Complete Breakdown of Belts in Martial Arts
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Complete Breakdown of Belts in Martial Arts

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It wasn’t until the founder of Judo, Kanō Jigorō introduced the belt ranking system in 1883 in Judo that belts were used for ranking grades in martial arts. The custom was soon adopted by other martial arts in the 1900s giving rise to a formalized rank structure.

Different belts are used to denote the level of one’s seniority, expertise, and knowledge of the martial art. Almost all modern East Asian origin martial arts use the belt ranking system to indicate a degree of competence in the range of skills and techniques used. 

Here’s a complete breakdown of the belts in martial arts to enable us to understand more about them and their significance.

Belts in Martial Arts

Most Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Martial Arts use the kyū/dan system along with colored belts for ranking grades.

According to the Japanese Martial Arts, dan ranks are equivalent to and are represented by black belts. There are various dan ranks that are style specific. Usually, dan ranks are from 1st to 5th and 1st to 10th represented by various degrees in black belts.

Ranks below the dan ranks are called kyū ranks. These are basic ranks denoted by various colored belts. Once a person has achieved the dan rank, he is no longer considered a beginner, but also not necessarily an expert. A dan rank signifies that an individual knows how to walk and may hence begin the journey.

The many dan ranks in Japanese Martial Arts are pronounced as such,

Degree1st Dan2nd Dan3rd Dan4th Dan5th Dan
Degree6th Dan7th Dan8th Dan9th Dan10th Dan

Usually, 1st to 8th dan is represented by a black belt while the 9th and 10th dan is represented by a red belt.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Martial Arts has a graduation system based on nine Duan levels – split into three each for each of beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. 

The beginner level or basic duans are awarded to students with a few years of experience. The intermediate level or middle-level duans are awarded to students/coaches with 5-10 years of coaching experience. The advanced level or the final three duans are for experienced masters with established reputations in Wushu. An advanced level individual is allowed to call himself a “Grand Master”.

Instead of a belt system, Chinese Martial Arts has adopted three animals – Ying (Eagle), Hu (Tiger), and Long (Dragon). These animals along with 3 different colors – bronze, silver, and gold decide the level of an individual.

In Korean Martial Arts, the grading system is based on dan ranks. A person with a dan rank (equivalent to 1st degree black belt) is called a “yudanja” and one above 6th dan rank (equivalent to 6th degree black belt) is called a “godanja”.

The dan ranks for most Korean Martial Arts do not go past the ninth dan but in some places, a tenth dan is also offered.

  • Il dan or 1st dan – first-degree black belt
  • I dan or 2nd dan – second-degree black belt
  • Sam dan or 3rd dan – third-degree black belt
  • Sa dan or 4th dan – fourth-degree black belt
  • O dan or 5th dan – fifth-degree black belt
  • Yuk dan or 6th dan – sixth-degree black belt
  • Chil dan or 7th dan – seventh-degree black belt
  • Pal dan or 8th dan – eighth-degree black belt
  • Gu dan or 9th dan – ninth-degree black belt
  • Sip dan or 10th dan – tenth-degree black belt

Other martial art traditions apart from the East Asian Martial Arts use their own system of belt ranking which are colored from white (beginner) to black (advanced).

What Is the Highest Belt in Martial Arts?

Usually, the black belt is the highest belt in martial arts. But, in a few arts including Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Karate, the red belt is reserved for exemplary masters of the art and is above the black belt.

What Do Belt Colors Mean in Martial Arts?

Belt colors signify the technical skill, knowledge level, and competence of the holder of the belt. Almost across all martial arts, beginners start with a white belt and progress towards achieving the coveted black belt.

With each new color, the martial artist takes a significant step towards becoming competent in the style’s techniques and principles at the base level.

Although the order of belt colors differ a little between different martial arts and styles, the common order is White, Yellow, Orange, Green, Blue, Purple, Brown, Black, and Red.

White Belt – The white color signifies birth. It is the first step for the martial artist in the journey towards gaining more knowledge of the art.

Yellow Belt – The yellow color symbolizes sunlight and the process of getting enlightened under the teacher. As a seed absorbs energy from the sunlight for its transformation into a plant and a tree, so does a student gain knowledge for his growth under the teacher.

Orange Belt – The orange color represents the sun that warms the planet. It symbolizes the student wearing it to be ready to transform and acquire new skills for development.

Green Belt – The green color signifies the growth of the seed into a plant and the readiness of the student to add and refine new skills.

