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History of the Black Belt
By Bob Hubbard

Most martial arts schools have some means of ranking students. Usually, it is in the form of a colored belt, though sashes, cords and other means are also used. In the ‘old days’, rank was usually limited to “Teacher” and “Student”. You determined your rank by fighting other martial artists, sometimes to the death. With the arts becoming more mainstream, a different and less lethal system was needed.

The introduction of colored belts to denote rank is credited to Jigaro Kano, founder of the art of Judo. It was later adapted by Gichin Funakoshi for use in his Shotokan Karate schools. As Karate became better known, other arts began using colored belts as well. Today, the term “Black Belt” is in the popular mind set as an expert martial artist.

Each system, and even each school within a system can have a different color system. Most schools start at white, with black reserved for the highest levels. Some however, use a different system. The French art of Savate for example, uses a glove system, rather than belts, with a silver glove being one of the highest ranks. Contrary to popular opinion, a “Black Belt” is not the highest rank. Many systems use the color red to signify highest achievement.

The color meanings also vary from art to art. In many, the colors simply represent a 1,2,3 type progression, whereas in others, each color has certain attributes, requirements and creeds a student must master in order to progress. The color progressions also differ from art to art. While a 3rd level student might wear an orange belt in 1 art, in another, the 3rd level might wear a blue, or even black! When looking at the colors, one sometimes must do a little digging to understand exactly how they compare.

Shortly after World War 2, the belts were dyed a new, darker color each time a student was promoted. This was done due to shortages of materials. Today, elaborate ceremonies have evolved concerning the removal of the old belt, and awarding of the new.

There are many theories and legends concerning the white-to-black progression of the traditional karate belt. One such myth is that you must never wash your belt. As you train, your sweat and the grime of training gradually darkens your belt. After many years of hard work, it is now black. Sadly, this is more myth than reality. Most schools have a dedication to good hygiene, and wearing a grimy and smelly belt or gi are usually frowned upon.

There are of course many more myths about what the belts mean. One such urban legend is that upon becoming a “Black Belt”, one must register their hands with the police. Most law enforcement officials just smile at that one.

Today, we have a virtual rainbow of belts. There are solid colors, half stripes, quarter stripes, full stripes, even a camouflage belt! No two systems use an identical rank system. One art can take 3 years, another 5, another decades to achieve a “black belt”. One thing is certain however; the use of belts and the idea that a “Black Belt” is someone of merit will continue.


Bob Hubbard is an administrator of the popular martial arts portal site and president of SilverStar WebDesigns inc., a web site design and hosting company specializing in affordable solutions for martial artists. A student of all the arts, he is currently studying Modern Arnis.
Bob can be reached at

February 2004 – MartialTalk Magazine

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