Q&A: Tenth Degree Black Belt Takes Awhile

not sure if this is the right blog to ask this question but its the closest one that i know of, i have a character who started doing Karate at the minimum age (Age 6 from what i see) and so i want to know what is the minimum realistic age for him to become a first degree all the way through tenth degree black belt?

Assuming we work from the commercial martial arts school metric (which is the quickest), it’ll be around 45 years. A black belt past a certain rank (anywhere between two and five) will need to start journeying Japan on a semi-regular basis in order to be tested for their next belt ranks. And if they’re not, their master is the one who is making the pilgrimage. That also assumes the belt testing for the higher echelons is handed by one master, which it may not be. It something like eight official karate strands recognized by the World Karate Federation, and more unofficial. So, your character doesn’t just know karate.

That assumes the school goes to ten.

That assumes this is the belt system used by the school. (The classic martial arts legend is that in the old days, you trained so long that your belt turned black and that was when you achieved mastery.)

Assuming they allow any underage student to test for black belt. (Some schools don’t. If not, minimum age for a tenth degree is 63.)

Assuming they don’t have specific time constraints on your belt progression that has nothing to do with curriculum and everything to do with X amount of time spent in the school before they’ll consider it.

Your martial arts master is the one who decides when you get to test. If they say you’re not ready then you’re not testing. It is possible to fail the belt rank test, at any level. Commercial martial arts schools hold rank tests at specific intervals, usually spaced two to four months apart depending on belt rank level. You’ve got to be ready when the time comes, or you’ll have to wait until the next round. The Ernie Reyes school held black belt tests twice per year, but they were a large organization with over a hundred testing participants. In smaller organizations, it may happen less often. Usually, there’s a pretest before they allow you to test for your black belt. You can fail the pretest, and they reserve the right to fail you out of training prior to the test at any time.

Forty-five years training is a generous estimate. You’re not likely to hit tenth degree until you are eighty years old. Achieving mastery is a lifelong process. This is better than the traditional Chinese method for establishing a new martial art, which was go around and beat all the other masters in duels.

Trust me, having your ass handed to you by a sixty year old man is not a fun experience. It.. will also happen. Tradition in martial arts is you get tested in combat, to go up in rank you defeat those at rank, to become a master you defeat yours. “Now, I am the Master” is not just a trope, it’s tradition. (Not today, obviously. It used to be, in some cases.)

You’d reach the point around second or third degree in the higher ranks (and depending on style proliferation) where you’d be making the trip to Japan in order to be trained and tested by the school’s Grandmaster. A high ranking black belt would need to be at least partially fluent or speak passable Japanese, even if they could not read it. This is true for most Japanese martial arts, and for other martial arts too.

In the Ernie Reyes Organization, there is a monetary cost to testing. That metric rises by around a hundred dollars per black belt stripe. Fourth degree test costs around 400-500 dollars. Again, this is assuming a commercial martial arts school, not a school that is specifically training for active combat. If the school is training you for active combat, it’ll all take a lot longer.

In modern era combat, karate does not work unless it is modified. I got that from a Shotokan master who was also a Police Officer, and tested for his last black belt rank in Japan. (Third or Fourth degree.) He knew what he was talking about, and he was in his late thirties.

I was a third degree in Taekwondo by the time I was eighteen, but that’s out of a commercial system and that’s actually unusual. When looking at third degree tests, usually, they’re in their early to mid twenties.

In a traditional school, you can usually age your black belt rank per decade. First degree in the tens, second in the twenties, third in thirties, fourth in the forties, etc. 35-40 is the lowest age for a martial arts master, younger than that they’re usually technically good but not spiritually good and the spiritual component is what’s necessary.

Realistically, your character will never see tenth degree. When we talk tenth degree black belt in a martial arts system, that’s a number you can count on one hand and they may not exist at all. I’ve trained with seventh degree black belts and order grand masters in hosted seminars, but I’ve never seen a tenth degree.

The upper echelons past around rank five are spiritual journeys rather than technical or acquired skills, and this is especially true of tenth degree. You’ll get there when you get there, if you get there at all. That also assumes commercial approach rather than traditional, because traditional means you’re lucky if you see black belt at all. Ever. My shotokan master, one of his adult brown belts had been in training for about seven years, and his green belt training for five. Under this system, it could easily take ten years to reach black belt and you wouldn’t see a black belt testing under eighteen. (Not just danger, also maturity.)

The more sacred the belt ranks are in the system, the longer time it will take to reach and the harder it will be to reach them. However, those are the systems where the rank means something.

I’ll tell you right now, most martial artists at twelve who hold the rank of black belt aren’t actually worth anything on a technical level. (I say that having been a thirteen year old black belt.) The belt rank means something else in the commercial system. A child who got their black belt at twelve will be great by the time they’re twenty if they keep training, but they aren’t right now.

The amount of time necessary with traditional martial arts for rank progression is pretty much the reason why martial artists have the reputation for being godlike. The problem martial arts have in the modern era is they still have their place but combat moves too quickly for that kind of specialization. The counters are being developed while your character is training, so a hard counter will exist when they’re ready to put their skills into practice. However, many professionals train in martial arts because of the health and mental benefits and the flexibility the additions or alternative skill sets provide.

Traditional martial arts is not fair, it is not quick, and it takes decades of work. Commercial martial arts is/can be quick, but it’s balancing the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment with money. That is survival, and martial arts schools cannot or will have great difficulty surviving in the US without the commercial/business side. Usually, the first two black belt ranks get sacrificed to the commercial because kids are where most commercial martial arts schools make their money. That first black belt test is all important to the school, to the kid, and their parents. It’s an achievement, it’s a journey, and it looks great on a college application. It is real, but it means something else than what it would mean in a traditional system to someone who trained for ten years. Five years is much more reasonable/palatable to a parent and a child than ten. (That’s a long time, you’ll still have something like a 60% drop off between the kids who come for a few months to those who stay.) I know, that information kills the mystique some.

Understand, that every black belt earned their rank by the metric set for them. The question is do others agree, and the answer is usually no when we’re discussing more stringent systems. A lot of really popular martial arts will have that accusation leveled against them by others, and a lot of popular schools will as well. That their business model produces inferior students. Whether that is true or not is a matter of opinion and the opinions are diverse. I suggest carrying that knowledge with you into your fiction.

If you can’t tell me or anyone in your book which version of Karate they are practicing, then that’s where you should start working. Karate also gets used in the US as a catchall term for martial arts, just FYI.

-Michi

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