IntroUntil 1882, the ranking system that we use today with the kyu (Japanese) or gup (Korean) color belt ranks and the dan black belt ranks did not exist.
Early ranking systemSome early Japanese martial arts used a three-rank system that awarded certificates. The ranks were shodan (beginner rank), chudan (middle rank); and jodan (upper rank). They didn't use belts or other devices to signify rank. Other traditional Japanese arts of the period used the complicated menkyo ranking system to license student skill levels.
Menkyo ranking systemIn the Japanese menkyo system, the ranks were issued as a series of licenses. The licenses were usually awarded using specially created certificates or handwritten letters from the licensing teacher or founder.
Often, the higher ranks were also presented with a densho, which was a manuscript scroll of instructions or records of secrets recorded by the school founder. Some densho provided detailed instructions and graphic illustrations of specific techniques, while others used descriptive words or characters that served as memory aids for advanced techniques. Some of these documents were meaningless to outsiders unfamiliar with the specific language of the martial art itself.
The order and titles of the licenses often differed between the different arts. The primary licenses were the:
- Kirikami. This license was usually issued after 1-3 years of training and identified the student as a serious practitioner of the art.
- Mokuroku. This license was usually issued after another 3-5 years of training. The student was also presented with written catalog of the system’s techniques.
- Menkyo. After another 2-10 years of training the student finally received this license to teach.
- Menkyo kaiden. This ultimate certificate was issued to students who had mastered every aspect of the system. Some masters awarded only one menkyo kaiden in their lifetime, to the person they chose as their successor.
Jigero KanoDr. Jigero Kano was an educator and a great martial arts innovator. Many of the things we see used in most of today’s martial arts were developed by Kano, such as the traditional uniform (judogi), making a martial art into a sport (judo from jujutsu), detailed instuction methods, and the current belt ranking system.
As a youth, Kano first learned the basics of jujutsu from Teinosuke Yagi. Later, he studied tenshin shinyo ryu jujutsu under Hachinosuke Fukuda and Masatomo Iso, as well as kito ryu jujutsu under Tsunetoshi Iikubo so he was familiar with the secrets of both schools.
Later in life, he saw a need for a jujutsu style sport in which people of any age could train and compete, so in 1882 he founded judo and introduced it into Japanese grade schools and colleges. With so many new students in a highly structured public-school environment, he saw a need for a uniform student ranking system that could be used to track student progress and allow students to assess their own progress in the new sport.
Kano researched other styles of jujutsu, including examining their densho. From his findings, Kano created a new judo ranking system with ten ranks with relatively short intervals between them to keep students interested in progressing through them. In 1883, Kano further divided students into two groups, the non-graded "mudansha" (kyu ranks) and the graded "yudansha" (dan ranks). Rank certificates were issued starting in 1894.
Gichin FunakoshiGichin Funakoshi, considered the founder of karate, brought karate to Japan from Okinawa in the 1920's. Until that time, Okinawa karate students did not have special uniforms; they trained in their everyday clothes. Funakoshi adopted a modified judo uniform and judo’s kyu/dan ranking system to encourage Japanese acceptance of karate. He awarded his first black belts in 1924.
Development of belt colorsThe origin of the colored belts, as well as the significance of the particular colors, is shrouded in mystery and may be permanently lost to history. While Jigero Kano left no documented reason for the various colors he used, he did believe that, if someone achieved a position higher than tenth dan, then "one transcends such things as colours and grades and therefore returns to a white belt, thereby completing the full circle of judo, as of life." The Kodokan (headquarters of judo in Japan) decided the white belt worn by such a person should be about twice as wide as the ordinary white belt to prevent any novices from mistaking the significance. Kano is the only person the Kodokan ever awarded twelfth dan, or shihan. Therefore, Kano's belt would be a double wide white belt.
As to the white belt being selected as the first belt color, the Japanese people have considered white as symbolic of cleanliness and sacredness since ancient times. Therefore, it symbolizes the innocence and virtue of beginners. The white belt may also be related to cotton being used to make the judo uniform. After frequent washing, the natural cotton material tends to turn white.
As to the color belts, the adoption of court ranks in earliest records of the Japanese imperial sovereignty, the colored caps used to denote their rank, and strong regulations regarding rank relationships during these periods may have influenced Kano and Funakoshi to adopt colors for their belts.
