When you become a martial arts teacher you are always asked about belts, hence the title of this month’s blog.
Students will ask you: How many belts to get to black belt? What is the colour of my next belt. Why are their different colours of belts?
In Karate and other martial arts, the belt, known as obi in Japanese, is more than just a part of the martial arts uniform. It symbolizes the hard work, effort, and the commitment of an individual. Although the black belt is the most sought-after and revered colour, it is the beginner’s white belt that is most important. It is the first step from which all others will follow. When you’re a white belt, for the most part, you have no idea what you are doing or why you are doing techniques, so all the information you are receiving is new. You have to build a foundation, learn what your martial art is, and you will get in shape as you struggle through the training sessions. You become part of the martial arts community.
The Karate belt grading system is a unique way to identify skill level among Karateka. Karate students move up through the levels of karate by taking examinations.
Karate belts are an adaptation of the Kyu / Dan rank system the originated with Kodokan Judo, whose founder, Jigoro Kano, had the idea to use different colors of belts (originally white, brown and black belts) to designate rank depending on the level of training.
Mikonosuke (Mikinosuke) Kawaishi was a master of Japanese Judo and Jiu jitsu, who led the development of Judo in France and much of Europe. He is responsible for introducing the belt colors yellow, orange, green and blue to further differentiate beginner, intermediate and advanced practitioners. The coloured belt system soon became a grading standard used around most of the world by other martial arts systems.
While there are no universal rules that govern which karate belt colours equal which step-up levels, each individual martial arts organization has their own order for colour belt advancement. Typically the white belt is assigned to beginners, who then have to pass each level until they have reach the coveted black belt.
While some martial arts schools award only solid coloured belts, other schools may use stripes on belts. Stripes are sometimes used to show “in-between” phases of training. For example, a white belt with a yellow stripe or a white belt with a black stripe could mean that the student has been progressed beyond a standard white belt, but has not met the requirements for a solid yellow belt.
In Japanese tradition, the color white symbolizes death, while the color black symbolizes life. In the martial arts you are invited as a white belt student to sacrifice your previous lifestyle for devotion to martial arts practice. You are then reborn to conquer your fears and embrace your new life.
Karate students usually get a rank number along with their coloured belt. In most Japanese Karate styles they use this or a similar ranking system: 10th to 1st for Kyu levels and then 1st to 10th for Dan ranks.
“Kyu” denotes ranking below Black Belt. A new beginner would start with the rank of ten (10th Kyu) and someone about to test for their black belt would be rank of one (1st Kyu).
“Dan” means that a student has reached Black Belt status. The Kyu student that passes to black belt would be 1st degree black belt or Shodan. “Sho” meaning “beginning” instead of the word, “ichi” which is Japanese for one. The founder of the Karate style would be 10th degree black belt or Judan.
Note: In the current Shorinjiryu styles derived from Kaiso Hisataka’s teachings, the rank of Judan 10th degree black belt was reserved in memory of Masayoshi Kori Hisataka, (Seiki Kudaka in Okinawan; April 22, 1907 – August 14, 1988), the founder (Kaiso) of Shorinjiryu Kenkokan Karatedo. However in 2017, Masayuki Kukan Hisataka,(born November 18, 1940), his son and heir to Shorinjiryu Kenkokan Karatedo, assumed the rank of Judan 10th degree black belt.
All of the Karate belts have a different set of corresponding requirements. During the initial lessons, students have to practice stances, balance and coordination and perform basic techniques to move on to a new belt color. In the upper levels, speed and power are added, which the student must learn to demonstrate in order to move upward in rank.
The awarding of levels of Karate belts allows the student to set goals for themselves, culminating with a sense of achievement and accomplishment. Obtaining a new coloured belt is a major accomplishment for martial artists of all ages. Most dojo will hold a special class for testing and a have an award ceremony where the advancing student is presented with their new coloured belt and rank certificate.
