The meaning of rank

Nakamura-sensei’s comments on our recent black-belt promotions got me thinking about the meaning of rank in Aikido.

New students sometimes ask me, “How long will it take to get a black belt?”

Sometimes I’m tempted to answer, “How long is a piece of string?” or “You can buy one tomorrow at any martial arts store.”

Respecting the intent of their question, though, I usually say it is up to them. The minimum hour requirements have been published – it is theoretically possible to attain shodan (first-degree black belt) with just over 660 days of practice, though that is almost unheard-of. How often do you intend to come to class? How hard will you practice? How quickly do you learn?

I think the question itself reflects a misunderstanding… These students are really trying to ask, “How long will it take me to achieve mastery of this art?”

A first-degree black belt is not mastery. It is just the beginning. When you are promoted to shodan, it means that your ukemi (attacking, following movement and taking falls) is correct and that you are familiar with a wide variety of standard techniques. Next, you must spend a few more years vigorously training with other black belts and attending seminars with prominent senior instructors to add depth to your knowledge. Without this training, you have no mastery at all.

Some students rarely leave the safety of their own dojo, practicing only with their friends. I tend to think of these students as “hothouse flowers.” When they finally go to a seminar and practice among the weeds, they sometimes get rude awakenings about their technique. Even when such students do go to seminars, they often train only with people from their own dojo! Their knowledge remains shallow.

Shodan is a difficult and remarkable achievement, but it is not an end. There is no end. As your knowledge gets deeper and you age, your practice changes. You are always learning, beginning something new. Aikido is a “do,” a life practice.

It is important to want to progress. It is also important to enjoy practicing and learning at the level you are on.

If all you want is a black belt to impress your friends and family, it is more efficient to buy one at a martial arts store.