Budo Belts and Ranks: The Forgotten Symbolism

Budo Belts and Ranks: The Forgotten Symbolism

By Christopher Caile
http://fightingarts.com/reading/article.php?id=89

n the martial disciplines we all tie belts around our waists, but few of us understand what they represent. The meaning of our belts and the grading system they represent seems to have been lost. Some think they indicate skill level or expertise. Others think they are misleading, at best, only imported figments of oriental culture, or at worst, inflated symbols of ego. So what do they represent? Are they worthless, or are they meaningful symbols charged with the energy of years of dedication and hard work?

One of the biggest misconceptions held by new students, as well as the public, is that obtaining a black belt represents being an expert. Nothing could be further from the truth. While training at the brown belt level is very demanding and the attainment of a black belt is seen as significant, black belt status really only indicates a graduation to a new beginning. For this reason first level black belts are known as shodans, rather than ichi (first) dans, “sho” meaning beginning, the same character as in sho shin, meaning beginner’s mind. Reaching this first, beginning rank means you have achieved some proficiency in basics and are prepared to really start learning, and learning means a lot more than techniques. Thus a new shodan becomes a beginner again.

Actually the use of ranks and belts is a fairly new phenomenon. They weren’t used during the feudal period when warriors studied various fighting methods for battlefield purposes, nor were they used in Okinawa as karate was developing. The kyu/dan system associated with colored belts is really a late 19th century invention pioneered by Jigoro Kano, the father of judo. He created the kyu/dan system in 1883 and awarded his two top students with a dan (rank) rating. Three years later he began to award black sashes to be worn with a practice top kimono or Japanese robe. Pants were then not in use, instead many wore loin cloths, or more commonly shorts cut off above the knee. Kano’s organization, the Kodokan, later adopted the full uniform with pants (keikogi) we know today. In approximately 1907 the sash was replaced by the kuri obi (black belt).

Kano saw the need to distinguish between beginning and advanced students. Beginners wore white belts and were considered unranked, but within this classification there were different levels known as kyu. New students started at the highest kyu (usually ten), the level decreasing with experience to first kyu, the last level before promotion to dan, the rank level symbolized by the black belt. Sometimes first or second kyus wore brown belts signifying that they were completing their basics and soon would become ranked. It was understood that kyu levels were only an introduction to more advanced training on a dan level. Over time various system have adopted six to ten kyu levels for their promotion curriculum and dan steps progressing upwards from first dan. In many budo arts dan status was achieved quite easily once serious studies began. In other systems, however, attaining a dan ranking was stretched out taking five to seven years of serious study, or more. Because beginners were unranked they were known as mudansha, “mu” being a Zen term meaning nothingness, an expression of negation. “Dan” is rank and “sha” is a person. Advanced students, ones who had mastered basics (awarded a dan rank) are called yudansha, “yu,” meaning possession. Thus the term means, “A person in possession of rank.”

The contrasting color of black (ranked) and white (unranked, colored kyu were not then in use) belts are laden with deeper symbolism. They reflect a yin, yang nature (in Japan in/yo) reflecting budo’s roots in Taoist tradition represented by the term “do,” or path, and represent the basic polarity of opposites. This concept of dualism was also expressed in the Chi Hsi school of Confucism (that had an important impact on budo’s formation) with its concept of form (or yukei, representing rank in budo) and non-form (mukei, representing non-rank). The white belt, along with the white uniform, also reflect budo values – purity, avoidance of ego and simplicity. There is also no visual, or outward indication of class or level of expertise. Thus everyone begins as an equal (without class) – a former noble could be standing next to a farmer. This was significant because earlier times (pre-1868) were characterized by a rigid class structure, within which classes were strictly separated and most were prohibited from martial study.

The kyu/dan system and associated belts was given a big boost by Japan’s first martial arts association formed to promote the revival of the martial teaching tradition in the modern era. In 1895 the government had sanctioned the formation of the Dai Nippon Butokukai (Japan Great Martial Virtues Association) to oversee, standardize and promote the various martial traditions (ryuha). A committee was commissioned (adopting kano’s innovations) to grant budo/bujitsu martial rank certification (budo/bujitsu menjo) based on the kyu/dan system and to grant teaching licenses (Shihan menjo).

Under butokukai leadership budo and bujitsu became revolutionized in Japan. A common system of uniforms, ranking, belts and promotion was adopted. Even practice methods became somewhat standardized. The Butokukai also promoted the adoption of budo training (including judo, kendo, kyudo and naginata-do) within the general education system and the teaching of bushido (the warriors code of ethics). Judo and kendo were promoted as sports.

The kyu/dan system was never designed merely to indicate a level of technical achievement. It also represents budo’s goal of spiritual and ethical attainment towards perfection of the self. Thus dan rankings, and even kyu levels, should reflect a level of moral and spiritual development or attainment. For this reason children have always been classified differently with their own kyu and dan status and with their own distinct belts, the black belt often having a white stripe down the middle. This is because children are judged to be not fully mature and too young to have developed those aspects of character that budo represents. For this reason many schools retest their students at an age of 14 or 15 to qualify them for adult standing. Thus the kyu/dan system reflects evaluation of a person’s spiritual progress towards perfection (attainment of discipline, values, ethics, manners, deportment, etc.) within a martial discipline.

