28 posts / 0 new
Last post
Finlay
Finlay's picture
Belts colour musing

Hello

I remember a while back Iain discussed the history of the belt colours or at least the use of different colours to denote a level of proficiency.

If i remember correctly it was taken from Judo which in turn took inspiration from the school physical education system. I believe this took place when karate was being introduced to the japanese school system. ... so did we have child (junior) black belts from the inception of the belt system?

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

The kyu-dan system is said to have originally developed by Honinbo Dosaku for the board game of Go; which was in turn based on a much older system of ranking Go players based on the nine levels of government officials in Imperial China. Kano was the first to apply it to martial arts. The belts being used to denote rank came later. Originally everyone wore the same clothing irrespective of rank. I understand the use of belts to denote rank was mainly inspired by the practise of experienced swimmers wearing black ribbons. Kano copied that.

Judo was hugely popular, so karate aped many of its practises as it sought to become popular itself i.e. the “do” ethos, the white gis, the grading system, and the belts that went with it. Karate and judo were both spread through the education system, but this was primarily at university level (young adults) so there were not junior black belts from the start. That is definitely a more recent practise.

First came grades, then later belts were used to denote those grades. Neither grades or belts were present in judo or karate originally. Black belts being given to children is very recent. I started as a child in the early 1980s and I don’t recall any junior dan grades at that time (you had to be at least 16 years old). There may have been some somewhere, but it’s certain they were nowhere near as prevalent as they are today. The grading system is in continual development with the “junior black belt” being a recent addition to reflect the fact that far more children train today than they did in the past.

All the best,

Iain

Picture of Gichin Funakoshi giving one of the first karate dan grades to Hironori Otsuka (founder of Wado-Ryu) on the 12th of April 1924. The first ever karate dan grades were issued to seven karateka: six 1st dans and one 2nd dan to Anbun Tokuda (1886–1945). Before that day, there were no ranks in karate.

Tau
Tau's picture

I'd like to add to the question.

Why are the belt colours in a given order? Generally we see something like white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, black. Sometimes multiples of some of those colours with or without stripes (brown/white, brown, brown/black as an example.) Throw in a red somewhere. But why that order? And for those that vary (like I do, to a small degree,) why?

And then the block-belts. My understanding is that the kohaku obi first came into use around the same time as the black belt and so pre-dates the coloured belts. My further understanding is that the coral belt was created by Ed Parker. What of other variations such as blue-and-white or red/white stripe? Are these Western things?

John Van Tatenhove
John Van Tatenhove's picture

From what if read and seen, the belt color choices and order is completely arbitrary. I do not know of any historical reference as to the colors being significant other than distinguishing the graded level of a practitioner against a particular syllabus. It would be similar to color coding a graph. What the color choices are is not relevent, only that they are visibly different, and that interested parties know what they represent.

John,

Quick2Kick
Quick2Kick's picture

Something I picked up in the comment section of the internet ( so do with it what you will) was the ideas that Korean Taekwondo places the Red just below Black as a slight to Japanese who place the Red above Black. Fresh from under the rule of Japan, Korea was flexing it's new found freedom and sticking it to there previous oppressors with their belt system. :)

Marc
Marc's picture

I have not yet seen any historical information on the choice and order of the kyu colours. But in their typical order they get darker the closer you get to the black belt. Just stating the obvious, of course, but maybe that is the logic behind it.

Neil Babbage
Neil Babbage's picture

I have no evidence for this, but it's Neil's Occam's Razor. If you were to award belts in order, and lots of students give up, then you'd give the cheapest belts at the lowest grades. This is the days of natural dyes of course. Yellow is a cheap, common, dye (cow urine being a popular one), as is red, orange and brown. Green is much rarer as are the blues / purples (depending on what part of the world you are in). Based on this I'd speculate that red, yellow and brown were the first widely used colour belts, with the others being added only later. 

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Tau wrote:
Generally we see something like white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, black. Sometimes multiples of some of those colours with or without stripes (brown/white, brown, brown/black as an example.) Throw in a red somewhere. But why that order? And for those that vary (like I do, to a small degree,) why?

The colour order varies a fair bit between styles and groups. One example is Kyokushin where the belts go white, orange, blue, yellow, green, brown, black. It’s pretty much arbitrary as to what colours are used in what order. The “standard” colours and order we see in the UK can, once again, be traced back to judo. Where judo leads, karate follows when it comes to ranking.

