Colored Belt Ranks are traditional?

Colored belts, a tradition from the earliest times of martial arts history. Hmm, I think not. The colored belt ranking system is a recent invention, the belt, however is an old invention primarily made to hold up pants and tie jackets to the body. So why is there such reverence paid to the colored belts? Isn’t there another function besides a purely utilitarian use? Let’s start with a definition of a martial arts belt.

According to “The Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia: Tradition-History-Pioneers”, the belt, called obi, is worn around the waist of most Okinawan, Japanese and Korean martial arts. (1) (pg. 2)

“They are generally long enough to be wrapped twice around the wearer’s waist and then tied in a square knot, with 10 to 15 inches hanging from either side of the knot. Before the 20th century most belts were colorless.” (Pg. 2)

What do you mean “colorless”? How did they know what kyu rank they were? At the time, it didn’t matter. The instructor was usually your relative that you saw every day. He remembered your skill level. After all, only twenty or so family members trained with the sensei.

As often explained in my classes, the colored belt is a visible sign of skill, mental cue for instructor. When an instructor scans his third class of 30 students, his mind goes numb trying to remember who has which kata and who needs which technique. By setting a standard curriculum with specific requirements, the memory requirements of an instructor is greatly reduced. When your sensei sees that blue belt you’re wearing, he knows you have (just for arguments sake) 6 forms and 20 techniques. If you don’t then he knows what to show you.
Colored belts
The colored belt is also beneficial for the student. Ranks can act as milestone markers toward the goal of Black Belt. Any time you set a major goal, you should break it down into several sub-goals or milestones. This is an excellent method for seeing the improvement and strides you’ve made towards your goal. Otherwise, you may loose sight of the progress in skill you’ve earned.

In more traditional schools, colored-belts are also a sign of seniority. Certain ranks have specific duties based on their seniority in the school. In many Kempo schools, higher rank students are in the front rows during drills. This allows new students and beginners to see how techniques are done and follow along until they are comfortable with the class structure.

Who started the ranking system anyway? Many people credit the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, with the modern ranking system. Master Kano wanted a way to organize judo competitors by skill. All the non-Black Belts had the same rank but their skill varied considerably. He assigned students to various grades that grouped the beginners by skill level. As a neophyte advanced in skill, he could compete with others of comparable skill.

What are the correct colors? There aren’t any universal or standard orders. Many styles have implemented various orders, especially in eclectic styles that blend several arts together. The origin of colored belts can be traced back to the Tracy brothers of Chinese Kenpo(2) when they asked their Asian suppliers what other colors belts could be manufactured. (You could say Kempo is to blame for the colored belt phenomena.)

Korean arts use belt colors that don’t match Japanese belt colors progression. Both of these don’t match many Kempo ranks. From the local schools I’ve visited, Korean schools use white, gold, yellow, green, blue, purple, red, and black. Though I’ve been to schools that have brown belts too. Some of the Japanese schools use white, green, blue, brown and black. Gracie Jui-jitsu uses white, blue, purple, brown and black. This leaves Kempo, which uses white, yellow, orange, purple, blue, green, brown and black. There are schools that use different orders that the ones listed above.

To make matters worse, Chinese arts didn’t have belt or sash rankings until the 1980s. The Chinese gung fu schools I’ve been to rank by set or form. Each form can have three levels – student, instructor or master. Then again, Chinese schools are run in a less formal atmosphere. Most don’t require uniforms or formal school etiquette like their Japanese counterparts do.

If the colors represent different levels depending on the style, how do you compare ranks? All schools assign a kyu rank to the color belt. Kyu ranks or grades are those students who have not been awarded the Black Belt or shodan grade. In other words, beginning students. These kyu ranks compare easily from style to style. In Kempo, the kyu ranks are organized into three groups – candidates, beginners and intermediate.

Corcoran and Farkas describe the dan ranks like this:

“It usually takes three to four years of ascent through the kyu or gup grades to reach 1st-degree Black Belt, at which the dan ranks commence in some systems. Sixth degree and upward are awarded for merit or accomplishment, instead of physical proficiency.”

Dan ranks or degrees are levels of Black Belt. Below are the Japanese and Okinawan dan ranks:

  1. shodan – 1st degree
  2. nidan – 2nd degree
  3. sandan – 3rd degree
  4. yodan – 4th degree
  5. godan – 5th degree
  6. rokudan – 6th degree
  7. shichidan – 7th degree
  8. hachidan – 8th degree
  9. kudan – 9th degree
  10. judan – 10th degree

In the United States, many styles and masters are able to work together. Some masters promote exemplary instructors for their work for the benefit of martial arts and the community. Often times, these promotions are done across styles. As stated previously, ranks from 6th to 9th dan are honorary, awarded for merit or accomplishments. It would also be a fair assessment of a master’s abilities to recognize quality and skill that many would be unable to judge.

Self-promotion, on the other hand, is less honorable and lacks the necessary humility required by expert of the arts. “The Martial Arts Encyclopedia” notes that many Black Belts have emerged since the mid-1960s with questionable qualifications. Corcoran and Farkas go on to state that “…an especially acute problem is the large number of high-ranking Black Belts whose only achievement has come through self-promotion of rank.”

Is it bad? Is it wrong? That is something each individual needs to determine. Most styles have not formal organization to control the issuance of ranks and promotions. Judo is a prime example of an art that has gained control over ranking and teaching. Until such time as other styles are able to follow suite, there will not be a universal standard.

However, one might ask, who has the authority to dictate the qualifications for new ranks? The government? Some arbitrary board of directors? No, your style and your masters dictate what the qualifications are. Tae Kwon Do is a great example of a worldwide style that holds strict guidelines for advancement agreed upon by many masters. Also, masters outside of their style promoted many instructors to higher grades because they recognize that instructor’s ability. This was (and remains) the main method of high grade promotions.

The ranking system is a great tool for martial arts instructors. That’s why it caught on. It’s so successful that many Chinese styles are formulating a similar system utilizing sashes. When large numbers of students enter a dojo, an instructor must use tools and systemization to regulate and perfect their training. The ranking concept is nearly universal, but the implementation of the concept varies from dojo to dojo. My advice is, don’t fret over the little stuff. Admire skill and humility over boasting and ranking.

Footnotes:

  1. “The Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia: Tradition-History-Pioneers” by John Corcoran and Emil Farkas, Pro-Action Publishing, 1993.
  2. Tracy Kenpo International Catalog, 1991.