Belt colors and ranking tradition
by Don Cunningham
Legend and myth have flourished along with
the practice of martial arts, such as judo and karate, since the
beginning. Yet, there seems to be no greater lore than that associated
with the near-mystical origins of the coveted black belt. To the
astonishment of many martial arts practitioners, though, the black
belt's history is rather short in the overall scheme.
Many stories abound regarding the honored black belt in various
martial arts styles. The one most commonly heard is that the novice
martial artist traditionally started with a white belt. As he trained
and practiced over the years, though, the belt became soiled, first
turning brown and ultimately black as he perfected his martial arts
skills. Notwithstanding the extraordinary metaphor provided by this
charming bit of folklore, unfortunately, it has no foundation in truth.
Colored belts were never part of any ancient martial arts tradition.
Actually, the black belt was first used to designate ability or rank
in Kodokan Judo slightly more than one hundred years ago. Dr. Jigoro
Kano, an educator and sports enthusiast, was the first to use the black
belt or sash as a symbol for dan or graded rank students at his school,
the Kodokan, founded in 1882 in Tokyo.1
Prior to this, jujutsu schools, like most other traditional Japanese
arts of that period, used the complicated menkyo ranking system as a
form of licensing students to particular technical skill levels.
An understanding of the Japanese educational system and social
circumstances requires a historical perspective. Systematic training in
warfare and weapons first developed into martial traditions, schools, or
styles (ryu ha) somewhere between the 11th and 15th centuries. Samurai
gathered in clans, either centered around families or regions, to train
in specialized weapons and techniques. As their training became more
distinctive and individualistic, martial styles or schools (bujutsu ryu)
began forming in the early Tokugawa period (1600-1868).2
Ancient martial arts in Japan were eventually classified into
eighteen different branches, referred to as the Bugei Ju-Happan.
Basically, these categories consisted of archery (kyujutsu), artillery (hojutsu),
dagger (tantojutsu), halberd (naginatajutsu), hook (mojirijutsu),
horsemanship (bajutsu), javelin (sojutsu), knife throwing (shurikenjutsu),
needle (ganshinjutsu), restraining (toritejutsu), chain and sickle (kusarigamajutsu),
staff (bojutsu), stealth (shinobijutsu) swimming (suijutsu),
swordsmanship (kenjutsu), sword-drawing (battojutsu), truncheon (jutte-jutsu),
and unarmed self-defense (jujutsu).3
In parallel, many schools of the other arts, such as calligraphy (shodo),
painting (sumi-e), or tea ceremony forms (chado), were also created to
disseminate their distinct techniques and styles. These schools also
frequently used the menkyo system to license their graduates.
Generally students of these early Japanese ryu ha were first licensed
as Shoden. Their rankings then progressed through Chuden,
Menkyo, and ultimately, Menkyo Kaiden, the last meaning literally,
"license of total transmission."4
However, each individual ryu ha followed their own criteria for
licensing students. The particular sequence and even the various titles
were often completely different from each other.5
The ranks were usually designated by specially created certificates
or handwritten letters from the licensing teacher or founder. Often, the
higher ranks were also accompanied with the presentation of a densho,
scrolls of manuscriptual instructions or records of secrets by the
founders of the various schools.6
Some densho provided detailed instructions and graphic illustrations of
particular techniques. Others used descriptive words or characters which
served as mnemonics or memory aids for advanced techniques. By
themselves, the latter documents were meaningless to outsiders
unfamiliar with the specific language of the particular ryu ha.
Due to the secretive nature of the various ryu ha and their
instructors, the menkyo ranking system had several disadvantages. First,
there was no way to evaluate or compare equivalent skill levels of
graduates from different schools.7
Further, the steps between separate licenses could take anywhere from a
few months to several years, depending on the particular teacher's
philosophy or personal style.
As a youth, Kano first learned the basics of jujutsu from Teinosuke
Yagi. Later, he studied Tenshin Shinyo Ryu jujutsu under Hachinosuke
Fukuda and Masatomo Iso, as well as Kito Ryu jujutsu under Tsunetoshi
Iikubo. He was initiated into the secrets of both schools.
