Systems of martial arts generally have few things in common, but one thing nearly all share is a ranking system, usually based on belts or sashes. Why belts? You need something to keep you uniform closed, and getting a new uniform or top each time you advance seems fairly wasteful.
One of the big problems with belts are that everyone has them. Not only that, but people who don'’t practice any sort of martial art think that they have some idea what they mean. Nothing could be further from the truth. Get three different martial artists together, and even they won'’t be able to agree on what the belts are supposed to mean. So, if the people earning them don’t know what they mean, then how can someone who doesn’'t do martial arts know?
The first thing to know is that belts, by themselves, are meaningless. Many times people have asked me what it takes for them to get a black belt. My answer is four to fourteen dollars, depending on where you buy the belt (unless you want a fancy embroidered one, then it would cost more).
Anyone can buy a black belt. If the martial arts supply clerk asks if you are entitled to wear a black belt (most won’t even bother), just stick out your chest, look them in the eye, and say, “Yes, of course, I'’m entitled to buy a black belt. Can'’t you tell from the way I move that I have extensive training?” At which point, the clerk will immediately sell you the belt, because they wouldn’'t want to risk getting you mad (or maybe they just don’'t want to embarrass you further).
So, since having a Black Belt, or any other color, is meaningless, what good is it? The answer is that outside your own school, it is just that, meaningless. Inside your school, that is another matter. My feelings are that inside your school (and possibly inside your organization) a belt indicates how much knowledge you are responsible for. That’s all, nothing else.
If I see a person in an Okinawa-Te school wearing a blue belt, I should be able to assume that they know all of the Sword and Hammer kata. I can assume that they know at least ten grab attacks and ten waza. I cannot tell from the belt what kind of shape they are in, or how good they are at sparring. I can assume that they know their basic, kicks, punches, and blocks, but not that they know any weapons.
The belt tells me what I can expect them to know, and that is all. Other systems have other definitions of what belts mean. I also don'’t know, when looking at someone’'s belt, whether they have ever trained in another system. I found that out the hard way when I was a blue belt and got destroyed in a sparring match by a mere purple belt, who incidentally had been training in another system for years, in addition to his occasional participation in Okinawa-Te.
Because belts are meaningless outside of one’'s own school, they can be very confusing. For years I had acquaintances ask why I still didn'’t have my black belt, as they knew so and so who had been training for much less time than me in martial art X and had gotten their black belt in only x months or x years. I mostly just shrugged and said they must be really good, or their system looked at black belts differently than we did in Okinawa-Te. The last part was true.
It has been my experience that no one in Okinawa-Te gets a black belt in less than 6-8 years. In my case it took 13 years. I could have gotten it in less time, but college first interfered, and then for nearly 5 years I really wasn't interested in advancement at all. In nearly any other martial art I would have been testing for a black belt when I tested for my 1st Brown belt in Okinawa-Te, three years after I started. I didn’t get my 2nd brown till 1991, four years later, and I didn’t get my Black Belt till 1997 after training two and a half years directly with the Shihan. In any other system, that would probably have been a test for 3rd or 4th Dan (black belt) ranking.
It has now been six years since that test, and I have been teaching and learning the whole time. I know more now then I did when I tested for my black, but I probably won'’t ever test again. The whole reason I tested for the black at all was because I knew that the majority of people in the world would never believe I was a martial artist at all if I didn'’t have a black belt. Belts are meaningless outside your school, and saying you have a black belt and expecting it to mean the same as what my black belt means to me, is a joke.