A White Belt
As a young instructor at my teacher’s dojo, I used to teach the intermediate class, comprising mostly white and green belt students. Once, a middle-aged Japanese man wearing a white belt started training in my class. It was obvious to me that this gentleman was not a beginner. His form was clean, movement crisp and solid. I didn’t interact personally with him since he kept mostly to himself, followed all the instructions and left when the class was over.
Curious, I started inquiring to few veteran black belts at the dojo, and soon found out that the white belt in question was Mr. Aoki. During the early years of Japanese Karate in the United States, he was considered one of the toughest that my teacher produced. One sempai (senior student) told me that Mr. Aoki was the only fighter in the dojo who could back up the legendary Frank Smith. I grew up in Sensei’s dojo hearing of Frank Smith’s exploits as the most feared fighter, so to hear someone who could top him was a big surprise to me.
Mr. Aoki was consistent, attending all my classes and eventually we began to talk. I told him about what I heard regarding his past and he just brushed me off, saying he just wanted to train with everyone else. Eventually, he started attending our advanced class taught by our teacher. Soon after he started wearing his black belt. My teacher told me that Mr. Aoki showed the proper etiquette and attitude of a true Budoka (martial artist). Sensei taught me that being a black belt is a dynamic process. Only through consistent training can you keep wearing it.
- Toru Shimoji
Karate students often ask about a reading list that would enhance their experience in traditional Karate. So this month, I made up a list, divided into three categories: Shotokan Karate, light reading, and heavy stuff. Of course there are many more books on the topic, but if you are new to Japanese martial arts, the list would get you started on the right track.
“Karate-Do My Way of Life” by Gichin Funakoshi: Beautifully written narrative of life, recollections and philosophies of the father of modern Karate.
“Moving Zen” by C W Nicol: A memoir of a foreigner who lived and trained Karate in Japan during early 1960’s.
“Karate The Art of Empty Hand Fighting” by Hidetaka Nishiyama and Richard C. Brown: A very comprehensive technical book of Shotokan Karate published in 1960, still valid today.
“Musashi” by Eiji Yoshikawa: An exciting and highly entertaining novel of Japan’s most famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi.
“Sunzi Speaks: The Art of War” by Tsai Chih Chung (translated by Brian Bruya): Sun Tzu’s famous Chinese military treatise from the 5th century BC is illustrated and explained through cartoon characters.
“Usagi Yojimbo” by Stan Sakai: Classical samurai tales wonderfully depicted in this cult classic manga series.
“Zen in the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel: A German philosopher who studied Japanese archery under a famous master, recollects his experiences.
“Zen and Japanese Culture” by Daisetz Suzuki: In-depth book outlining Zen and its influence on Japanese culture, including martial arts.
“The Unfettered Mind” by Takuan Soho (translated by William Scott Wilson): This treatise written by a Buddhist priest during the 17th century contains three essays that he wrote in response to inquiries from famous samurais.
For hardcore readers, the list below are some of other books I’ve enjoyed reading.
“Shotokan Karate A Precise History” by Harry Cook
“The Karate-ka” by Joel Reeves
“There Are No Secrets” by Wolfe Lowenthal
“The Sword Polisher’s Record The Way of Kung Fu” by Adam Hsu
“Samurai Painters” by Stephen Addiss
“Dynamic Karate” by Masatoshi Nakayama
I also enjoyed reading books by these authors:
Donn Draeger: his 3 volumes on Budo and Bujitsu are excellent.
William Scott Wilson: his translations of samurai classics are superb.
John Stevens: his works and translations of various Budo, Aikido and other related topics are great reads.
How long does it take to get a black belt?
This used to be one of the most common questions I get from students, and it is easy to give a stock answer of four to eight years on average, but personally I avoid fielding this question now. It insinuates that a black belt is a type of achievement, much like the diploma system we use in education. Over the course of my career, I had many students chase black belt as their goal and, unfortunately, just about all of them have either quit Karate or just plateaued after achieving it.
What does it mean to be a black belt Karateka? I feel the weight of responsibility every time I put on my belt. Whether you like it or not, you are now a model of how a black belt holder acts, trains and behaves. Color belt students, white to brown, and even other black belts will be influenced by you. So in essence, black belt means responsibility.
I remember watching a TV show called “Kung Fu” when I was young. The main character Cain, is allowed to enter the Shaolin temple after an arduous trial where he stands outside the temple gate without moving for days until he is the only one left, and allowed to enter the temple. I always find this to be a great allegory for reaching a black belt status. The real training will now commence.
- Toru Shimoji