Contract work is often a bit like the old Mission Impossible TV show: the Team is built around The Mission, which usually is subject to impossible constraints and the Team Members all bounce around trying to keep the makeup from slipping, and waiting for the Secretary to disavow all knowledge, etc.
And you get to meet management consultants, each and every one of them fully buzzword compliant and using all the fashionable tools to appear like they can actually deliver on whatever weird fever dream was sold to the organization that hired them. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, eh?
Anyway, one of the current fashions is Black Belts. There are Six Sigma Black Belts, Lean Black Belts, Process Management Black Belts, PFD Black Belts, and who knows what else. I just saw one business card that asserted the holder was a Master Black Belt, though it didn’t stipulate in what. Probably Six Sigma; I think that’s where this PR trick began, and, wouldn't you know it, it was a General Electric thing. There are, incidentally, also Green Belts in these things. I’m just glad they didn’t go for the whole rainbow, Yellow, Green, Blue, Brown, etc.
It’s the general opinion in at least my little stretch of the martial arts community that colored belts are mostly PR. It’s not like there is any licensing board that sets standards for the things. Anybody can hang out a shingle and award any colored belt to anyone they like, and many martial arts schools take the route of awarding lots of promotions quickly as a way of enticing students.
I can only report directly from Aikido, though I’ve had plenty of friends in other arts. For that matter, there are enough versions of Aikido that I can’t speak universally even for that one art. But generally speaking, my fellow Aikidoka don’t speak much of belt colors. For adults, it’s either white or black (In the first dojo to which I belonged, over 25 years ago, there were a few students who were informally given brown belts, but I haven’t seen that practice in over 20 years). The “black belts” are referred to as yudansha, and the first dan grade, shodan, basically means that the holder is now taken as a serious student of the art. There is also a tradition of beginning to wear a hakima (a sort of long black culotte), after promotion to shodan unless one’s sensei says to wear it sometime earlier. One of my fellow students once compared wearing a hakima to painting a big target on one’s back at seminars. It is certainly expected that someone wearing a hakima knows his/her limits in ukemi (having an aikido technique applied to you and surviving it unharmed).
And, of course, shodan (first dan grade) is only the beginning. Then there is nidan, sandan, yondan, and on up, though it gets mighty sparse above that. By the time you get to 5th and 6th dan, (godan and ryokudan) you might as well just give people’s names, since their art has become intensely personalized by then, and there are sufficiently few of them that everyone knows everyone else, more or less, and the differences in numerical rank become less important than their place in the community. More to the point, at that level, teaching is the important service, with Sensei (any teacher), Shidoin (instructor), Fuku Shidoin (assistant instructor), and Shihan (master instructor, or “teacher of teachers”) being the appellations.
I don’t really have a punch line (as it were) for these musings, except to maybe be glad that the Japanese terms haven’t been swiped as management consulting buzzwords. I don’t think I’d react very well to meeting a “Six Sigma Shihan.”
In case anyone is wondering, I began Aikido practice in 1980 at what was then called Aikido of Berkeley under Steve Sasaki Sensei. I had to quit in 1985, for health reasons, and I did not return to practice until 2000, at Eastshore Aikikai, under Elizibeth Lynn Sensei. I was promoted to shodan in the fall of 2005. It's a tradition to give certain promotions at the time of the New Year, and my promotion to nidan has just been announced.