Martial Arts “Masters” – FACT or FANTASY? – Part 2

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A new section to this article: “Martial Arts ‘Masters’- FACT or FANTASY?” will be posted every Thursday.  Please leave a comment giving your feedback and/or opinions. I look forward to the discussions.


Students of history may well make some parallel comparisons with the evolution of other systems of academic education. At one time in history there were some very famous scholars and “master” teachers whose work has stood the test of time and is still seen as valid today. Aristotle, Plato, Leonardo Da Vinci, Confucius, Lao Tzu, are but a few. These “Masters” taught long before there were universities or diplomas and degrees issued.

Over time areas of study were established as pertinent in many fields and thereby began the formalization for higher education and eventually even elementary, middle, and secondary education. Today many of those institutions are licensed by governments but ultimately their social standings, reputations, and credibility are still measured in part by the quality level of the students they produce.

For example, most educated people would certainly distinguish between a degree received from Harvard or Yale in comparison with one received at a local Community College. Both are valid yet there appears and it is assumed by reputation that there are higher standards attained by attending some schools as compared with the others. If we continue that analogy we can also compare any such degree/diploma receive from such “Ivy League” universities with one that is received from some mail order “University”.

Today there are also many legitimate online options, however, there are still some places where a “student” can pay a sum of money and receive a “diploma/degree” with little or no real study or research. Most people would agree that this is truly fraudulent, clearly lacking in credibility. It also speaks volumes about the integrity of the person purchasing such a diploma along with the questionable motives of the institute or individual selling  and awarding such a diploma.

Unfortunately, this type of practice is also present in martial arts and there is even more potential for abuse. Therefore, it would be helpful to examine what some logical and legitimate standards should be in order to discern “fact” from “fantasy”.

First, it is important to understand that in order for there to be credibility for any group or individual who issues such “rank”, belts, degrees, or diplomas, they must be able to undergo some simple scrutiny. For example, one common sense question might be: “What credibility would a plumber have in issuing certifications for medical doctors no matter what skills he may have as a “master plumber?”. Obviously, by simple logic it is important to acknowledge that doctors are qualified to measure and accredit other doctors while plumbers are most qualified to measure  and accredit other plumbers

Therefore, it is important to compare “apples to apples” and not “apples to oranges”.  The following should be helpful in recognizing some benchmarks that have been time tested and are part of the basic premises behind all martial arts ranking systems.


First, identifying the students by belt color, sash, or some other progressive symbol is simply a tool that makes organization of training within any organization more efficient and practical. By color coding each student, the teacher and/or assistants can easily be reminded visually of what information each student has already been exposed to and what minimum level of proficiency has been reached by those students.

For the student, the same identification process can also serve as “goal setting” tools for his or her motivation. Further, in martial arts one verifiably learns, “With ability comes responsibility,” therefore, the student whose higher status is visually evident (by wearing a belt of a particular color) is expected to take a much more mature and responsible role in any training. This visual color coding also serves as positive reinforcement of the training rigor the student has overcome as well as his/her level of successful achievement. As a comparison to academic education, one would certainly expect a student in the 12th grade (of public school education) to be much more responsible than one in the 1st grade.

It is important to also recognize that most “traditionally based” martial arts are taught not only as a physical development method but also as a study that serves to develop the intellectual capacity, emotional efficacy, and the moral sensibility of the student. This is what identifies “martial arts” as compared to “martial technique” or “martial science”. For this reason there can be quite a variety in what may be required at each level depending upon the emphasis and standards that are preferred by a particular “Master teacher” or group of teachers.

Please remember that Karate Masters will be more adept at measuring and setting standards for Karate students, Judo Masters for Judo,  Jiu Jitsu Masters for Jiu Jitsu students, etc. And further, it would make sense that masters of Shotokan style would be more qualified to measure other Shotokan instructors and students while GoJu-ryu would be more qualified to measure other GoJu-ryu stylists, etc. Although there is certainly some commonality and crossover between systems, the credibility of accurate standards would be much stronger when done within a given discipline and also style and by reputable Master teachers who have legitimately established a solid record of performance in the areas they are examining.

With many potential differences in mind, however, there still seems to be some “norms” that have stood the test of time and still remain as the foundation for many martial arts systems. To be specific, the levels below Black Belt (referred to a kyu in most systems with Japanese roots and “gup” in most systems with Korean roots) generally represent a progression from lesser to greater ability at basic, foundational techniques, principles, and tactics.

Therefore, the achievement of “Black Belt” most accurately signifies reaching a level of “expert at the basics”. This is not “mastery” but simply represents a certain level of practical ability. In the west since the “Black Belt” has been romanticized it has usually carried a much greater symbolic significance. In reality, this symbol of achievement actually marks that the student has done enough work and basic study to have reached a level where he is able to begin “serious” study.

Henceforth, many martial arts systems see this as marking the beginning of the more significant part of the martial arts journey, not the end or as a final goal or achievement.


Copyright © 2010  R.V. PASCETTA, All rights reserved

…more to come next week, check back Thursday for PART 3 in this series…

(Go to PART 3 of this series)

(Go Back to PART 1 of this series)

Go to Questions/Comments Page



  • abe says:

    First things firsty, nice article I really enjoyed reading it but, (of course) I have a question for you:

    You stated: "Therefore, the achievement of “Black Belt” most accurately signifies reaching a level of “expert at the basics”. This is not “mastery” but simply represents a certain level of practical ability."

    What is the difference from obviously your perspective between "expert" and "Mastery?" Both words sound similar almost unseperatable to me. How can one be a expert (of the basics) and not have a mastery of it or some level of mastery?

    • Response to Abe, comment Submitted on 2010/05/24 at 10:30am

      That’s a valid question, Abe. The difference is very distinct. By “Expert” I specifically am intending to emphasize the skill level of the individual practitioner. Of course there is also an basic and functional understanding of those “skills” that are the foundation of the particular system of martial arts studied. By “Mastery”, however, I am specifically intending to emphasize the ability to more fully understand, not simply the basic tenets of system studied but also, the relationship between the various principles and concepts upon which those foundational skills are built, how they must be integrated, as well as the ability to communicate those ideas to others.

      For example, it is possible for a student to have a certain level of expertise with the techniques he/she performs yet not fully understand why those skills work in the way they do. In that example the student may be physically and mentally skilled enough to be considered an “Expert”, yet not knowledgeable enough to have “Mastery” of the system of knowledge. I hope that clarifies the difference and answers your question.

  • abe says:

    Thank you that does answer my question that is what I thought you meant, but I am not one to assume.

    Will this article in the future explain higher dan rankings i.e 2ndan 3rd . etc and the similarities and difference between each ranking?

    • Hi Abe. Thank you again for your input. Interesting that you should ask concerning the higher Dan rankings. Please go to PART 3 of this article that was posted today and you will find this subject addressed in some detail. Hopefully this will serve to shed some light on your questions.