After founding his own school; the Kodokan in 1882, Dr. Kano also
made academic studies of many other styles of jujutsu. In addition to
visiting and practicing with the remaining masters, he carefully
examined the densho from other jujutsu ryu ha.8
Sometime shortly after he decided to form his own jujutsu style, Dr.
Kano also revised the ranking system, creating ten steps with relatively
short intervals to keep judo students interested in progressing through
the various technical levels.
"In 1883, Dr. Kano divided students into two groups, which was
the non-grading (mudansha) and the grading (yudansha)," according
to Naoki Murata, curator of the Kodokan Judo Museum. "The first
yudansha, or shodan grade, were two famous students in the Kodokan at
that time, named Tsunejiro Tomita and Shiro Saigo. These two students
were also the first ones promoted to second dan a year later."
Shiro Saigo, immortalized in Tsuneo Tomita's fictional novel, "Sugata
Sanshiro,"9 and Akira
Kurasawa's 1940s movie adaptation about the infamous tournament between
judo and jujutsu, skipped third dan and was promoted directly to fourth
dan the following year in 1885, Muraka reports. At this time, all
grades were announced either directly by Dr. Kano or by posting a notice
on the board in the Kodokan.10
Black belts were not worn as symbols of dan grade in the Kodokan
until 1886 or 1887, Murata recounts, about the time of the Tokyo
Metropolitan Police tournament between the jujutsu school founded by Hikosuke Totsuka and Dr. Kano's Kodokan.11
After the Kodokan's decisive victory, certificates or diplomas were not
issued by the Kodokan until 1894, nearly eleven years after the creation
of the judo dan grading system.12
Eventually, the ability or rank of judoka came to be denoted by different colored belts worn around the waist with the
judogi. In Japan, white belts are generally worn through all kyu grades, although some individual schools also use the brown belt to
indicate the higher kyu ranks. The blue, yellow, orange, green, and purple colored belts used by intermediate
originated in Europe and were imported into the U.S. system during the early 1950s.
Black belts are traditionally worn by the
competitively ranked practitioners, first dan (shodan) through fifth dan
(godan). A red-and-white belt is worn by the ranks given for service to judo, sixth dan
(ryokudan) through eight dan (hachidan), with solid red belts reserved for ninth dan
(kudan) and tenth dan (judan).13
Karate incorporated both the dan grading system and the use of the black belt when Gichin Funakoshi, the Okinawan karate
master, first demonstrated and later taught his Okinawa-based fighting art in Japan during the 1920s at the
Kodokan.14 The dan ranking system was eventually incorporated into
kendo (Japanese-style sword fighting), aikido, and most other forms of
The origin of the colored belts, though, as well as the significance of the particular colors, is still shrouded in mystery and may be
permanently lost to history. While he left no documented reason for the various colors used, Dr. Kano did leave some clues.
According to his philosophical doctrine, he thought there is no limit on how much progress or improvement one can make in
their judo training. Thus, Dr. Kano believed that if someone achieved a stage higher than tenth
dan, "one transcends such things
as colours [sic] and grades and therefore returns to a white belt, thereby completing the full circle of Judo, as of
In case of this eventuality, it should be noted that the Kodokan decided the belt worn by such a person should be "about twice
as wide as the ordinary belt" to prevent any novices from mistaking the significance. To date, Dr. Kano is the only person raised
to twelfth dan and given the title of shihan.
Dr. David Matsumoto, author of "An Introduction to Kodokan History and Philosophy," cites a combination of two possibilities
for the traditional use of white belts, the symbolic meaning of the color and practical aspects of uniform
"First, white has had a special, symbolic meaning in Japanese culture for centuries," Dr. Matsumoto writes. "The Japanese
people have generally considered the color of white to reflect cleanliness and sacredness since ancient times."
Thus, white belts may be more appropriate to reflect the pure innocence and virtue of beginners, according to Dr. Matsumoto.
It may also reflect the selection of cotton used in judogi material. After usage and frequent washing, the natural off-white or
yellow colored cotton material tends to turn white.
One unauthenticated supposition regarding black belts worn by
dan grades is that Dr. Kano borrowed the concept from
Japanese high school sports. Advanced competitors were separated from beginners in swimming tournaments by a black ribbon
worn around their waist. As an distinguished educator and sports enthusiast, Dr. Kano was most certainly aware of this tradition
and may have incorporated it into his practices at the Kodokan.