Originally, we have white and black; where there is no visible sign of any kyu grade rank. Later on, we green and brown added to show the kyu grades. This is the system that was first used in the UK i.e. three white belts (sometimes with tags), three green belts, and then three brown belts (belt gets "darker" the better to are). That gives use the 9 kyu grades before the black belt. That was what most of the early UK karateka started with. The three whites were later switched out for white, yellow, orange (in both Judo and karate) but the three greens and three browns remained. The three greens were then swapped out, in most cases, for green, blue, purple, but the three browns remain to this day. It’s all to do with motivating people and changing things to do that more effectively.

The “rainbow colours” came after karate and judo were well established in the west; so it’s relatively recent. I don’t think we can attribute that to a single group or person. It’s more of a common evolution which accounts for all the variations in how it is done. Later on, people make out it was some grand plan with deep symbolism, but that’s demonstrable BS.

All the best,

Iain

Anf
Anf's picture

In a style I trained in previously, belt colour was clearly arbitrary, but some philosophy hard been crowbar'ed in for whatever reason.

For example, white represents the snow covering the ground at the very start of the year. Yellow and orange are the spring sunshine as nature begins to awaken. Green is rapid growth and brown represents the stability of maturing wood.

Then it kind of falls apart a bit, with sort of a mish mash of different analogies. Then blue is midnight (see how we've ditched the year and moved to a day), the beginning is drawing to a close. Black is death. Not death in the literal sense of course (hopefully) but the end of life as a beginner, to make way for a new life as an expert. Except there are no experts, because as we all know a black belt is just a white belt underneath etc etc yada yada. But OK, not expert, but the beginning of mastery. Except that mastery depends on having trained for many years or decades and has its own set of belts, presumably each with their tenuous connection to some philosophy that happens to fit somehow with the Western notions of the mystical Eastern ideas.

Or a belt can tell an instructor that doesn't know you how likely you are to fall correctly and safely if he picks you out for a demonstration.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Anf wrote:
… presumably each with their tenuous connection to some philosophy that happens to fit somehow with the Western notions of the mystical Eastern ideas.

Brilliant! There is this need to always tie things to pseudo mysticism in some quarters. We see this with belt colours, kata names, even the name “karate” itself i.e. “The ‘empty’ represents the concepts that ‘matter is void’ and all is vanity.” Karate does need to rid itself of these debunked ideas. They have no historical validity and I believe they are damaging to the authenticity of the art.

One wonders what the philosophical reasoning is for the order of the balls in Snooker? It was invented by British soldiers in the late 1800s, so then must have been inspired by Christianity:

Yellow represents the sunrise and new beginning when one is baptised into the Christian church.

Green represents the spiritual growth that results.

Brown is worth 4 points and that represents the four points of the wooden cross upon which Christ died for our sins.

Blue represents the heaven which awaits all saved souls.

Pink represents flesh and blood and acts as a reminder for us to do our Christian duty to our fellow men and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

Black is the final ball and it represents bodily death. It reminds us that our time on earth (represented by the green table) is limited, but that we will have enteral life if we enter the church (yellow), grow in Christ (green), accept that Christ died for our sins (brown), seek to enter heaven (blue), to help others here on earth (pink), so that death (black) simply represents the beginning of life ever after.

Or maybe they picked arbitrary colours and any attempt to retroactively attribute meaning based on the prevailing culture is ridiculous? :-)

All the best,

Iain

Marc
Marc's picture

Iain, your abillity to pull an analogy like that out of your hat is uncanny. ;-)

Love it,

Marc

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Marc wrote:
your ability to pull an analogy like that out of your hat is uncanny. ;-)

Analogy? ;-) It all fits together perfectly and I feel it has as much validity as the innumerable theories on belt colours, kata numbers, etc (#).  

I also forgot to mention that the red balls represent the twelve disciples and the holy trinity (15 in total) and the white ball represents Christ himself (obviously).

Glad you liked it!

All the best,

Iain

(#) – None at all :-)

Ian H
Ian H's picture

Certainly, first and foremost, the belt system is a good "internal gradation" within the particular dojo to represent the relative competence & knowledge of the students.  So a beginner should be able to ask a student with a "higher" belt rank to clarify a detail on a kata or other technique, for example.  It also reflects certain levels of competency in breakfalls, for example.  Usually, the belt system used in a given dojo has the belts getting "darker" as one moves from white-belt to black-belt, but there's always someone who has to be different.  

