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December 05, 2022

Black Belt

By Mark W. Swarthout

Naturally, I was awake long before the alarm clock went off. Nervous energy was already coursing through me. I got up and made coffee and made sure that my bags were packed. I shook my daughter awake and sipped my caffeine while waiting to leave.

We got out the door allowing two and a quarter hours for the 75 mile trip. I was worried that construction and rush hour traffic might really slow us down, but I set a new record covering the 74 miles in 68 minutes. Liz read passages from the new Harry Potter book (we had both already finished it) out loud as we traveled, helping take my mind off what was waiting for me at the end of the trip. I had already postponed my test for black belt several times due to a combination of nerves and feeling less than ready. Today I felt ready, but very nervous.

It still took almost twenty minutes to get parked and into the testing building, construction making travel over the familiar routes impossible. Lots of friendly faces greeted me, wishing me luck as I changed. The test was in the Dance Studio, hardwood floor, the varnish was just old enough to allow us to pivot fairly well. Most of the individuals stretching out and warming up where unfamiliar to me. Ages ranged from teenagers to several that were older than me.

I discovered that there were nine applicants for Shodan, first degree black belt. The other thirteen were going for higher dan rankings. I heard a variety of accents, but it wasn't until later that I learned that there were candidates from the Israeli dojo, one from Dallas, several from Canada, California, Missouri, New York and New Jersey. Unlike previous summer test sessions, and to the relief of many of us, the exam was closed, no spectators allowed.

Joe, the towering 6 foot 6 inch 6th Dan, came in and explained the process to us. The exceptions were discussed (those that for various issues had certain items waived, such as bowing in seiza to the judges, or a shoulder injury that was going to prevent a roll in bunkai). And then came the first anxious moment. The kata for the test were selected. These choreographed combinations of blocks punches, kicks and transitions are the heart of traditional karate training and were the most critical part of the testing.

Chinto kata was a given. But which of the two Passai kata? Which of the two Kusanku? Which kata was best was going to depend on the individual. Different sized people, their flexibility, muscle build and stamina would all factor on which of the choices an individual preferred. I didn't have a real preference on Passai, Matsumura Passai was selected. I had been given a good deal of help on this kata by Iha Sensei on my last session working with him. I knew that if I showed him I remembered what he had corrected, that it would be good. Kusanku Dai! I broke into my first smile of the day. Whew! I liked the kata and I was more comfortable with it then the jump in Kusanku Sho, I was never happy with my landing.

There were twelve judges. Sensei Iha, the North American Grand Master and 10th Degree Black Belt, an 8th Degree, a whole panel of 7th Degrees (including my sensei) and a few 6th and 5th degree black belts. There were about eight others observing, the instructors of the candidates.

Our names were read out in the order we were to line up in. First by rank being tested for and then alphabetically. I was number eight of the nine. I wasn't sure if that was good or bad, but decided afterwards that it was good for my nerves. We were told that we would be doing kumite with the partners in order. I introduced myself to number seven, a young lady whose name I recognized as being a member of one of the key families in the east coast. I was glad she was about my height, we wouldn't have to deal with adjusting the techniques to compensate for differences.

Sensei Iha arrived, tired from his return from Okinawa the night before. His mother had passed away ten days earlier and he had been at the funeral. Grading sheets were passed out to the judges and the test got underway.

We started with the kata. The second or third candidate totally messed up his first kata, but moved into the second and third quickly and correctly. We had been told that if that should happen, we would be given the opportunity to do one kata over again. But watching the others do the kata allowed me to realize that everyone of them did it slightly differently. I gave me a comfort level that was a big help when my turn came.

I don't remember much about my turn. I know that I did them. I sat down, relieved that I had made it through the kata without any major errors or mistakes. I had a few slight balance issues and a very small hesitation that my sensei recognized. As I watched the following individuals do their sequences, I tried to remember whether I had actually done the move in my turn, but couldn't! I was assured during the break by one of my fellow karateka that I had done them all. And I wasn't asked to do any of them over!

The higher ranks testing were truly amazing to watch, particularly the two highest participants. There was a huge difference between the level of abilities from us lowly Ikkyu going for Shodan and the Yodans testing for Godan.

