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Finlay's picture
Belts colour musing


I remember a while back Iain discussed the history of the belt colours or at least the use of different colours to denote a level of proficiency.

If i remember correctly it was taken from Judo which in turn took inspiration from the school physical education system. I believe this took place when karate was being introduced to the japanese school system. ... so did we have child (junior) black belts from the inception of the belt system?

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

The kyu-dan system is said to have originally developed by Honinbo Dosaku for the board game of Go; which was in turn based on a much older system of ranking Go players based on the nine levels of government officials in Imperial China. Kano was the first to apply it to martial arts. The belts being used to denote rank came later. Originally everyone wore the same clothing irrespective of rank. I understand the use of belts to denote rank was mainly inspired by the practise of experienced swimmers wearing black ribbons. Kano copied that.

Judo was hugely popular, so karate aped many of its practises as it sought to become popular itself i.e. the “do” ethos, the white gis, the grading system, and the belts that went with it. Karate and judo were both spread through the education system, but this was primarily at university level (young adults) so there were not junior black belts from the start. That is definitely a more recent practise.

First came grades, then later belts were used to denote those grades. Neither grades or belts were present in judo or karate originally. Black belts being given to children is very recent. I started as a child in the early 1980s and I don’t recall any junior dan grades at that time (you had to be at least 16 years old). There may have been some somewhere, but it’s certain they were nowhere near as prevalent as they are today. The grading system is in continual development with the “junior black belt” being a recent addition to reflect the fact that far more children train today than they did in the past.

All the best,


Picture of Gichin Funakoshi giving one of the first karate dan grades to Hironori Otsuka (founder of Wado-Ryu) on the 12th of April 1924. The first ever karate dan grades were issued to seven karateka: six 1st dans and one 2nd dan to Anbun Tokuda (1886–1945). Before that day, there were no ranks in karate.

Tau's picture

I'd like to add to the question.

Why are the belt colours in a given order? Generally we see something like white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, black. Sometimes multiples of some of those colours with or without stripes (brown/white, brown, brown/black as an example.) Throw in a red somewhere. But why that order? And for those that vary (like I do, to a small degree,) why?

And then the block-belts. My understanding is that the kohaku obi first came into use around the same time as the black belt and so pre-dates the coloured belts. My further understanding is that the coral belt was created by Ed Parker. What of other variations such as blue-and-white or red/white stripe? Are these Western things?

John Van Tatenhove
John Van Tatenhove's picture

From what if read and seen, the belt color choices and order is completely arbitrary. I do not know of any historical reference as to the colors being significant other than distinguishing the graded level of a practitioner against a particular syllabus. It would be similar to color coding a graph. What the color choices are is not relevent, only that they are visibly different, and that interested parties know what they represent.


Quick2Kick's picture

Something I picked up in the comment section of the internet ( so do with it what you will) was the ideas that Korean Taekwondo places the Red just below Black as a slight to Japanese who place the Red above Black. Fresh from under the rule of Japan, Korea was flexing it's new found freedom and sticking it to there previous oppressors with their belt system. :)

Marc's picture

I have not yet seen any historical information on the choice and order of the kyu colours. But in their typical order they get darker the closer you get to the black belt. Just stating the obvious, of course, but maybe that is the logic behind it.

Neil Babbage
Neil Babbage's picture

I have no evidence for this, but it's Neil's Occam's Razor. If you were to award belts in order, and lots of students give up, then you'd give the cheapest belts at the lowest grades. This is the days of natural dyes of course. Yellow is a cheap, common, dye (cow urine being a popular one), as is red, orange and brown. Green is much rarer as are the blues / purples (depending on what part of the world you are in). Based on this I'd speculate that red, yellow and brown were the first widely used colour belts, with the others being added only later. 

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Tau wrote:
Generally we see something like white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, black. Sometimes multiples of some of those colours with or without stripes (brown/white, brown, brown/black as an example.) Throw in a red somewhere. But why that order? And for those that vary (like I do, to a small degree,) why?