Tricker, but still important, is the concept of "belt levels" between dojos and between styles of karate.  Any given sensei of a dojo has a lot of autonomy in his teaching methods and goals but ... also has overarching goals that all the senseis of his style of karate are trying to achieve with their students.  One doesn't want to be the one sensei in the organisation whose blue-belt students are "only at a green belt level" compared to everyone else in the organisation, and so forth.  

And of course there is a general expectation that each belt "level" will roughly equate in overall competence to similar belts in other dojos in other styles.  The sensei who "guarantees" a black belt to any student after two years of regular attendance (are we actually talking about regular dues-payment?) is often poorly regarded by others within the martial arts community.  One also sees the inter-dojo expectations at tournaments, where the athletes are grouped into "white-yellow" beginner, "orange-green" intermediate, "blue-brown" advanced, and "black" divisions for competition.  Each of those divisions has a range of "expected skill levels" but an athlete who is manifestly outside the generally accepted skill level can raise questions.  When we talk about child athletes, there is something to be said for keeping their competition within a certain skill range ... no "throwing them to the wolves", no letting them decimate the manifestly under-skilled ...

... and that's right.  For them.  Sometimes I am of the mind that the integrity of the "belt system" is very important to maintain.  And sometimes, I remind myself that the belt doesn't keep my pants up, doesn't keep my gi closed ... unless I want to store my key chain inside my gi, it doesn't really do anything at all ... so what's the big deal?  I just show up and learn karate.  The trick is, finding a way to think both things at the same time.  

Marc
Marc's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:

Marc wrote:
your ability to pull an analogy like that out of your hat is uncanny. ;-)

Analogy? ;-) It all fits together perfectly and I feel it has as much validity as the innumerable theories on belt colours, kata numbers, etc (#).

It sure does. ;-)

Iain Abernethy wrote:

I also forgot to mention that the red balls represent the twelve disciples and the holy trinity (15 in total) and the white ball represents Christ himself (obviously).

Obviously. It's all beginning to make sense now.

And what do you make of the queue? Does it represent God? Or does it make us reflect on our own sins, when we are not truely following Gods commandments but trying to exploit Christ for our own goals? And what about the pockets? Are they the places where sheep get lost or are they the gates to heaven?

And do you think it's meaningful that I feel I play better after two pints?

I will never be able to play pool again without a sweet feeling of spirituality. So thank you.

Tau
Tau's picture

Interesting perspective from Jesse. Although I know he has a dry sense of humour so I don’t know how seriously this is meant to be:

https://www.karatebyjesse.com/karate-belt-colors-meaning/

PASmith
PASmith's picture

That Jesse Enkamp article isn't that far removed from the nonse...erm..."philosophy" attributed to the belt colours in ITF Taekwondo.

Tau
Tau's picture

PASmith wrote:

That Jesse Enkamp article isn't that far removed from the nonse...erm..."philosophy" attributed to the belt colours in ITF Taekwondo.

Oh God, I had to memorise all that for gradings. 

PASmith
PASmith's picture

No Tau...you were a flowering plant growing towards the sky! wink

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Tau wrote:
Interesting perspective from Jesse. Although I know he has a dry sense of humour so I don’t know how seriously this is meant to be:

It’s Jesse ascribing meaning, rather than reporting intended meaning from an historical source. An ascribed meaning is still a meaning, but we have to be careful not to retroactively apply intent and historical authenticity as a result.

Back to my snooker analogy … it is possible for someone to play snooker and use the colours as a means to reflect on their faith, but it does not follow that the colours where chosen to have the meaning. The definitely were not!

Marc wrote:
And what do you make of the cue? Does it represent God?

OK! Let me give that one a go:

It is the combination of the player, the cue and the ball working together that really matters. They act as one, and you can only understand one in relation to the others. They are not the same and yet they inseparable in action. This is like the Holy Trinity. The player represents the Father. The cue is the Holy Spirit. The while ball on the table is, as already discussed, The Son. All analogies are imperfect, but each shot should be used to mediate on how all events on the Earth (the table) are subject to the will of The Father (Player) and how it is through the Holy Spirit (cue) that this will is expressed. It is through Christ (white ball) that we experiance the Father and the Holy Ghost here on earth. Each shot is an opportunity to see beyond the metaphor and contemplate these mysteries in more depth.

Plausible? ;-)

Marc wrote:
I will never be able to play pool again without a sweet feeling of spirituality.

