Coloured belts – or obi as they’re known in Japanese – are a common sight in martial arts. They’re used to signify a student’s progress, with each symbolising rank. In many martial arts, this rank goes from low (10th kyu) to high (10th dan). Once a student has reached the highest kyu rank, the next is a black belt (1st dan). They then begin their ascent of dan ranks to 10th dan.
The concept of using a belt to distinguish rank, as well as the accompanying kyu / dan system, was established by Dr. Jigoro Kano in the early 1880s. Kano initially used only black or white belts to distinguish experienced students from novices and applied it to jujutsu, which forms the basis of modern judo.
Shortly after Kano founded his martial arts school – the Kodokan Judo Institute – many more disciplines adopted the belt ranking system, including karate and taekwondo. The belts then evolved over time, arriving at the coloured belts we know today.
Versions of these belts are also seen beyond Japan, with Brazilian jiu-jitsu being a prime example. Some Muay Thai schools even adopt a colour-based ranking system using armbands as opposed to belts, and from the ‘70s onwards, many kung fu schools began to use colour-coded sashes.
However, while coloured belts, armbands, or sashes all denote a practitioner’s skill level, ranks and colours aren’t universal between martial arts – or even sometimes between styles or schools.
Let’s take a more detailed look at martial arts belts.
Karate was one of the earliest adopters of Kano’s belt ranking system. There’s some evidence that Gichin Funakoshi, the first karate master to use Kano’s kyu / dan system, was at least an acquaintance of Kano’s himself.
Nowadays, the order of the colours can vary slightly between schools and other karate styles. But the general principle that the belt becomes darker as the student progresses remains consistent.
White belt – 10th kyu
Orange belt – 9th kyu
Red belt – 8th kyu
Yellow belt – 7th kyu
Green belt – 6th kyu
Purple belt – 5th kyu
Purple with one white stripe – 4th kyu
Brown – 3rd kyu
Brown with one white stripe – 2nd kyu
Brown with two white stripes – 1st kyu
Black belt – 1st dan
To acquire each belt, a student must demonstrate proficiency in three areas – kihon (technique), kata (form) and kumite (sparring). Typically, they must master and perform three to four kihon per belt rank, and these are accompanied by a sequence of kata movements. Eventually, this is all put into practice in the kumite portion of the assessment, where a student is expected to perform, block, or counter certain strikes.
Although it may vary between schools, the KUGB stipulates a three-month gap between attaining each grade. However, a 10th kyu may attempt 9th kyu after two months’ training and a 1st kyu cannot attempt 1st dan until six months after completion. Based on this, it takes no less than three years to become a black belt in karate. In practice though, it may take more like four to five.
Contrary to popular belief, a black belt does not make someone a karate master. It simply signifies a broad competence and understanding of karate’s teachings. After reaching 1st dan, a student begins a new journey up to 10th dan – the final belt. A student wears a black belt as they advance through each rank, with a white dash being added per subsequent dan rank.
Dan ranks take much longer to attain than any kyu rank. From 1st dan to 2nd dan, there is a minimum training period of two years under the KUGB syllabus. From 2nd dan to 3rd dan, there is a minimum training period of three years, and so on. To attain 5th dan, it can take nearly 30 years from the starting point of 10th kyu.
As a student rises through the dan ranks, so does the demand for leadership qualities and service to the style. Students are subsequently trained to become instructors (senseis) and inventors of new styles.
Trivia: former SAS soldier and TV survival instructor Bear Grylls is 2nd dan in Shotokan karate, and Hollywood actor James Caan is 6th dan in Gosoku-Ryu karate.
Although the concept of using belts to denote rank originated from Judo, it still hasn’t escaped revisions from different schools and styles over the years. In Japan, some traditional schools stick only to Kano’s original black and white belts, with others making distinctions for advanced and intermediate kyu grades.
