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Karate Ranks: The Basics

Posted by on in Ranks and Exams
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belt ranks
The original belt colors taken from Judo in the 1920′s were white, brown, black, as far as I have been able to determine.

When I started training in karate, the first rank that our club awarded was a yellow piece of electrical tape attached to the end of our white belts. We did not even receive the dignity of receiving a yellow belt – a belt which I have always thought looked sort of wimpy. We worked very hard to earn these first ranks and to receive our little certificates marked with the name of the school, signed by the teacher, and stamped by the little recreation center where we kids trained. We were very proud of ourselves for having received our first rank certifications.


If you know anything about how karate ranks work, you are probably smiling at this description. When students join a karate club, they start off in the kyu ranks, which are represented by belts beginning with white and usually ending with brown. Kyu means “rank, grade, class, level” and other things that are along the same lines. Kyu ranks start from higher numbers and work their way down to the lowest number. A new club member with no karate training at all will typically be ranked 9th kyu or even 10th kyu, although some teachers prefer fewer ranks between the beginner level and black belt. The last kyu is the 1st kyu – and it is awarded just before black belt.

belt ranks
I believe the green belt was the first color belt added to the system of white, brown, and black.

There is no rhyme or reason behind the ordering of kyu ranks. I have never heard any explanation that tells why kyu ranks start at a high number and work their way back to a small number. There may be some logic to it, but I don’t know what it is.

Karate gets its concept of ranks from the Japanese sport of Judo. When Funakoshi first brought karate over from Okinawa, he was befriended and sponsored by Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo. Funakoshi is thought to have copied Kano’s uniforms for his Judo players and the belt system he was using at the time.

The number of kyu ranks has been expanded over the years for various reasons, I believe. From what I have read, I am led to believe that originally there were few kyu ranks awarded – just three or four – that the number we have now is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is claimed that originally when the belt system was first introduced, that there were only white, brown, and black belts, and that the other colors, beginning with green, were added later as new kyu ranks were added. Maybe adding the green belt allowed the belts to be representative of seasons. White for Spring, green for Summer, brown for Autumn, and black for Winter. Who knows? Today, there are at least 8, and as many as ten kyu ranks before black belt.

belt ranks
Some people use stripes of electrical tape using the next belt color for “in between” ranks.

In some karate schools, a new belt is awarded with each new karate rank that is given. If the student goes from 8th kyu to 7th kyu, the belt color is changed. Other schools might use fewer belts and merely give a new belt at every other kyu rank. There is no fixed relationship that is universally accepted by all as to what order the colors should be in, nor what kyu ranks any particular colors represent. Each karate club or school comes up with their own system and uses it. Some associations attempt to enforce a standardized kyu ranking system so that the ranks and the belts are consistent between their clubs.

Some karate instructors will take electrical tape and put a loop near the end of the belt to indicate that the student is one level up from the original belt rank that they earned. Some take this practice a step farther by awarding tape loops even more frequently than there are kyu ranks to award, creating even more kyu level steps that a student can receive.

belt ranks
While I was training in Japan, this was the belt system that we used and the kyu ranks that the belts represented.

After the first kyu, the karate student is awarded dan ranks. Dan is a Japanese word that means “level.” With each successive dan rank, the level number goes up one. So the first rank is the 1st dan, and then 2nd dan, etc. These ranks go up to 10th dan. The first dan rank usually requires the student to train for a total of at least three years – but some take as long as seven years. The difference is explained by different time requirements from instructor to instructor and different standards for what must be learned.

The 2nd dan is usually given a couple of years after the 1st if the student trains hard for it. The 3rd dan can be had in as little as four years past the 2nd dan. But again, different schools have different criteria for awarding these ranks. Beyond the 3rd dan, usually the right to award the ranks is reserved by some national organization, if the karate club chooses to associate with one. Not all karate clubs do this.

In Shotokan Karate, once the 1st dan rank is received, the black belt is awarded. Successive dan ranks do not result in a new belt being awarded. In fact, the typical Shotokan method is to use a simple black belt with no markings that indicate any dan rank from 1st dan all the way to 10th dan. Some karate styles add embroidered stripes to the end of the belt, one stripe indicating 2nd dan, two stripes for third dan, and so on. Some karate players prefer to have Japanese embroidery of their name and association on their belts. Gold seems the most popular color for this sort of embroidery, although red, blue, white, and other colors are rarely seen.

belt ranks
This is a typical Japanese karate belt system you might see in the US. Note that early in the training cycle there is a different belt for each rank, and then they become less frequent.

Black belts come in an astonishing array of styles. There are plain cotton belts, specially stitched cotton belts, extra wide specially stitched belts, extra thick narrow belts, and belts with special satin or silk covering. You can order belts like this from the Tokaido company and others by using online order forms to request Japanese lettering, color, and style of belt, and the belt will actually be constructed by hand custom designed to your specifications. That’s how choosy some black belt karate players are.

Especially popular among Shotokan experts are the satin and silk covered black belts. They are very shiny when new, and in a short time, they begin to wear out rather dramatically. This wear and tear is felt by some a symbol of their long years of training, a sort of badge of honor. Others find these belts somewhat pretentious and fake, since the satin and silk covered belts wear out at a faster rate than the regular cotton belts do.

In a future article, I will cover the “why?” behind the belts.