One thing that is certain about living in the modern world is that you can never tell where you might be tomorrow. You may need to move with your parents, for college or university, with your job, to care for someone and so on. When this takes place, karate students have a big question they’d like answered.
Do karate belts transfer between dojos? Karate belts often can transfer between dojos. A welcoming dojo ought to provide a route for a transfer student to demonstrate their skills and compatibility with the dojo’s philosophy before making any decisions about belts.
Let’s see what this means, in some detail.
A Quick Introduction To The Karate Belt System
The belt system appears to be nearly ubiquitous in martial arts, though there are some fighting styles which don’t use belts at all such as boxing and wrestling. Yet, they are a fairly recent invention considering that martial arts have been around for hundreds and possibly thousands of years.
It was in 1880 when Judo introduced the concept of belts. Before that, there were still rankings in Judo, but they would have been conferred with paper certificates. A black and white belt were the only two options. Though, for grades above black belt, stripes were used to denote the grade.
Over time, the system evolved to denote both kyu grades (those below the black) and dan grades (those above the dan grading). To incorporate this, additional colors were introduced.
How A Belt Is Awarded
Not every dojo uses the same system of belts as there is no “governing body” for martial arts. Though students start with white belts in nearly all martial arts and then work their way up through various colors until they reach the black belt.
Once a black belt is achieved, it is possible to increase your rank in most martial arts in dan grades and these belts may be black with stripes or show other colors, however from a technical perspective all “dan” rankings are considered to be “black belts”.
In order to win a belt, a student should be assessed on their progress and proficiency in their chosen discipline. This assessment may include demonstrations of technique, simulated fights, oral and written examinations.
The purpose of written and spoken testing is to check the student’s understanding of the purpose of their learning and not just the physical techniques.
Therefore, winning a belt, in this way, is a fairly substantial achievement and worthy of respect within the dojo and in the wider martial arts community.
The Argument In Favor Of Karate Belts Transferring Between Dojos
There are two schools of thought when it comes to transferring karate belts between dojos. One camp says that as long as the new dojo is teaching a similar style it ought to be obvious that the belt should also transfer.
They argue that is unfair after months or even years of hard work that a fighter should be “demoted” to white belt and forced to start all over again. They feel this would be deeply demoralizing and might even force the fighter to quit their chosen martial art completely.
So, in some cases, there are dojos which welcome new students from other dojos that allow those students to keep their belts. They feel that this is fair because it recognizes the efforts that the new student has already put into their art.
This argument is problematic at best and downright dangerous at its worst.
The Argument Against Karate Belts Transferring Between Dojos
The second group which is probably the larger group argues against the automatic transfer of belts between dojos and, in our opinion, the arguments are sound:
Karate is a martial art. That is, it’s a tool of war and fighting. When people learn karate, they don’t just learn techniques to fight, they learn a philosophy and thinking-style, which develops self-reliance and self-discipline.
Allowing the automatic transfer of belts between dojos in order to avoid “hurt feelings” is asking for trouble for several reasons:
- Different dojos teach different things. It is entirely possible for a black belt from one dojo to have missed techniques and trainings that apply to a yellow or orange belt in another. Racing to award the transfer student a black belt might mean neglecting the gaps in the individual’s training and leave them vulnerable in competition or sparring.
- Some dojos aren’t very good. Worse than some dojos teaching different things are the dojos which are led by incompetent martial artists. There are no barriers to setting up a dojo from a legal perspective, the only “certifying body” is the person paying the rent on the dojo. This might mean that someone’s belt is next to meaningless in a new environment. This risks truly embarrassing a “black belt” when they find themselves unable to spar with a properly trained “yellow belt”.
- Nearly all dojos have different philosophies. To become part of a dojo means understanding its rules and ethics. This can take time and until the new concepts have been adopted, it can mean that the new student is completely out of place.
Best Practices For Transfer Students In Dojos
Now, none of the arguments against transferring karate belts between dojos means that you are automatically unqualified to wear a similar belt in your new dojo. Nor do any of the arguments for the transfer make your automatically good enough to own the same belt in your new dojo, either.
So, what is a good dojo to do when it receives a transfer student? After all, if they are concerned with ethical karate then they will want to do what is right for the student and right for karate.
Well, there are some best practices for dojos to follow when receiving new students from other dojos:
- Begin with no belt at all. You don’t have to “demote” anyone when they arrive in your dojo. The belt is a rank that is conferred based on skills and attitudes from the students. It’s fair to say that as you have not assessed these in your new student but are aware that they might already be of “a standard” that you should take time to decided which belt they should adopt.
- Offer the right to wear their old belt to class but not for grading. You could also take the student to one side and explain that you don’t mind what belt they wear for training and their old belt is fine for that but that when they present themselves for assessment – they will be submitting themselves to the grading system used in your dojo and that the belt they wear may change at this point.
- Brook no arguments. A fairly simple technique for dealing with awarding a new student a white belt is to ensure the enrolment fee in your dojo covers the cost of a school uniform. Then present the student with the uniform on day one and if they ask what to wear, tell them “just use what’s in the uniform kit you’ve been given”.
Experienced instructors say that a good black belt should have no objection to donning a white belt all over again. A black belt is supposed to symbolize the student’s understanding that they are undergoing a learning process.
However, they also note that some black belts come with large egos and chips on their shoulders and can be problematic because they think they’ve already learned all there is to know. They say that these kinds of student will, in the longer term, just remove themselves from the school because they are too abrasive to fit in.
They say that the biggest issue for belt transfers is usually with students who are in the “mid-colors” because they fear losing the work they’ve already put in on their journey to black belt. For these students, the instructors say, beltless evaluation is often the best approach because it allows the student to assess their own capabilities as well as giving the instructor some insight.
Beware the McDojo
One place that will be only too keen to ensure that you retain that belt from your old dojo is the McDojo. McDojo is a semi-perjorative term for dojos which do not have a genuine commitment to teaching martial arts but rather exist to make money.
If you pay your transfer fee, your belt is yours because they don’t care about your karate skills. Sadly, this can be quite dangerous because they also don’t tend to pay much attention to the quality of your instruction either.
Do karate belts transfer between dojos? Well, they can and particularly with a McDojo they often will, but they shouldn’t. A good dojo will care enough about its students and overall reputation to want time to assess your skills and see where you belong in its ranks.
This is not a dismissal of your hard work but rather an example of treating you with the respect that a fighter ought to be treated with. Nothing worth having in life comes easily, and you shouldn’t be doing a martial art to brag about a belt but rather so that you can learn real skills to benefit your life.