Originally published in Totally Taekwondo Magazine in the April 2015 edition. However this is a living document that continues to be edited as new information is learned. As all research projects should.
In 1883 Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo (柔道), began what would develop into not only the belt system but also the kyu and dan system used in martial arts.
It was in 1886 that he borrowed a practice, used in Japanese swimming, of tying black ribbons around the waist of those that were considered proficient in the sport of swimming. This is when he awarded kuro obi (黒帯) to Tsunejiro Tomita and Shiro Seigo. This is also the first time in the history of the martial arts that a “black belt” was awarded and the style of obi called a Kaku Obi (角帯) was used to achieve this means.
Prior to this, right after New Years of 1884, Kano adopted the Kyu and Dan system (段級位制) used in many traditional Japanese activities such as Shodo (calligraphy, 書道), Ikebana (flower arrangements, 生花), and Go (classic strategy game). He initially utilized 3 Kyu grades (級) as well as 3 Dan ranks (段). At first there was no physical representation of rank, but after a boom in students in 1886, the Kyu grades became represented by a White obi (白帯) and Dan ranks became represented by a Black obi (黒帯). Outside of representing beginner verses proficient student, as well as kyu vs dan, these belt colors had no real meaning.
At the time this basic belt system was introduced, there was no standardized practice clothing or keikogi (稽古着), so students simply trained in whatever they wore that day. Work cloths and school clothes were the norm in the Judo Dojo (道場). But those of you experienced in any sort of grappling knows that grappling takes it out of lighter weight clothing. The solution was a heavy jacket that could tolerate being grabbed, jerked, yanked at, and dragged along the ground. After several stages of development Kano produced a standard Judogi (柔道着) after a 1906 meeting for the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai.
The first black belts of karate were awarded by Gichin Funakoshi to seven of his students on April 12th, 1924. He held a formal ceremony where he presented black obi to Hironori Ohtsuka (Wado Ryu’s founder), Shinken Gima (Gima-ha Shoto-Ryu’s founder), Ante Tokuda, Shinyo Kasuya (Keio University professor of German), Akiba, Shimizu Toshiyuki, and Hirose. Gima and Tokuda were cousins who were both raised, and trained, in Okinawa before moving to mainland Japan. Also at this time Tokuda was awarded nidan, while the others all received a shodan. It is said that Funakoshi himself never received a formal rank, but some of his students say that he was a 5th dan prior to his death.
The next type of belts were Kohaku Obi (紅白), which were initially introduced in the year 1930. These were Crimson & White belts to be used for Kodansha (高段者) or high ranking dan practitioners. The colors for these belts were chosen from the colors used at the Kohaku Shiai, a Judo competition held every year, and these belts were initially considered optional, mainly being reserved for special occasions. It is unclear if these belts were specifically introduced to represent a high ranking practitioner or the holder of a Japanese titles, such as Renshi, Kyoshi, and Hanshi, but regardless different styles and organizations use them in varying ways. These belts were eventually brought over from Judo to Karate, and are even used in some styles of Okinawan Karate. The main type of Kohaku Obi also goes by the names Kagamiita Obi (鏡板帯) and Dandara Obi (段だら帯).
Between 1935 to 1937 a Japanese Judo instructor living in Europe, Mikinosuke Kawaishi, decided that his students needed a bit more tangible encouragement, so he introduced the colored belts. So now, instead of having one belt representing 6 kyu grades, there were 6 belts representing these same 6 kyu grades. Mikinosuke’s original belt system contained the colors: White, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple, and Brown. However there is a reason for the original colors and why they are represented in this order. All you had to do was take your existing white belt and dye it multiple times getting you all these colors. If you went in a different order this trick wouldn’t work, so it had to be White then Yellow then Green then Blue then Purple all before Brown Belt. Mikinosuke is also who most likely introduced the concept of Rank Stripes, around the same time.
When the Japanese heard of the colored belt system it was initially rejected. Instructors believed the focus should be on learning and that awarding superfluous belts was unnecessary. However, Jigoro Kano did adopt two additional belts. For adults Kano adopted the brown belt to represent adults who were 4th Kyu through 1st Kyu, and for children he adopted a purple belt to represent the same Kyu grades. Karate initially adopted two additional belts as well, but did not distinguish at this time between child belts and adult belts. Thusly karate adopted an additional green belt and brown belt.
