Why Do Black Belts Get Beaten Up?

“How is it that Black Belts get beaten up?” This was the question posed to me by a college aged young man who mentioned that he might possibly be interested in studying martial arts. I understand his question because you would think that someone who does martial arts would easily win a physical confrontation. Yet, that is not always the case. While I have written extensively on why this is, here I will give a brief answer.

The first answer is that studying martial arts in most parts of the world is a hobby. Maybe you go to your local karate class once or twice a week for a few hours, maybe you practice on your own, and maybe you take it seriously. This leads to people thinking they have honed abilities because they “study” karate but this can be likened to someone thinking they are an expert on the bible just because they go to church on Sunday. You get out of it what you put into it.

Second, while there are some great instructors out there, a lot of them suck and/or are not really qualified to teach. Many instructors teach martial arts as sports because that can be more profitable and more appealing, but they never disclose to their students that they are learning a sport instead of a method of self-defense.

Third, is the difference between a “Do” and a “Jutsu.” The martial arts were first developed during feudal times and they were strictly methods of combat, or “Jutsu’s” which means science or method. A lot of experiments were done on both prisoners and captured enemy soldiers to identify how the body worked and how you could both harm it and heal it. During more violent times the martial arts became more aggressive and brutal, and during more peaceful times some of the brutally was taken away and philosophical elements were sometimes added. Thus the martial arts have existed in a constant cycle, getting more brutal and effective in more violent times and less violent and more showy during more peaceful times.

An education in martial arts was not cheap so quite often only the upper class could often afford expert instruction. Thus most expert martial artists were also very well educated in general, sometimes having various medical or other professional occupations as day jobs. The more educated they were the more philosophical teaching they were exposed to and the more they added them into martial arts to temper its violence. Thus, at certain times, in certain circles,it was not enough to be skilled in martial arts but you were also expected to be a “scholarly warrior” and it was not uncommon for expert martial artists to also be accomplished poets, painters, or craftsmen.

In the 1800’s Japan ended their feudal era and stepped into the modern age by adopting western culture. When this happened the brutally effective combat techniques of the martial arts were seen by some as no longer necessary and even barbaric. Some Japanese feared that the martial arts could possibly fade away due to the cultures changing attitude.

Then in 1860 a rich kid is born who later has a problem being bullied. He learns Jujutsu which is a Japanese martial art consisting of various joint locks, throws, and neck breaking techniques. Thinking the art is too violent for the new Japan, but also seeing the physical, mental, and cultural benefits the training provides, he decides to rework the art and invents Judo. Both arts emphasize the same key principles (“Ju” meaning gentleness, or going with force instead of against it) however Jujutsu was the practice of “Ju” as a fighting technique whereas Judo is the practice of “Ju” for the purpose of personal development.

“Do” (pronounced “Dough”) means “the way.” Jujutsu is the “fighting technique of using minimal physical strength to kill or incapacitate” and Judo is “the way of using minimal physical strength to defeat an opponent during a sporting event and using that as a vehicle to build character and mental and physical strength.” Judo is a sport version of Jujutsu and being a non-violent sport people embraced it.

The government embraced it as well because they were building up their military and saw the practice of Judo as a way to get people ready for military service. By the way, the “character” Judo was meant to develop isn’t our Judeo-Christian character that we think of, but rather traditional Japanese character of being a good Japanese citizen and doing what you’re told without asking questions.

Turning martial arts into “do’s” became popular. From Jujutsu came forth Judo, from Aikijutsu (an offshoot of Jujutsu) came Aikido, from Kenjutsu (sword fighting) came Kendo (“the way of the sword”), and from the weapon arts of Bojutsu (fighting with a bo staff), Saijutsu (fighting with a sai), and many others came Kobudo (“the way of traditional weapons”).

The same thing happened with Karate. Karate was developed on the island of Okinawa (now part of Japan) and dates back to at least 1372 ad when official trade relations were established between Okinawa and China.. Soldiers from Japan invaded Okinawa in 1608 and it remained occupied by Japanese soldiers until 1879 when it was made an official part of Japan.

From 1608 to 1901 it was illegal to practice any native fighting arts and thus Karate was practiced in secret and remained very much a “jutsu.” The purpose of Karate, which Okinawans heavily based on the martial arts of China, was to enable a person to render another person unconscious or dead as quickly as possible, through any means possible, although it did favor striking over throws and joint-locks unlike Jujutsu. After being made legal in 1901 many people opened schools to teach it publicly and it even started being taught in the public school system (which, again, the Japanese government saw as a great way to prepare people for military service). The great Okinawan Karate master Itosu, who taught at both his private school as well as in the public school system, of course didn’t want to teach the fighting applications to school children so he greatly watered it down and turned it into a “do” thus founding “Karate-Do.”

The purpose of Karate-Do was not to teach the student how to cripple, kill, or even really fight, rather it was to use the practice of Karate as a vehicle for making the student physically strong, training their “warrior spirit”, and teaching them the desired values and character.

During the same time periods one of Itosu’s students, Gichen Funakoshi, was in Japan doing the same thing. He was credited with introducing the Okinawan art of Karate to mainland Japan and he felt the same way his teacher did making Karate into a “do” and even used the term Karate-Do.

Another Karate master from Okinawa named Choki Motobu came to Japan about the same time and he was the polar opposite. Motobu believed Karate was for self-defense so he taught Karate-Jutsu. Both masters Funakoshi and Motobu were trained by some the same people but the former taught Karate primarily as an activity while the latter taught Karate primarily as an effective form of self-defense. It would turn out that Funakoshi would become far more popular even being called “The Father of Karate.”

Most of what we know of Karate today can be traced back to Funakoshi. His system, “Shotokan Karate”, as well as systems created by his students, are among the most popular systems practiced today. The most popular martial art in the world today is the Korean art of Taekwondo. Many are surprised to learn that the founders of the five main schools of Taekwondo studied Funakoshi’s Shotokan Karate in Japan; thus the art of Taekwondo (“the way of the hand and foot”) is more a less the Korean version of Funakoshi’s Shotokan Karate.

What all this means is that most martial arts, especially in the US, can be traced back to Itosu and/or Funakoshi and are actually Karate-Do which is meant to “build character” not to teach you effective self-defense. While many Karate-Jutsu styles do exist in the US they are the exception.

This can be very confusing because most wear the same uniforms, give out the same belts, and very few have either “Do” or “Jutsu” in their name. I’ve seen people do “Do” systems for years without realizing it and you can see them standing there thinking, “OK, I been here for 2 years and any minute now they’re going to teach me to defend myself.”

If you want to learn to defend yourself stay away from arts ending in “Do”, make it clear to the instructor that you want to learn an art that is designed to teach you to defend yourself (you can even ask them if their art is more of a “Jutsu” or “Do”).

So if your brother’s uncle’s cousin has a black belt and gets beaten up he either didn’t take his training seriously, has a poor instructor, trains in Karate-Do and not Karate-Jutsu so his black belt isn’t in an art meant to protect him, or he just got a legitimate beating from some person(s) better than him.