It is important to note that a karate belt is nothing more than a piece of colored cloth and does not necessarily denote karate expertise. Bruce Lee once amusingly stated that a belt was for holding up your pants! Those without real knowledge of karate assume that the belt is all-important when in actual fact; it is the Dan or Kyu rank that signifies a person’s ability in this particular martial art. Even though karate has been practiced for thousands of years, the colored belt system has only been in existence since the 20th century.
Early Ranking Systems
Early martial arts forms used a three rank system and practitioners were awarded certificates based on the level they attained. Beginners were given the shodan rank; intermediates were awarded the chudan rank while the upper rank, jodan, was given to those considered ready to learn the school’s secret traditions (okuden).
Another ranking system involved a licensing system called menkyo. Once you had been training for up to three years and proved that you were a serious student, you were given the kirikami ranking and allowed to progress. The next level was called mokuroku and it could take up to five years to gain this ranking. The menkyo was the final ranking and it would take students up to 10 years to achieve this. Once you were awarded the menkyo, you were permitted to teach others.
Modern Belt System
A Japanese martial artist by the name of Jigoro Kano is accredited with the modern Dan and Kyu ranking system. He developed Judo as a safer form of martial arts such as jujitsu and believed that a colored belt system would help students gauge their own progress and encourage them to persevere.
Meanwhile, Anko Itous shocked Okinawans by teaching karate to schoolchildren at the start of the 20th century. Gichin Funakoshi brought a form of karate to Japan and it became popular in the 1920s. He elected to use Kano’s ranking system of six Kyu (colored belts) and 10 Dan (black belts) for karate. According to sources, 12 April 1924 was a historic day as Funakoshi awarded colored belts to students for the first time.
By the 1980s, martial arts such as karate were incredibly popular in the United States and the colored belt system came as part of the package. While it is a system that ancient practitioners may frown upon, it is an excellent method of encouraging students to adopt karate as a lifelong passion with each belt a symbol of progress and hard work.