In the UK, the British Judo Association (BJA) has devised two extra ranking systems below the classical kyu / dan system:
- Sho – this is comprised of nine rewards for 5 to 7-year-olds and aims to develop their physical, social, and psychological skills.
- Mon – this grading system is targeted at 8 to 17-year olds, who must learn the basics of judo before moving onto the kyu system. Students have the option to switch to the kyu system at the age of 16 but they must switch once they turn 18. Mon has 18 belts to acquire: red, yellow, orange, green, purple, brown, each of which contains one to three dashes to indicate progression.
If you’re new to judo and over the age of 18, you’ll start on the kyu ranking system. Sho and Mon are intended to allow students of a similar age to train with each other, rather than adults.
According to the BJA, the kyu belt order is as follows:
Red – 6th kyu
Yellow – 5th kyu
Orange – 4th kyu
Green – 3rd kyu
Blue – 2nd kyu
Brown – 1st kyu
Black – 1st dan
From 1st to 5th dan a black belt is worn, from 6th to 8th dan a red and white striped belt is worn, and for 9th and 10th dan a solid red belt is worn.
As with most martial arts, there is a mandatory waiting period between grades. From novice up to and including 5th kyu, there’s a limit of one grade per calendar month. From 4th kyu and above, there’s a limit of one grade for every three months. On this basis, 1st kyu could be attained after about three years, with more gifted students being able to complete it in two.
To attain each grade, students must know the English names and meanings of all Japanese terminology used for the grade they’re attempting. In addition to this, they must demonstrate proficiency in a set of practical techniques such as throws.
For dan ranks, students must test their ability and prove their superiority over other students practising at the same level. This ensures that the highest-ranking members of the BJA are the most skilled, not just the eldest.
Trivia: Filmmaker Guy Richie is a 1st dan in judo. However, he’s blown out of the water by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who holds an 8th dan rank.
The origins of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) are closely related to judo, as is the coloured belt ranking system it adopts today.
It begins with Mitsuyo Maeda, a student of Dr. Jigoro Kano who emigrated to Brazil in 1914. Maeda became renowned for his judo demonstrations, where he’d accept challenges from various prize-fighters – and invariably beat them. Many of these defeated fighters became his students and in 1921 Maeda opened his dojo, Clube Remo.
One of Maeda’s best students, Carlos Gracie, went on to invent Gracie Jiu-Jitsu with his brother, Helio, using everything they had learned from Maeda. While Maeda and another Kodokan graduate, Soshiro Satake, planted the seeds for jiu-jitsu in Brazil, the Gracie siblings are considered the founders of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
White – 1st degree
Blue – 2nd degree
Purple – 3rd degree
Brown – 4th degree
Black – 1st to 6th degree
Red and black – 7th degree
Red and white – 8th degree
Red belt – 9th to 10th degree
The kyu / dan system is notably absent from BJJ, with the black belt denoting an expert level in the practice. This is different from karate or judo, in which a black belt only signifies proficiency. In BJJ, the black belt has six different degrees before a student may qualify as 7th degree.
The IBJJF course program states that if a student were to reach black belt at the age of 19, the earliest they could expect to receive a 10th degree red belt would be at the age of 67. There are currently no living 10th degree red belts – which won’t come as much of a surprise.
Trivia: Brazilian jiu-jitsu is currently one of the most popular martial arts in the world, and is one of the cornerstones of mixed martial arts and the UFC. Amongst its notable practitioners are Joe Rogan (black belt) and Jim Carrey (brown belt). The late Paul Walker was also a brown belt while he was alive, but was awarded a black belt at his funeral.
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that rose to prominence in the 1940s and ‘50s. It was popular among martial artists who were proficient in Chinese and Japanese styles and grew into a globally recognised discipline from there. Given this ancestral link to belt-based martial arts (and the fact belts were already in widespread use in many other martial arts by this point), Taekwondo has its own version too.
