History of The Belt System

Part 1 of this history is from the Tracy's Kenpo Karate Home Page
Part 2 was written by Pat Munk, Godan

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Part 1

One of the most common myths, told and repeated by many "authorities", is that in the old days all students started
by wearing white belts, which eventually turned brown from use and dirt and at some magical point it turned black.  I don't know how many times I've heard this and it's not a bad story but all you need to do is look at the well-worn belt of a high-ranking Black Belt to see that this is not a true statement.  In fact most are white or whatever other color the original belt was before it was dyed Black, where use has made it threadbare; and in some cases even the black dye has been reduced to white. A white belt would most likely wear out before it turned black.

Another misconception is that the belt system in the Martial Arts originated with Judo. This myths, has a grain of truth: most martial arts systems do copy their current belt systems from judo, but judo is not where the belt system originated.  Professor Jigoro Kano developed Judo, The "Gentle Way", and he borrowed the ranking system in use at the Japanese public schools where belt ranks, obi in Japanese, were used by different athletic departments, most notably for ranking swimmers. The use of belt ranking for the swimmers is deeply rooted in Japan's martial arts mystique.

Belt ranking is done simply by numbering (counting). In the Kyu grades - counting is done backwards - starting with 5 then 4, with 1 being the highest grade in the Kyu!   This order is reversed with the Dan Ranking. 1st dan (shodan) being literally the lowest rank (step) 10th dan being the highest! However, this is a very new system, as godan, 5th degree was originally
considered to be the highest rank.

The following is the original belt system that gave the world its first official standard.

Gokyu.......5th Kyu (White Belt)
Shikyu......4th Kyu (White Belt) (Or Yonkyu)
Sankyu.....3rd Kyu (Brown Belt)
Nikyu.......2nd Kyu (Brown Belt)
Ikkyu........1st Kyu (Brown Belt)

Violet Belt (Purple) in the Junior division was used for all boys below the age of 18, in place of the adult
Brown Belt.


Dan (step or rank) -- This is the first graded rank!

Shodan.....1st Dan (Black Belt)
Nidan.......2nd Dan (Black Belt)
Sandan.....3rd Dan (Black Belt)
Yodan......4th Dan (Black Belt)
Godan......5th Dan (Black Belt)

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Part 2

As you can see, originally there were only three belt levels. White Belt, Brown Belt, and Black Belt levels. It wasn't until the early 60's that the White Belt ranks were divided into the different colored belt levels. Each style martial arts have their own version of how the colored belts are ranked.  Therefore one needs to look at the Kyu ranking instead of the belt color, because a green belt in one system might be equal to a purple belt in another, and a blue belt might be equal to a green belt etc.. The Kyu or Gup rank of the individual will be the true gauge to compare rankings below Dan Grades from style to style.

Most martial arts systems have also increased the number of Dan ranks also. Most systems now have 10 levels of Dan grades, with the 9th and 10th Dan levels usually held by the head of the system.

The western world has a different view on the grading system of martial arts. Most set their goal at attaining that coveted BLACK BELT!  They seem to have to have lots of progress checks along the way in the form of lots of different colored belts or stripe after stripe on the belts to feel like they are progressing. An example of this is one brown belt we've seen at many tournaments he has 9 stripes on his brown belt. It makes you wonder how many he has to get before he's able to get the black belt doesn't it.   Where did we loose track of training to improve ourselves and to learn to defend ourselves and not to get that next stripe of tape.  The term McDojo is usually applied to those schools/studios that give lots of test and produce 4 to 10 year old black belts, or any black belts in 18 months or less. These tests are usually given every 3 months and cost start at around $25.00 and gets higher for each higher belt. Some schools will charge up to $1000.00 to take their black belt test and the cost goes up from there for higher levels of black belt.

Gichin Funakoshi, the father of Japanese karate-do, said, the kibadachi (horse-riding stance) looks extremely easy but the fact is that no one could possibly master it even if he practiced every day for an entire year.  What nonsense, then, for a man to complain after a couple of months practice that he is incapable of mastering a kata. Let alone an entire system in just 18 months.  It's no wonder that so many of these, 18 month wonder, black belts get defeated in street fights.

Karate consists of a great number of kata and basic skills and techniques that no human being is capable of assimilating in a short period of time. Further, unless you understand the meaning of each technique and kata, you will never be able to remember, no matter how much you practice, all the various skills and techniques.  To attain true proficiency in the art of karate, the karateka must control his mind and conquer himself.   Intuitive understanding cannot be taught, but is awakened in the karate student's mind after many years of dedicated training, discipline, and meditation.


Yellow Belt
Orange Belt
Purple Belt
Blue Belt
Green Belt
3rd Brown Belt
2nd Brown Belt
1st Brown Belt
1st Black Belt
Dan Rankings

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