The Belt System is a fundamental component of Karate, one of the richest and most ancient martial arts. Yet, surprisingly, it is not as old as the martial art itself, which has been studied by practitioners for hundreds of years, whereas the belt system was first introduced in the early 20th century.
In this article, we are going to discuss Karate Belts in-depth and will try to answer some key questions related to it such as its origin and type, the ranks that these types represent, their order, how much they cost, and how long it takes to get each one of them.
History and Origin of Karate Belts
According to legends, it is said that it all started with a white belt which practitioners used initially while training, and over years of practice, the sweat and dirt made the belt black. However, there is no factual evidence to back up this claim, and at most, Karate Dojos showing up with an unwashed dirty uniform gets you turned away.
There’s another, more factual version of the story, which starts with Dr. Jigoro Kano. He was a Japanese man and is often regarded by many as the founder of modern Judo. The credit for inventing the colored belt system goes to him. His intent for creating this system was to use it as a tool to measure and indicate the progress of a student.
Sometime around 1880, he awarded the first “black belts” to some of his students.
How did Judo influence Karate?
In 1883 Dr. Jigoro Kano borrowed the Kyu/Dan system from the game of Go to classify his students. He thought that this Kyu/Dan system of classification would not only help in structuring classes for each level but would also encourage the students, using competition that generated the pride of getting these belts.
After Dr. Jigoro Kano, an Okinawan gentleman called Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate, adopted the belt ranking system that was being used in Judo. Thus, the first Karate Shodan ranking was awarded by Gichin in 1924. Soon after, other Okinawan teachers like Masutatsu Oyama, founder of Kyokushin Karate, followed the same steps.
How did European Karate Practitioners introduce more Coloured Belts?
There were originally only three belt colors in Karate: Black, White, and Brown. But it all changed in 1935 when a guy named Mikinosuke Kawaishi showed up in Europe. He started to teach Judo in Paris, France, and soon realized that his western students could climb greater heights with a more diverse system of belts.
Similar to Kano’s idea, he knew that a larger diversification would provide more regular incentives by acknowledging accomplishments. It produced huge success, and many Karate practitioners outside Japan soon followed Kawaishi’s idea and started using his new colored belts in their Dojos.
After some time, this system started getting followed in Okinawa, Japan as well.
Still, there is no standard specified by any governing body regarding Karate belt colors. It varies with different organizations and schools; however, most colors are nearly the same more often than not.
What was the original system like?
From flower arrangement to calligraphy, almost every Japanese traditional art has its own well-structured progressive series of formal ranks. The same goes for martial arts as well. Karate has its origins in Okinawa, and originally it didn’t have any belt ranks. The practitioners of that time did not wear any uniform or belt. They instead used a normal Kimono and a sash.
The students weren’t judged based on ranks either.
A few handfuls of students would get selected by old masters and would then go on to get free training by them. They were evaluated based on the number of years one had trained for, how developed their mind had become and what level they had reached.
It wasn’t until 1956, when the Okinawa Karate Federation was formed, that the kyu/dan system became universal.
A ranking system known as Menkyo or “license” was used in Japanese martial arts before Kano introduced the kyu and dan rankings. It is a very ancient Japanese ranking system and dates back to the 8th century. Back then, the masters used to give certificates testifying the mental and technical skills acquired in calligraphed rolls to their students.
The system was based more on the mastery of the student and less on the years of study.
Over the practitioner’s lifespan, on average, there are over three to five Menkyo degrees. There were very few levels in the Menkyo system as compared to the kyu/dan system. There are some traditional schools in Japan called Koryu where this system of titles is still in use.
What is the order of belts in Karate?
Well, to start off, the black belt is not the end but the beginning of the journey. It does not represent the mastery of the art but rather the level of competence in the art. Most of the modern Karate that is practiced today is based on the borrowed kyu/dan system from Judo.
Is the same ranking used by all Karate styles?
Depending on the school, style, and country, there are various rankings and belt colors. However, black, blue, white, brown, orange, green, and yellow are some of the most commonly used belt colors in Karate.
What Karate Belts are the most common?
The 6 Kyu System hosts the most common Karate ranking list, while some of the Karate styles use 8,9,10, and 12 kyu systems. In addition, the grade ranges from the white belt up to the 10th level black belt.
Student Levels: The Kyu Ranks
Student ranks are called Kyu ranks in the Japanese arts as well as in Karate. These ranks represent the early stages of practice. During this period, the practitioners are called Mudanshas.
As the Mudanshas progress in honing Karate, they advance in ranks. This is represented by the Kyu grades, which decrease numerically downwards – representing higher ranks. Hence the 1st Kyu, also known as the brown belt, represents the most advanced or highest student rank.
Here is a complete list of all the kyu ranks in descending order:
6th Kyu: White Karate Belt
The 6th Kyu is where it all starts for the novice Karate student. This is where the journey begins. The white color represents the pure and empty nature of the amateur mind which doesn’t yet have any knowledge of Karate.
That is because most of the individuals who are new to the art of Karate don’t know how to control their body or mind.
5th Kyu: Yellow Karate Belt
Students get the yellow belt by getting through a small exam. Students at this level have elementary knowledge of Karate and understand the basic principles of the art.
4th Kyu: Orange Karate Belt
The students who start to develop a slightly better understanding of the basics of Karate are awarded the orange belt. Students at this level start to conceptualize and apply the principle of distance management.
3rd Kyu: Green Karate Belt
Students who have reached the green belt level start to hone their beginner skills that he or she has acquired so far. When it comes to the mechanical execution of the technique, the student slowly gets better at defending himself or herself.
A student at the green belt level is quite cognizant of his or her opponent’s movements.