Blue Belt – The blue belt signifies the growth of the tree towards the sky, growing upwards to reach new heights. The student wearing the blue belt is moving up on their journey to becoming a true martial artist.

Purple Belt – The purple belt symbolizes the student undergoing transformation and entering a new phase in the journey.

Brown Belt – The brown belt symbolizes maturity as the tree begins to solidify. This is an indication that the student is getting ready to realize the fruits of the hard work and that the time is near.

Black Belt – The black belt signifies the time, dedication, and effort the student has put into the martial art to become a true martial artist. While it is a significant step in the journey towards mastery, it is also considered the first step into the advanced level of martial art. There are various degrees to the black belt and the student will progress from one level to the next on the basis of their skills and contribution to the art through teaching other students. It is on this journey that the student transforms into a teacher.

Red Belt – The red belt signifies the exemplary knowledge of skills, high level of competence, contribution to the art through teaching, and an excellent reputation that is gained over the years. It is reserved for the elite of the elite, including the founder, Grand Master, and other higher ranks. Most never reach the level of the red belt. To do so means that they represent the martial art in its highest form.

How Many Degree Black Belts Are There?

There are usually 10 degrees in black belt in martial arts. An individual undergoes a transformation from being a student to a teacher while on the journey through the black belt ranks.

Is There a Belt Above Black Belt?

In many martial arts, the red belt is above the black belt. However, it is only reserved for outstanding practitioners of the martial art and hence is difficult to achieve.

Is the Red Belt Better than Black Belt?

Across various martial arts, the red belt signifies the mastery of the art and the contribution to it. In Karate, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Judo, the red belt is solid red in color and denotes the high rank of the individual holding it.

In Karate, both the grandmasters and non-black belts may wear a red belt. But, the red belt of the grandmasters is wider, solid red in color, and embroidered with the grandmaster’s name according to the dan customs.

In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the 9th and 10th degrees belts are red belts. It takes a practitioner decades to move from a black belt to a 9th degree red belt. If a practitioner had received a black belt at the age of 19, the earliest they could expect a 9th degree red belt is at the age of 67. There are no living 10th degree red belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

In Judo, the 9th and 10th dan are belts that are solid red in color. These denote the highest ranks an individual can attain in the martial art.

Belt Ranking System in Various Martial Arts

We will take a look at some of the most popular martial art forms and their belt grading system.

1. Judo

In Judo, practitioners start with a white belt and work their way up to a black belt or dan rank. Then, as dan rank progresses, the practitioner is promoted to an alternating red and white panel belt (6th, 7th, and 8th dan) and eventually to a red belt at 9th and 10th dan.

Belt color, starting from the lowest rank to the highest rank in Judo – White, Yellow, Orange, Green, Blue, Brown, Black, Paneled (Red and White), Red.

2. Karate

Different styles of Karate have different orders of belt colors. The four earliest Karate styles are Shotokan, Wadō-ryū, Shitō-ryū, and Gōjū-ryū.

While all these styles have different belt color orders, the Shitō-ryū is the closest to other martial arts with its belt color beginning with white.

Belt colors in Shitō-ryū from the lowest rank to the highest rank – White, Yellow, Orange, Green, Blue, Purple, Brown, Black, Red.

Check out our article for detailed explanation of belts in Karate.

3. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

The belt colors in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu denote an individual’s increasing level of technical knowledge and skill of the martial art.

Adult belt ranks (16 years and above) start with the white belt and progress through the black belt to end at the red belt.

Belt colors, starting from the lowest rank to the highest rank in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – White, Blue, Purple, Brown, Black, Red/Black, Red/White, Red.

Check out our article for detailed explanation of belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

4. Aikido

Aikido practitioners go through a series of grades, also known as kyū, followed by a series of degrees, also known as dan.

Usually, across most organizations, white belt color denotes a kyū level and black belt color denotes a dan level.

5. Taekwondo

Taekwondo belts start with the white color belt and end with the black color belt. Different schools might have a few changes in the colors of the middle-level belts.

Here are the belt colors denoting the rank, from the lowest to the highest – White, Yellow, Orange, Green, Purple, Blue, Brown, Red, Black.

Like other martial arts, Taekwondo black belts have degrees to it. There are usually nine dan ranks in Taekwondo.

The belt grading system acts as an added incentive for students to train harder and set their sights on higher goals while helping others along the way.

Check out our article for detailed explanation of belts in Taekwondo.

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