Pool, unlike snooker, is an evil blasphemy! As one example, if your fellow player pots the white (rejects Christ) you too are free to pick it up and place it anywhere in the “D” (“D” for devil) which represents placing your own will above Christ. I fear for your soul Mark! ;-)

As I think we’ve illustrated, you can ascribe meaning to all kind of things. And while that meaning can have value for those who also chose to ascribe it, that’s not the same as inferring original intent. Snooker is NOT a game based on the tenants of Christianity. Likewise, the belt colours do NOT point to any deeper meaning.

All the best,

Iain

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

I’ve been reading some writings of Kano from the early 1930s over the weekend. It seems the purple belt came into play BEFORE the brown belts in Judo:

“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

The children’s purple belt therefore fulfilled the same role as the adult brown belt did a few years later i.e. to donate 3rd kyu to 1st kyu. Note the total lack of coloured belts for adult kyu grades at the time though. Just the one colour for the kids.

As regards, the “10th dan and higher” bit, Kano did not envisage the dan grades being capped at 10.

The Kodokan was founded in 1882 by Kano. Kano died in 1938. The 1955 book, “Illustrated Kodokan Judo” states that:

“There is no limit on the grade one can receive. Therefore, if one does reach a stage above 10th dan, there is no reason why he should not be promoted to 11th dan.”

So 17 years after Kano’s death, dan grades above 10th were still theoretically possible, However, in 1963, the Kodokan clarified that dan grades were capped at 10th dan and that they did not ever expect anyone to be awarded higher than that.

Anyhow, fun fact: The first ever junior rank was a purple belt for 3rd kyu to 1st kyu.

All the best,

Iain

Tau
Tau's picture

Where does the pink belt fit in?

Marc
Marc's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:
It is the combination of the player, the cue and the ball working together that really matters. They act as one, and you can only understand one in relation to the others. They are not the same and yet they inseparable in action. This is like the Holy Trinity. The player represents the Father. The cue is the Holy Spirit. The while ball on the table is, as already discussed, The Son. All analogies are imperfect, but each shot should be used to mediate on how all events on the Earth (the table) are subject to the will of The Father (Player) and how it is through the Holy Spirit (cue) that this will is expressed. It is through Christ (white ball) that we experiance the Father and the Holy Ghost here on earth. Each shot is an opportunity to see beyond the metaphor and contemplate these mysteries in more depth.

Plausible? ;-)

Profound! - Although I refuse to believe (see what I did there?) that the player would represent God. That seems presumptuous. Man should not play God. And that, I propose, is the whole point of the game. See, by playing God we mess up the divine arrangement we have at the beginning of the game when all the red balls are held together by the triangle (the holy trinity, obviously) and the other balls are arranged on the table like a cross. At least the Lord is gracious and the different coloured balls are put back in place when we pot them (until towards the end of the game).

Iain Abernethy wrote:
Marc wrote:
I will never be able to play pool again without a sweet feeling of spirituality.

Pool, unlike snooker, is an evil blasphemy!

Oh my, you're right. I see it now: While snooker is trying to teach us about blasphemy, pool is blasphemy.

Iain Abernethy wrote:
As I think we’ve illustrated, you can ascribe meaning to all kind of things. And while that meaning can have value for those who also chose to ascribe it, that’s not the same as inferring original intent. Snooker is NOT a game based on the tenants of Christianity. Likewise, the belt colours do NOT point to any deeper meaning.

That's why it's so much fun.

But ENOUGH! Back to the belts...

Take care,

Marc

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Marc wrote:
Profound! - Although I refuse to believe (see what I did there?) that the player would represent God. That seems presumptuous. Man should not play God. And that, I propose, is the whole point of the game. See, by playing God we mess up the divine arrangement we have at the beginning of the game when all the red balls are held together by the triangle (the holy trinity, obviously) and the other balls are arranged on the table like a cross. At least the Lord is gracious and the different coloured balls are put back in place when we pot them (until towards the end of the game).

I doff my cap you deeper insights into theologically based pub games ;-)

Marc wrote:
But ENOUGH! Back to the belts...

I agree :-) It does, however, show that with a little “creative” thinking it is possible to ascribe seemingly deep meanings to things that were never intended to have any deeper meaning. By ascribing such meaning to the things that fit, and deliberately overlooking the things that don’t, we can ascribe order and meaning to things that were never intended to have such order and meaning. It happens a lot within karate i.e. belt colours, number of repetitions in kata, kata names, the “empty” part of empty hands, etc. Such things are every bit as baseless as our “theories” on pool and snooker, and should be rejected just as readily.

Thanks for playing!

All the best,

Iain

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Tau wrote:
Where does the pink belt fit in?