In the early 20th century karate had just been introduced into Japan from Okinawa where it had been practiced in secrecy for centuries. In Shuri, Okinawa’s capital, karate been introduced publicly as part of the physical education curriculum of the middle school starting around 1905. But there was no ranking, belts or uniforms at that time. The kyu/dan ranking and belt/uniform system was first adopted by karate in Japan (the first dans awarded by Gichin Funakoshi to seven students in 1924) as a means of gaining acceptance by the Butokukai. Okinawa karate later followed the Japanese karate lead.

Only within the last 30 years have some martial disciplines or organizations begun to use colored belts to signify different levels of kyu. This was done to give students a sense of accomplishment. They were adopted in response to the desire voiced by many, mostly foreign students in Japan and students abroad, who sought some outward manifestation of their progress. There is no agreement, however, on color, or order of color, except that in many systems a brown belt precedes attainment of a black belt (dan status).

As to ranking of black belts, technically there are 10 progressive dan levels, first through tenth, but realistically, promotion within each system is limited to a level below that of the system’s founder, chief instructor or inheritor. Thus within Shotokan karate, whose founder, Gichen Funikoshi, was ranked as a fifth dan (godan), no one within the system had an equal or higher rank until his death.

All dan levels wear blacks, except for various combinations of red, white and black used on ceremonial occasions usually for fifth degree black belt and above. Some systems now signify dan ranking by stripes on one belt tip, the number of stripes indicating the grade. Some systems, however, symbolize various teaching titles with black belt stripes. But achieving a dan level today in Japan is not restricted merely to the marital arts. Dan ranking has been extended to a wide variety of activities. There are even dans awarded for skill in sake (rice wine) tasting.

 

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Karate Black Belt Levels

One question I am always asked about is how many levels of black belts are there in Karate?

Typically there are ten levels of Black Belt.
The following list of Black Belt (Yudansha) ranks are often used in Okinawan/Japanese Karate clubs.
Shodan-Ho: Probationary Black Belt Black and white square sectioned belt

belt_blk_wht

NOTE: I have not seen this one used in Shorinjiryu clubs

Shodan First Degree Black w/ one stripe

Nidan Second Degree Black w/ two stripes

Sandan Third Degree Black w/ three stripes

Yondan Fourth Degree Black w/ four stripes

Godan Fifth Degree Black w/ five stripes

Rokudan Sixth Degree Black w/ six stripes

Nanadan Seventh Degree Black w/ seven stripes

Hachidan Eight Degree Black w/ eight stripes

Kudan Ninth Degree Black w/ nine stripes

Judan Tenth Degree Black w/ ten stripes

However, in Ishino Shorinjiryu Genbukan Karate, Shihan Ishino does not use stripes to indicate rank level. Instead the rank is indicated in Japanese kanji (i.e. San Dan) on the belt above the black belt’s name (see image below ~ belt end on your right above label).

black_belt_isgk

 

I have noticed that some Shorinjiryu clubs in the U.S.A. have been using for their fourth degree black belt, (Yondan),  a half red and half white on one side and a solid black on the opposite side belt, sometimes referred to by martial arts suppliers as the “Renshi” belt. For Yondan, the half red and half white side is worn showing on the waist. I have also noticed that Shorinjiryu Kenryukan Karate also uses the “Renshi” belt for third degree black belt but with the black side showing on the waist.

belt_renshi

There are some Shorinjiryu clubs that have been using for the fifth degree black belt, a red and black square panelled belt.

belt_red_black

In Ishino Shorinjiryu Genbukan Karate, Shihan Ishino does not use the “Renshi” belt or the red and black panelled belt.

Many Karate clubs follow the Judo tradition of wearing special belts for sixth, seventh and eight degree black belt by using a red and white square panelled belt, sometimes referred to as a “Rokudan belt” or “Kohaku” belt.

belt_red_white

It should be noted, that even though Hanshi Masayuki Kukan Hisataka, the president and chief instructor of Shorinjiryu Kenkokan Karatedo, was himself a high ranking Judo black belt and is familiar with the required qualification of sixth degree black belt in Judo to wear the “Rokudan belt”, he has decided to allow fifth degree black belts in Shorinjiryu Kenkokan Karatedo to wear the “Rokudan belt”, for whatever his reasons are ?!?!

Even more strangely I have noticed that in some Jiu Jitsu clubs they have been awarding the “Rokudan belt to fourth degree black belts ?!?! I would have expected that they would follow more closely to the Judo’s belt designations.

Shihan Ishino is currently seventh degree black belt and wears the red and white panelled belt.

shihan_ishino_2015

 

In Judo, the solid red belt is worn by ninth and tenth degree black belts. This is the same for most Karate styles including Shorinjiryu. However that being said, I have seen children in open Karate tournaments with red belts. In those clubs, the red belt is used as the next belt colour following the first promotion from beginner white belts. This makes me wonder what is the coloured belt their style uses for tenth degree black belt?!?

belt_red

The Korean martial arts styles are different, as some taekwondo clubs use a red belt in place of the brown belt.

In the World Karate Federation Karate (WKF) competitons, they use blue belts and red belts for black belt team competitions to distinguish one team from the other. Possibly because red vs blue are the best two basic colours that can be used to indicate opposing teams.

belt_competition

So reader are you confused yet?

Belt Ranks

belts

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.

belt_split-colour_genesport

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.

 

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 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.