You might have been told this myth before like me that in the old time karate students all started with a white belt which would gradually become darken, first brown and then black over time as they put time, sweat, tears, and blood into their training.
In addition, students would never wash their belts because they carry their training spirit and that is how their belts would turn black.
And I believed this myth and never washed my belts until recently when I did a little research into Judo history and found out the true origin of the karate belt and ranking system.
Let’s find out how and when the karate belt and ranking system was adopted and its meanings.
Prior to 1922
In the old-time when karate was practiced in Okinawa, karate practitioners wore no uniform, instead, they wore short pants above the knees and were bare-chested as you can still see in some old photos.
As I wrote in this post on the origin of karate, at the time, karate was created and practiced for practical self-defense purposes in Okinawa.
For a long period of time, it was practiced under great secrecy and passed down within known or trusted groups.
There was no large formal class like today. Instead, karate masters selected only a few students to teach and, therefore, knew very well how the students were progressing. There was no need for belts, formal rankings, or any official recognition.
Judo belt system
Jigoro Kano (1860-1938), the Judo founder, created the belt system for Judo in around 1883 based on a ranking system used in a popular competitive sport in Japan called Go to match competitors of similar skills. Kano was also inspired by the “Menkyo” reward method where people were given scrolls with their names, levels, techniques learned, and duration of training as they progressed.
In 1883, Kano introduced only two belts, white and black. White was for junior students and black was for advanced students or teachers. Kano awarded the very first two black belts to Shiro Saigo and Tomita Tsunejiro.
However, some other sources said Kano’s original ranking system had three colors: white belt (three kyu grades), brown belt (three kyu grades), and black belt (ten dan ranks).
In 1926, Japanese master Gunji Koizumi, founder of the British Judo Association, introduced additional color belts. There were 6 colors at the time including white, yellow, green, blue, brown, and black.
In 1935, Mikinosuke Kawaishi, a judo master, introduced colored belts in France which became the benchmark and are still being used today.
Kawaishi had developed a teaching program that was more suitable for the West and felt that more colored belts were needed to motivate and encourage progress.
Karate’s adoption of the Judo belt system
Kano’s belt and ranking system was accepted by the Dai Nippon Butoku-Kai (Greater Japan Martial Virtue Society) which was established by the Japanese government in 1895 to solidify, promote, and standardize martial disciplines and systems throughout Japan.
Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957), founder of Shotokan style and widely recognized as the father of modern karate, in an effort to make karate more accepted by the Japanese people and further spread the art in mainland Japan, decided to adopt the belt and ranking system from Judo.
Having personally known and trained with Jigoro Kano, Funakoshi adopted Judo’s belt and ranking system from circa 1922. He also borrowed Judo’s uniform design for karate. Karate uniform is a lighter-weight version of the judo uniform.
At the time, Kano’s belt and rank system as accepted by the Butoku-Kai had only six kyu grades, three white and three brown, and ten dan (black belt) levels and that was what Funakoshi adopted verbatim for karate.
On April 12, 1924, Funakoshi awarded karate’s first ever black belts and dan rankings upon seven men including Hironori Otsuka (later the founder of Wado Ryu style), Shinken Gima (later of Gima-ha Shoto Ryu), Ante Tokuda, Kasuya, Akiba, Shimizu and Hirose. Funakoshi himself, however, held no rank in any martial art at the time.
Later on, when more colors were introduced into Judo’s belt system, karate also followed.
In Okinawa, the kyu and dan system did not become universal until long after the end of World War II when the Okinawa Karate Federation was established.
Belt and ranking in karate
There was some attempt to unify the karate belt system by the Butoku-Kai but it failed and, as a result, today we have many different belt systems associated with different styles and schools.
The following system appears to be the most common one.
White Belt. 10th kyu. The white color symbolizes the beginning of a karateka’s journey, the purity of the mind, and a clean start.