Before we moved into kumite, the one kata was redone. He did it correctly and looked good. It wasn't an issue, as he passed. Some styles would consider a kata mistake like this as an immediate and automatic fail. But we also have to balance the decision against reality. While nerves are an issue, how fair is it when someone has given up a month's salary to fly half way around the world? If someone messes up all of their kata, or their mind completely slides into vacation mode during bunkai, they will fail.

We moved into the kumite. We were paired off, and I found myself paired off as expected. We ended up in the front row of the pairs, closest to the judges. We bowed to our partners and on command, went through the six sequences, one side only. It went quickly and we didn't have any flubs, the falls coming easy and the flow was crisp. I was actually pleased as we sat down and began to feel some confidence that I was going to pass.

The bunkai set up was the first five candidates in position, with the rest of us lined up. We were to do the bunkai for Pinan Shodan, Pinan Sandan and Pinan Yodan. As each person finished, they rotated to the back of the line and the next one stepped into the rotation. I did fairly well, nothing omitted or forgotten, the falls all looked good as each uke dropped on contact to make everyone look as good as possible. Upon finishing the twenty-two sets of three, I was hoping we were done. I was sure that the carillon on campus had already struck noon, and the test was supposed to be done at 11.

But no rest, we lined up and were directed to perform the bunkai for Matsumora Bassai. I was not happy, as I know it is one of my weaker bunkai. I flubbed the first attackers position, missing a high low combination, but the person in the center adjusted well and we finished the sequence without looking too awkward. It was my biggest concern as we finished up.

After bowing to the judges we were dismissed with a "We'll let you know!"

I found my daughter and we headed out to grab some lunch. We had a half hour before the Seminar was to start. I was tired, but feeling fairly good. I got word almost immediately that one individual had not passed, and a little while later heard of another. They had done the kata properly as to the moves, but they had been hesitant lacking in power, flow and focus. I found out later that of the nine candidates for Shodan, six had passed.

After some great afternoon sessions lead by Sensei Iha, a kobudo demonstration and dinner, my daughter and I participated in the kobudo class. After about an hour we realized that we were both too fried to go on without endangering someone. She waited while I climbed the stairs to get our stuff and say good night to our dojo mates. I was 'strongly advised' by one of my instructors that I needed to hang around.

I went and got my daughter and we lined up with everyone there for the final closing bow of the evening, only they made the announcements of the test results before. Those that passed were called up front. When my name was called I went forward to a chorus of cheers from throughout the gymnasium. Bowing to Sensei Iha, I was directed to take off my obi, and my Sensei proceeded to tie a black belt around my waist. It was a real thrill to walk down the line of the judges and instructors, bowing to all, hugging some. And then to join my fellow new shodans at the back, congratulating each other.

Fellow karateka, people that I had trained with over the years congratulated me over the next few days, but the most amazing part of the whole experience was this realization:

Sometime after completing the kata portion of my test, I looked across the panel of judges. I knew everyone of them by name, and knew most of the other instructors that were watching their students. Over the past five years I had participated in at least one training session with each of them, many of them many times. I could even recall what some of them had helped with, a particular move on a kata, a stance, or a tricky transition. It is a real feeling of amazement to realize how much each of these people has become a part of me.

I can only hope that sometime in the future, that I can share that part of these unselfish people with others that are behind me on the path.

Kata -- A sequence of moves representing blocking attackers and counter moves against them. The history is long and diverse, representing a teaching method hundreds of years old.

Bunkai -- Application of kata while actual attackers come in against the center person. Teaches timing, distance and cooperation.

Kumite -- Partner drills that teach timing, distance, cooperation, balance and calmness.

Ikkyu -- First kyu, the level right below Black Belt. Depending on style, this is indicated by a brown belt, or a brown belt with black stripe, or black tips on the end.

Sensei -- "One who has gone before." Usually refers to a teacher or a senior practitioner in any skill.

Karatedo -- Literally translates as "Art of the empty hand."

Kobudo -- (or kobu jutsu) The art of the ancient weapons of Okinawa such as the bo, tonfa, sai or nunchuku.

Article © Mark W. Swarthout. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-08-22
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