The Origin of the Belt System in Karate



In 1922, the Japanese Ministry of Education invited Okinawan Karate master Gichin Funakoshi to give a demonstration. After the demonstration, Kano asked Funakoshi to give a demonstration at his Kodokan Dojo. In front of 100 spectators, Funakoshi performed the Kata Kanku dai (his favorite). The two masters became friends and shared an admiration for each other.

Funakoshi wanted karate to be accepted in Japan and recognized as a legitimate martial art. At the time, the Dai Nippon Butoku-Kai was the governing body for the martial arts of Japan. It would oversee standards and ranks of recognized martial arts.

Funakoshi adopted Kano’s belt system so that karate would be recognized by the Butoku-kai as well as more accepted by the Japanese people. On April 12, 1924, Funakoshi awarded the first karate black belts and Dan rankings to his top students.

Since that time, Karate had grown in Japan and many new styles were becoming popular. By 1938, the Butoku-kai asked all dojos to register, and a meeting was held to standardize rank requirements. They created the standards and handed out ranks in accordance. This continued up until World War II.


The Creation of the Belt System 

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.

 During the war, many martial arts masters were lost, and the Butoku-Kai was closed down by the Americans for a period. After the war, ranking certification was done through a board formed by each style – some of which would become affiliated with the new Butoku-Kai