Yellow Belt. 9th kyu. The yellow color represents the sunlight meaning a karateka has achieved some understanding that gives hope for a future of potential growth.
Orange Belt. 8th kyu. The orange color signifies the sun’s intensity, and a student with an orange belt is thought to have gained more understanding of the basics of karate and shown a strengthened commitment to training.
Green Belt. 7th kyu. Green is the color of growth. Green belt students have learned basic skills and begin to refine those skills and grow.
Blue Belt. 6th kyu. Blue represents the sky and blue belts are given to students who have gained a firm basic knowledge and begin their journey of growing upwards and learning more difficult techniques.
Purple Belt. 5th kyu. Purple is the color of dawn. This represents the end of the intermediate level and purple belt students are now beginning to transition to a more advanced stage of their karate study.
Red Belt. 4th kyu. Red is the color of strength. This implies that red belt students have shown hard work, dedication and strength through their karate training and are now ready for more challenges. Red is also the color of danger, meaning these students now possesses dangerous skills and need to be cautious during their training and when applying what they know in actual situations.
Brown Belt. 3rd kyu to 1st kyu. The color brown represents a ripening seed ready for harvest. Brown belt students are ready to move to the next level and begin a new journey in martial arts.
Black Belt. Shodan. The color black symbolizes the end, meaning the student has completed a transformation from an unknowing white belt to one with skills and a deep understanding of bushido. It also signals the beginning of a new journey.
Dan grades are awarded according to experience, expertise, and contribution to karate and vary from school to school.
Below is an example of the Dan ranking system adopted by the JKA.
Sho Dan (1st Dan) – after at least 3 years of active training if starting from a white belt with no previous martial art experience
Ni Dan (2nd Dan) – after at least 1 year of active training at 1st Dan
San Dan (3rd Dan) – after at least 2 years of active training at 2nd Dan
Yon Dan (4th Dan) – after at least 3 years of active training at 3rd Dan
Go Dan (5th Dan)– after at least 4 years of active training at 4th Dan
Roku Dan (6th Dan) – after at least 6 years of active training at 5th Dan
Nana Dan (7th Dan) – after at least 7 years of active training at 6th Dan
Hachi Dan (8th Dan) – after at least 7 years of active training at 7th Dan
Kyu Dan (9th Dan) – after at least 8 years of active training at 8th Dan
Ju Dan (10th Dan) – after at least 9 years of active training at 9th Dan.
Belt, ranking and your personal karate journey
Belts and rankings are created to acknowledge your progress in karate training. However, they should never become your goals in karate training.
Below is an exchange between Daniel and Sensei Miyagi in the classic movie “The Karate Kid” about what belt Sensei Miyagi had.
Daniel: Hey, what kind of belt do you have?
Miyagi: Canvas. JC Penney, $3.98. You like?
Daniel: [laughs] No, I meant…
Miyagi: In Okinawa, belt mean no need rope to hold up pants.
[laughs; then, seriously]
[taps his head]
Miyagi: Karate here.
[taps his heart]
Miyagi: Karate here.
[points to his belt]
Miyagi: Karate never here. Understand?
Yes, karate is never about belts.
Personally, I would have been happy to learn karate without ever having to go through a grading test. I learn it because I enjoy it and because of what I get from training. Passing a grading test or getting a new belt doesn’t make me a better karateka.
However, I think one good thing about having a belt and grading system is that it put pressure on you to train harder and become better with your karate. You want to demonstrate that you deserve the belt you are wearing.
If you are a yellow belt, you need to be able to demonstrate that you are a little bit better than a white belt.
If you are a Sho Dan, you need to be able to demonstrate that you are a lot better than a purple belt in technique execution, kata as well as applications. In addition, you should be able to pass on what you learn to beginners.
So belts and rankings are both a recognition of your progress and pressure that motivates you to train harder and never stop learning.
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Please also check out my library of other karate articles which is updated regularly.
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