The belt system is an iconic part of martial arts. It has been adopted in some form by the majority of martial arts; some for traditional purposes, others for marketing purposes. As a result, the image of the black belt is revered by some and reviled by others. The visions associated with belt promotion range from the idyllic ceremony where a master bestows a rank on a dedicated student to the cynical selling of belts to impatient children.
Many myths and preconceptions surround the belt systems. The most prevalent is that the belt system originates from a Japanese tradition of wearing white belts with their white kimonos while they trained. As a student trained his belt became soiled with dirt, sweat and blood and it would slowly become darker. The student would not wash the belt because its darkening would be a reflection of their work. An observer could easily tell the difference between novices and more experienced students by the darkness of the belts.
While this seems to make good sense, mainly because all belt systems in martial arts start with white belts and move towards darker colors, this story is a complete myth. The belt system, like seemingly every thing else in martial arts, have their origins with Jigoro Kano.
Before Kano’s creation of Judo, rank systems in martial arts varied. Often times they were in the form of the awarding of scrolls with school techniques drawn or described on them, but the systems varied as widely as the styles. As covered in another article, Kano reorganized the widely distressed techniques of Japanese Jujistu styles into Kodokan Judo and then helped establish Judo as a sport in Japan.
In 1883, Kano was the head of the thriving Kodokan Academy and wanted a way to differentiate his students. He introduced organizing students to the categories of un-ranked, or mudansha, and ranked, or yudansha. Kano then promoted two students, Shiro Saigo and Tsenjiro Tomita to the rank of Shodan. This was the creation of dan system and these two men where the first to achieve a black belt rank in Judo, but at this time no visible sign was given of their rank. Rather Kano simply posted the ranks of students at the Academy.
Some time between 1886 and 1887, Kano had his ranked students to begin wearing black sashes (obi) on their kimonos to give them a visual determination of rank. It is theorized that Kano got the idea from his days as an educator. In Japanese swimming contests at schools, more experienced swimmers were denoted by wearing a black ribbon and it is thought by some that Kano applied that idea to Judo.
The black belt was born.
At it's birth the black belt was not the end of a long climb of rank, rather it was the first award given and set the beginners apart more experience students. The black belt signaled entry into the system of dan ranks.
When certain students began to progress past the 5th dan, the highest rank Kano had awarded to that point, he gave them a red and white belt, the colors of Japan, to show their achievement. Finally, a solid red belt was awarded to any student who achieved the 9th or 10th dan. And while no Judoka has ever achieved beyond a 10th Dan, Kano once commented that if he was ever to award an 11th dan the reward would be a return to white belt, so the journey would have come full circle.
The dan system spread to other martial arts in Japan. Aikidio and Kendo adopted it and then when Okinawan karate master Gichin Funakoshi came to the Kodokan to demonstrate his skills the black belt was introduced to karate as well.
By the time Misuyio Maeda began teaching Carlos Gracie Kodokan Judo in Brazil, the wearing of a black belt for yudansha judokas would have been a normal practice.
The origin of the other colored belts is supposed to have come from one of Kano’s students, Mikonosuke Kawaishi, who was teaching in Europe in the 1930s. Kawaishi found his students would show greater progress if they had a way of seeing their achievements, so he created the colored belt system to show progress towards the first dan. It has eventually settled into generally accepted system of belts.
While it is unclear when the Gracies adopted the colored belts system, Carlos Gracie Sr. did measure himself with dan rankings, a clear connection to Kano’s system. And the Gracies experimented with several belt systems, but eventually they settled into what would become the official belt system of the art.
One tradition that emerged in the Brazilian belt system that is unique from any other martial art is the stripe system. Meant to represent levels with-in the belts, stripes can be as formal as sewn on pieces of fabric or as informal as pieces of tape. These stripes represent different levels or degrees of a belt and progress towards the next belt. They are applied to white through brown belts.
Time between stripes varies from school to school, and once a student earns four stripes on their belt the next promotion is to the next belt level. The origins of the stripe system are very murky and their use on every belt is something uniquely Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
As the belts became tradition and then formalized into the rules of the IBJJF, there was the institution of a youth belt system. The youth belts of grey, yellow, orange and green are meant for students under the age of 16 and allow a different developmental structure separate from adults.
A big part of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is being able to spar and be comparable in terms of skill and techniques to other belts. It is completely unreasonable to expect a fourteen year old to be able to hold their own against a mid-twenties purple belt. These age requirements also prevent the awarding of black belts to young children, an occurrence that engenders cynicism towards martial arts and the belt system.
No matter the age all first time students start out with a White Belt.
A white belt is the universal beginner belt in martial arts belt systems, and symbolizes purity and innocence. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu does not have forms or kata or a set of skills a white belt must master to be promoted, rather as Saulo Ribeiro once said, the skill the White Belt must learn is survival. A white belt must become familiar with the general positions; learn how to perform a basic hip escape, bridge and when to tap out.
