what we’re wearing, part 2 – the white/orange belt

whiteorangebelta few weeks ago, a member of our (KUGB) club who had transferred to us from another association (the JKAE) presented me with some of his old belts. this was a nice gesture on his part; in my club, i  don’t charge people for their new belts at a grading, but ask that they be traded in as part of a recycling scheme that means savings for everyone, fewer discarded belts in the world, and a nice sense of continuity/community within the club. i had always planned to implement such a scheme even before i had really planned to run a karate club; even if i had an interest in making a living from running the club, the small profit made from belt sales (£20 a year per person, maybe?) has never seemed worthwhile given the cost – that is, being a club that requires people to buy belts – only from you – at £5 a go. urgh.

so i have ended up, over the last few years, with a vast number of orange and red belts, and fewer purple and brown belts, in stock; this, i think, neatly reflects the attrition rate of karate as a long-term pursuit: people move away, become bored or disillusioned, begin families, etc. there may be some lessons there, but that is for another time. what interested me particularly about receiving mark’s old belts was that they included one i had never seen before: the white/orange stripe belt. my favourite colour being orange, i took rather a fancy to this belt, and it felt very strange indeed to put it on (and looks weird to club members who never see me out of my dutifully distressed black belt). but i do intend to wear it, maybe just once, to make a point. not the point that the belt you wear has no bearing on how good you are which, while true, is not the whole picture – kyu belts help designate experience as well as ability (though can muddle the two in people’s minds), but also help delineate for the instructor exactly who is in his class and what is required.

in this case, the white/orange belt will mean something else to me, something i personally value highly and which i have been horrified to learn is not as standard as i had naively assumed. the white/orange belt, i have been informed, serves this purpose alone:

it is an indication of permission to take your first belt.

that would be the orange belt, in this particular style. the white/orange belt therefore is not your first belt, but it is required in order that you try out for your first belt. it costs £5. you must have it, you must buy it from your instructor. before you can take your first belt.

it can’t just be me who thinks there’s something off with this. but for people (or parents of children) entering the bewildering world of marital arts training and tradition, who would question it? you’re expected to bow on entering the room, which you’re supposed to call a dojo (your ‘instructor’ tells you this, but you have to use the word sensei, but they can’t tell you to call them that, because it would be rude), and you adhere to these learned behaviours of ‘respect’ and ‘honour’, which is never fully explained but is basically just someone telling you to stand in a straight line with everyone else, and you end up bowing incessantly, pretending to be japanese. um, what? it’s wildly weird! of course buying a pre-belt belt, instead of your instructor merely saying to you “you’re ready to grade” makes sense. or at least, it doesn’t stand out as pointless until you’ve gone through the process a while, got a few grades-worth of experience behind you, realised your instructor is just some person rather than an infallible warrior, and maybe – just maybe – gone to train somewhere else where they don’t do all that crap.

and by pointless, i mean pointless for you. not pointless at all for sensei, who is no doubt very happy with the arrangement…

the value of things

in the vaguest, catch-all terms possible: things have value. your karate training has a value; ideally, it falls somewhere around or above what you are paying for it, though such things are difficult to quantify. if you perceive the value of something to be lower than the cost you pay, and factoring in inconvenience and social convention, you will stop paying and walk away. this, unfortunately, relies on you understanding how to judge the value of a thing accurately, and usually this requires knowledge of the marketplace. relative judgements are easy to make: for a longer session, you will expect to pay more. for a higher level of instruction, perhaps by a higher ranking instructor who must travel, again you might reasonably expect to pay more. things have value, and we understand that.

but really, what value is the white/orange belt? what are you paying for? what is the extra thing that it confers?

martial arts training has lots of benefits, and it makes sense that this value has a cost associated with it. but martial arts commonly cultivates an aura of secrecy and mysticism, using adopted words and rituals to bamboozle people into thinking they are learning (read: buying) some magical powers. the value of the training is deliberately obscured with the aim of increasing the cost that can be levied, and the worst part is that people buy it. because they don’t know better; how would they? it is dishonest and disreputable, and makes me very angry.

the orange/white belt has become, in my mind, a symbol of the type of karate club (and, let’s face it, other martial arts and every single taekwondo club) that is interested only in taking your money. the white/orange belt should not exist. there is no reason for it. it is the very embodiment of the contemptible behaviour of instructors who, needing to make a living, are faced with the choice of delivering a great product that people see the value in or imposing unnecessary costs to generate income, and make the wrong decision. perhaps they don’t even see it as a choice? if you as an instructor are incapable of offering a high enough quality product, your only option is to trick people into it.

the cost of things

the problem symbolised by the white/orange belt exists across many organisations and martial arts. if you come across it, do not accept it. the instructor concerned might even be very skilled, and no doubt charismatic, but in my experience there is an inverse correlation between spurious (and opaque) costs and the quality of training. high-quality training and pointless charges are not mutually exclusive in theory, but they really do seem to be in practice. the skill of your instructor is not necessarily the skill passed on to the students, and especially not if they are more interested in making a plush living than training you to be able to beat them.

the cost of your training should be transparent and available to you. there should be no hidden fees, no dubious costs that need to be justified by ‘tradition’. on my website i have a page explaining the costs in detail. can you find the equivalent on your, or any other martial arts website? beware contracts, and fees undisclosed until you are too invested to walk away like you should. an honest business will offer a product at a price, and it should be possible to assess the value before you buy. no ‘secrets’, no mysteries. no special belts. beware an instructor who uses their superior skill to justify behaving superior to you as a person.

i like my new belt. i like that it was given freely to me by a member of our club, of his own volition, because he was finding value in his training at our club. that, to me, is a great thing, and has a value. i will endeavour to repay him.

neil jerome, 2013

some links:
rob redmond on karate ‘contracts’
the best kept karate secret
the difficulty of shopping in an unfamiliar world
kenmei’s costs page


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