A common stereotype belief that needs to be clarified is the “black belt” is a “master”. In reality, a black belt indicates the wearer is competent in a style’s basic techniques. A good intuitive analogy would be a 1st degree black belt (Shodan) is equivalent to a college/university Bachelor’s Degree. Shodan is seen not so much as an end, but rather as a beginning, with additional study leading to advanced learning.
Dispelling an Urban Myth
One common “legend” or “urban myth” concerning the tradition of coloured belts claims that early martial artists began their training with a white belt, which eventually became black from years of sweat stains, dirt, and blood.
There is no real evidence for this story. Given the standard of cleanliness common in the traditional Judo or Karate dojo, and within Japanese society, a student arriving with a bloodied or dirty uniform would not have been allowed to train.
Another story goes that the belt should not be washed and by doing so, one would “wash away the knowledge”. This is of course ridiculous. Knowledge resides in your brain, not in a piece of cloth wrapped around your waist. This is also related to the “dirty belt” myth.
Psychology of Coloured Belts
I was reading an article about the psychology of colours and thought about the relationship to our system of coloured belts.
Note: This is not an official explanation of the relationship of the colour belts used in Karate, but it certainly seems to fit the philosophy associated with each level.
KYU & COLOUR SIGNIFICANCE
10 = White
Purity or beginning with a clean slate. A white belt student is a beginner searching for knowledge. The white belt student is pure, untainted with little or no knowledge of the undertaking ahead.
9 = White/Yellow
8 = Yellow
Like the energy of a bright sunny day, shines upon the yellow belt student giving his first ray of knowledge, opening his mind.
7 = Yellow/Orange
6 = Orange
Like the growing power of the sun, orange offers a more thoughtful control. Curiosity is a driving characteristic of orange, and with it comes exploration of new things.
5 = Orange/Green
4 = Green
Green signifies the powerful energies of nature, growth, desire to expand or increase. Balance and a sense of order are found in the color green. Change and transformation is necessary for growth, and so this ability to sustain changes is also a part of the energy of green.
3 = Green/Brown
2 = Brown
Brown represents the ripening maturing and harvesting process. A brown belt is an advanced student whose techniques are beginning to mature, and he is beginning to understand the fruits of his hard work and becomes rooted in a solid foundation.
1 = Brown/Black
Shodan = Black
Black signifies the darkness beyond the Sun. Like it used to say on the TV series, Star Trek: “Space.. The final frontier…”. A black belt seeks new, more profound knowledge of the martial art in a never-ending process of self-growth, knowledge, and enlightenment.
Wearing Your Rank: The Importance of Martial Arts Belts
Martial arts are practiced all over the world by people with some starting from early childhood through to late adulthood. Practicing a martial arts lifestyle is often a demonstration of perseverance, determination and grit that requires both mental, physical and spiritual commitment. Your level of martial arts achievement is indicated by the colour of belt you are authorized to wear with your uniform. It is worn around your waist for all the world to see.
Each higher rank is a significant milestone that can take years of dedicated practice. As you advance, the colour of belt you wear with each advancement has special meaning and signifies that you have demonstrated competence at increasingly more difficult levels of skill. Incidentally, you are setting an example for students at the lower ranks and you can look for guidance from students who have higher rank. The belt colours you see in the dojo can be a source of motivation and inspiration, pushing you ahead to the next level.
In some schools, your coloured belt rank determines which types of training you are eligible for. For example, some schools may not let students participate in particular types of training until they have reached a certain rank. I remember black belts from a Karate school on the local military base visited our dojo and told us that their students were not allowed to kick and punch the heavy bag or focus mitts until they achieved their green belt which meant they acquired proper discipline. They were surprised to see our white belts kicking and punching bags, focus mitts and chest protectors. Which goes to show that each school of martial arts has its own traditions, rules and explanations.
With my youth class, it is sometimes sad for me to see that they sometimes come to class without their uniform and belt, and instead with just with a t-shirt and sweat pants, like the new beginners. They have an excuse, that their parents washed their uniform and it wasn’t dry when it was time for the parents to drive them to class. At this age, sometimes they don’t realize the significance of their coloured belt rank, but I hope over time that they do.
Tying the belt (three variations)