Origin of Karate Belts

Many karate practitioners wear an “obi”, a karate belt, tied around their “dogi” or “gi”, the exercise outfit. Most often made of thick cotton, the obi signifies the skill level of its wearer.

There is a common legend about the origin of the tradition of karate belts. It is often said that martial arts practitioners started their training with a white belt, and then that belt became black from all of the sweat and dirt associated with years of practice. We, at our dojo, do not regard this as true. There is no real evidence to this story, and given the high standards of hygiene and cleanliness at any karate dojo that we have seen, any student who showed up in a dirty, unwashed uniform would probably be turned away. The same logic applies to not washing one’s karate belt for one reason or another.

We believe in another version of the story. Dr. Jigoro Kano, a Japanese man who is said to be the founder of modern Judo, was the first to invent the colored belt system. He thought that it would be an effective indicator of student progress and awarded the first “black belts” sometime around 1880. Then, Gichin Funakoshi, an Okinawan gentleman who founded Shotokan Karate, adopted the belt ranking system used in Judo from Dr. Jigoro Kano. There is extensive evidence that that the two were at least acquaintances, if not friends.

Masutatsu Oyama, the founder of Kyokushin karate, practiced both Judo and Okinawan Karate before adopting a belt system for Kyokushin karate, his own style.

Shinkyokushin Karate Belt System (New Kyokushin Belt System)

In Shinkyokushin, we follow the 10 kyu “level” system. There are 6 belt colors: white belt, orange belt, blue belt, yellow belt, green belt, brown belt, and black belt. All belts besides the white belt can have dashes to indicate further progress. Here is a summary of the different karate belts.

White Belt (Mukyu “No Kyu”) – this is a beginner belt that indicates no progress. In English and Japanese cultures, white is the color of innocence and purity. The purpose of the white belt is to hold the gi (karate outfit) together and teach the student how to properly tie and wear a karate belt.

Orange Belt (X Kyu) – This is the very first karate belt that a student receives following an examination. It is designed to point out a student who has made some great initial progress in studying karate. He or she is required to have learned the meaning of Kyokushinkai, the dojo etiquette, and the process of properly folding the karate gi. The student is also required to demonstrate some basic stances, strikes, defenses and kicks. All in all, the student is expected to study and develop the basic karate skills and unlearn any ideas that he or she may have had previously developed about fighting.

Orange Belt With Black Dash (IX Kyu) – This is the second Shinkyokushin karate belt. Along with continuing to develop better senses of coordination, balance and patience, students are required to demonstrate progress in learning more about their bodies. The students are also required to be familiar with the history of Kyokushinkai – Shinkyokushinkai and demonstrate various stances, strikes, defenses and kicks. Basic kata taikyoku sono ichi and taikyoku sono ni are introduced at this level.

Blue Belt (VIII Kyu) – This is the third belt in Shinkyokushin karate. While students are expected to continue perfecting the basics that they learned during their orange belt training, new concepts and movements are introduced. At this level, karate students are expected to work on their upper bodies, focusing specifically on strength, balance, coordination and flexibility. This is also the level where the karate practitioner learns how to better control his or her body and mind. Besides various stances, strikes, defenses, kicks and kata, kumite (friendly fighting/sparring) is also required during the examination. 

Blue Belt With Dash (VII Kyu) – This is the advanced blue belt level. At this level, karate students are expected to show significant progress in controlling their minds and bodies. This usually manifests itself in a student’s unwillingness to compromise and a desire to continue intense training despite physical exhaustion. “Ibuki” (breathing) is also introduced.

Yellow Belt (VI Kyu) – The yellow belt in Shinkyokushin is used to highlight students who have begun to exhibit a solid understanding of the principles of karate and who have exhibited great potential to be able to advance their training. The yellow belt is the first level where the focus somewhat shifts to the psychological aspects of training, and a great emphasis is placed on the harmony of mind and body. In other words, a great deal of attention is given to coordination. Multiple strikes are introduced: uraken shomen, uraken sayu, uraken hizo, uraken oroshi, uraken mawashi, nihon nukite, and yuhon nukite. The pinan sono ni kata is also introduced coupled with the gedan mawashi geri kick – the low roundhouse kick.

Yellow Belt With Dash (V Kyu) – The advanced yellow belt level in Shinkyokushin is marked by the middle level roundhouse kick, a requirement of the ability to perform one-handed pushups and the moro ashi dachi, a more advanced stance. Since the yellow belt is sometimes said to be the last of the beginner belts, its wearers are expected to begin exhibiting their newly found knowledge and control over their bodies and minds and applying them to their surroundings.

