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Many people who are not very familiar with martial arts think that after receiving a black belt there is nothing left to attain in karate. You may, however, have heard those with black belts refer to themselves as a first dan or higher. As this indicates, black belts have varying degrees, and attaining your first one is just the beginning.

The ideogram dan means level or step. A stairway is called a kaidan, or "series of steps," in Japanese. The vari­ous dan of black belts, therefore, reflect various steps or levels of proficiency after attaining the black belt Incidentally, dan are assigned in a variety of Japanese disci­plines, and in most cases these degrees of attainment are not symbolized by different colored belts or costumes. A Japanese chess expert , for example, will be ranked with dan, though he or she does not wear a traditional uniform.

The number "one" is called ichi in Japanese. The first level of the black belt, however, is not called ichi-dtJn but sho-dan. This is interesting. The numbers "two" and "three" are ni and san, respectively, and the second and third levels are, as you would expect, called ni-dan and·san-dan. Why is only the first level different?

In fact, the ideogram sho means "first" or "beginning." The same ideogram is used to express the idea of the first sunrise of the year, for example. It is also found in the word for "beginner." The use of the word shod.an, first or begin­ ning dan, for the first stage of the black belt shows that in Japan the student who has only   achieved shod.an is still con­sidered a beginner-a very different awareness than that found in the West, where so much importance is placed on the black belt as a final goal. But once you truly realize the depths of knowledge and skill that can be acquired through karate, you also realize that the few years required to attain your first black belt are really just the beginning.

On the other hand, a wonderful thing about karate is that a limitless number of black belts can be given out. Many things in life, from the number of new job openings at a prestigious company to the number of medals at the Olympics, are limited, and some people will not attain these goals no matter how hard they try. There is no such limit to karate. As long as a student practices diligently, sooner or later, he or she will receive a black belt.

Whether or not you will attain a dan, and how much further you develop beyond sho-dan, depends entirely on your commitment and effort.

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