The history of the black belt

Black belt
Black belt

The history of martial arts belts, particularly the black belt and the introduction of coloured belts, encompasses various stories and influences that have shaped the ranking system we know today. Let’s delve into the fascinating journey behind the development of this significant aspect of martial arts.

Myths and legends.

There are a couple of legends associated with the origins of the martial arts belt system that are often shared but are not rooted in historical accuracy. One such legend suggests that the belt system began with the white belt, which, over time, would become progressively darker and more experienced due to exposure to dirt and training outdoors. According to this story, the belt would transition from pure white to a darker brown colour and eventually to black.

Another myth suggests that practitioners were strictly prohibited from washing their belts to preserve the “experience” it had gained. This legend still influences certain traditions, and many academies discourage washing belts, although primarily to prevent the loss of earned merit stripes or tips.

What actually happened?

Traditionally, belts were not used as a ranking system in the early 19th century. Instead, students were awarded a “menkyo,” a certificate that acknowledged their level of achievement. However, in the late 19th century, a pivotal figure emerged who would revolutionize the concept of belts in martial arts – Master Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo.

Jigoro Kano
Jigoro Kano

Jigoro Kano was a schoolteacher who observed ranking systems in other Japanese competitions and games. Inspired by these practices, he sought to introduce a similar structure to his newly created martial art, Judo. Before Kano’s innovation, older Samurai martial arts employed a five-level ranking system called “menkyo” or “licence.” However, this system lacked any outward display of rank.

Kano was particularly influenced by the game of “Go,” a Japanese strategy game that ranked its players for competition, as well as by advanced swimmers who wore a “black ribbon” around their waist to signify their skill level. Drawing inspiration from these sources, Kano decided to implement a rank structure in Judo.

In 1883, Kano established the initial belt colours for Judo, which consisted of only two options: white and black. The white belt was worn by students, symbolizing their beginner status, while the black belt was reserved for teachers and advanced practitioners, denoting their expertise. At that time, there were no additional black belt or “dan” grades.

The original black belts in Judo were not like the belts we recognize today. They were wide “Obi” belts, traditionally worn over the kimono to keep it closed.

Kawaishi Mikinosuke (13 August 1899 – 30 January 1969)
Kawaishi Mikinosuke (13. August 1899 – 30. January 1969)

The history of coloured belts in martial arts took a significant leap forward in the 1930s and 1940s with the contributions of Mikinosuke Kawaishi, a Japanese master of Judo. In 1936, Kawaishi relocated from Japan to France to teach Judo and Jiu-Jitsu. During his time in France, he noticed that Western students were less patient when it came to the lengthy journey from white to black belt compared to their Japanese counterparts.

To cater to the Western students’ desire for more immediate recognition of their progress, Kawaishi introduced coloured belts. This allowed students to visibly see and acknowledge their growth, skills, and knowledge as they advanced toward the coveted black belt. The tradition of coloured belts quickly spread to other martial arts disciplines.

Today, the martial arts belt system continues to hold great significance. It represents a practitioner’s progression from a novice, symbolized by the white belt, to the pinnacle of mastery and expertise, represented by the coveted black belt. The various colours between these two extremes indicate different levels of growth and development.

Coloured belts
Coloured belts

While the specific number of belts and the order of colour progression may differ among styles and schools, the general consensus remains that the journey commences with the white belt and concludes with the black belt. Nevertheless, it is crucial to understand that attaining a black belt marks not an endpoint, but rather the beginning of a new phase in the practitioner’s ongoing journey of learning and self-improvement.


Thanks for reading 🙂

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