I’m Paul Willson I am a brown belt in Ju Jutsu, a centuries old Japanese martial art.
Most martial arts have a some kind of belt system where you start with either a red or white belt and work your way up possibly following a curriculum and when your instructor thinks you are ready you take a grading exam and you get a different coloured belt until you get to black belt and then you get various degrees of black belt. However, is it needed?
The belt system is said to be a western invention and in the countries in the far east where a martial art originated a belt became black due to years of training and the belt not getting washed. Fun fact, I washed my belt once. Never again. It just didn’t hold my gi together properly afterwards, you need the starch in the material!
Fun facts aside, do we really need a belt system? From a ability point of view no. Think about it, do you really need a coloured belt to tell you how good you are or your martial arts knowledge? Would you forget everything if you put on a white belt? The answer is obviously no. Do you need that extra level of respect because you have a coloured belt which represents a higher grade to others? If you do then you need to look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you really are that insecure. Also in respect to Japanese martial arts the sempai (senior) and kouhai (junior) system worked for a long without coloured belts.
That is the argument against coloured belts. However, I do think the belt system does work for western countries where symbols of rank are important. Firstly a black belt implies an expertise in martial arts and the aura, for want of a better word, that black belt gives. For someone who goes to a dojo for the first time you would want to be taught by someone with a black belt as that black belt wearer would give a confidence that person has the expertise and authority to teach. Also the belt system helps westerners learn the sempai and kouhai system where the higher someone grades, the coloured belt teaches them the responsibility to teach and be responsible for their juniors (kouhai).
For the individual the answer to whether the belt system is necessary is a little bit of a grey area. If the tradition and cultural side of martial arts is important to you then I can’t see a belt system would motivate you much to improve as learning the the culture and language as much as the techniques is motivation enough. However, the belt system does give a goal aspect to your martial arts training and the feeling of pride after passing the grading exam and getting your new belt in the ceremony afterwards never gets old.
One thing that must be taught with the belt system is that the belt around your waist is a responsibility. The higher grade you are the greater the responsibility you have. One thing the belt should never be seen as is authority. I have seen it and it causes resentment. One criticism of the belt system is that that it can be manipulated to make money where students are graded and passed whether they are good enough or not. My sensei likes to say the belt represents knowledge and not ability. It is hard to argue against that.
So is the belt system needed? For me it depends on the individual whether they need the goal of the belt or if the culture of the martial art is more important. I personally like having a goal to work towards especially the as in my club and federation they do not give the techniques we learn Japanese names but that is just me I’m sure it is different for others. The important thing is that it works for you.