The black belt is commonly thought of as the ultimate in martial arts achievements. Decades of inaccurate karate movies have led people to believe that a black belt is the ultimate symbol of the human being as a weapon. In truth, a black belt is more a statement of progress than mastery in most martial arts.
How long does it take to get a black belt? Depending on which martial art it actually is, a black belt takes between 3 to 10 years to get. It’s possible to progress really quickly in some martial arts while it takes much longer with others.
What’s the reason for this huge variation in times? Well, it’s complicated and we’ll need to see what the belt system is for, what a black belt means and then at each martial art in turn (as well as a little geography) to explain this. Let’s take a look, starting with where the belt system originated.
When Did Martial Arts Start Using The Belt System – And Why?
You’d be surprised to learn that the belt system is a relatively new invention and that, historically, martial arts didn’t use belts at all. Instead, they depended on the “Menkyo Grading System” which used a completely different system.
The Original Licensing System (Menkyo Grading)
Belts originated in Japan and the system they replaced was known as the Menkyo Grading system. This system applied to martial arts that were collectively known as koryu bujutsu and this refers to the older martial arts of Japan which had established origins prior to 1868.
Instead of belts, the koryu bujutsu systems worked on the idea of paper licensing. Each time a student improved their grading, they would be awarded a new license. This was a formal recognition of a level of competence in certain skills (depending on the grade) by the student’s teacher.
It could take many years for a student to obtain all of their licenses. There were no colors involved and the final status in the licensing system was called “Menkyo Kaiden” which certified the student as competent to teach his or her martial art to others.
The awards were only issued under this system at the discretion of the dojo’s leadership.
The Modern Belt System (Kyu/Dan Ranking)
Judo was one of the first modern martial arts, known as “gendai budo”, and it was designed by Kano Jigoro. In the 1880s, while he was teaching Kano realized it would be valuable to him if he could distinguish his students. In particular, he wanted to be able to separate those of higher (dan) ranks and those without.
So, in 1886 he introduced a pair of belts. The white belt was conferred upon those without a dan ranking, known as “mudansha”. The black belt upon those with one, the “yudansha”.
The “gi”, however, that is the modern uniform of the judoka (a judo practitioner), hadn’t been introduced to the martial art at that point. Participants in judo would have worn kimonos and their belts would have been the traditional belt for the kimono, the “obi”.
Kano would go on to add additional grades to his belt system but only for those judokas with dan rankings. He introduced black stripes for lower dan ranks, then red & white check for higher rankings, with a red belt as the highest rank.
However, Kano was not responsible for the colored belts that would be introduced, first in judo and then in many other Eastern martial arts, for Kyu rankings.
The Spread Of Colored Belts
Colored belts were, in fact, added into judo by Mikonosuke Kawaishi. He was charged with introducing judo as a sport to Europe and he felt that Europeans lacked the patience to wait several years for a black belt and wouldn’t be happy without a visible sign of progress through the ranks.
So, he added the colored belts that are the best recognized symbol of martial arts by non-martial artists. Now, yellow, orange, green, blue, and brown joined the hues available to judoka.
It was during this period that other martial arts began to adopt the belt system too. Firstly, many gendai budo in Japan took on belts and then Chinese and Korean styles followed.
What Was A Black Belt Meant To Symbolize?
It is important to recognize at this point that a black belt was never used to denote expertise or mastery in a martial art. Instead becoming a black belt just meant that you had achieved a high-degree of competence in basic moves that enabled you to go on to study more complex forms.
In fact, traditionally, a black belt wouldn’t even know what else they had to learn. This is interesting because it is impossible to consider someone as a “master” of anything, if they are ignorant even of the scale of learning ahead of them.
Japanese martial artists are typically expected to achieve at least the 5th dan grading before they are allowed to train others in martial arts.
When Jigoro Kano introduced the black belt into judo it was intended to “signify the completion of the first step of training”. There are 10 dan gradings in judo beyond that of “black belt”.
How Are Black Belts Perceived In Martial Arts?
It depends. In Japan, the status of a black belt is firmly understood by the martial arts community and the wider public. Nobody would expect you to be an expert martial artist with a black belt and while you would be accorded respect for having attained this rank, nobody would be awed by your achievements.
In the West, the karate movies of the 60s and 70s firmly entrenched the idea that a black belt was a master martial artist in the public’s mind. That means outside of the martial arts community a black belt is often thought of as a statement of mastery. However, those within the community know the truth and again will offer respect to a black belt but would not assume any level of mastery.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s (BBJ) Unusual Black Belt
There is an exception to this rule. That comes in the form of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This art form uses a completely different grading system when compared to the Eastern martial arts and though it awards colored belts, these colors do not match up to any of the Eastern martial arts either.
Unlike in Eastern martial arts, BJJ’s participants are expected to undergo assessments which involve rigorous sparring with other BJJ participants. That means that when someone qualifies for a black belt (1st dan) in BJJ, they are considered to be a master of their art.
This is only really understood in BJJ and MMA communities, but you underestimate a BJJ black belt at your own peril.
How Does It Feel To Get A Black Belt?
