by Phillip Starr
I imagine many of you have heard the version of how the Japanese coloured belt system came to be; a white belt signified innocence and/or a blank slate for beginners, after putting out a lot of sweat, the belt then turned yellow. Because practice was often held outdoors, grass stains caused it to turn green. More wear and tear, and dirt ultimately caused it to become brown and then finally, black. It’s a cute story. But altogether inaccurate.
It all started in judo, actually. According to the official history of the Kodokan (judo world headquarters), it is noted that in 1883 Dr. Kano (the founder of judo) decided to separate the student body of the then-new Kodokan into two groups; one would be those whose skills were sufficient for them to be considered “seniors”, and they were known as the yudansha (“graded group”). All others were mudansha (“without grade group”). That year, only two were given the grade of shodan (“first grade”); Tsunejiro Tomita and Shiro Saigo. Tomita would go on to demonstrate judo in the U,S, and elsewhere and a fictionalized version of Saigo’s exploits as the hero of a popular novel would later be turned into a popular film by Akira Kurosawa (the film was Sugata Sanshiro and is centered around the early contest between Kano’s new judo and the classical jujutsu schools).
Kano’s implementation of a grading system (known as dan-i) was revolutionary in the martial arts community of the day. For eons, ranks were awarded through a series of “menkyo” (licenses), which was usually in the form of a scroll or paper. These were used in other arts (such as flower arranging and so forth) as well, and there were usually just a few in the grading system. A menkyo might be granted to indicate that the recipient had mastered part or all of the curriculum or had received instruction in the secret lore of the system. In the martial arts, there was scant need for menkyo from a practical perspective; one either had the skills or not and his survival in battle was better proof of that than a piece of paper. This worked well for the feudal systems and is still in place today in some systems.
Kano was an educator (much of what he wrote is still studied in universities around the world), so he would have known about reinforcing progress through some tangible sign. Thus came the awarding of kyu (“step”) grades and the “dan” grades. This wasn’t a new idea at all; such grades had been awarded in many arts – from music to flower arranging and even the game of go – since the sixteenth century. But Kano’s system did not initially include various colored belts. It wasn’t until 1886 that he gave belts as a symbol of rank. It was at this time that his judo was pitted against the Yoshin-ryu of Hikosuke Totsuka in an event organized by the Tokyo police. Kano’s judoka won handily and the membership of the Kodokan blossomed; he may have been motivated to employ colored belts due to the increasing number of pupils starting to train in judo.
Newer students would have had trouble distinguishing another novice from a senior; black belts would be a fine way to identify the seniors from whom novices could seek advice or instruction. Initially, these belts were stiff silk (kaku-obi) and worn with formal kimono. In 1907, the cotton belt was introduced. Although Kano used a 10-level grading system, he didn’t adopt a colored belt scheme. In the Kodokan, there were only white and black belts. So, how did the system of colored belts come to be?
This innovation came from an extraordinary judoka, Mikonosuke Kawaishi, who began judo under Kano’s tutelage at the turn of the century. In 1926, he taught judo in the U.S., then moved to England, where he taught very briefly before teaching in Paris in 1936. He remained there until WWII came along when he went back to Japan and finished the conflict in a Manchurian prison camp. However, he returned to Paris and taught there again until his death in 1969. He was a great innovator, always exploring new ways to introduce the art to non-Japanese. He experimented with the awarding of different colored belts to indicate a student’s progress and the idea caught on, spreading to judo schools throughout Europe. By the early 1950’s, it was seen in U.S. Judo and even karate clubs and by the 1960’s, groups such as the U.S. Judo Federation had devised rather complex ranking levels that differed for children, teens, and adults.
And what about the top-echelon belts…the red and white striped, and red belts? Actually Kano did eventually provide for these within his ranking system. And he likely drew on historical sources in so far as the colors are concerned. Beginning with the Genpei War (1180-1185), in which two sides used distinctive battle flags and other paraphenalia – red on the side of the Taira clan (aka. Heike) and white for the forces of the Minamoto (aka. Genji) clan – red and white have figured prominently in Japanese history. In 1884 Kano hosted the first Red and White Tournament at the Kodokan (it is still held today). For many years, a strip of red cloth was tied around the waist of one contestant to distinguish him from his opponent. This was also done in kendo matches. So, Kano was drawing on a well-established concept when he created a red and white striped belt that was to be worn by those of 6th to 8th dan grades. A solid red belt is worn by those of 9th and 10th dan ranks.
No provisions were made for an 11th dan. The 12th dan was reserved for Kano and designated by a white belt, twice the usual width. This was done by the Kodokan so that no one could ever equal his status. Today, different schools and organisation utilize a wide array of colored belts and for many, this is little more than a scheme; more belts mean more tests and test fees. In Japan, most kyu grades wear white belts, save for the last 3 kyu grades, which are usually brown belted. Many martial disciplines, including kendo, aikido, iaido, kyudo, and virtually all of the koryu (traditional martial arts of Japan) don’t use coloured belts at all. Using belts or not using belts…there are good arguments to be made on both sides. But if one wishes to enter the realm of these arts, one must make accommodations for their rules and regulations.