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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
Origin of Kyu/Dan grades in Judo
While the kyu/dan ranking itself stems from Go, it had already been in use in a number of other disciplines by the time Kano adopted it for martial arts:
The majority of people believe that Jigoro Kano was the founder the Kyu / Dan grade system, this is untrue. However, he is recognised as the first person to use this grading system within the Martial Arts. The idea of the Kyu / Dan grade system, or Dan-I, was in fact “borrowed” from other sources of Japanese culture.
The Kyu / Dan system was first introduced in the 17th century by Honinbo Dosaku, a grandmaster of the Japanese 2 player logical board game “Go”. He introduced the system, as a method of handicapping the game. Honinbo itself, was the name of one of the four famous major schools of “Go” in Japan, the head of the school was given the schools title.
- The Origins Of Judo’s Kyu / Dan Grading System, Phil Morris (2005)
Origin of black belts to reflect grade
The use of a black belt to distinguish advanced students from beginners appears to have been inspired by the wearing of black ribbons by advanced athletes in public school competitions:
Later the Japanese public schools were using the Kyu / Dan system as a means to rank ability throughout the different athletic departments. These departments were using belts or ribbons to identify ranking ability, most notably within swimming, where advanced swimmers wore a black ribbon around their waist to separate them from beginners in swimming tournaments.
Many other areas of Japanese culture had also adopted this system, i.e. Chado (Tea Ceremony), Ikebana (Flower Arranging), Shogi (Japanese Chess), Renju (Connect Five), Calligraphy, to name just a few, etc, etc.
Spread of grades and belts from Judo to other martial arts
Shortly after Kano's adoptions in judo, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department instigated the use of kyu (and later dan) grades in Kendo:
The system for indicating one's understanding of kendo and the level of one's skill. The dan was originally adopted in Kodo-kan Judo, with the first sho-dan (first dan) being issued in 1883 (Meiji 16). The kyu system was used in kendo mainly by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and was systematized in 1885 (Meiji18). In kendo, the Tokyo Higher Normal School first used dan in 1908 (Meiji 41). The dan and kyu system was standardized throughout the country after the Dai-Nippon Butoku-kai adopted this system in 1917 (Taisho 6). at that time dan ranged from sho-dan (first dan) to ju-dan (tenth dan), and kyu ranged from 1 kyu (which is just below sho-dan) down to 6 kyu.
- Japanese-English Kendo Dictionary, All Japan Kendo Federation
before being adopted generally by Japanese martial arts:
In 1895, the Japanese Government sanctioned the formation of the first Martial Arts association, The Dai Nippon Butokukai (Japan Great Martial Virtues Association). This was formed to oversee, standardise and promote the various Martial Arts traditions of Japan.
As a result, Kano’s Judo Kyu / Dan system was given a mighty boost, as the committee set up to oversee the Dai Nippon Butokukai, adopted Kano’s innovative grading system to grant Budo / Bujutsu martial rank certification (Budo / Bujutsu Menjo) and to grant teaching licences (Shihan Menjo).
The Butokukai, revolutionised the practice of Budo and Bujutsu in Japan and a common system of uniforms, ranking, belts and promotions was adopted. Even Jujutsu practice methods were to become standardised along the lines of Kano’s Judo.
The Butokukai promoted the practice of Budo training to the nation and the teachings of Bushido (The Warriors Code Of Ethics). Judo and Kendo were promoted as sports. The Judo practice uniform, Judogi, and Kyu / Dan belt system eventually spread to many of the other modern Martial Arts, such as Aikido and Okinawa’s Karate, which adapted them for their own purpose.
Further coloured belts
Kano later modified his belt system, adopting further divisions of colour:
- Red-white and red belts for senior dan
Purple/brown belts for advanced junior/adult kyu
Purple belts were supposedly first introduced for more advanced juniors:
“The colour of the belt varies according to the rank of the person. 1st dan to 5th dan is black. 6th dan to 9th dan is red and white. 10th dan and higher is red. For all kyu grades, it is white. Children who have more than 3rd kyu may wear purple.”
- Jigoro Kano, 1931 (attrib.)
Before later adding brown belts for the same purpose in adult grades:
Beginning with a white belt, the pupil, on attaining what is called sankyu, or third class, dons a brown belt, which he retains up to ikkyu, or first class, only to change it for a black belt on promotion to the lowest teaching dan or grade called shodan.
- Mind and Body, Vol. 32 (p.543) (1925)
- Green belts for mid-level kyu, blue as alternative to brown
All beginners start as white belts. After showing some ability to execute a few basic throws both in form and in free play, after 6 months or one year the player is promoted to the next belt, which is green. This promotion, of course, depends on the club, as some will promote players to green after but a few months. The next promotion, again after about 6 months or a year, is to either a blue belt or the brown belt.
- Modern Judo, Vol.1 (p.5), Charles Yerkow (1958)
Further colours outside of Japan
Several clubs experimented with the use of coloured belts in the 20's:
However Kawaishi cannot be granted the original idea of using coloured belts, information as to the actual individual does not seem to be known. However, the London Budokwai, formed in 1918, began using forms of coloured belts to distinguish Kyu levels as early as 1922. Again the Seattle Nisei Judo Club, the oldest Judo club in the west, began using forms of coloured belts in the late 1920’s.
- Judo’s Kyu Grade System, The Introduction of Coloured Belts, Phil Morris (2005)
Becoming something of a standard by the 40's:
In Europe the clubs promote as follows: white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, black. In Hawaii the yellow and orange belts are eliminated. In some clubs there are either three or two classes in the brown belt, the Kodokan holding to three classes.
- Modern Judo, Vol.1 (p.5), Charles Yerkow (1958)
Just to add another data point, Capoeira did not initially have a belt system, especially since it was illegal to practice Capoeira for a fair amount of its early history, so they had no desire to advertise their knowledge with uniforms or belts. Mestre Bimba, creator of Regional Capoeira, issued four different silk scarfs, or lenços, for mastering different aspects of Capoeira (the scarfs were a callback to a tradition of people on the street wearing a silk scarf around their neck to ward off knife and razor attacks).
The blue lenço was for basic techniques. The red lenço was for learning more combative techniques, including protecting from surprise attacks. The yellow lenço was for learning how to defend against and use weapons. The white lenço was for music mastery. There was no indication of mastery (Bimba refused to designate anyone a mestre, as he believed that the community must decide who is suitable to teach, although he left a set of signed certificates to his students to be issued after his death).
The cordao (in English "cord" or "chord") system dates to around 1955 when Mestre Carlos Senna of the group Senavox introduced them, alongside a standardized uniform of the abadas (white canvas pants commonly worn by laborers) and rules for tournaments. I'm not certain if his justification is documented, but I've heard it said that uniforms and belts were basically introduced because Capoeira was being recognized as a sport by the Brazilian government, and Mestre Carlos was trying to legitimize the style by copying the practices of karate and jujitsu. The colors and order of the belts varies between schools (and many Angola schools don't use colored belts for rank) with there being two major spectrums, one based on the Brazilian flag, and one loosely based on traditional colors associated with the orixas.