Friday, September 16, 2011

So, you're five and you have a Black Belt....

So, you are five. You now have a Black Belt. Do you know Karate? Tai Kown Do? Any other Asian words?

Now that you have a Black Belt, hypothetically, let's say you are in a store. It is being robbed. An armed robber walks up to you and tries to force you in some way, to allow others to be hurt. They threatned to hurt you. Now you are not only dealing with your own saftey but that of others? Do you cry? Do you fight? Do you win?

Are you going to be able to take this armed robber down? Black Belts I have known in the past, could. In a partial second, they could do this. They could take the weapon away (it IS open hand fighting, and that does mean you are trained to go up against armed assaliants... with, weapons obviously). These Black Belts could put the criminal in the hospital, or kill them, on the spot, instantly.

Can you do that, five year old Black Belt?

No? But, but, you have a Black Belt! What's the deal? Then WHY do you have a Black Belt? What does having a Black Belt MEAN, after all? Obviously it doesn't mean you are a functional, mature warrior.

So, in being five, or in being that tiny, weak, immature, whatever, you can not function as an actual Black Belt? Wow, who saw that coming? Then tell me, why do you have one? Who, gave you one? Who do they think they are to give a Black Belt to a child? What does that say about them?

What the Hell?
adorable five-year-old Varsha Vinod
Varsha Vinod was labeled in a 2009 article as the youngest Black Belt ever. First of all that's utter nonsense. This kind of contention comes out about every five or ten years and why are they are always five years old?

I have always found this behavior disturbing. Aside from not believing in the belt system (except perhaps for kids), no one under age eightenn should ever be able to earn a Black Belt. Also, to earn a Black Belt, you should be able to fight your way out of a paper bag; actually, you should be able to defend yourself against another Black Belt.

This kind of thing is one reason why I stopped accepting belt degrees back in the 60s shortly after I recieved my blue belt in Okinawan Isshinryu Karate (more about that later). It's interesting to note that the article mentioned above does not mention what style of Karate it is. Partly because of things like five year olds being alowed to hold Black Belts, years ago I left by the road side, any concept of belt degree, or the empty hand (Ka Ra Te) killing arts.

to meet; to come together; to harmonize
(can also mean "love")
spirit; life-force; universal energy
(similar to the Chinese word "Chi")
the way; path
(or how the path is walked)

Or, Aikido
Here is why I rejected the belt system and Karate in general.

I left by the concept of belt degree and empty hand (Ka Ra Te) killing arts for that of the "Art of Peace" (Ai Ki Do). Litereally it could mean, the "Study of the Harmony of Energy". Or more correctly, "A Way of Harmonizing with the Universal Spirit" Or, any variety of other interpretations. I didn't mean for this to turn into an article on Aikido, but it has gone that direction.

At first I only meant to talk about five year old black belts and my rejection of the belt system. But as happens sometimes, this grew bigger than that. Allow me to explain.

I started Okinawan Isshinryu Karate in 1966 under Steve Armstrong Sensei. I worked hard at it, seven days a week at the dojo. I was the only one there and typically the only one Steve would allow to show up when he was going to be in the dojo on Sundays. It took some begging at first, but then it was fine after that.

I mention all that because I think it gives me at least some leverage (authority?) in being able to speak to this issue.

Here it is....

Decades ago, I remember reading in a newspaper that some Sensei in the Mid West gave his five year old a Black Belt. I assume it was a publicity stunt. Granted, Dojo owners don't make a lot of money are have always been hurting for students. It goes without saying and I don't blame them for trying to drum up some business. But in Martial Arts, in my view, at some point you have to be careful not to cross the line from Martial Art, to Martial Business. Business goes the direction (in my mind) of Mr. Misogi's nemisis in Karate Kid. The Sensei who has lost sight of the Art, the Philosophy, the Higher Ground. The thing that makes it beautiful.

Two things happened to me in the 60s and 70s to change how I view Martial Arts. Both issues lead me to move from Karate, to Aikido.

One was my friend and Karateka (all the students were friends) got hurt at the Tacoma Tournament. Back then we were "point fighting". Karate is a killing method, not a sport. In the last 60s other forms began to appear like Budokan Karate which we, at my Dojo, considered either a Tournament form of Karate, or a "bludgeoning" form. It seemed to us that it was a way to turn a killing art into a sport. Which was needed for tournament form.

But Isshinryu was designed to kill a professional warrior quickly with punches and kicks designed to apply tremendous force into a small area. For instance, a punch directed the entire weight of the body and force of the blow to only two knuckles, applying all that force to a one square inch area, rather than a whole fist. A kick used only the ball of the foot or side or heel for the same purpose. Where other forms used the entire fist or foot. At least, that was how we saw things at the time.

We ran into this disparity in form repeatedly in tournaments. Isshinryu was designed for small, weaker Okinawan Farmers to stand their ground and win against fully armored Samurai Warriors. They learned how to "punch through" the leather armor of their Samurai enemies. No, they couldn't punch a hole through the armor, but they learned how to hurt someone through it.

Japan had invaded Okinawa and pretty much taken over. Everyone had to do what they said. Japan reaped the benefit of Okinawan's hard labors. They didn't take kindly to it.