The selection of red-and-white colored belts to distinguish the
highest ranks may have also been based on a simple cultural preference,
according to Meik Skoss, a noted martial arts historian and author of
numerous articles about Japanese martial arts.17
Japanese typically divide groups into red and white sides, based on a
pivotal historical event. The Genpei War was a dispute between two rival
clans, the Genji and Heike. The Genji used white flags to identify their
troops on the battlefield, while the Heike used red flags.18
As examples, Mr. Skoss points to the Kodokan's semi-annual
Shiai, where the judo students are divided into two groups, red and
white. This semi-annual contest was started soon after the Kodokan was
formed and has become a traditional event. Further, contestants in
modern judo are distinguished by either a white or red waist band, while
kendo competitors are identified by either a red or white tasuki, a
small ribbon tied to the back of their protective armor.
Dr. Kano had a particularly affinity for languages and was
academically interested in classic Chinese literature, especially the I Ching, or Book of Changes. The
I Ching is basically a collection of
moral and political wisdom based on the concept of mutual opposites,
referred to as Yin and Yang. Dr. Kano's selection of red-and-white
colored belts may have been a symbolic representation of the principle
of harmony suggested by the balance of Yin and Yang.
On the other hand, Dr. Kano's dan ranking system may have represented
a radical rejection of Japanese culture and a deliberate way of
distinguishing his new and improved system from traditional jujutsu
styles, according to Skoss.
"Consider the times--the Meiji era was a time of great social,
economic, and political change--and Kano was right in the middle of it
all," Skoss said. "He was quite an innovator in his way, and
he had some definite problems with a lot of feudal Japanese culture and
mores. For instance, he wasn't at all happy with the way many jujutsu
trainees were little more than ruffians, street punks, who used what
they had learned to extort money from passerbys or to satisfy their
As an educator and a rationalist, who disdained unfounded
superstition, Dr. Kano wanted to create a training system which was not
physically injurious to his students and also lead to the development of
higher moral standards or personal character, Skoss said. Yet, he was in
competition with the older jujutsu ryu and felt much of the traditional
culture was worth preserving. His adoption of a new ranking system may
have been both a rejection of jujutsu traditions and a preservation of
traditional Japanese hierarchy.
"Japanese society is vertically structured," Skoss
explains. "A strong sense of relative position is present in all
social interactions, and symbols of rank have also been a part of the
culture dating back to the Heian period and even before."
Skoss cited the adoption of court ranks in earliest records of the
Japanese imperial sovereignty, as well as the colored caps denoting rank
and strong regulations regarding rank relationships during these
periods. Dr. Kano's use of colored belts to denote the grading system
ranks may have evolved from these traditions, according to Skoss.
Whatever the reason, the attainment of the black belt still
represents a significant achievement in both technical skill and
competitive ability for most judoka throughout the world. However, as
all first dan ranked judoka quickly learn, it also represents the
initial step in a path to even higher awareness and greater achievement,
one which may take a lifetime to pursue.
1 Yamanaka, K.. Jui-Jutsu or
Jui-do, Selection from Kodokwan Method, Kondo & Co., 1920.
2 Drager, Donn F. Classical
Bujutsu, Weatherhill, 1973.
3 Illustrated Martial Arts &
Sports in Japan, Japan Travel Bureau, Inc., 1993.
4 Murata, Naoki. Curator,
Kodokan Judo Museum. Personal correspondence, 1996.
5 Skoss, Meik. Personal
6 Kodokan Editorial Staff. Illustrated
Kodokan Judo, Dainippon Yubenkai Kodansha, 1955.
8 Illustrated Kodokan Judo.
9 Matsumoto, David. An
Introduction to Kodokan Judo History and Philosophy, Hom-No Tomosha, 1996.
11 Illustrated Kodokan Judo.
14 Stevens, John. Three
Budo Masters, Kodansha International, 1995.
15 Illustrated Kodokan Judo.
17 Skoss, Meik. Personal
18 Pictorial Encyclopedia of Japanese Culture,
Gakken Co., Ltd., 1987.