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The Karate Belt Rainbow: What Do The Different Colors Really Mean?

Jan 2, 2008
You have probably already realized that martial artists use different colored belts to designate rank. Has it always been this way? Is there a specific order to the belt colors? What about all of these stripes that you keep seeing? What do the different colors really mean? Stand by for the answers to all your questions about colored belts.

Different colored belts used to designate rank are a relatively modern innovation created by Master Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo back in the early 1900s. Master Kano felt that there should be a visual progression of the belts as a way to tell what level a practitioner was and also as a way to implement a specific hierarchy within each Judo club.

Before the invention of the colored belts there was simply a white belt and a black belt and nothing in between. It was not uncommon for a master's disciple to study for years while wearing a white belt until one day out of the blue, the master awarded the student a black belt and that was that. The common myth of starting out with a white belt that gradually gets dirtier the longer you train and finally becomes black and then over a longer period of time fades again and becomes a murky grey, designating advanced rank is nothing more than that - a myth!

It is highly unlikely that anyone would wear the same belt for years on end through hours of intense training and lots of sweat and probably some blood from time to time. That belt must have been pretty stinky to say the least. The fact of the matter is that back in the old days a karate session was a private affair between the master and his student and there wasn't even a need for a belt at all. The student would practice in comfortable pants and a bare top and that was it.

So what is the big deal with all of these colored belts?

Well it has been a gradual progression to our current situation. First no belts, then white and black, then the addition of brown, then green, then the other fillers of yellow, orange, blue, purple, red, and recently we have seen many other additions that are varying shades of all of the above colors with multiple stripes, achievement bands and patches, all for the purpose of encouraging students. Depending on which end of the traditional versus modern continuum that you place yourself on, you may laugh cynically at the belt rainbow or you may welcome modern innovation and a source of positive rewards and reinforcement.

Most people, including myself, lie somewhere in the middle. I believe colored belts are a good thing for today's world, especially the children, but let's keep it real and not get carried away and award 3rd degree gold belts with a green and purple stripe and a "focus" achievement patch just for showing up to class four times that month! If your club has more than ten different colored belts with multiple stripes and patches all within the same age group's program then you've probably entered a "belt factory".

It's OK to have different belt systems for different programs, such as a kids 4 - 6 Tiny Tigers program, a kids 7 - 12 Junior program, and the real deal premier martial arts program for teens and adults but to cram about 20 different belts into a two or three year program is simply ridiculous and is quite frankly, mostly about the money.

It seems that nowadays we have more belt colors than ice cream flavors and consequently there are no real benchmarks that we can compare different belts to from one school to another. So don't even try. Essentially the belt that you wear around your waist only means something to you and to the person who gave it to you. Usually you have to go and perform certain requirements in order to receive your belt, but the requirements differ so greatly from school to school that there is no universal standard.

This is another one of the reasons why you should do your research beforehand and check out the different martial arts schools in your area. Ask them about their programs, about their ranking systems, about their grading fees and about their style. Then decide whether what they offer is something that would benefit you or your child.

If you need more help with this or any other karate subject, please be sure to download my FREE Report "Beginners Guide to Karate". You will find out how to download it at http://www.freekarateinformation.com/beginner.html

Good luck and best wishes on your journey in karate.
About the Author
Paul A. Walker, is a 4th degree black belt karate instructor with over 25 years experience in the martial arts. In 2003 he attained his 4th degree black belt, after studying with the legendary Karate Master, Hirokazu Kanazawa in Tokyo for three years. Get more info at http://www.freekarateinformation.com
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