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Black Belt Tests

Each system has a different approach to testing. I’m not suggesting that one method is better or more valid than another but, it does demonstrate different mindsets. This is another reason why all Black Belts will never be equal.

My first Black Belt test was for Kodokan Judo, in Japan March 1979. Judo is the first system to use the belt system. Judo was taught in the public school system. In Japan at the time most practitioners attained shodan (1st degree Black Belt) somewhere during High School (if they ever got that far). Kendo, and Karate were also taught in the school system there. My understanding is that students had to choose one of the three to learn. I’m not clear on if it was approached like gym class or being on the football team in school here. Many other students were U.S. military personal stationed there (I was one of those). For each rank from white belt up in Judo you had to learn the basic material and win a minimum of ten matches in official tournaments to be eligible to test for the next rank. Testing was done in large groups at a few authorized locations. Since it was in line with teaching/education they lined people up in groups and went through all the material for the rank. If someone didn’t do things perfectly the first time they were taught/corrected on the spot to get them through the test. It was always a positive experience. Shodan meant that you were now a practitioner of the system, not that you had mastered it.

Many if not the majority of systems taught in the U.S. for decades were brought back from the orient by GI’s that had trained in Japan, Korean, Taiwan, etc.. These being strong men with a military mindset, impacted how they trained and how they perceived and conducted Black Belt tests for their students. Hawaii was a melting pot with lots arts coming in from the orient. You had a large number of GI’s there as well as civilians that needed to be able to defend themselves from people that were not on their best behavior. These systems were tested constantly in the bars and streets, and had to work. This lead to some systems testing as a right of passage designed to take you to your limits physically and mentally. You either came out the other end of the test changed or you failed. You would experience things that reminded you of boot camp during the tests. I remember going home after one test and waiting for a heart attacker that never happened (thankfully). One man I trained with says his first test was that he was taken to a biker bar and had to go in the back room and fight a biker his teacher had set it up with. This was another common testing method in the day. He got his butt kicked the first time (failed the test) and had to go train another year to be brought back to the bar to fight the same guy again.

There are other systems that when your teacher decides you have earned it, he just comes up and presents it to you in class one day with no test.

Today many of the schools have open door tests where friends and family are invited, instead of closed door tests with no witnesses. They are used as marketing and sales events. You will see very well organized, structured events where everyone gets to come up in turn and demonstrate the required skills. There is lots of moral support, with many having lots of applause throughout. It allows the school and students to showcase what is being taught there. It is a great recruitment tool for some schools. 

When considering joining a school you need to know what you are looking for, and what you want out of it. Understanding how they approach testing can give you many insights to help you pick the best school for you.


Mike Murphy




Categories: Concepts & Principles
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