As to the black belt being selected as a high-rank belt, some think Kano borrowed the concept from Japanese high school sports where advanced competitors were separated from beginners in swimming tournaments by a black ribbon worn around their waist.
Belt colorsBlack belts were not worn as symbols of judo dan grade until about 1886. However, these belts were not the same as belts worn today. Since Kano had not yet invented the judo uniform, Judo students practiced in a "kimono" (the traditional Japanese robe) and wore the wide belt that is still worn with the formal kimono. In 1907, Kano introduced the modern judo uniform and belt, but he still only used white and black belts.
Gradually, colored belts were used to differentiate the kyu ranks. In Japan, white belts are generally worn through all kyu grades, although some schools also use the brown belt to indicate the higher kyu ranks. The use of various colored belts in the intermediate kyu grades originated in Europe and was imported into the U.S. ranking system during the early 1950s.
In Japan, black belts are traditionally worn by the technical ranks, first dan (shodan) through fifth dan (godan). A red-white sectioned belt is worn by the ranks awarded for service to judo, sixth dan (ryokudan) through eight dan (hachidan. Solid red belts are awarded for ninth dan (kudan) and tenth dan (judan).
As to the reason for the selection of the red/white sectioned belt, the Japanese usually divide groups into red and white sides. This preference comes from the Genpei War, which was a dispute between two rival clans, the Genji and Heike. The Genji used white flags to identify their troops on the battlefield while the Heike used red flags. In many of our modern-day competitions, we still differentiate the competitors using white and red ribbons tied to their belts.
Kano also studied the I Ching, Book of Changes. The I Ching is basically a collection of moral and political wisdom based on the concept of mutual opposites, referred to as Yin and Yang. Kano's selection of red-and-white colored belts may have been a symbolic representation of the principle of harmony suggested by the balance of Yin and Yang.
Other belt color theories
White belt getting dirtier theoryTraditionally, when a person began the study of a martial art, he or she received a white belt to hold the uniform together. After many months of training, the white would begin to discolor and become yellowish and possibly orange. After many months of rigorous practice, many times in grassy fields, the belt would take on a green appearance. After several years of practice, the belt would further darken, assuming a dark blue or purple hue. After numerous sparring sessions, the belt might develop a red or brown hue from the accumulation of bloodstains. After several decades of training, the belt would eventually turn black.
If the student devoted his or her life to martial arts training, the belt would continue to darken, but it would also begin to fray and begin to show spots of white from its inner core. Gradually, most of the black would wear away and the belt would become white again, signifying that the student had come full circle and reached the final stage of enlightenment.
Symbolism theoryThe color of the belt indicates the rank of the wearer, but it also symbolizes other aspects of eastern philosophy. Red represents the highest ranks and positions of officials in politics, government, military, and religion. It is the "king's" color and the color of Popes and Cardinals. Diplomats wear red bands across their shoulders and red is used on flags of different nations and on ribbons used for military awards. Some martial art styles consider the red belt as the highest color of achievement.
In Korea, the colors of black, red, and blue denote the various levels of Korean hierarchy during the Koguryo and Silla Dynasties. The color white also had great significance in Korean history. When Tangun, the son of Hwanung, founded Korea under the name of Choson, the name was based on the spirit of worshiping the sun (symbolizing brightness/whiteness).
In some religions, a white garment signifies a sinless life. The color white symbolizes birth or beginning, whereas, the color black symbolizes the end. The colors white and black are also linked to the philosophy of Yin(Um)-Yang: the theory of opposites opposing each other while still working in harmony, such as the sun and moon, day and night, and beginning and end. Yin-Yang is the ultimate explanation of cosmic order. It explains how everything in the universe both acts and reacts to everything else. White belt students are the opposite of black belt students in martial arts knowledge and ability but they work in concert to increase each other's knowledge and ability. In the martial arts belt system, the colored belts between white and black belts attempt to link the two together in a meaningful way.
Dyeing theoryIn the old days, as the student progressed in rank, the belt was simply dyed to a new color. This repeated dyeing process determined the colors and the order of colors. Due to the dyeing process, it was practical to use increasingly darker colors, so the usual color order was white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, and then black.
- Cunningham, D. (2004). Belt Colors and Ranking Tradition. [Online]. Available: http://www.e-budokai.com/articles/belts.htm. [2004, July 1].