Well lets fast forward ten years to 1945. What happened then? WWII ended, as did the Japanese annexation of Korea. Korean students were flocking home! Some of which had never even laid eyes on Korea before… Some of these Koreans were martial art students of Gichin Funakoshi’s lineage or Kanken Toyama’s lineage. Many of these students would go on to become the “Fathers of Taekwondo,” such as Yoon Byung In (Shudokan 4th dan), Yoon Gwe Byung (Shudokan 3rd dan), Chun Sung Sup (Shotokan 3rd dan), Byung Jik Ro (Shotokan 3rd dan?), Choi Hong Hee (Shotokan, rank heavily debated), and Won Kuk Lee (Shotokan 4th dan). It is also important to note that around this time the rank system in Karate changed in Japan. Prior to 1945 Karate maxed out at 5th dan, but after 1945 Karate changed to max out at 10th dan. This is important to keep in mind when we talk about how things differ in Japan, Okinawa, and Korea from this point on.
Since the simplified colored belt system was introduced to karate, there is a general disagreement between Koreans and Japanese. Some will tell you it was White, Green, Brown, and Black belt others will tell you it was a White, Blue, Brown, and Black belt. Honestly, after much research, I firmly believe it was the green belt due to testimony by Japanese instructors that began their training back in the 1940s, as well as a few Korean Shotokan practitioners who trained in Tokyo in the 1930s and 1940s. But in Choi Hong Hee’s 1965 book he outlined a system that utilized 8 kyu grades and 4 belts: White, Blue, Brown, and Black. Also in 1965 Choi became the president of the Korea Tae Kwon Do Association.
Other groups in Korea separated and used different systems. For example Hwang Ki, who eventually founded the Moo Duk Kwan teaching Tang Soo Do (one of the Korean names for Karate-Do), used White, Green, Red, and Midnight Blue. This system traded out the Brown Belt, used in other styles of Tang Soo Do, for Red, and traded out the Black Belt for Midnight Blue. Hwang Ki also attributed his color system to the changing of the seasons, and is one of the first individuals documented to assign esoteric meaning for the individual colors.
Many believe that the Korean use of a Red Belt for a Kyu rank was a slap in the face to the Japanese, and many Koreans will agree. However you’ll note the use of the Red Belt for 9th and 10th dan in Japan hasn’t been mentioned yet in this article. Why? You’ve probably noticed, by now, that most the major changes in the belt system happened in Judo before being brought over to Karate. When the Koreans were returning home, Karate did not use the Red Belt in this manner. See, the Red Belt for denoting 9th and 10th dan was introduced, by Judo, in 1943. It didn’t make its way into Karate until the 1950s. Sources suggest this was after Hwang Ki, and many others, had already started using Red Belt for Kyu grades. It is also worth noting that some Okinawan instructors associate the Red Belt with the concept of Kanreki (還暦), which in this case represents 60+ years of practicing the arts.
Back on Okinawa there was a meeting between the heads of several styles, around 1965, to decide on standards for rank and titles used within Okinawan Karate. Prior to this, there were no standards and due to how the rank system in Karate went from maxing at 5th dan to maxing at 10th dan, no one was really sure on how to handle things. For example, the youngest legitimately awarded 10th dan in Japan and Okinawa went to a 34 year old Eizo Shimabukuro, a proponent of Shorin Ryu (少林流), and was awarded in 1959. So in 1965 the Okinawans set general time-in-rank requirements and age restrictions on dan ranks, as well as establishing the Title Stripe system, in place of the Kohaku Obi. The Title Stripe system goes up to 5 sets of stripes, but most people only wear a max of 3 even if they are permitted to wear more.
It is part of this author’s hopes that this document will help dispel many of the myths involving belts, as well as dispelling “belt worship.” It is my hope that putting the practice of using belts into their proper historical perspective will lessen our reliance on them and diminish our irrational feelings about them. For example, we can see the belt system was only introduced once the Kodokan Dojo, of Judo, grew to well over 130 students. The color belts were originally just a tool for unmotivated students. Highly coveted Title Belts, such as the Kohaku Obi, Red Belt, and black belts with Title Stripes, are actually much more modern than most people believe and were originally considered optional. The practice of using Rank Stripes actually predates the practice of Title Stripes by nearly three decades. It’s always best to know where these things come from so we have a clearer picture of where we wish to go in the future, especially if we view ourselves as traditionalists.