But the most important aspect of being a white belt is becoming comfortable while grappling, learning how not to panic when on the bottom, learning the basics of defensive positioning and how to avoid mistakes. Correct placement of the hands, feet and body to relieve pressure and help prevent submissions.
The majority of academies and competitions have rules outlawing the use of leg locks both on and by white belts for two major reasons. The first being safety, leg locks can cause serious damage extremely easily and white belts do not have the required grappling knowledge to know how to not hurt themselves or others.
The second reason is developmental. Leg locks are most easily done in an open guard and are an easier and sexier alternative to a white belt than the complicated task of passing guard. Many academies would rather their white belts build a fundamental guard passing game than play with ankle locks.
The growth from white to blue belt is a time frame that creates some debate in the BJJ world. There are academies that award blue belts as quick as 6 months into training while others can take up to two years. The generally accepted rate of promotion from white to blue is around one year, maybe little under for dedicated students, and is only available for students above the age of sixteen.
The blue belt is still considered a beginner belt and is the point in which a student has learned enough to learn. Armed with the basic knowledge of positions, concepts of submissions and sweeps and basic grappling movements the blue belt can begin to learn the wide array of techniques in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Here is a fantastic video of Draculino discussing the blue belt:
Many academies and competition allow ankle locks for blue belts so they can begin to become aware of leg lock opportunities. The blue belt is a lot like college; it is a time of experimentation, of trail and error and can take anywhere from two to six years to complete.
The purple belt is the first ‘upper belt’. An informal statistic that floats around academies is that only 5-10% of those who don a gi and white belt ever make it to the level of purple belt. At this point a student has a solid technical knowledge of the marital art, and at many academies a purple belt is able to teach beginner classes.
The goal of the purple belt is discovering what works best for each individual student, developing his or her ‘game’. Students delve into the minuet technical aspects of their preferred techniques at each position and round out their skill set.
The brown belt is considered to be the belt of refining one’s skills. Going back and mastering the fundamental techniques and fine details of advanced techniques.
A brown belt is generally considered to be able to instruct more advanced classes and has a deep knowledge of the art but it is still a bit short of being a black belt. As a brown belt once said, "Being a brown belt doesn’t mean you know everything it just makes it embarrassing when you don’t know something. "
The brown belt can be a belt that is held for a long time or just a year before moving on; it depends on the goals and training of the student.
A student must be at least the age of nineteen to be awarded a black belt. While there are famous causes of BJJ players earning black belts in three, four or five years, a black belt is often the result of thousands of hours of mat time and often takes a decade or more of training to earn.
There is no standardized testing in BJJ for belt promotions. Some schools do have very formal belt tests in which students have to demonstrate certain skills while others do not test at all and the instructors award belts based on their own assessment of a students skills.
Once a black belt is earned, degrees of black belt can be added, a black belt that is higher ranked than that of the one being promoted must award them. They are represented by white stripes on the red strip and are given based more on time spent as a black belt and time spent in the art more so than accomplishment in competition.
The 7th and 8th degrees of black belt are represented by an adaptation of the Judo red and white belt, the red and black belt (or coral belt). A solid red belt represents the 9th degree, like in Judo, and the 10th degree is a rank reserved only for Carlos Gracie Sr. and Helio Gracie, the founders of the art.
While the belt systems have been twisted into market ploys by far too many schools, and popular culture has built the black belt up into a mythical level of mastery only truly attained by few, it is important to remember the roots of the system. The phrase "there are black belts and then there are black belts" in BJJ reflects the penetration of this mindset.
Jigoro Kano created the black belt as a reflection of knowledge and experience. The dan system, applied after a student was awarded a black belt was mean to separate the students based on accomplishment and ability. The black belt is not the end of learning, it is simply the end of the beginning.
Cunningham, Don. "Belt colors and ranking tradition." Edo Machi-kata Taiho-Jutsu.
"How the masters got their ranks: the origins of karate ranks." The original Judo Information Site.
"International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation." International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation.
Ribeiro, Saulo, and Kevin Howell. Jiu-Jitsu University . California: Victory Belt Pub., 2008. Print.
"The Judo Rank System -- Belts." The original Judo Information Site.
Other Articles in History of Jiu-Jitsu Series:
1. Birth on the Battlefield
2. The Meiji Era and the Evolution of Judo
3. Judo Travels the World and Maeda Meets Gracie
4. Baptism By Fire and Luta Livre
5. The Tragedy of Rolls Gracie
6. Coming to America and the Birth of the Ultimate Fighting Championship
7. The Gracies Leave the UFC and Bring Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan
8. Carlson Gracie, The Grandfather of Jiu Jitsu in MMA
9. The Rise of Sport Jiu Jitsu
10. Twist and Shout