Becoming A Black Belt

Becoming A Black Belt

Becoming a black belt in Seal Martial Arts Kobudo is no easy task! It takes a years of study and dedicated training to be accepted as one of our instructors. 

One of the problems i found in the Bujinkan is there isn’t a clear standard for Shodan (1st Dan) and beyond. It’s largely down to the individual instructors expectations as each dojo sets its own syllabus based on the Tenchijin Ryaku No Maki. 

This has obviously led to poor quality control with some instructors being far more experienced than others depending on who they trained under. There is also a huge problem with people selling grades so a Shodan (1st Dan) could quite easily leap to Godan (5th Dan) and then Kudan (9th Dan) just by moving in the right circles with certain Shihan (10th Dan+) and paying double/triple for grades. 

This isn’t an issue exclusively in the Bujinkan i have seen it in other martial arts styles as well with people going from apprentices to 5th Dan Guros in FMA for example. 

So what should the standard for a black belt be?

In the Seal Martial Arts Dojo we believe a black belt should have a firm understanding of Taijutsu/Jujutsu and understand the some of the fundamental weapons such as Nunchaku, Hanbo, Bo, Katana and Kusarifundo. We don’t expect students to know about the Tanto aside from Muto Dori (Unarmed Defences Against Blades) as knife fighting is extremely dangerous in reality and you should train extensively in it. Because of this Tanto is studied at 5th Dan in Seal Martial Arts Kobudo.

The grading for black belt is extremely extensive, we randomly select techniques from 9th Kyu to Shodan (1st Dan) which the student must be able to demonstrate on command. They also must be able to demonstrate a significant level of skill with the Nunchaku, Hanbo and Kusarifundo as these weapons are studied in the Kyu grades. We also expect them to know the basics of Bojutsu (Studied at 2nd Dan) such as Kamae and Bo Furi Gata and at some point during the students training they will have trained with a Bokken (Wooden Sword) so we would expect a black belt to know the Kamae and Happo Biken (8 Cuts).

The student also must be able to demonstrate the ability to teach a lesson on their own under the supervision of a qualified instructor. Students can often find it quite difficult to make that jump from student to instructor so it is best to guide them through the process for a while and allow them to find their teaching style.

We also expect our black belts to be competent at sparring which is common in most martial arts but not in the Bujinkan for some reason. The students have to spar an opponent to submission in 3 rounds and demonstrate technical proficiency in the way they get the submissions. For example if a student just rugby tackled their opponent and punched them in the nuts that isn’t demonstrating technical proficiency just using brute force. We want to see techniques being used such as Take Ori or Omote Gyaku or strategies such as taking the opponents back and applying Shime Waza (Chokes).

Finally we would want the student to take part in Randori. In this process the student going for their black belt is attacked by each of the other students in the dojo with various attacks such as a punch, a kick, a one handed grab, a body grab, etc. The student must perform a different counter technique to each attack for example if one opponent grabbed with one hand and the student performed Take Ori then the student couldn’t perform Take Ori again against a one handed grab but Ura Gyaku would be fine. It’s important to flow when applying techniques switching seamlessly between each one.

The entire black belt grading takes about 3 hours in total with the grading, sparring and Randori. The student must also have demonstrated the ability to teach lessons before the grading takes place. If the student competently demonstrates everything outlined above then they will be awarded their Shodan (1st Dan) and receive their black belt in Seal Martial Art Kobudo.

It’s important to remember that receiving your black belt is just the start, It means you have a good understanding of the fundamental techniques required for further study. There is always more to learn when it comes to martial arts and if you want to study more Taijutsu/Jujutsu we always have the Densho to go through for additional techniques.

The Dan grades are outlined in the syllabus up to 7th Dan to provide clarity for students who manage to obtain their Shodan. We have chosen to focus on the weapons systems in the Dan grades such as:

  • 2nd Dan - Bojutsu
  • 3rd Dan - Sōjutsu 
  • 4th Dan - Naginatajutsu
  • 5th Dan - Tantojutsu
  • 6th Dan - Shurikenjutsu & Kunai
  • 7th Dan - Kenjutsu & Jo

There is an 8th Dan but this is an honorary grade only awarded to 7th Dan instructors for time served and achievements within their local community. If a student achieves 8th Dan they will be awarded with Menkyo Kaiden (License of Full Transmission) and will be permitted to start their own branch of the system. This would most likely happen at the point when I decided to choose a successor to take over Seal Martial Arts Kobudo.

The junior black belt is not the same standard as an adult black belt, It’s the equivalent of about 4th/3rd Kyu in the adult syllabus. 

This doesn’t mean that it isn’t an achievement in its own right getting the junior black belt! We expect a lot from our junior students, many adults would struggle to obtain their 3rd Kyu within a couple of years so for kids this is more than a fitting level for junior black belt.

We also expect the junior black belts to be able to teach a kids lesson on their own under supervision from a qualified instructor. It’s an important step in developing leadership qualities in the students and it also helps them to develop confidence when public speaking. At first it’s a nerve wracking experience but after a few lessons they take to it like ducks to water.

There is also a sparring element to the junior black belt grading. The junior students have a specific lesson each week for sparring on Tuesday evenings at 18:00 so by the time they are ready to do their black belt grading they have a significant amount of experience in sparring. With the kids we divide sparring into two elements, points sparring and ground sparring. In points sparring they get 1 point for a punch, 2 points for a kick and 3 points for a takedown. In ground sparring they aren’t allowed to strike each other and must get a submission by tap out. As part of the grading they must complete 3 two minute rounds of ground sparring with an opponent equal in size.

The junior black belts are also graded on randomly selected techniques taken from the Shadow Warriors Training Manual so they need to know all of the techniques in intricate detail and must be able to demonstrate them upon request. 

The only part of the black belt grading the junior students don’t do is the Randori however we may implement this into future junior black belt gradings.

To date since we started the Shadow Warriors lessons in 2019 we have only had two students achieve their junior black belts so it quite literally is 1 in 100 students that has achieved their junior black belts with the Seal Martial Arts Dojo. 

This doesn’t mean it unobtainable just that you have to put the work in, we don’t just give out black belts for participation. 

Overall we want to ensure that black belts of the Seal Martial Arts Dojo are capable of applying the techniques studied in a practical and efficient manner should they need to. Quality control is key and everyone needs to know exactly what is expected from them up to black belt and beyond which is something that I’ve always found to be particularly confusing within the Bujinkan. We want all of our black belts to have the highest standards of training available so that the essence of the art doesn’t get diluted over time by instructors chasing grades. This is why I decided that 8th Dan would be the highest grade in our system and it will only be awarded to exceptional instructors as there is no point in chasing grades other than to increase your skill set. Remember a black belt is just a dirty white belt! 

It really comes down to what sort of black belt you want to be, you can rush your way through training doing the bare minimum to pass each grade in a few years or you can immerse yourself in the art and learn everything there is to learn about each techn and weapon becoming a true master of the art. Students can see through teachers that lack integrity so it’s important to be knowledgeable and to show there is substance to the art you teach. My personal advice is that as a teacher you should listen to your students, after all I learn just as much from them as they learn from me.