2nd Kyu: Blue Karate Belt
The students at the blue belt level begin to show substantial control over his or her mind as well as the techniques that he or she has learned so far. A substantial amount of authority over the opponent can be noticed in a sparring match.
Other than this, a significant amount of confidence and control is also present. Their countering skills are also much better.
1st Kyu: Brown Karate Belt
In the Kyu hierarchy, the brown belt level is the last and final level. Both mentally and in terms of his or her martial skills, the student has now reached an undeniable level when he or she becomes a brown belt.
At the brown belt level, students begin to show a high level of skill in applying the techniques that he or she has learned so far, even against resisting partners. They have a solid grip on the mechanical execution of their Karate techniques.
They now begin to look at self-defense more like a martial artist, someone who is capable of combat and altercation.
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Master Levels: The Dan Ranks
The advanced grades in Karate are known as Dan grades, and this is where the students begin their true journey of Karate. The practitioners of this level are referred to as Yudanshas.
One peculiar thing about the Dan ranks is that when the students reach either the 6th or the 7th Dan, their further promotion is not based on any examinations but rather on a reward basis that they get by a headmaster on some special martial arts-related occasion.
1st Dan: Shodan
Somebody who has acquired the basic skills of Karate and is good at these skills.
2nd Dan: Nidan
Somebody who has acquired the basics of Karate and has a fine command of these skills.
3rd Dan: Sandan
Somebody who is proficient at the basics of Karate and has mastered these skills.
4th Dan: Yondan
Somebody who knows how to apply the basics of Karate and is excellent in implementing this skill.
5th Dan: Godan
Somebody who has mastered both the basics skills of Karate and its applications and is outstanding at these skills.
6th Dan: Rokudan
Somebody who has obtained a deeper meaning of Karate and is superb at its skills.
7th Dan: Nanadan
Somebody who has mastered that deeper meaning of Karate and has top-notch control over its skills.
8th Dan: Hachidan
Somebody who has figured out the mysteries of Karate and is acquainted with them.
9th and 10th Dan: Kyudan and Judan
Some very few legendary masters of Karate are awarded these honorary titles.
Which is the highest Belt in Karate?
The highest belt varies for different schools, styles, and even countries. There is no specific belt that can be universally regarded as the highest.
However, in many Karate Dojos, the 10th Dan or Judan is generally considered the highest achievable rank in martial art.
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How long does it take to get each Belt in Karate?
Each belt has its own unique minimum progression time. However, the figures are very rough, and they may vary from person to person. Therefore, it is completely fine if it takes a student more time than what is stated here.
It is important to remember that the goal is to acquire knowledge rather than getting the belt in a short amount of time. It should also be noted that this is not the systematic time that it takes for students to acquire a belt but the minimum progress time.
Kyu Rank Timings
Here is a complete list showing the minimum progress time of all Kyu ranks:
- 6th Kyu: White Karate Belt
With regular active training, it takes a minimum of 3 months of training as a novice to reach this belt.
- 5th Kyu: Yellow Karate Belt
With regular active training, it takes a minimum of 6 months of training as a white belt to reach this belt.
- 4th Kyu: Orange Karate Belt
With regular active training, it takes a minimum of 6 months of training as a yellow belt to reach this belt.
- 3rd Kyu: Green Karate Belt
With regular active training, it takes a minimum of 9 months of training as an orange belt to reach this belt.
- 2nd Kyu: Blue Karate Belt
With regular active training, it takes a minimum of 12 months of training as a green belt to reach this belt.
- 1st Kyu: Brown Karate Belt
With regular active training, it takes a minimum of 18 months of training as a blue belt to reach this belt.
The Dan ranks do not have any specifically defined minimum progress time as they are advanced grades and vary largely from person to person.
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How much do Karate Belts cost?
On many fronts, the expenses can be surprising. On average, in the United States, it costs around $13,000 to get to a black belt, which is a total of 48 months of regular training. The monthly average stands at around $250.
This figure takes into account the fees for the tuition, the testing fees, the gear, and the association dues. There can also be medical and transportation expenses which can rack the figure even higher.
The tuition fee has a lot to do with the location of the Karate Dojo. The higher the income in the locality, the more the school owner will have to pay for the real estate. This eventually results in high tuition rates for the students.
Another very crucial factor that most people often don’t take a look at is the time factor. The years you have to spend with a dedication to getting that black belt account for a lot and should also be considered an expense.
It should be noted that simply attending all of the classes is not enough to land you the belt. You will have to put real effort into it, which is going to require a lot of your time from your everyday schedule for many days in a row.
Karate is more like a personal growth journey, and regular daily training is an essential part of it. For a student who is willing to learn, even 20 to 30 minutes of regular training would suffice.
There is also a relatively cheap alternative to these huge fees. All it requires is a decent internet connection and a computer device. You can attend online Karate classes, which come at almost a fraction of physical Karate Dojos.
There are even options to request a free trial class if you don’t feel comfortable going with this type of distance education.
It all started with a man named Jigoro Kano. Today we use the ranking system that he devised, known as the colored belts system. It transformed Karate into what it is today.
The Karate martial art is in itself very diverse and is built up of a plethora of different components. It has a rich history and has been practiced by thousands of practitioners over many decades. It is not a cheap activity and requires a lot of dedication and genuine effort. However, if done right, it also ends up transforming the individual and making him better.
If you found this article helpful, feel free to share it with all your Karate friends who might find it useful.
I am a huge fan of both BJJ and MMA. Jiu-jitsu is my biggest passion, and I’ve been training it for more than 5 years. I have recently been promoted to a purple belt. In this blog, I will be giving you tips on how to improve and how to choose the best BJJ equipment!