As you start training, the first thing you receive is a karate-gi and a white belt. As you move on, you graduate and receive a different coloured belt—colours depend on the karate style your practice— up until you reach the black belt. Then there are another ten levels, just as a black belt! 

Yep, we are not kidding.

We’ve already talked about how everything in karate has a piece of history behind it. And that holds for the minor, or maybe not so small, things as well, like the meaning behind karate belts. The real meaning behind the ranking system in Shotokan karate has had some good polemic around it, but we will try to clarify that once and for all.

The history of Shotokan belts and rankings

It so happens that Gichin Funakoshi—the father of Shotokan karate—was considered a foreigner inside mainland Japan. Remember, Funakoshi is original from Okinawa, and Okinawan people were not considered “real Japanese” at the time this story happens.

To bring karate to japan would require, then, some maneuvers. For example, assuming a position of inferiority and adapt to the rules and regulations of the Dai Nippon Butou Kai (the regulatory authority for Japanese martial arts) was an excellent starting point.

The rules of Dai Nippon Butou Kai

To be considered a Japanese martial art, all schools would need to follow a set of rules. The three primary demands that changed karate were:

  1. Utilize the suffix Dō () in its name;
  2. Standardize its curriculum and follow the Japanese methodology for teaching martial arts;
  3. Officially adopt a Dō-gi (道衣). The Dai Nippon Butou Kai initially imposed a judo-gi to all martial arts in Japan.
  4. Implement the Kyu/Dan ranking system existing at the time — the Kano system.

If you didn’t know, karate started as a very rudimentary system of self-defence. People did not have a uniform but instead trained with their working / regular clothes.

old karate uniform
In the beginning, karateka only used belts to hold their pants.

But what is the Kano belt system again?

In the beginning, the Shotokan karate belt system used what we call the Kano system. Created by Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo and one of the most prominent martial arts authorities in Japan at the time, the ranking system merely consisted of the following:

  1. White belt: for beginners
  2. Brown belt: for intermediary
  3. Black belt: for advanced practitioners

This classification persisted until about 1950. Later on, the system also included a white and red belt for practitioners considered to have a master proficiency.

Back to Shotokan karate belt colours

Gichin Funakoshi sensei held the maximum ranking at the time: 5th dan. Only in the 60s, the ranks of 6th to 10th dan were implemented in the Kano system, after Funakoshi’s passing.

The Japan Karate Association (JKA) resisted until the end of the decade to adopt the higher ranks, and Shotokai never did. 

For that reason, no master in Shotokan will use a belt coloured with something other than black. It is disrespectful to their origins, to their ancestors, to their teachers. And honour means a lot to Japanese people.

Gichin Funakoshi performin Tekki kata
Gichin Funakoshi (船越 義珍, Funakoshi Gichin, November 10, 1868 – April 26, 1957))

Even big names graduated 10th dan like Masatoshi Nakayama, Hirokazu Kanazawa and Tetsuhiko Asai always used a black belt, no other colours.

What about the purpose behind the colour belts?

As karate spread around the world, the simplicity of the Kano system showed to be inefficient in different cultures. Coloured belts started to appear as a way to better differentiate between Kyu grade levels. It also works to keep practitioners engaged. 

Imagine training for three years and only changing the colour of your belt once? That’s pretty demotivating, isn’t it?

However, only recently, Japan started to use coloured belts (yellow, orange, and blue) as a recognition that they work, especially for younger people in their society.

purpose of the color belts in karate

The Japan Karate Shotorenmei

At the Shinjigenkan Institute, we follow the standards currently set by the Japan Karate Shotorenmei (Shoto Federation). The order is as follows:

The meaning behind striped belts

Some styles still use a belt containing a white stripe right in the middle to differentiate between kyu. Initially, these belts separated men and women in Judo schools — men would get a full-cloured belt, women, the striped. Something to do with grading/ranking and the fact that they could not compete. Not cool.

With many years of fighting, women achieve equality, and the striped belt was dropped. After all, women as just as capable as men.

Although places may still adopt them, to help differentiate kyu or jr. and seniors, we prefer not to use them whatsoever.

In Shotokan karate, also, you will not find stripes on black belts. Other styles may use them to identify dan rankings — some Okinawan and Kyokushin karate styles use them, but not Shotokan.

What about coloured uniforms?

fake karate uniform used by Elvis Presley
The outrageous uniform used by Elvis Presley.

That is a hard no.

Shotokan karate, just like all karate styles associated with the Dai Nippon Butou Kai do not use any uniform other than white. Karate uses a white karate-gi (karate uniform). No tinkering with that.

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Original post in Portuguese developed by sensei Tiago Frosi from the Shinjigenkan Institute Brazil. Thank you!