So they learned a Martial Art from the mainland that had been bouncing around for a while in the Islands. They perfected it. The idea was, if you got in a fight with a Samurai, you'd best win in a few seconds, or you'd get cut down pretty quickly. Kill. Fast.

Now move forward in time. To America. My Sensei, Steve Armstrong.

He learned Isshinryu Karate from the Founder, Shimabuku Tatsuo. He had taken forms he was taught and developed his own style, Isshinryu. Steve Sensei learned this while stationed in Okinawa in the 50s as a Marine Drill Instructor (or, DI). He was a mountain of a man and a really good guy. He brought it home and started to teach it. Eventually he ended up in my town and I took it from him.

Part of earning your next belt was to participate in tournaments. Steve put on the first Seattle Open International Tournament back in 1967. That was the big one each year. Ed Parker Sensei of Kempo Karate fame, helped him set it up, flying up from California and having put on tournaments himself down there. Ed was the nicest guy and I say this from personal experience.

We also fought in other tournaments around the region. At some point we started to run into this new (to us) form of Karate. It was perfect for fighint tournaments where you couldn't kill someone. Because, as it seemed to us, you simply beat someone down into the ground. Our style was more precise. A killing blow to the temple, not a series of kicks that beat you down.

The difference we thought, was that if this was a fight on the street and to the death, our style would win, quickly, and hands down. Within a few seconds, we could kill our opponent, they could throw all their kicks and punches they wanted, but we would have them dead within a few seconds. We were told that a fight shouldn't last more than five, or ten seconds. If you hit fifteen seconds, you are already losing.

But tournament fighting is set in several minute rounds. It has no relevance. In point fighting, you are watched by four black belts with flags, one for each opponent. If they missed a blow because you were too fast, or you did it in a way that hid it from your opponent, and then possibly your judge, you don't get the point. But if you throw punches and kicks that beat your opponent down, then you look pretty good. Thus, "Tournament Fighting".

So at one Tacoma Tournament, my friend and fellow Karateka Chris, slipped on a concrete floor on some blood, and went down hard, hitting his head. When he came too, he couldn't remember who he was or where he was. This was an issue of not fighting on mats or with head gear.

At this point, even as a kid, I felt this was simply too dangerous to deal with, it wasn't worth it. The first chink in the armor as I saw it. In the end, Chris was fine, but it scared me that he was winning the fight and he could have died.

Then, in the 70s, there was the newspaper and TV News articles on the five year old black belt. This was the first time we had every heard of giving a black belt to a five year old. You don't even have to think hard on it to realize how ridiculous it is. I would even go so far as to let the kid earn a Brown Belt, but I would argue not even that, perhaps whatever belt comes before brown. When I was studying as a kid, we weren't even alowed to do the higher Katas until we had a brown belt, which we couldn't get till near eighteen and a black belt was unattainable until eighteen. It was a rite of passage that should never have been broken.

It's ridiculous. So a kid can learn in rote, the movements required to earn a black belt. Any white belt could still kick his ass. So how in the world could he hold a black belt?

This changed the game completely and continued with the Americanization and dilution of Martial Arts. Tournament fighting was the beginning. Giving out black belts to those who did not deserve them, continued this. The commercialization was the beginning of the end, really.

From all this I learned a few things. One, Isshinryu wasn't as good for tournament fighting as some other forms that were less useful in real fighting. You couldn't trust that someone who held a Black Belt, really was a Black Belt, and it lost its meaning. Tournament fighting was real fighting and was dangerous. The belt system, no longer meant anything.

And then, in 1980, I took my first Aikido class in college. I was annoyed that I had to take any Physical Education at all as I had just gotten out of the USAF. I packed parachutes, B-52 drag chutes weighing 230 pounds, three or more every day for years. I didn't need PE. So I chose the only Martial Art on the schedule. I later also took Bowling (I was on a league as a kid and horrible, mostly because my mom bought me a ball for when I was an adult and I could barely through it in fourth grade); and Golf, which I was good at. I got A's in all three, but Aikido stuck with me the most as it has a philosophy and the more I read, the more I agreed with it.

In Aikido you have no belt. Everyone is a white belt; until you get a Black Belt. That, made sense to me. No belt system which had little meaning anyway. Aikido does not believe in competition or tournaments as in a real fight, people would die. You only have demonstrations, practice. Even if someone fights you to the death on the stree, in Aikido it is seen as a practice opportunity and your opponent is your practice partner, not your enemy. The hope is that you will show the the right way to think before (you kill them) the fight is over.

And so, I studied and read everything I could on Aikido, on the Founder, Morehei Ueshiba, called O'Sensei, or Founder by adherents of Aikido. And now I am on the Board of Directors for our local Aikido Dojo.

Sadly, I cannot now practice as I need surgery on both my knees. But that is little matter, as Aikido is not just a martial art, but a way of life. It is called the "Art of Peace" for a reason. You try to share your peaceful attidude with someone who is trying to contest you, and if you have to practice with them, and they press you hard, they will harm thsmselves in their ignorance and mistaken beliefs and you can then "throw the world at them" (this, because you throw them easily, using their own force, slamming them if necessary into the ground, or whatever is nearby).

The thing that first so attracted me to Aikido, was its peaceful nature and the degree of options it allowed me. In Karate, we had one option: Kill. In Aikido, the options are almost endless and never has to end in Kill. How nice is that?

So, you have a Black Belt. What, does that mean, really?

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