do with dirt, or with unwashed laundry. Before the advent of the colored belt system, what’s currently thought of as a gi was commonly worn as underwear. Undergarments were customarily white, while outer garments were customarily a darker color – blue, brown, black, etc. While the obi (belt) was worn on the outside, there was generally no inner obi. So when the gi came into fashion as an outer garment in the dojo, the obi worn over it was the same one usually worn over the kimono (or hakama, if one was worn there). It is for this reason that the white gi with a darker (often black) obi was first seen in the training environment.

And while probably no one alive today knows for sure what Dr. Kano’s inspiration was for the colored belt system, we can extrapolate from common knowledge (and a little research) that he was using colors that would have been seen in his dojo already.

The reason I think this is such a silly myth is that the colored belt system originated during the early days of the Kodokan (Jigoro Kano’s original judo training hall, which today is the Kodokan International Judo Institute), and the Kodokan was founded in 1882. Now, I understand that Japan wasn’t fully modernized to Western standards in 1882, but neither was it as backward as so many modern Westerners would have us believe. I have a hard time swallowing the image of Dr. Kano’s original students in the 1880’s – university-educated martial artists, every one of them – as people who’d simply never washed their belts.

And beyond that, maybe we’re talking about samurai from 400 years ago. Again, I can’t see the retainers of some daimyo’s house, upon whose actions rest the reputation of generations of warlords, failing to maintain some standard of hygiene, such as it was at the time. But it doesn’t matter, does it? Because they didn’t use any kind of colored belt system to denote rank, or to differentiate to most experienced among their number. It just didn’t happen.

Somewhere along the line, we've become enamored with the image of the wisened old master, practicing his kata on a misty mountaintop somewhere in ancient Asia. He's wearing a sparkly-clean white gi, complete with crisply-ironed creases down his sleeves and pant legs, but his belt is worn black from decades of constant use. It's a romantic image, and has become part of the ethos taught to many soccer moms in this country.

To bad it's all false.