My brother in law is an ordained minister. As the spiritual leader for his community, he would be well within his rights to dress in the clerical collar worn by his brethren and yet, he doesn’t. I asked him about it once and was impressed by his answer. He explained that all members of the church are equal in the eyes of God and that the only thing that differentiates him from the other members of the congregation is that he has specific education, training, knowledge, and experience that allows him to preach from the pulpit. Aside from that, he is no different than any other member of society and does not want to be treated any differently. He went on to explain that he hopes that his actions, his demeanor, and the way he treats others would be what people notice about him rather than his clothes.
Most karate schools use a rank system to distinguish between their members. This is, however, not a segregation tool but rather a pedagogical one. Coloured belts are used to allow instructors of large schools or guest instructors to quickly assess the approximate level of skill and experience of each group of students. But what happens after black belt? The colour system alone would suggest that everyone wearing a black belt is at the same level yet we all know that to be untrue. Some schools will add stripes to the black belt – one for each dan achieved – some will provide special patches or uniform codes, and some will use special coloured belts.
I admired my sensei’s red/white/black belt and dreamt of one day wearing one
In the systems in which I grew up, senior instructors having reached the level of shihan (master) wore a special belt that was red and white on one side, and black on the other. Senior masters wore a red/black belt and the grand-master wore a red belt. I liked this idea at first because it helped students identify who the senior instructors were. This was particularly helpful at large, international seminars. One day, I asked my sensei why he didn’t wear his red/white/black belt and I was impressed by his answer.
He explained that in Canada, all members of the dojo are equal and that the only thing that differentiates him from the other members of the association is that he has specific education, training, knowledge, and experience that allows him to teach from the front of the hall. But aside from that, he is no different than any other member of society and does not want to be treated any differently. He went on to explain that he hopes that his actions, his demeanor, and the way he treats others would be what people notice about him rather than his clothes. It occurred to me that I had heard that explanation once before.
When I first started training I remember seeing the black belt around my sensei’s waist and dreaming of one day wearing one myself. Later, after having achieved the black belt, I admired my sensei’s red/white/black belt and dreamt of one day wearing one. In retrospect, I realise that my dreams were misplaced – I should have been working towards being as good a person as those wearing collars and those wearing red/white/black belts rather than coveting their clothes.
It is my sincere hope that when a karate master, particularly a senior one, enters the dojo, students would immediately realise that this is a person of some status – not by the way they are dressed but by how they carry themselves and by the positive way they treat others.