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Many martial arts (karate, judo, jiujutsu, taekwondo, kung-fu, etc.) use some form of coloured belts to denote rank and level. How did this come about? Did the concept have common origin or did some styles create the idea independently?

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I heard a story from my previous Sensei who taught karate : white represents seed below the snow in winter, green is a plant sprouting in spring, blue is the plant reaching for the sky and so on. (till the bark hardness from brown to black) –  Reno Oct 26 '13 at 8:06
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4 Answers 4

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Interesting question!

The first ranking system in Japanese arts was a merit system based on menkyo or licenses. Essentially, you trained until you learned enough to earn a license recognizing your ability in that set of techniques or lessons. You may have a menkyo for each section of the syllabus (mokuroku), or you might have menkyo shoden, menkyo chuden, etc. Ultimately, though, this culminated in a final license, menkyo kaiden (license of full transmission).

Kanō Jigorō (嘉納治五郎) was the first to incorporate a system of Kyu and Dan into martial arts, but this system actually originated in a chess-like game called Go (Igo in Japanese, Weiqi in Chinese). He split his students first into two ranks (Unranked, or mudansha; and ranked, or yudansha), and instituted a belt system to recognize the difference between them. These were later divided into levels of Kyu (white belt) and Dan (black belt) based on the rankings in Go.

The colored belts came after Judo began to be taught outside of Japan. Sensei Kawaishi Mikonosuke (川石酒造之助) introduced various colored belts in Europe in 1935 when he started to teach judo in Paris. The story goes that he felt that the Europeans he was teaching needed some sort of encouragement to continue training, and that a new belt at a new grade made the sport more appealing. This system was later adopted into various other martial arts taught throughout Europe, but was also adapted into Karate by Funakoshi Gichin (船越義珍) attempting to increase (Shotokan) Karate's appeal to the Japanese.

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Jigoro Kano first came up with the kyu/dan ranks in 1883 for Judo. The original belts were blue (6th kyu), white (5 and 4 kyu), brown (3, 2, and 1 kyu), and black for dan grades (10 ranks). The idea behind the system was to promote a quick reward/progression system and a way to identify your opponent's average skill in randori. After that, a myriad of colours were added.

In Aikido, Ueshiba determined that kyu grades should wear white, yudansha black and those with a Menkyo Kaiden (high level certificate) will be 8th dan.

Note that the black belt is not because either the belt gets died may times or as it getting dirtier and thus looks black. Those are (stupid) myths.

Note as well that other arts such as Muay Thai have a ranking system with colour (in that case arm bands called Prajeat) but they have no common root with the kyu/dan rank system.

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Traditional Kung Fu doesn't have colored sashes, as they traditionally had the sole purpose of holding up the pants. For the most part, colored sashes are a Japanification of the ranking systems. Rank in traditional Kung Fu also doesn't follow the same general pattern as Japanese arts either, as titles are familial based, not rank based (sidi = younger brother/sister, sihing = older brother, sigung = grandfather, sitaigung = greatgrandfather) If a student of a Sifu opens his own temple, the student gets title of Sifu and the Sifu get Sigung, etc). Many modern Kung Fu styles have sashes to help display rank and to give students the feeling of achievement.

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Also, traditional Aikido has white and black belts. –  Nielsvh Oct 24 '13 at 19:17
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This is an inspiring article about belt rankings. http://www.minrec.org/wilson/pdfs/History%20of%20Belts%20and%20Ranks.pdf

Speculative tradition proposes that belt colors (as indicators of rank) originated in a peculiar habit of washing all of one’s training clothes except the cloth belt. Thus as training progressed the initially white belt would first turn a dingy yellow, then a greenish yellow-brown, then a really dirty brown, and finally a repulsively filthy black.

Eventually, so they say, this progression was formalized as the white, yellow, green, brown and black belt ranks. Well, it’s a nice story, but probably not true

I have heard that Judo had 3 belts by origin. White for beginners, Brown for intermediate and Black for advanced Judoka's and that they have added more stages in between for the impatient Europeans.

This youtube video shows the sky blue, white, brown and black as @Sardathrion said.

  • 1882 - Kano invents judo
  • 1883 - Kano hands out two black belts. (adopted from good swimmers who wear a black ribbon) belts where different, tied around once instead of the current twice around your middle.
  • 1906 - Judogi is introduced. (there was black belt and non-black belt)
  • x - Sky blue, white, brown and black came. after that came karate belts. white, brown, black. judo and karate had 6 kyu rankings. 3 white, 3 brown.
  • 1930 ~ 1940 - european martial artist invented the 6 kyu rankings. white, yellow, orange, green, blue (or purple), brown.
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-1. The urban legend of never washing your belt is utter rubbish. –  Sardathrion Oct 18 '13 at 9:22
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Lol! it was quoted from the linked pdf and even the author said it was fake, so why the -1? –  JP Hellemons Oct 18 '13 at 9:34
    
It is neither a "nice story" nor is it probably fake. It is utter rubbish. –  Sardathrion Oct 18 '13 at 10:30
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