Karate Belts: Ranking System Explained

Karate Belts: Ranking System Explained

In this article, we are going to deal with an essential aspect of karate – it’s belt system. It is well known that most Oriental martial arts have a certain system of differently coloured belts that symbolize the level of knowledge each holder has. Karate is, of course, no exception, as its trainees are also awarded coloured belts that represent the degree of knowledge of the art each of them possesses. 

Karate ranking system consists of 8 belts in different colors. Ranging from beginner belt to more advanced ones, karate belts colors are as follows: white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, red, and brown.

Each of the belts represents a degree of knowledge, called a kyū (級), which is a Japanese term meaning grade, level or degree. It is similar to the already discussed Korean term geup (see out article on belts in Taekwondo) and it is not used exclusively in martial arts, but also in other disciplines such as the boardgame go, academic tests, etc. The World Karate Federation (WKF) governs international karate and the belt system in this sport is unified (with only small varieties), unlike in some similar disciplines, such as Taekwondo.

Origins of Belts in Martial Arts

Oriental martial arts have been practiced in the Far East for centuries, but the belt system is a relatively new phenomenon, just a little over a century old. Before belts were introduced, martial artists handed out certificates (or diplomas) to students who had reached a certain level of knowledge and ability.

But, at the turn of the 20th century, a man called Jigorō Kanō, best known as the founder of judo, decided to introduce coloured belts in his art. This was not a completely original idea, as he was inspired by a similar system present in the Japanese board game of go (similar to chess), but it was a revolution in the world of martial arts. 

The essential idea behind the belt system was to enable students to advance more rapidly, but also to enable fighters to quickly identify the level of knowledge their opponent has, thus leading to a more levelled field in potential combat. Kanō’s original colours were blue, white, brown and black, but as the years passed the system had become more sophisticated and included a larger palette of colours. 

The coloured belts in karate stem from 1924, when Gichin Fukanoshi decided to adopt Kanō’s degree system in the art of karate. Thus, the kyū and dan systems were created for the sport of karate and they are both used today in karate schools around the world.

The Belt System in Karate

There are two sets of belts in karate. The kyū set, which encompasses all the coloured belts, and the dan set, which encompasses different black belt degrees. The starting colour is always white and the final is level is a 10th degree black belt. 

The kyū system is designed for trainees who are called mudansha, meaning “those without a rank”. Each colour symbolises a trainee level and the degrees start from a higher number and advance to lower ones, just like in similar martial arts.

The lowest kyū is usually the 8th one (although there can be variations), designating a white belt, while the 1stkyū represents the highest rank a mudansha can achieve before obtaining a black belt; 1stkyū belts are brown in colour. Unlike some other Oriental martial arts (p.e. Taekwondo), each kyū in karate is represented by a different belt colour.

The black belts are divided into ranks that are called dan (段) or, in English, degrees. The degrees start with the lowest number (1stdan or first-degree black belt) and reach the final, 10thdan (ninth-degree black belt), associated with the title of grandmaster. Dan-holding karateka are referred to as yudansha, meaning “those who hold a rank”.

In karate, only the first five or six dan ranks are truly competitive and are given after examinations (promotions) by higher ranked karateka, while ranks from 7 do 10 are usually honorary and are given either on a merit-based system or after reaching a certain age.

How to Achieve a Higher Rank in Karate?

The process of attaining a higher rank is called a promotion or examination. Each trainee starts of with the mandatory white belt and achieves higher ranks through promotions. The process of promotion gets more difficult as the ranks become higher, but is usually a presentation of technical and tactical skills the trainee has learned throughout the training process. 

Lower ranks in karate are more focused on issues of balance, stance and coordination, while more complex elements, like speed and power, are added later on. Advancing through the lower kyū ranks usually requires mastering the basics of karate and applying them. The green belt is the first belt that demands a more practical application of the karateka’s skills. 

As the karateka advances, the examinations usually add more complex techniques, but can also include sparring, simulated sparring, self-defence and breaking skills. Although the WKF does have a system of guidelines, each school can have their own variations of the minimal standards.

The time necessary for a promotion depends on the school, the national federation and the rank in question. Lower ranks are usually attained after a few months (1-3) in rapid progression, while higher ranks usually require a certain period of time to pass before trying out for promotion.

There are some cases where promotion from rank one to rank two is given automatically, while other require a regular promotion. The period between promotions can range from one month to a few years. Each school and/or national federation determine those periods of time. 

Karate Belt Colours Ranked

The belt system in karate is divided between 8 kyū (in general) and 10 dan degrees. The dan degrees are, like in Taekwondo, not that interesting, because they’re all represented by a black belt and we’ve already discussed how the ranks are achieved. The dan itself is represented by white stripes on the black belt, each stripe representing one dan.

Each dan also has a specific Japanese name (p.e. the 5th is called godan, the 8th is called hachidan, etc.). Dan ranks are usually attained until a yudansha reaches the hachidan level, while kyudan (9th) and judan (10th) ranks are exceptionally rare, even among life-long practitioners. 

As for the kyū degrees, although there can be variations based on the school, the usual number is eight, starting with the 8thkyū (white belt) and ending with the 1stkyū (brown belt), after which one can try out for the black belt. The colours are always unique for each kyū (there are no striped variations like in Taekwondo).

In this article, we will analyse the system based on eight degrees, while stressing that there can be schools that use less colours than eight. Also, the order of colours is usually fixed, but we have to stress out that there can also be some variations in the order, based on the school. 

The colours are as follows:

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Color Kyū
8th The birth of a new light, which reflects all the colours
7th The first ray of a rising sun
6th The spreading light that widens horizons
5th Penetration and growth of seeds and plants that want sunlight
4th The fruits of the sun are reaching for the endless sky
3rd A degree of seriousness and commitment
2nd Symbol of depth and profoundness of the student’s knowledge
1st A dark shadow behind a glowing object

We’ll also bring you the Japanese names of all the dan degrees:

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Dan Name
1st Shodan
3rd Sandan
4th Yondan
5th Godan
6th Rokudan
7th Nanadan
8th Hachidan
9th Kyudan
10th Judan

Red Belt – Highest Belt in Karate

Usually, the black belt is the highest belt in martial arts. But, in Karate, the red belt is reserved for exemplary masters of the art and is above the black belt.

The Karate 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 martial art in its highest form.

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