My Kyokushin Karate Blue Belt Exam and a Martial Arts Epiphany

It’s done…it’s finally done. It’s just after 9:30 pm and I’m just getting back from a pretty Kyokushin belt exam. How was it you ask? Well the test itself went very, very well. I had zero trouble with memorizing the dojo-kun. It’s weird because things have flip-flopped a bit. On my orange belt exam I was extremely worried about the dojo kun but not at all worried about the physical part of the exam. This time I am much heavier than I was on my last test, and out of shape, but I didn’t want to miss this chance. I remembered all of my basics and I think technically I was pretty sound. All in all the physical part wasn’t all that bad. The test began with all students sitting in seiza with pencils. There were three black belts there and several brown-belt assistants. The teacher set the timer for ten minutes, and we began working on filling in the missing blanks for the student oath. This paper was only in kanji. When the teachers passed by me, the only African-American/only foreign adult on this exam, Ajima Sensei (one of my teachers) said “Donaldo san ganbatte. (ドナルドサンがんばって.)” I answered with an “Osu. Ganbarimsu. (おす、がんばります.)” I was ready for the student creed after having practiced writing it over and over again. The questions at the end though, I couldn’t quite make out. I had some of the assistants try to help me, and I think I was able to get parts of those questions right. Beep…beep…beep. The ten minutes were up.

The instructors took our papers and pencils and we stood up…”Osu!” It was time for stretching and warmups. Much of this portion was similar to Kyokushin class. I was glad it was familiar to me, because there was nobody to rely on for translation; on my first exam, my friend Lavon was there, too, and his Japanese is better than mine. During the stretching all students had to go into their side splits as far as they could and sit back with their legs extended. We all then had to say our names and the dojos we were representing. An upper belt would then push you to see how far forward you could stretch. They would say either “Atama (あたま)” head if you could touch your head to the floor, “Mune (むね)” if you could touch your chest to the floor, the most difficult. I could remember what they said if you were unable to do either. I was actually able to get my head to the floor…I couldn’t believe it either!

The test finished around 7:45pm and we all took a group picture together. I am pretty certain that I passed. The belt and certificate will take a couple of weeks to get here. After the exam, a breathed a sigh of relief because I made it, I finished…despite being out of shape. The instructor leading the exam (I can’t quite remember his name) requested that all testing students stay after. I thought yeah, of course I’ll stay for a while. Little did I know that hardest part was yet to come…an hour-and-a-half workout after the test withe the black belts and assisting brown belts!!

Conditioning, kick drills, punch drills, combinations, bag work, and then some. I had a really hard time with the conditioning. In many respects, even though I was the biggest guy there, I felt like I was the most out of shape. After being worn out by drills, sparring was next. The were five upper belts sparring, three black belts and two brown belts. We were given the option to spar with the higher belts. Of the seven test members, only one person decided to spar, a teenage blue belt (testing for his yellow that day). I watched on the sideline for two rounds remembering that the last time I did this I nearly got knocked out. But something inside me was saying “DONALD! STOP BEING A COWARD!! This is a big part of the reason you came to Japan…RIGHT?!? If you get knocked out, learn from it, but don’t sit here because you’re afraid!” I took a deep breath and strapped on my shin pads, gloves and mouth piece and slowly stood up. The teacher let me join in.

I sparred with the leading teacher to begin with and he went very easy on me, to get me warmed up. The second round…different story…Ajima Sensei (nidan instructor and undeniably the best Kyokushin fighter in the dojo, arguably in Ibaraki). As soon as the instructor said go, Ajima Sensei and I began. I hate to say it but was no match. I know I’m out of shape, but I figured that with my black belt from another style that surely I’d be okay. I wasn’t. I was trying to give back what I was getting, but I was having a hard time. As the leg kicks started to become more intense, my confidence began to wane. I was blocking what I could, but it wasn’t enough. I light pain began to tingle down my left inner thigh and right outer thigh. Though the adrenaline blunted the pain, my legs were starting to wobble. In the mean time, took a couple of punches that made me debate bowing to Ajima Sensei and sitting down. Ayame! THANK GOD! Had this gone on much longer, I think I would’ve gotten hurt.

The next round I sparred with another black belt, whose name I can’t recall. He’s not nearly as intense as Ajima Sensei, so I relaxed a bit too much. The end result, a mawashigeri (roundhouse kick) to the head that made me see stars. I fought a younger brown belt as well maybe 17 or 18, I’m guessing, and it was cool because he was a really respectful kid, he caught me with a punched that left me short of breath for a moment. I had to pause, but I continued. Are we seeing a pattern here? Let’s just say it wasn’t my night for sparring, but I am SUPER glad I went though, despite the difficulty walking today.

What’s my epiphany, you ask? Well I don’t know if you can even call it that: Fighting someone you know you can’t beat really teaches you a lot about who you are, like it or not. I found out there was a lot I didn’t like. I found out that a part of me is quite fearful. So fearful, in fact, that it stripped me of my confidence when I needed it most. It prevented me from employing the foundational skills that I know I have. I was able to face to face my fears tonight, but far too passively. This lesson goes beyond the confines of the Kyokushin dojo. It’s situations like these that make me realize if I don’t test myself, and REALLY go after these challenges, Ill never get better.

It’s back to the martial arts drawing board for me,

Donald Ash

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  • Kim in Oklahoma

    Congratulations! Do you have any pictures?

    I was sparring with a teenage girl Monday and she kneed me hard in the Rectus Femoris…the large muscle that extends from the knee up the front of the leg. Put a stage II contusion on that muscle that kept me from walking for a couple of days! Heat and ice applied as instructed by my sensei…I’m able to walk today but very very slowly!

    I missed Tuesday night karate and will miss tonight’s too. Shoot!

    • Donald Ash

      Oh no! I know what those karate injuries can be like. Not fun, right? I hope you’re taking care of your leg. I have karate tonight, I have a ton to do so I’m debating on whether or not I’m gonna go. But something is pushing me towards the go side so I’m about 95% sure I’m going.

      Pictures? I only have one picture, unfortunately it’s just me and two of my teachers at the end of sparring night. I’m going to post it at the bottom of this article in the next couple of days.

      Take care, Kim :)

  • J. Yu

    i understand your epiphany. I am a shodan in Aikido and gotten my ass handed to me a lot. Humility is a nice biproduct of Budo training.

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