Sometimes I'm asked a more intriguing variation of the black belt question; namely, "What are you a black belt in?". This question intrigues me. It indicates that the questioner knows, at least, that there are different forms of martial arts. It may indicate that he knows something about one or more styles and is trying to place my level of expertise on some sort of continuum. It may be that he has merely heard of different kinds of budo, but wants to know more. The reason this question interests me, though, is not because of what the questioner wants me to say, but because I have to be self-reflective if I want to answer honestly.
What do I have a black belt in? Well, about a thousand years ago, in the summer of 1984 in fact, I took my first martial arts class. The style was Moo Duk Kwan Tae Kwon Do, a Korean variation of Japanese karate. I eventually earned a first degree black belt in this style of martial arts. That is, I was a black belt in a style of martial arts that originated in Okinawa, had been codified in Japan, that had been brought to and modified in Korea, which had become popularized in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Confusing, right? To muddy the waters more, my black belt was awarded by a university martial arts club that I had been training with for a relatively short time, not by my original teacher because after five years of training I had graduated from high school and moved away for college. Both clubs taught the Moo Duk Kwan style, but in slightly different versions. What was I a black belt in?
Following this experience I took advantage of opportunities to train pretty broadly. I practiced mostly judo and freestyle karate, but backed off from my Moo Duk Kwan training. Was I still a black belt? If so, what in?
By the mid-nineties I began training in earnest in Shotokan karate. I willingly put on a white belt and joined beginner's classes. I concurrently trained in grappling and occasionally in judo. I took advantage of some professional opportunities to learn applied martial arts as a law enforcement officer and trained for full-contact karate. When I eventually earned shodan (first degree black belt) in Shotokan karate I hadn't worn a black belt in nearly ten years. Was I a new black belt? Was I truly a Shotokan black belt?
Since then I have focused almost exclusively on Shotokan karate. Shotokan means "House of the Pine Waves" and this style has truly become my home. I practice Shotokan kata, I accept Shotokan's almost fetishistic emphasis on kihon, and in kumite I think it's obvious to my partners that my approach to sparring draws heavily, if not exclusively, on my experience as a Shotokan karateka. A few years ago I visited a friend's Moo Duk Kwan dojang for an evening of friendly sparring. I certainly didn't win all of my matches, but in those in which I did well, I scored often with mae geri (front kick) and gyaku zuki (reverse punch). These are bread-and-butter techniques for Shotokan karate; although every style practices them we try to work them to a high degree of proficiency. When I dodged my opponent's tae kwon do ax-kick and scored by shifting into a front stance and drilling a reverse punch to his ribs my friend exhaled the word, "Shotokan!" like a curse.
It's been over fifteen years since I put that Shotokan black belt on for the first time. I'm older and slower now than I'd like to be, injuries have begun to take their toll, and I'm certainly not highly ranked for the number of years I've spent in various dojo, gyms and training halls. But I'm making (I hope) incremental gains. I think I understand more about my martial arts than I did when I was at my physical best and I think now I can almost answer the question, "What do you have a black belt in?" I have a black belt in perseverance. I have black belt in thoughtfulness. I have a black belt in rigor, in mindfulness and in experience. I am a Shotokan karateka and the black belt I wear is "in" budo - the martial way of life.