The colour order varies a fair bit between styles and groups. One example is Kyokushin where the belts go white, orange, blue, yellow, green, brown, black. It’s pretty much arbitrary as to what colours are used in what order. The “standard” colours and order we see in the UK can, once again, be traced back to judo. Where judo leads, karate follows when it comes to ranking.

Originally, we have white and black; where there is no visible sign of any kyu grade rank. Later on, we green and brown added to show the kyu grades. This is the system that was first used in the UK i.e. three white belts (sometimes with tags), three green belts, and then three brown belts (belt gets "darker" the better to are). That gives use the 9 kyu grades before the black belt. That was what most of the early UK karateka started with. The three whites were later switched out for white, yellow, orange (in both Judo and karate) but the three greens and three browns remained. The three greens were then swapped out, in most cases, for green, blue, purple, but the three browns remain to this day. It’s all to do with motivating people and changing things to do that more effectively.

The “rainbow colours” came after karate and judo were well established in the west; so it’s relatively recent. I don’t think we can attribute that to a single group or person. It’s more of a common evolution which accounts for all the variations in how it is done. Later on, people make out it was some grand plan with deep symbolism, but that’s demonstrable BS.

All the best,


Anf's picture

In a style I trained in previously, belt colour was clearly arbitrary, but some philosophy hard been crowbar'ed in for whatever reason.

For example, white represents the snow covering the ground at the very start of the year. Yellow and orange are the spring sunshine as nature begins to awaken. Green is rapid growth and brown represents the stability of maturing wood.

Then it kind of falls apart a bit, with sort of a mish mash of different analogies. Then blue is midnight (see how we've ditched the year and moved to a day), the beginning is drawing to a close. Black is death. Not death in the literal sense of course (hopefully) but the end of life as a beginner, to make way for a new life as an expert. Except there are no experts, because as we all know a black belt is just a white belt underneath etc etc yada yada. But OK, not expert, but the beginning of mastery. Except that mastery depends on having trained for many years or decades and has its own set of belts, presumably each with their tenuous connection to some philosophy that happens to fit somehow with the Western notions of the mystical Eastern ideas.

Or a belt can tell an instructor that doesn't know you how likely you are to fall correctly and safely if he picks you out for a demonstration.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Anf wrote:
… presumably each with their tenuous connection to some philosophy that happens to fit somehow with the Western notions of the mystical Eastern ideas.

Brilliant! There is this need to always tie things to pseudo mysticism in some quarters. We see this with belt colours, kata names, even the name “karate” itself i.e. “The ‘empty’ represents the concepts that ‘matter is void’ and all is vanity.” Karate does need to rid itself of these debunked ideas. They have no historical validity and I believe they are damaging to the authenticity of the art.

One wonders what the philosophical reasoning is for the order of the balls in Snooker? It was invented by British soldiers in the late 1800s, so then must have been inspired by Christianity:

Yellow represents the sunrise and new beginning when one is baptised into the Christian church.

Green represents the spiritual growth that results.

Brown is worth 4 points and that represents the four points of the wooden cross upon which Christ died for our sins.

Blue represents the heaven which awaits all saved souls.

Pink represents flesh and blood and acts as a reminder for us to do our Christian duty to our fellow men and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

Black is the final ball and it represents bodily death. It reminds us that our time on earth (represented by the green table) is limited, but that we will have enteral life if we enter the church (yellow), grow in Christ (green), accept that Christ died for our sins (brown), seek to enter heaven (blue), to help others here on earth (pink), so that death (black) simply represents the beginning of life ever after.

Or maybe they picked arbitrary colours and any attempt to retroactively attribute meaning based on the prevailing culture is ridiculous? :-)

All the best,


Marc's picture

Iain, your abillity to pull an analogy like that out of your hat is uncanny. ;-)

Love it,


Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Marc wrote:
your ability to pull an analogy like that out of your hat is uncanny. ;-)

Analogy? ;-) It all fits together perfectly and I feel it has as much validity as the innumerable theories on belt colours, kata numbers, etc (#).  

I also forgot to mention that the red balls represent the twelve disciples and the holy trinity (15 in total) and the white ball represents Christ himself (obviously).

Glad you liked it!

All the best,


(#) – None at all :-)