The belt system was first started in 1883 when Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, awarded two of his senior students with the rank of Shodan. At that time, students wore kimonos and a wide sash during training. Once ranked Shodan, they were given a black sash to signify their advanced level.
In 1907, Kano designed and introduced the judogi along with the white and black belt. The inspiration for this gi came from the white kimono that the samurai wore under their armor when going into battle.
The white gi is said to represent purity, emptiness, and humility. The black belt symbolizes a level of knowledge, and when combined with the white gi, it symbolizes emptiness filled with knowledge. Kano was an educator who used the Dan system, ranging from the first Dan to the fifth Dan, to denote advanced levels.
Kano believed that there was no limit to the grade one could achieve. With this in mind, he added more levels in 1930. He created a red and white belt (kohaku obi) to recognize 6th, 7th, and 8th Dan holders. Kano took inspiration from the red and white colors used in the Japanese flag, which are said to represent purity, the intense desire to train, and the sacrifices one has made.
The colored belts were later introduced by his student Mikonosuke Kawaishi in 1935 while teaching Judo in Paris. Kawaishi used the colored belts as a way to help motivate and recognize the progress in training his Western students.