History of the Karate Belt Colors
Japanese Judo was the first martial art to introduce the colored belt ranking system as a visible indication of the students’ progress. The colored belt ranking system soon was adapted for Karate, and was first used by Sensei Gichin Funakoshi and his Shotokan Karate schools. Click here to learn about the Goju-Ryu Karate belt ranking system.
As students pass through the ranks taking grading examinations they are awarded with different colored belts. The color order and which colors are used varies from school to school, as does the relationship between belt color and rank (= Kyu).
However the Kyu or number/rank always starts at 10 and ends at 1. Black belts ranks then increase normally, from 1st Dan to 10th Dan. In most Karate schools beginners are automatically considered a 10th Kyu (wearing a white belt). Some schools are known to grade beginners for their 10th Kyu, which may have its reason in being able to collect an extra grading fee.
In fact, I remember when I had my first grading for 10th Kyu. I had to demonstrate that I could punch and yell (the famous Ki-Ai!) at the same time. That was in Germany. As a reward, I could continue to wear my white belt, BUT I received a pretty grading book and a stamp. Very efficient and organized! :-)
Today most Karate students buy a new belt after they have been awarded a higher kyu and thus require a differently colored belt. Most people have no more use for their old belts and may give it to junior club members for free. It is definitely worth enquiring.
Colored belts and how they came to be
In the old days the white belt was simply dyed to a new color. This repeated dying process dictates the type of belt color and the order of the colors!. The standard belt color system is white, yellow, green, brown, and black. In some Karate school and styles, the color order is white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, black.
Due to the dying process, it is practical to increasingly use darker colors. All of this came about shortly after the second world war, when Japan was a very poor country, and dying the belts to a new color was a cheap way to have a visible, simple and effective ranking system.
The dying of the belts became part of the Karate tradition and was also adapted in other countries. In Australia, Sensei Terry Lyon of Lyon-Karate.com reports that in the early 70s, Australian Karate students also dyed their belts to their new color.
The “White-Belt-Getting-Dirtier” Theory
Another explanation for the colored belts, that appears more like a Karate myth than reality, is the notion that the belts simply went from white to black because the original Karate founders never washed their belts. They started off with white belts and after years of training ended up with black belts. The proponents of this theory assert that the belt, which was initially white, gets gradually dirtier and dirtier and so goes from white to yellow to green to brown to black in that way.
Many people argue that this theory is cute but has little truth. The dirtiest belt will never go black, and although the color change from white to yellow to brown can easily be imagined, other colors like green would be harder to achieve, unless the belt is host to a culture of particularly nasty and colorful bacteria, not unlike those that live in the back of my fridge. (Not to worry, I finally cleaned out the green goo. One day, from the corner of my eye, I saw it move. Now THAT was too much).
Repeated sweat and dirt from the typically wooden floors can indeed make the whole Gi become yellow and eventually brown. However, it is pretty tough to actually get a significant amount of sweat into the belt, which is more evidence against the “White-Belt-Getting-Dirtier” theory.
There is also real evidence FOR this theory. Many Karate dojos in Japan have a change room where students are able to leave their Gi ready for when they return to train again. As a consequence they don’t get washed and end up very dirty and smelly(!) with sometimes years of not being washed. These Gi go through the same color change as the colored belts. This practice might have been born from either laziness, cost-cutting, and perhaps also a bit of male machoism. After all, an old and dirty Gi must mean that its owner has used it a lot, and thus must be highly skilled. In that sense, the yellow/brown Gi functions exactly like a colored belt!
In summary – maybe the colored belt system was created with the color change of dirty Gi in mind. But maybe the colored belt system was just well thought-out and used because dying the belts was a simple, cheap and effective way of displaying rank!