If you ask around at any dojo, how it feels to become a black belt, then you’re going to be surprised to learn that – it often feels like a complete letdown. You spend years hyped up and excited about winning your black belt and then… well, this happens:
- Nothing really changes. You don’t gain any special skills when someone gives you a black belt. You don’t get a license to kill, either. It doesn’t take away your fear when you get into a fight. In fact, nothing really changes at all. This can be a little disappointing.
- You question whether you’re worth a black belt. You have the belt, but it doesn’t seem like you could be the holder of an actual black belt. This is a natural part of the process of realizing that a black belt doesn’t make you a “master” of your art.
- It becomes explicit, you still have way more to learn. This can be the real downer for many, they thought that a black belt would make them invincible and instead, it’s just the first step towards mastering their art. People who saw a black belt as a “talisman” often find this revelation to be very distressing.
Eventually, however, most black belts come to understand that a black belt is a good thing. It means they are ready to move on from the basics and on to techniques and insights that are beyond their wildest dreams. There is no official end to the martial arts journey, it takes a lifetime.
How Long Does It Take To Get A Black Belt…?
You may not believe it but the question of “How long does it take to get a black belt?” was the subject of a research study at Rzeszow University. They studied the years 1998 to 2014 and looked at a wide-range of martial arts and in different parts of the world.
They wanted to discover who long it took to get a black belt in each art form and whether the time it took might vary depending on where the training was undertaken.
Interestingly, while they found that the time to earn a black belt varied dramatically between martial arts, they also found that the “first degree of mastery” would take roughly 10 years in all martial arts and that 10th dan might take between 30 and 70 years!
The first surprising finding of the study was that in Asia and especially in Japan, you can pick up a first-degree black belt in a much faster period of time than elsewhere in the world.
This, the researchers said, could be explained by the Japanese understanding of what a black belt signifies. That it’s clear this stage of learning is not mastery of the art to all involved, handing out a black belt is less significant in Asian dojos.
…in the West?
Conversely, they found that in the West it takes longer, on average, for a student to attain their black belt.
This they felt was due to the mistaken “status” accorded to a black belt in the West and that because there was confusion with having a black belt and “mastery”, dojos were more reluctant to award a black belt to their students.
So, how long does it take to get a black belt in Aikido? Well, if you really want a black belt in Aikido fast, it’s possible to take a course with Yoshinkian Aikido Headquarters (this is a legitimate Aikido study center and not a McDojo) that gets you a black belt in just 11 months! However, the trade off is long days of training, every single day, you are expected to complete nearly 900 hours of training on this course.
However, how long does it take to get a black belt in Aikido if you’re not willing to devote the best part of a year to daily study? Well, then it takes 4-5 years and that’s based on several training sessions a week.
The study found that the fastest time to a black belt in Aikido was under a year, but it can take more than 12 years.
…in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
As we mentioned already, BJJ offers a different status to black belt than other martial arts and as you might expect, it can take a bit longer to achieve a black belt in BJJ than it does in other martial arts.
In general, it is expected that a martial artist training several times a week, would gain a black belt in BJJ in 10 years. However, it is possible to do in as little as 4 years and nearly everyone has gained their BJJ black belt by the time they’ve done 16 years of regular training!
Rather like Aikido, there is a fast track to black belt in Judo. You just need to study with the Kodokan in Japan (and yes, that means you’ll need to master some Japanese before you go). Don’t think that this is an easy option, however, it’s a hardcore one year training course and you won’t find much time for anything other than judo.
Otherwise, you could expect to spend anything from 2 to 10 years studying for a judo black belt and 5-6 years appears to be a common length of study.
…in Japanese Jiu-Jitsu?
The status of a black belt in Japanese Jiu-Jitsu (JJJ) is not the same as it is in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Black belt in JJJ offers a similar status as it does in Judo. It can take up to 7 years to get your black belt in Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. A typical period of study would be 4-5 years though a very few can do it in less.
There is no current fast track system for JJJ and that means you’re going to need to train several times a week for years to gain a black belt.
Karate is a peculiar martial art because the Japanese Karate Association insists on a minimum of 3 years of “diligent training” before a practitioner may be awarded a black belt. However, several other karate bodies say that a minimum of 2 years is just fine.
Typically, a karate black belt can be gained in 3 to 6 years.
If you’re willing to move to Korea, where Taekwondo originates from, it is possible to get a Taekwondo black belt in just 6-7 months of study, as long as you complete an intensive training program which requires daily practice, every single day.
Otherwise, you can expect to spend between 3-6 years studying Taekwondo 2-3 times a week to get your black belt.
…in a McDojo?
A McDojo is a less than professional dojo concerned with making money more than teaching martial arts in an effective manner.
Many McDojos award their belts based on total fees paid or total years of membership. A black belt from a McDojo might impress your friends but it won’t impress anyone in the martial arts world, and it would not prepare you to learn anything of value.
One Last Thing On Black Belts
There is no race to get a black belt in martial arts. The important thing is that you are learning and improving each time you attend training.
There are so many variables that go into the award of a belt that it may take anything from a year to twenty seven years to pick up a black belt and there’s no shame in taking your time. You want to be known for real proficiency and not a McDojo participation award.
How long does it take to get a black belt? As we’ve seen, it depends. But for someone practicing intensely a few times a week with a reasonable degree of fitness and aptitude, 3 to 10 years is a fair estimation. The exception is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) where a black belt is a statement of mastery and usually takes longer.