According to British Taekwondo, the belt order is as follows:
White belt – 10th kup
White with yellow stripe – 9th kup
Yellow belt – 8th kup
Yellow with green stripe – 7th kup
Green – 6th kup
Green with blue stripe – 5th kup
Blue – 4th kup
Blue with red stripe – 3rd kup
Red – 2nd kup
Red with black stripe – 1st kup
In Taekwondo, ranks are termed ‘kup’, or ‘geup’ in Korean, as opposed to the traditional ‘kyu’, but they serve the same purpose. For each grade, students will be expected to demonstrate pumsae (form) sequences and kyorugi (sparring) techniques, as well as strikes and stances to an acceptable standard. The syllabus can be found here.
After ascending the kup ranks, students begin ascending dan ranks. They start with a black belt, to which gold stripes are added as each subsequent rank is achieved. Dan ranks are awarded by the Kukkiwon – the World Taekwondo Headquarters.
Belt ranks for other martial arts
We’ve covered most of the nuance between the coloured belt-based ranking systems in martial arts. Where belts are used in many other martial arts, they aren’t as central to the discipline. This might be because it isn’t traditional, or because coloured belts became so popular in Western schools that the tradition has been muddied.
That being said, here’s an overview of the remaining martial arts which may entail a belt-based ranking system.
Aikido only has black and white belts to separate kyu from dan, which is consistent with Kano’s traditional judo system. However, Western schools have been known to adopt colour-based belt ranking systems. The total number of belts and their order differ from school to school, but they’re always bookended by white for novice and black for experienced.
Krav maga fits into this category because it’s technically not a martial art or sport, rather a mode of combative self-defence. Krav maga borrows and combines features of many martial arts to produce practical and lethal combat skills. Given its hybrid nature, it’s not surprising to see that a colour-coded rank system has been applied to its training program.
This rank order almost follows the same pattern as modern judo, except it starts with white, meaning the order is:
Each of these ranks requires students to attend a certain quota of classes and spend a set length of time training. The fastest a student could graduate to black belt would be around four and a half years. A syllabus for each grade can be found here.
Ninjutsu follows the kyu / dan system but without most of the coloured belts found in karate and other martial arts today. Typically, unranked students wear white belts, kyu-grade men wear green belts, kyu-grade women wear red belts and those of dan rank or above wear black belts. A student’s individual rank is signified by their ‘wappen’, an emblem displayed on their belt. Again, where additional coloured belts are found, they typically apply to children and their significance varies from school to school.
Most Japanese martial arts grew out of Chinese martial arts. Because judo, a Japanese martial art, established the coloured belt ranking system, it isn’t traditional for kung fu to use one. Historically, a student’s rank would take the form of a signed scroll from their master.
However, as is the case with many modern martial art schools, a colour-based ranking system has been adopted in many modern schools. In kung fu, this manifests in a coloured sash worn around the waist. The colour order is as follows:
From black, each additional year of training earns you a degree, which you can think of as an additional dan rank.
The story of Muay Thai’s ranking system is familiar in that it doesn’t traditionally have one. Rank would be decided by fight records, as sports like boxing are. However, the popularisation of colour-coded ranks in the West has meant many schools have followed suit with versions of their own.
Muay Thai has put its own twist on colour-coded ranks through a braided armband rather than a belt. According to the World Thai Boxing Association (WTBA), the rank order is as follows –
Black and white
Black and red
Black and silver
Black and gold
From white to orange, the WTBA considers a student a novice. From green to black, a student is considered intermediate. From black and white onwards, a practitioner is considered an instructor.
Specialist martial arts insurance from Insure4Sport
You probably already know how punishing practising martial arts can be. You could be injured by a sparring partner or injure them yourselves. That’s why you need to protect yourself and others.
At Insure4Sport, we offer specialist insurance for martial art students and instructors. We cover you and others for injury, damage to your equipment or a third party’s, and theft, so you can focus on your art with peace of mind.
Find out more by clicking on the links above and get an instant online quote in minutes.