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martial arts history

Why do We Wear Colored Belts?

I was sixteen years old the first time I tied a black belt around my waist. It was not until fourteen years later, when I opened my own school and purchased my first set of over-priced, colored fabric belts that I thought:

Why do we wear colored belts?

Martial arts classes and colored belts are so firmly intertwined as to be inseparable. Compounding the matter, martial arts history is ruled by rumor, hearsay and urban legend. Thoroughly researched, historically accurate documentation can be very difficult to find.

Were the first belts devised and awarded as a way to mass-produce students by the American soldiers returning from World War II and the Korean war who opened the first US karate schools? Or, is there truth to the folklore that the first black belts were the product of white belts becoming so filthy over time that they were black with grime when the ancient students finally became experts?

Surprisingly, the convoluted history of colored belt ranking has a simple, logical origin. The story begins with two humble Japanese educators: Jigorō Kanō and Gichin Funakoshi.

Judo founder Jigorō Kanō was the man who devised the belt ranking system we use in martial arts today.

Kanō was a director for the Ministry of Education and later the principle of the Tokyo Higher Normal School. Funakoshi was a primary school teacher in Okinawa. History however, remembers each man as legendary martial arts masters.

Jigorō Kanō was the founder of Judo and the Kodokan dojo (school). Gichin Funakoshi was the ambassador of modern karate and the founder of the Shotokan dojo. As trained, professional educators, each man was keenly aware of the need to build a system of instruction around their fighting art to ensure their continued growth and popularity with the public.

Kanō’s judo ranking system was adapted from Go, a strategic board game that originated in ancient China and later spread to Korea and Japan. It became so popular in Japan that by 1603 officially recognized Go schools were formed and began competing with one another. This greatly enhanced the skill and level of play, resulting in the development of a system of grading that awarded either a numbered kyu (amateur) or dan (master) rank to each player.

The concept of recognizing levels of skill with a colored belt was taken from swimming. As a principle, Kanō was aware that different athletic departments within the Japanese school system (most notably in swimming) used colored sashes to rank student athletes.

Gichin Funakoshi popularized the use of colored belts in martial arts through his Shotokan dojo.

Kanō cleverly tied belt rankings to the kyu and dan system. In doing so, he made the abstract concept of ranking skill a tangible reality. Kanō used a white belt to distinguish his kyu students and a black belt for his dan students. In the Go system, the amateur ranks (kyu) descend from ten to one and the master ranks (dan) ascend from one to ten. Thus, there are twenty ranks in the martial arts. Beginners start at tenth kyu and work step by step to first kyu. After becoming a master, the student is awarded first dan and begins the lifelong journey towards tenth dan.

Jigorō Kanō awarded the first black belts in martial arts history in 1883 when he promoted two of his students to shodan (first dan). He also designed a new uniform: a streamlined, durable jacket and coat to replace the traditional Japanese loose pants and kimono. This uniform was known as the judogi (training uniform, later shortened to gi).

Gichin Funakoshi was a contemporary of Jigorō Kanō and the men respected each other greatly. In 1924, in his continued efforts to codify and modernize karate, Funakoshi introduced Kanō’s kyu and dan colored belt ranking system and the judogi to his Shotokan dojo. Funakoshi tirelessly promoted karate by performing public demonstrations, authoring books and training and inspiring many new teachers. It is through his efforts that Kanō’s ranking system and uniform became prevalent in the martial arts.

Before an industry existed to provided colorful belts to martial arts schools, students would dye their white belts progressively darker colors.

It is unclear when the ninth through first kyu ranks were first represented by intermediary stages of brightly colored belts (tenth kyu remains, traditionally a white belt). Many of Funakoshi’s disciples formed their own schools in Japan. Shotokan students such as Won Kuk Lee and Byung Jik Ro returned to their native Korea and founded new styles such as tang soo do (and later taekwondo). Each new school further adapted Kanō’s system to meet their needs.

The widespread adoption of colored-belt rankings in the martial arts facilitated their spread across the planet. By assigning colored belts to intermediate levels, teachers are able to inspire and motivate their students to seek continued improvement. This system also allows students to support one another, as they can instantly see where they all fall according to skill and senior students are encouraged to help beginners to find their way. The awarding of a black belt gives students a goal while simultaneously creating a new set of rankings for teachers.

Karate & Kickboxing Fusion students at Fighting Chance Seattle pose with their newly awarded belts.

At age thirteen I tied a white belt around my waist in the original Fighting Chance school in Pennsylvania. With each new belt I earned I garnered more responsibility. As an orange belt I taught white belts to kick and punch. As a green belt I taught orange belts their forms. As a red belt I taught green belts how to spar. Through this system I learned to be a teacher. And through this system I will introduce new students to the martial arts at Fighting Chance Seattle.

What’s your size? We have a white belt waiting for you. Register online to schedule your free orientation.


4 Responses to “Why do We Wear Colored Belts?”

  1. Thanks for separating fact from fiction. As someone who’s been outside of martial arts for so long, it’s easy to simply see colored belts as a way to group levels. Knowing they can be used as a teaching and leadership tool makes me respect the thoughtfulness of the process more.

    Posted by Krista | March 15, 2012, 8:08 pm
  2. It was interesting to see the history behind the belts my daughter has hanging in her room. Her next test brings her to a black belt :)

    Posted by April P. | March 19, 2012, 11:04 am
  3. This is a great history lesson. Makes me want to get my kids involved at an early age. :)

    Posted by Erin Barnard | May 7, 2013, 12:20 pm