Belt Ranks


The Karate belt, known as obi, is more than just a part of the Karate uniform. 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, Kano Jigoro, 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 Jujutsu, 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 have to pass each level until they have reach the coveted black belt.

One question I am always asked about is how many levels of belts are there in Karate?
The answer is … it differs from style to style and from club to club.  The Shi Ryu Kai dojo uses a ten level coloured belt system  with split-coloured belts for the odd number kyu belts.


Other schools of Karate may have fewer levels or something similar or even more levels than what is illustrated in the above diagram.

The list from tenth to first is as follows:

10th kyu … Jukyu … white belt

9th kyu … Kukyu … white/yellow belt

8th kyu … Hachikyu … yellow belt

7th kyu … Shichikyu … yellow/orange belt


6th kyu … Rokkyu … orange belt

5th kyu … Gokyu … orange/green belt

4th kyu … Yonkyu … green belt

3rd kyu … Sankyu … green/brown belt

2nd kyu … Nikyu … brown belt

1st kyu … Ikkyu … brown/black belt

(Note: kyu ranks progress from the larger number to smaller. For example, a first kyu outranks a fifth kyu)

Instead of split-coloured belts like our dojo uses, some karate schools may use a strip of electrical tape on one end of the belt to denote a higher level of that coloured kyu belt. Some martial arts supply companies make a belt with a solid black band in the center of the belt along the width of the coloured belt which some karate schools may use to denote a higher level of that coloured kyu belt.

The explanatory levels, for example: Pre-Intermediate, Advanced  Pre-intermediate and so on, are my own ideas of explaining the levels. Other karate schools may use other terms to explain the various levels or not bother at all.


Karate students usually get a rank number along with their belts. Most Japanese Karate styles use this or a similar ranking system: 10th to 1st  Kyu and then 1st to 10th Dan.

Kyu denotes ranking below Black Belt.  A beginner would be rank 10 (10th Kyu) and someone about to test for their black belt would be rank 1 (1st Kyu).

Dan means that a student has reached Black Belt status. The Kyu student that passes to black belt would be 1st Dan or Shodan, while the founder of the Karate style would be 10th Dan.

Note In the current Shorinjiryu styles derived from Kaiso Histaka’s teachings, the rank of Ju-dan tenth Dan was reserved in memory of Kaiso Masayoshi Kori Hisataka, the founder of Shorinjiryu Kenkokan Karatedo. Only in 2017, did his son, Masayuki Kukan Hisataka, assume the rank of tenth Dan. This was probably due to the proliferance of other ninth Dans in the various organizations of Shorinjiryu.   

All of the karate belts have a different set of corresponding requirements and practice. 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 in order to move upward in rank.

The awarding of levels of Karate belts allows the student to set goals for themselves, cumulating with a sense of achievement and accomplishment.

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 Dan Black Belt is equivalent to a college/university Bachelor’s Degree. The 1st Dan black belt is seen not so much as an end, but rather as a beginning, with additional study leading to advanced learning.

Dispelling an Urban Legend 


One common “legend” 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 probably 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 all related to the “dirty belt” myth. 

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.


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 contol. 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 Star Trek: “Space.. The final frontier…”, a black belt seeks new, more profound knowledge of the Art in a never-ending process of personal growth and knowledge.

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I teach Shihan Shigeru Ishino's Shorinjiryu Genbukan Karate in Kingston Ontario Canada since 1983. Shihan Ishino was an original student of Kaiso Masayoshi Kori Hisataka in Tokyo Japan, who came to Canada in 1969 to assist with the Shorinjiryu Kenkokan Karate dojos in Montreal Quebec Canada.

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