Martial Art Belt Ranks – What Do They Mean?


There are many theories why present day martial art schools use belts and sashes as a ranking system and where the concept of using belts came from. We will discuss two philosophies, one that is widely accepted by many practitioners and another that can be considered as a legend, or story that was passed down by your grandfather. Please keep in mind that the belt ranking system has only been around about 120 years. Throughout this article, keep in mind that not all Martial Arts are the same, your school may have a completely different ranking system than discussed here.

One of the most common arguments comes from the founder of modern day Judo, Dr. Jigoro Kano. An educator and sports enthusiast, Dr. Kano used a black belt to represent his dan (highest-ranking) students in his school, the Kodokan. However, he later realized his kyu (lower ranking) students needed an outward tangible object to acknowledge their accomplishments and encourage their efforts. So he implemented the different colors to signify the progress that his kyu made over time.

Eventually, other Japanese martial art styles such as Karate, Aikido, Kendo, etc. incorporated the Judo belt ranking system when Gichin Funakoshi, an Okinawan karate master and considered as the “Father of Modern Karate” demonstrated his martial art style, Shotokan, at the Kodokan.

The other theory, known as “the belt getting dirty” can be considered as a martial arts folklore. When new students started their training they were given the rank of white belt, signifying a birth or beginning. Students were not allowed to wash their belts, therefore the belt would “get dirty” the more they practiced. In time the belt would become black, signifying the amount of time the student spent practicing and typically their level of skill.

As a new student in a martial art, you will most likely be given a white belt at the beginning of your training and will progress through a color system on your way toward a black belt. However, contrary to popular belief, the black belt does not signify the end of your training, but rather the beginning. In most arts, once you earn your black belt you are no longer considered a kyu, you are now a dan.

Dan have their own ranking system known as degrees. You are a first degree black belt when you first attain it, over time you can test for your 2nd degree black belt (or 2nd dan) and so on. Most martial arts consider a 10th degree black belt to be the highest level of mastery.

As you train in a martial art, don’t get discouraged if you are stuck on a certain belt for a long period of time. It usually takes many years to progress through the belts and this is actually one of the lessons that participating in Martial Arts will teach you. Progressing through the belts requires a great deal of time, dedication, self-confidence, patience and self-discipline. The skills you learn in your martial arts training will apply to almost every aspect of your life and will help you succeed in areas where you never thought Martial Arts would help.