I am a 4th Degree in American Karate. The dojo I have recently become a part of has a number of Black Belt candidates, and I will be serving on the panel. I don't have much experience attending black belt testings outside of my own, so I'm not sure what type of questions I should ask the candidates during the interview portion of their test. I would like some input from the martial arts community about what kinds of questions you have encountered, or what a few good questions for the candidates may be.

  • 6
    Will there be other people on the panel? Have you consulted with them about it?
    – user15
    May 9, 2012 at 3:51
  • There will be a total of 5-8 Black Belts on the panel, some of with whom I am familiar, others not. We won't likely discuss the questions to be asked in advance of the interview portion, which is why I would like a plethora of questions readily available, in case other judges ask similar questions to those I have prepared. May 22, 2012 at 21:55
  • This feels like weird to me (not saying its a bad question). We didnt had any "interview" at my tests (in judo). People trust the coaches decision, if your coach send you in, basicly he's vooching for you and thats enough. Jun 8, 2014 at 2:53

8 Answers 8


This is an interesting question, there isn't really any one right answer.

Asking them questions regarding their character is not really appropriate. They should have been training at a particular dojo for some time, and a lot should already be known about their character before they are invited to grade. Therefore asking character oriented questions at the grading is mostly redundant.

This leaves philosophical and theoretical questions. Philosophical questions can give you insight into their understanding of the spiritual and moral side of the art, and show any gaps (or negative leanings) in their understanding. Philosophical questions should be quite open ended, i.e.:

  • what is the meaning of the way of the open hand?
  • how will your responsibilities change once you have received your black belt?
  • how do you deal with someone who pesters you to show them some of those cool black belt moves?
  • you have mastered a particular technique; what do you do next?
  • some people want you to set up a dojo of your own, what are your thoughts on that?

These questions don't necessarily have a definitively right answer, but they certainly do have wrong answers.

The theoretical questions could include testing the candidates knowledge of the history of the dojo and/or style, or questioning them on applications of techniques which haven't been covered during the practical side of the grading.

Traditionally shodan gradings push the candidate to their physical limit, there is no reason why you shouldn't test their mental limits as well :)


"What does a black belt mean to you?"

"What would it mean if you did not receive your black belt today?"

"Are you ready to wear a black belt?"

"What is the difference between you wearing a white belt and you wearing a black belt?"

"Imagine you are in a fist fight - the other person has just started throwing the first strike, and you haven't started moving yet. What are all the things you may have done wrong to get you in that situation?"


In our dojo this is what we do for the Shotokan black belt exam (1st dan):

  1. We i.e. each student, does 15 different Kihon (or combination) that have been extracted from one of the katas used in the exam. In our dojo it is customary to choose one of the upper katas of this exam to extract the kihon. Typically it is Bassai dai. Each kihon is repeated 5 times.

  2. The katas that are, in order of execution, 5 x Heian katas (they are all done in one of the non-std ways e.g. from the last stance technique to the first, forward instead backward defence or attack or vice versa. In our dojo normal implies starting from the left so non-standard excludes the left start version of any of the 5 heian katas. Then we do Tekki Shodan (but you need to know Tekki Nidan and Sandan), after this we do bassai dai, Tomari Bassai, Jion and finally Kankudai. In total 11 katas.

  3. We then have our own kata which is performed first as a kata followed by the bunkai version of the same kata. We call this 'The Invented' Kata and is based on at least 15 different combinations of the kihon you find in the 11 katas listed in point 2. Each student has to hand-in the embusen of their invented kata. Two students can share the same kata.

  4. We then have our dojo kata-kumite which has a total of 26 combinations. We ask any 6 of these combinations.

  5. The next step is a 90 to 120 second sparring session with a fellow black or brown belt. Full contact is allowed or rather not frowned upon. From this year we have decided to make protective gear compulsory.

  6. We then have to illustrate and explain one referee rule of kumite such as Yame, Points assignment etc. The sensei can ask you any other aspect of refereeing.

  7. We then discuss our thesis. The thesis for a 1st dan is always about the journey taken by the karateka being examined e.g. how he or she got there and the difficulties encountered. There is also a discussion on different styles and/or a specific historical period of karate.

The whole exam lasts about 45mins. At the end the examination committee hands in the examination sheet (and verdict) which addresses all of the 7 points mentioned. A score is given to all students.

One last thing all students have heart beat monitors and their heart beats registration is graphed and displayed after the exam is completed.

Typically students work at about 85-95% (for all the exam) of their limit but higher is not uncommon. Exams occur every 6 months and at least 6mths have to go by since the last kyo was taken. Diplomas are issued within 15mins of completing the exam which includes the black belt ceremony for graduating 1st Dans.

The heart beat (HB) monitor is used to monitor the performance of the karateka during the exam. It is used principally for three reasons:

  1. To compare performance across age groups and levels of preparation. In general those who know the kata have a HB that matches the moments when energy is released and recovered. If you read kanazawa' black belt book you will notice both a correlation between speed, force, rythm and breathing. Those at higher Dan levels and with more experience especially competition experience have a distinct HB trace and you can see who really knows the kata.

  2. To see the performance level of the karateka duringe the exam. Hence if your HB is below your threshold for maximum performance (a simple equation is 220HB minus your age) you will see it on the trace. You will be surprised to see how a karateka also tackles a drop in performance as the exam progresses. In this case the kata slows down, the HB lowers, recovery is slower and mistakes can be clearly seen.

  3. To compare karate styles when we have two or more different schools participating at the same exam or exam level. For example, we have compared Shotokan to Goju. The former being much more intense with a HB typically around 95% or higher. So a shotokan karateka of an age of 20years would perform at typically around 190 heart beats per minute and if he or she is well prepared then the HB rate will either increase or remain stable for all the kata that I mentioned in the previous post.

Hope this helps.


  • why the heart beat monitor? Oct 15, 2013 at 0:05

The most common question I've heard asked at my school is "what does being a black belt mean to you?"

This question is very broad and open ended. It provides insight into how a person has evaluated oneself up to that point in time, and potentially what a person will do upon receiving one.


Some good suggestions here. I would like to add:

  • What are your thoughts about why we have these tests in general, and black belt test in particular?

  • What would you like to improve?

  • You are away/travelling/on vacation: Can you mention (and show?) some good exercises to do?


Many of the other answers are good.

At my test I was asked questions about the lineage of my style - who the founder of the style was, who my teacher learned from, basic stuff like that.

You might also want to ask questions about what techniques, forms, etc. the student feels are his or her best - it'll give you an idea of what to look for during the testing, and whether the student has an accurate view of his or her own abilities.


There are going to be a lot of different suggestions to this, a few that we use at our testings:

  • Number of moves, kihaps, meaning and philosophy of colored belt ranks
  • What is the hardest challenge you overcame on your way to black belt?
  • What would you say to a brand new white belt just starting in class?
  • Who has helped you the most along the journey?

That's a small sample size, really almost anything that addresses knowledge of the art, and an awareness of both the journey past and what lies ahead makes a good foundational question.


Really good questions above... especially in a perfect world :-). IMO teaching should include posing these questions to students as they come up through the ranks, for their own benefit and so that they're not caught off-guard and give lame answers (embarrassing to them and irritating to the judges). I don't know how hard-core your dojo is and whether teens can earn black belts, but for a lot of the kids at my dojang... oy. Trying to get them to pay attention and focus and actually try to do techniques well and reasonably hard, is quite a challenge, so I could see a lot of them just regurgitating a couple of 3/4-remembered answers.

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