If you’ve ever wondered whether karate belts have a sell-by date, you’re not alone. Although traditionally the answer is no, there are varying opinions about how this issue should be tackled.
Do karate belts expire? Karate belts do not expire, ever. Once you reach a level that earns you a karate belt, you have officially earned it for life.
However, there are some good arguments out there that say perhaps they should. Let’s take a look at what the belt system is for and why, perhaps, karate belts should have an expiration date in some circumstances.
A Very Brief History Of Karate Belts
The belt system is relatively new to martial arts. For a long time (hundreds and maybe even thousands of years), people did martial arts and their skills were recognized but there were no awards of colorful belts given to people who passed a certain skill threshold.
It was in the 1880s when Jigoro Kano, the inventor of modern judo, decided to introduce a simple belt system. There would be a white belt for initiates to the discipline and a black belt for those who had progressed to a certain level.
Over the following years, he built upon this system adding additional grades beyond the black belt which would be signified first with black stripes, then with red and white check, and finally with a red belt.
As judo moved into Europe, it was decided there would be additional grading levels below the rank of black belt to help European students better measure their progress in judo.
Karate adopted the belt system in the 1920s in Japan but as, in general, karate was not studied outside of Japan until the 1950s – the belt system has “always” been there for non-Japanese practitioners of karate.
What Are Karate Belts For?
A karate belt is awarded to a karate participant when they demonstrate that their own skills have risen to a specific standard. This standard doesn’t just include the physical skills in a karate match but also the mental discipline that demonstrates an understanding of the underlying philosophy and values of the karate dojo.
It is commonly understood that the “black belt” is the pinnacle of learning karate but this is not the case. 1970s martial arts movies must take the blame for this popular misconception.
A black belt is a statement that someone has learned enough in karate to have mastered the basics and that they are now ready to truly dedicate themselves to learning their martial art. It is a statement of being a good student as opposed to a master.
In fact, a good student might earn a black belt in karate in as little as 3 years and most people, if they dedicated enough time and effort to karate, could earn one in 6 years.
Only in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a black belt seen as being the mark of a master and it takes twice as long to earn a black belt in this art form than it does in karate.
How Is A Karate Belt Earned?
It is worth noting that there are McDojo’s out there. In a McDojo there are very few, if any, standards and a belt is normally awarded in exchange for attending X number of lessons or for paying Y amount of money to the dojo.
A karate belt “earned” from a McDojo is not earned at all and is considered to be worthless in the martial arts community.
However, if a karate belt is earned from a reputable dojo the student will have to undergo an examination process which may include some or all of the following:
- A physical demonstration of the moves expected at that rank. As you might expect, a student who wants to attain a belt has to be able to competently execute the karate techniques associated with that rank.
- A physical demonstration of the use of those moves in a simulated fighting situation. Most karate dojos are not looking to see you actually fight but will stage a simulation that can help tell whether you understand how the moves can be incorporated into a fight if they were needed.
- A written and/or oral examination of their understanding of the philosophy and values of the dojo and karate as a while.
In some dojos this assessment process can be extremely intense and rigorous and a karate belt holder from such a dojo can be justly proud of his or her achievement.
Do Karate Belts Expire?
No, they don’t. There is no process in modern karate to withdraw a belt once it has been awarded to a practitioner. There is no time limit for being able to claim that you hold such a belt either.
Contrary to popular belief there is no form of licensing required for karate practitioners, either. So, there’s no license above the belt which can expire.
The Argument Against Karate Belts Expiring
So, now that we’ve established that a belt holder in karate has to work hard to obtain their belt (except from a McDojo) we can start to examine the argument against those belts expiring:
A Belt Is A Symbol Of Your Hard Work
The first and most obvious argument is that a belt is not, in fact, a guarantee of skill or status but rather an award for your hard work in the dojo.
Why should someone who has spent 6 years practicing karate and obtained a black belt legitimately through assessment be stripped of their belt just because they haven’t practiced in years?
Does this lack of practice somehow discount the fact that they worked hard in the first place?
The Example Of Taekwondo Belts
Another argument is based around the prevailing practices in a similar martial art – taekwondo. Imagine that someone joins a dojo at the age of 16 and continues to practice daily until they reach the age of 70 by which time, they have achieved a black belt of the 9th dan.
When they are forced to stop practicing, not out of a desire to stop but rather through ill health, are they somehow less of a 9th dan taekwondo practitioner than they were before?
Wouldn’t it be cruel in the extreme to send someone to the hospital to strip them of their belt on their death bed?
In fact, in practice, taekwondo does not advocate this and were our sickly septuagenarian to pass away – it is entirely likely that his dojo would award him a black belt of the 10th dan posthumously to commemorate his lifetime spent in dedication to taekwondo.
The Argument For Karate Belts Expiring
However, the argument for karate belts expiring is also a strong one. The truth is that a belt is symbolic of a person’s rank in their sport.
You wouldn’t expect to play tennis for 6 years and reach competitive standard and then to be able to quit, not play for 10 years and then be allowed to compete at the same level. You’d know that this was a ridiculous proposition.
Part of what makes martial arts work is a set of core values. Someone who has stepped away from martial arts for many years and who understands these values ought to be happy to put on a white belt again. They will understand that their learning journey must begin anew.
They certainly wouldn’t want to leap into competition and start fighting someone with the skills that they had once mastered but have now forgotten.
Karate Belts Should Expire After X Time, When You Want To Return To Karate
The real argument here is that karate belts should expire if you don’t practice karate on a regular basis because your skills will atrophy and eventually you will not be much more skillful than any other beginner.
It is not necessary to confiscate someone’s belt if they want to say, “I’m a karate black belt” at home or to friends, but if they wish to start training or competing – at that point they ought to have to surrender their belt and be assessed as to their current ability.
As for the example of the old man? It seems reasonable to differentiate between someone who has spent 50 years or more learning and who can no longer take part in the sport and a 40 year old returning to the sport after a 15-year absence.
They can be awarded an honorary rank even posthumously because they are not going to compete and are therefore not risking their own safety by claiming a belt that they can no longer meet the standards of.
The argument for karate belt expiration can thus be expressed in humane terms without letting down students or the other practitioners of the martial art.
Perhaps, The Best Argument Is For A “Quality Standard” In Martial Arts?
In truth, what martial arts need now is a unifying standards authority. This body could then explain the rules on when belts should be awarded and if they should or should not expire. They could also set rigorous quality standards for teaching and assessment.
Martial arts is one of the few areas of modern life which has almost no judicial overview and students and the sporting aspects could benefit considerably from a little oversight.
No, karate belts do not expire. However, there are strong arguments that say that, perhaps, they should for the safety of the practitioners and the image of karate. The expiry of belts should not be a heavy-handed process which “punishes” the elderly or the sick but rather one which enhances the reputation of the sport and the individuals within it.