Green Belt (IV Kyu) – Some of the highlights of the green belt in Shinkyokushin karate are the traditional roundhouse kick (jodan mawashi geri) and new strikes like shuto sakutsu, shuto uchi komi, shuto hizo and the shuto uchi uchi. The physical requirements are also increased, and the sahchin-no kata is introduced. Since green represents growth, this is the level where practicioners are expected to grow both physically and spiritually in preparation for advancement to higher belts.

Green Belt With Dash (III Kyu) – The advanced green belt level in Shinkyokushin karate is the belt that requires practitioners to become proficient in using their elbows. Numerous elbow strikes are introduced: chudan hiji ate, chudan mae hiji ate, age hiji ate, ushiro hiji ate and oroshi hiji ate. The two new required katas are pinan sono yon and taikyoko sono ni in ura.

Brown Belt (II Kyu) – The brown belt in karate is not to be taken lightly. Among other strenuous requirements, practicioners are required to go through a 15×1 minute kumite. This is the belt where students begin to truly find themselves. Practicioners work with black belts and observe their styles while performing much introspection. As a result, they may develop their own combinations, techniques and movements that would later characterize them as a unique karate student.

Brown Belt With Dash (I Kyu) – The advanced brown belt in Shinkyokushin karate is the very last belt before the black belt. A student is required to possess it for a minimum of 12 months before being able to attempt receiving a black belt. This level is where the student uses the knowledge from all of the previous belts to perfect his or her technique. New strikes like ryuto-ken tsuki and naka yubi iponken are introduced. Defenses like kage uke and chudan haito uchi uke are also some of the required things followed by the yantsu, tsuki-no and pinan sono ichi in ura katas.

Black Belt I Dan (Shodan) – Black Belt With One Dash Senpai – Please bear in mind that if the student goes in for this exam for Shodan, he/she would be examined for his or her developed endurance from the previous grades, as well as his or her ability to perform all of the basic techniques. All basic techniques may be asked to be performed in Gyaku. The applicant must be further able to teach those basic techniques. Finally, the applicant must be physically fit and able to perform all of the techniques without being injured. Most people, even people who don’t practice karate, know or have heard the terms “black belt”, “kyokushin black belt”, “shinkyokushin black belt” and “karate black belt”. Unfortunately, few really know what it really represents. It is not the final level, it is not the end, and it is not a final achievement. Instead, it is a brand new beginning – practitioners have now learned the basics and are ready to venture out into the world and find ways to further grow.

Black Belt II Dan (Nidan) – Black Belt With Two Dashes Senpai – The second level black belt can be attempted after a minimum of two years of holding a black belt. Naturally, one of the requirements is the ability to demonstrate all of the techniques from the previous grades. The Nidan is also where a more extreme level of tameshiwari (breaking) is required. The requirement is a compulsory break with any nominated Tobi Geri on the list. An advanced physical readiness is also a requirement, with 100 push ups + 2×25 one-handed pushups, 400 crunches, 100 squats and 3×50 jumps.

Black Belt III Dan (Sensei) – Black Belt With Three Dashes Sensei – All of the techniques from the previous levels are required and candidates must have attended courses on Kumite Referee and Kata judging. Advanced kata like sushi-ho, garyu, seipai, and pinan sono go in ura are also requirements. Physical requirements include the ability to perform 120 pushups + 2×35 one-handed push-ups, 450 crunches, 100 squats and 3×50 jumps. Candidates are also required to have been a second degree black belt for 3 years along with being able to demonstrate advanced teaching ability and have good general knowledge of karate and Shinkyokushin history.

Required Time Limit Between Karate Belt Examinations

10th Kyu to 3rd Kyu

Minimum 4 months between grades

3rd Kyu to 1st Kyu

Minimum 6 months between grades

1st Kyu to Shodan

Minimum 12 months between grades

Shodan to Nidan

Minimum 2 years between grades

Nidan to Sandan

Minimum 3 years between grades

Sandan to Yondan

Minimum 4 years between grades on recommendation of the WKO Branch Chiefs

Yondan to Godan

Minimum 5 years between grades on recommendation of the WKO Branch Chiefs

The Progression of Learning Karate

  1. Position – Stance
  2. Balance – Control of position
  3. Coordination – Control of balance and position in technique
  4. Form – Performing above correctly
  5. Speed – Increase the rate of performance without loss of form
  6. Power – Strengthening the technique
  7. Reflex – The technique becomes a natural movement. It is essential that the progression is not rushed but instead developed at each stage.