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Martial Arts Belt Ranks

What are they? What do they mean?

 

Overview

 

Chances are that you’ve heard about how belt colors are commonly associated with the level of one’s skill in a martial art. This is generally true, however each style and even each school can have a different color order or even a different ranking system altogether. Students move from one rank to another by testing with their teacher. Tests focus on everything that the student learned up to their last test, plus everything new the instructor has been teaching them since, ensuring the student is constantly building on his/her skill set. When a student passes, they move on to the next rank.

A lot of emphasis has been placed on “Black Belts”. There are too many styles to explain this fully, so I’ll focus on just the Japanese styles. Students progress through the ranks and ultimately achieve a black belt…the highest rank achievable by a student. If the student wishes, they can begin to progress through the teaching ranks known as “Dan’s”. Typically, once you reach your 3rd Dan you are considered a full-fledged teacher. (This is also referred to as your “3rd degree blackbelt”) A lot of schools will have their black belt students, who have not yet achieved their 3rd Dan, assist in teaching classes so that they gain experience (much like a student teacher).

The highest level of Dan achievable is the 10th Dan. With each traditional style there is usually only one 10th Dan, with very few martial artists ever achieving above a 7th or 8th Dan.

 

Where did the idea come from?

 

There are many theories why present day martial art schools use belts and sashes as a ranking system and where the concept of using belts came from. We will discuss two philosophies, one that is widely accepted by many practitioners and another that can be considered as a legend, or story that was passed down by your grandfather. Furthermore, the belt ranking system has only been around about 120 years. Throughout this article, keep in mind that not all martial arts are the same, your school may have a completely different ranking system than discussed here.

 

Dr. Jigoro Kano’s Theory

 

One of the most common arguments comes from the founder of modern day Judo, Dr. Jigoro Kano. An educator and sports enthusiast, Dr. Kano used a black belt to represent his dan (highest-ranking) students in his school, the Kodokan. However, he later realized his kyu (lower ranking) students needed an outward tangible object to acknowledge their accomplishments and encourage their efforts, therefore he implemented a kyu ranking system for them. It is believed that the Europeans created the intermediate kyu ranks, (i.e. yellow, blue, orange, green, and purple) then imported the concept to the U.S. in the 1950s.

In the 1920s Gichin Funakoshi, considered as the “Father of Modern Karate”, demonstrated his martial art style, Shotokan, at Dr. Kano’s school. Funakoshi was a great admirer of Kano, and respected the Judo ranking system Kano created. In order to spread the idea, Funakoshi helped implement the new grading system to Japanese martial art styles such as Aikido, Kendo, and other traditional arts.

 

The Belt Getting Dirty Theory

 

One theory, known as “the belt getting dirty” can be considered as a martial arts folklore. When new students started their training they were given the rank of white belt, signifying a birth or beginning. Students were not allowed to wash their belts, therefore the belt would “get dirty” the more they practiced. In time the belt would become black, signifying the amount of time the student spent practicing and typically their level of skill.

No matter what theory one believes, every style can agree that attaining a black belt or a similar ranking does not signify the end of your training, rather the beginning. It shows the maturity of a student in their respected art.

By: Javier Lozano, Jr.
3rd Dan
Wado-Ryu, Karate