Wherever people want it to :-) As we’ve covered, there has never been an underlying theory that underpins how belts are used. It changes across time and from group to group.

I’ve seen pink belt used:

1) By Jesse Enkamp at his events to put everyone on the same level at his KNX events (which works because most grading systems don’t use the colour so it has no widely assigned rank).

2) In charity fundraising events; particularly those related to charities that address predominately female issues such as breast cancer, etc.

3) As a “joke belt” for people to wear in class if they forgot their own belt.

4) As a 1st kyu belt by a gentleman I know who wanted to lightheadedly motivate some of his 1st kyus (young males) to push harder to achieve 1st dan. Apparently, it worked. Being a perpetual brown belt was OK; not so much being a perpetual pink belt.

5) Rener and Ryron Gracie award a pink belt to women who complete their woman’s self-defence program (Gracie University Women Empowered Program). That is entirely independent of the standard grading system and I think it’s a nice touch.

I’m sure there are others, but that’s the ones I’ve came across.

A few of the above play on the association of pink with femininity. However, it’s worth pointing out that’s a relatively new connection from around the 1940s onward. In the 19th century, the uniforms of the British Army were red, so pink (“light red”) was frequently worn by boys (whose parents were wealthy enough to afford coloured clothing).

All the best,

Iain

Tau
Tau's picture

6) A rank in Ameri-Do-Te that students are demoted to for certain misdemeanours.

Marc
Marc's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:

I doff my cap you deeper insights into theologically based pub games ;-)

Or is it pub games based theology. ;-)

Iain Abernethy wrote:

with a little “creative” thinking it is possible to ascribe seemingly deep meanings to things that were never intended to have any deeper meaning. By ascribing such meaning to the things that fit, and deliberately overlooking the things that don’t, we can ascribe order and meaning to things that were never intended to have such order and meaning.

Exactly.

Using something in an analogy to explain an idea is helpful to get people to understand the idea. It does not, however, implicate that that thing was caused by the idea.

Saint Patrick explained the idea of the trinity of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, to the Irish by the analogy of a cloverleaf that is three leafs in one. But that does not implicate that the shape of the cloverleaf was caused by Patrick's explanations. It also does not mean that when you find a lucky clover with a 4-in-1 leaf, that God now is a quaternity. The cloverleaf was just used to illustrate the concept that something can be multiple things and on thing at the same time.

Iain Abernethy wrote:

Thanks for playing!

My pleasure.

Take care,

Marc

Ian H
Ian H's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:

So 17 years after Kano’s death, dan grades above 10th were still theoretically possible, However, in 1963, the Kodokan clarified that dan grades were capped at 10th dan and that they did not ever expect anyone to be awarded higher than that.

On the whole, probably a good move.  Far too many uber-sensei 'grand masters' have their egos (and membership marketing strategies) joined at the hip with their "Dan count".  At least this way the perpetually-escallating "highest belt rank" is capped and all the super-grand-masters are stuck being each others' nominal "equals".

That being said, my sensei did get his 11th Dan back in 1962, so my karate is the best! 

Marc
Marc's picture

Ian H wrote:

Iain Abernethy wrote:

So 17 years after Kano’s death, dan grades above 10th were still theoretically possible, However, in 1963, the Kodokan clarified that dan grades were capped at 10th dan and that they did not ever expect anyone to be awarded higher than that.

On the whole, probably a good move.  Far too many uber-sensei 'grand masters' have their egos (and membership marketing strategies) joined at the hip with their "Dan count".  At least this way the perpetually-escallating "highest belt rank" is capped and all the super-grand-masters are stuck being each others' nominal "equals".

Kano's original idea of the Dan levels where stages of individual personal development (the Do part of JuDo), leading to becoming a valuable member of society. The idea to limit the development of one's self doesn't really make any sense, does it. Why would you want people to stop improving?

But when Dan levels are used to advertise one's expertise, as a proxy for one's qualification as a teacher, it makes more sense to introduce a limit. Instead of Dan levels the organisation could also give instructors teaching certificates at different levels. In fact some organisations do exactly that.

German Karate Association for example conform to the certificate system of the German Olympic Sports Confederation, issuing C, B and A level teaching certificates for both competitive and recreational sports. Additionally, the German Karate Association offer specialised instructor courses for self-defence, karate for children, karate in the school system, and some others.

Ian H wrote:

That being said, my sensei did get his 11th Dan back in 1962, so my karate is the best! 

Good for them, and if you did benefit from their experience, also good for you. :)

All the best,

Marc