For several years now I’ve been training in Aikido (合氣道), a martial art strongly tied to traditional Japanese culture, and I’m proud to say I have finally achieved my black belt (初段 [shodan], meaning the first black belt ranking). I’d like to take this opportunity to make a post about black belts in Aikido, focusing more on a few important topics (and mixing in my personal experiences) as opposed to a comprehensive coverage.
To begin with, I should mention that there are many styles of Aikido and the one I train in is formally called “Shinshin Toitsu Aikido” (心身統一合氣道, “Aikido with Mind & Body Coordinated”), sometimes informally called “Ki Aikido”. If you want some helpful background before reading this article, I suggest checking out this article first which highlights the style of Aikido and the organization I practice within, the Ki Society. As you can tell from the name, this organization puts a major focus on “Ki”––a word that is a bit hard to explain briefly but for now I’ll just say it has several meanings, including “energy” and “attention”.
But for those of you who don’t feel like reading background elsewhere, I’ll point out that one of Ki Aikido’s primary purposes is to learn to control your mind and body better, and apply the things learned “off the mat” in everyday life. There is a “martial” aspect to Ki Aikido (and you can trace its roots to traditional Aikido, as well as older martial arts like aiki-juujutsu), but in the Ki Society this is only a portion of what we learn and practice. One of the ultimate goals of Ki Society is to help improve the lives of its members, and through them, improve society.
Before I get any further, I want to emphasize that details about black belts and testing are likely to be very different across styles of aikido, with some differences even within Ki Aikido for each sub-organization and country. Finally, I should mention that over time testing requirements can change, so even if you trained in the same organization as me at a later time, some things might be different.
What is required to obtain a black belt?
Shortly after I began learning Ki Aikido and Ki principles I showed interest in getting a black belt and asked how long it would take. I was told that if someone trains pretty heavily (going to most of the weekly classes, etc.) the minimum is around five years. (As a side point, the time scale for testing is somewhat different for children.)
In the end, I managed to become a yuudansha (有段者, meaning someone who of a first rank black belt of higher) in about 5 years and 3 months. I trained quite heavily, participating in 4-5 classes during some periods of time (this includes assisting with children’s classes). An average week might be 5-6 hours of training, and easily double that during times of heavier training.
By the way, I heard that in Japan it typically takes those training in Ki Aikido only around three years to get a black belt. I haven’t figured out if that is because they train differently, or have different emphasis (or for some other reason), but that’s a big difference.
Returning to the topic of black belts in the U.S., I don’t know what the minimum age is, but when I tested the age range was spread across four decades, with me somewhere right in the middle. One thing I like about Ki Aikido is that people can generally train until very late in life, with members in their 60s not uncommon (and many still do rolls and other dynamic movements).
To get a black belt, you also have to have taken all the tests for the belts leading up to that (the last belt color is brown, for which there are several sub-levels).
There are a few other requirements to take the black belt test that I am not going to go into, except to say that each student must be recommended by a sensei (teacher) before they can take the test. Generally, everyone who takes the black belt test––and goes through the training required up to it––passes, which is a relief.
What does the test involve?
Once again, here I am not going to go into everything involved in the test, but rather focus on three of the key (and perhaps most difficult) areas.
The first is called jiyuu-waza (“free technique”) and involves an attacker (“uke”) who performs a specific attack on the test taker (“nage”, the one who performs the technique). There are several attacks for jiyuu-waza, and the nage must perform a series of techniques in quick succession. Besides proper execution of each technique, emphasis is placed on remaining calm between techniques from start to finish, making things much more difficult than performing a single technique in isolation.
The second is a series of weapon taigis (predefined sets of techniques and/or movements, similar to “kata” in other martial arts) which are performed without a partner. I will say that learning these was especially difficult for me, and I am glad I started working with weapons early in my training. There are a lot of details to pay attention to in these taigis, and (as with everything) they need to be done in a calm state of mind with a relaxed body. I feel that doing these taigis properly requires acting as if the weapon is a part of your own body.
The third part of the test I wanted to touch on is called “randori”, which is when several people simultaneously attack the nage, who must throw them one at a time and move onto the next person quickly. While randori is generally over pretty quickly, it is intense and requires deep concentration to execute properly. (By the way, in Japan the term “randori” is not used much, and the term 多人数掛け [taninzuu-gake] is more common.)
In parallel with the Aikido test, there is a separate Ki Test (actually a series of tests) that is required to get a black belt. While these are less physical, in exchange they show the student has excellent control of the mind, among other things.
What are the advantages of having a black belt?
In Ki Aikido, all black belt practitioners not only wear a black belt, but they also wear a hakama (袴), a black pleated skirt. There are some historical reasons for wearing hakamas that don’t apply to modern times, but I think they are a great way to respect traditional Japanese culture (and they look pretty cool as well). Folding them can be a little tricky, and I am still in the process of perfecting my folding technique.
