Sunday, 20 May 2012

Belt or No Belt

Jigoro Kano - The Founder of Judo


’ve heard the following comment a few times over the years – “Martial art belts are just there to hold the pants up.”

That comment came from non-martial artists…and from people within the traditional belt arts (Karate, Jiu Jitsu, etc.)

Never did I hear it said disparagingly; the comment was always delivered in a light-hearted fashion, an off-the-wall bit of humour shared between martial artists at 11:30 PM in a bar someplace.

Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, started the rank system with the title of sho-dan in 1883. His senior students began wearing Black Belt (obi) in 1886. The coloured belt system (white, yellow, orange, green, etc.) did not appear until Mikonosuke Kawaishi introduced it in France in 1935.

In Karate, senior Okinawan practitioners did not wear belts until the early part of the 20th Cenutry. In fact, the late Richard Kim in his book “Weaponless Warriors” mentions that Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju Ryu, did not wear a Black Belt until he first traveled out of Okinawa.

(There was a Karate tournament in Ontario in the 60’s which offered  only 3 levels of participation – white, yellow and black…and they all sparred as one group!).

I’ve been involved in 2 traditions – the belt arts (Karate and Jiu Jitsu) and the non-belt arts (various systems of Kung Fu). I try as best I can to follow the traditions. When I’m training in a Karate Dojo, I wear the belt; when I’m training in Kung Fu, I wear no belt around the waist.

Chojun Miyagi - The Founder of Goju Ryu Karate


All the great and profound martial arts enjoy their own traditions. The DNA of the masters and their students lie within those traditions. Our knowledge - along with our sense of martial community – is fueled by those traditions.

So when I walk onto the Karate floor, I wear my belt to show respect for the people who guided me to where I am. And to show respect for the people who risked their lives centuries ago to hone the techniques which have been passed down to me. So in a sense, I wear the belt out of gratitude.

I do the same in Kung Fu by not wearing a belt – because that happens to be the tradition in the systems I have been lucky enough to train. I don’t set my belt aside in favour of Kung Fu. That’s different. I’m not on the Kung Fu floor to disparage the belt arts. I’m simply there to do Kung Fu!

As my Karate teacher says, it all comes down to being humble. Whether you practise a belt or no belt system, I don’t advise wearing your ego around your waist.

I read somewhere long ago (perhaps it was in another book by Richard Kim) that when you receive your first Black Belt, you should humbly accept and walk away with your eyes down. When you receive your next level of Black Belt, walk away with deeper humbleness. When you receive your third level of Black Belt, disappear around a corner.

I suspect the follow equation probably holds – humbleness = deep skill. Switch this over to the military arts: the deeper your level of operational skill, the less you’re prone to show off or to discuss it with others.

When I was teaching at a Karate club in Toronto in 1973, a Brown Belt of Tony Facetti’s dropped by for a class. He asked whether he could spar with the class. His skill was amazing. Afterwards, he told me that he practised by going around to all the clubs to spar.

I looked for the challenge behind the voice. There was none. That’s what he did: he learned from everyone. He’d been a Brown Belt for 5 years.

“Any idea of when you’re testing for Black?” I asked him.

He shrugged and smiled. “When Tony says I’m ready.”

Complete humbleness, ready to learn, ready to share…a dream student for any teacher!

Belt or no belt, at the end of the day, you are what you are. If you’ve trained sincerely, when the belt comes off after class that belt is still around your waist. You wear your belt with honour and respect and you go through the rest of the day with honour and respect.

If your martial tradition includes no belt, then you spend the time outside the training hall with honour and respect.


  1. Hi Gary,

    Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you like the article!

  2. First off, I would like to thank you. As Tony's son, it's amazing to see the amount of information that still pops up in regards to him 21 years after his passing. Thanks again.

  3. Sir, your comment is deeply important to me. Thank you so much. I believe that I met your dad for a few times only, back in the late 60s and early 70s. I ran Leo Rioux Wilson Ave. branch (Samurai Karate) in 1973, humbly, after your dad left it. Your dad was an amazing Karate-ka, deeply skilled.From what I know, he also had a good heart. Again, I thank you for your comment. Please stay in contact.


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