Because it’s a lot of fun to live the cliche, I’ve been studying karate since my first year in Japan.
I study a style called Authentic Worker’s Karate (正伝勤労者空手道) which, if you know your karate styles, is an off-shoot of shotokan with a lot stolen from Okinawan karate. It’s called worker’s karate, if I understand it, because it was originally only taught to adults. Although it’s now taught to children, only children go through the rainbow of belts. Adults go from white, to brown, to black, to black with white stripe at 4th and black with red stripe from 6th dan and on. At 4th dan adults also get to wear spiffy black uniforms.
Unfortunately no one bothered telling me that at first.
I started studying with my friend Charles. I’m 6’2″ and he’s about 6’4″. We therefore made quite the spectacle when surround by tiny Japanese youth. We also were pretty much left training with each other. After 18 months we found ourselves still with white belts while youngsters who’d started after us had blue and green belts. (In their defense, they most likely could have kicked our butts with little trouble.) When we finally got the nerve to complain, our sensei explained about the belts and added “oh, and your brown belt test is next week.” It seems that adults are tested all the time but belt tests are special.
A similar thing happened before we earned our black belts.
Eventually, Charles returned to Canada and got “real” jobs in government while I plugged away as a teacher in Japan. I moved to Tokyo and got a new sensei. Since then I’ve earned my 5th level black belt and am, on paper anyway, a 6th dan, although I haven’t earned my teaching level which means I still have a black belt with white stripe. Along the way I’ve managed, on one occasion, to finish third in both kata and fighting at the style’s semi-annual international tournament.
Part of the difficulty is that once you achieve a key level in this style, for example black belt, they pretty much tell you to forget everything you’ve learned and you start learning what Charles and I used to call “The Black Belt S#@t”. Punches start going to the face and if you fail to block them, well, an important lesson has just been learned.
The same thing happens at 4th dan when they start teaching you to do the moves with technique and not strength. They also start teaching you to defend against four people or more. Also, on occasion, after the annual gathering of high level senseis, they modify the techniques and throw out stuff they’ve decided doesn’t work. You are expected to pick up the new techniques quickly and forget everything you’ve been studying for years.
Unfortunately, I seem to have finally reached the position of my incompetence and I’ve been a paper 6th dan for over a year. (Little mistakes have big consequences.) I also sprained a knee skiing many years ago and messed it up again doing karate. This left me with a limp and makes the basic karate stance painful to do. I also almost had my lower left leg broken by a former student who didn’t understand the difference between “leg sweep” and “Hulk SMASH!” To make matters worse, I’m now the second highest student in my dojo, which means I’m the designated punching bag when sensei needs to demonstrate a technique. (Remember, I do this for my HEALTH.)
That said, I have another test coming up in May. My goal is to be able to buy the black belt with red strip and a new black uniform–we wear the old ones until we reach a new level–soon after that. Until then, I hope the highest level student keeps having to work, leaving me the highest level student in the room.