By the way, even though in the U.S. (and some other countries) we use a variety of belt colors in Ki Aikido, in Japan they only use white, brown, and black for adults. So if you are planning on training in Japan, a black belt will help you to gain more recognition for what level you are (without actually having to explain your level).
But more importantly, having a black belt shows that the practitioner has a good grasp of using their mind and body together, of Ki principles, and also the various techniques and exercises that are commonly done during training.
Having a black belt also opens up the possibility to formally teach a Ki-Aikido class (though lower-level students can still assist classes in some cases, especially in children’s classes). Personally I think I would probably be able to teach a children’s class without too much trouble, but for an adult class I would be less comfortable, unless the students were all much lower level than me. But I hope to look for opportunities to teach adults gradually over time.
In the last few years I have been watching other black belt students carefully and noticed there was a significant gap between them and the lower-level students. Seeing this gap, I often wondered if it really would be possible for me to reach that level in only a few years.
Just as in other areas of life, growth in Aikido is gradual and is often hard to tell from the inside out. But watching a video of myself taking the test made it clear to me how much I had improved in only a few years. Before the test there were some intensive training sessions where the teaching was a bit stricter than usual, and those really helped me to make extra progress. I am now able to perform many of the techniques in a more smooth, martially relevant way.
Having said that, I think the skill and understanding of many of the other black belt students is still far above my own (after all, many of them have been black belts for a decade or longer).
In the weeks leading up to the test I was especially concerned about some minor injuries I had, thinking that if they got worse I wouldn’t be able to take the test. In the days approaching the test that was especially on my mind. On the day of the test, I began to feel exhausted and grew even more concerned about whether I would be able to make it through the day.
But the moment the test was over, I noticed my injuries weren’t that bad after all, and my exhaustion was mostly mental. That evening I even went on a bike ride and didn’t go to bed particularly early, so it turns out that much of my concerns were only in my head.
To be honest, I had this expectation that when the moment of the test came, I would somehow suddenly improve and perform at a higher level, inspired by the pressure of the test. But it turned out that, while I was definitely nervous, when I performed waza and other things during the test it was very similar to when I performed them outside of the test. There was no magic in that moment to help me––which I guess you can consider both a bad and good thing. Actually, I guess there was a type of magic: seeing the genuinely joyful faces of everyone participating and spectating, the faces of a group that really enjoys and appreciates Ki-Aikido and the Ki Society.
I think it’s important to emphasize that the black belt test is primarily a way to demonstrate everything a student has learned. The important part is really all the training done up to that point, and indeed the test itself was much easier (and much shorter) than the intense training I had done in the weeks leading up to it. The fact that nobody really “fails” the test (at least to my knowledge) further goes with this concept, although in a few cases students may be asked to redo a certain technique or taigi in order to correct something (this happened to me). I’m also glad I went through all this in my 40s, instead of a decade or two later when it would have been much more difficult.
I recall talking to a guy a few years ago who had just obtained his black belt. He said to me something like, “A black belt is really just the beginning of your learning.” At the time while I sort of understood what he meant, I also doubted how true it was and felt he was exaggerating. But after having gone through all this, I now realize he was completely right. There are always things to polish to more closely match instruction from the senseis, and over time there are even refinements to the suggested way to perform certain waza. This is also true for applying things I’ve learned in the Ki Society to everyday life: there is always room for improvement to better control my mind, coordinate my mind with my body, “extend Ki”, etc.
In fact, I expect things to get a little more difficult in the coming weeks because people will be having higher expectations of me now that I have a black belt.
I plan to lower the intensity of my training for a little while, but eventually I want to get back to frequent training and aim to keep improving in a variety of areas. While gaining the rank of black belt doesn’t mean I have mastered anything completely, it was a good motivator to help me improve, and it was very satisfying and enjoyable to finally achieve it. But going forward I expect to be focusing more on improvement for its own sake instead of for something like a second-rank black belt (nidan), though it would be nice to eventually be promoted to that. (Who knows, maybe someday I might even open my own dojo…)
Although I took the fast track to getting a black belt as quickly as possible, I want to make it clear that no one is pressured to do this. It’s totally fine to do things at your own pace, and some people have taken a decade or longer to get a black belt. You can enjoy and learn a lot from Ki Aikido without worrying about a black belt. Not to mention that some people don’t worry about learning Aikido and instead focus on Ki Principles.
This article ended up being a mix of topics for those new to Aikido and those already training, but I hope you enjoyed it and maybe learned something. Having a black belt gives me a bit more confidence to write about Aikido, and so I am planning a series of articles to delve into important topics like “Ki”, as well as some content to give a taste of Ki Society learnings without showing up in the dojo (though training with a sensei in person is always best). But I am open to article ideas and welcome any feedback.
In the meantime you can check out the handful of other articles I have written about Aikido on this blog.
(While I am not going to post videos of my test for privacy reasons, I will link a video that shows testing practice performed by Ki Society students in Japan. It looks like they are actually going for second or third black belt, but there are many similarities in the test content. For example, the weapon taigis starting at around 3:55 are basically the same ones I did, though there are some stylistic differences.)