Legend and myth have flourished along with the practice of martial arts, such as judo and karate, since the beginning.
Yet, there seems to be no greater lore than that associated with the near-mystical origins of the coveted black belt.
To the astonishment of many martial arts practitioners, though, the black belt's history is rather short in the overall scheme.
Many stories abound regarding the honored black belt in various martial arts styles.
The one most commonly heard is that the novice martial artist traditionally started with a white belt.
As he trained and practiced over the years, though, the belt became soiled, first turning brown and ultimately black as he perfected his martial arts skills.
Colored belts were never part of any ancient martial arts tradition. Actually, the black belt was first used to designate ability or rank in Kodokan Judo slightly more than one hundred years ago.
Dr. Jigoro Kano, an educator and sports enthusiast, was the first to use the black belt or sash as a symbol for dan or graded rank students at his school, the Kodokan, founded in 1882 in Tokyo.
Prior to this, jujutsu schools, like most other traditional Japanese arts of that period, used the complicated menkyo ranking system as a form of licensing students to particular technical skill levels.
An understanding of the Japanese educational system and social circumstances requires a historical perspective.
Systematic training in warfare and weapons first developed into martial traditions, schools, or styles (ryu ha) somewhere between the 11th and 15th centuries. Samurai gathered in clans, either centered around families or regions, to train in specialized weapons and techniques.
1. As their training became more distinctive and individualistic, martial styles or schools (bujutsu ryu) began forming in the early Tokugawa period (1600-1868).
2 Ancient martial arts in Japan were eventually classified into eighteen different branches, referred to as the Bugei Ju-Happan. Basically, these categories consisted of archery (kyujutsu), artillery (hojutsu), dagger (tantojutsu), halberd (naginatajutsu), hook (mojirijutsu), horsemanship (bajutsu), javelin (sojutsu), knife throwing (shurikenjutsu), needle (ganshinjutsu), restraining (toritejutsu), chain and sickle (kusarigamajutsu), staff (bojutsu), stealth (shinobijutsu) swimming (suijutsu), swordsmanship (kenjutsu), sword-drawing (battojutsu), truncheon (jutte-jutsu), and unarmed self-defense (jujutsu).
3 In parallel, many schools of the other arts, such as calligraphy (shodo), painting (sumi-e), or tea ceremony forms (chado), were also created to disseminate their distinct techniques and styles. These schools also frequently used the menkyo system to license their graduates. Generally students of these early Japanese ryu ha were first licensed as Shoden.
Their rankings then progressed through Chuden, Okuden/Mokuroku, Menkyo, and ultimately, Menkyo Kaiden, the last meaning literally, "license of total transmission."
4 However, each individual ryu ha followed their own criteria for licensing students. The particular sequence and even the various titles were often completely different from each other.
5 The ranks were usually designated by specially created certificates or handwritten letters from the licensing teacher or founder. Often, the higher ranks were also accompanied with the presentation of a densho, scrolls of manuscriptual instructions or records of secrets by the founders of the various schools.
6 Some densho provided detailed instructions and graphic illustrations of particular techniques. Others used descriptive words or characters which served as mnemonics or memory aids for advanced techniques. By themselves, the latter documents were meaningless to outsiders unfamiliar with the specific language of the particular ryu ha. Due to the secretive nature of the various ryu ha and their instructors, the menkyo ranking system had several disadvantages. First, there was no way to evaluate or compare equivalent skill levels of graduates from different schools.
7 Further, the steps between separate licenses could take anywhere from a few months to several years, depending on the particular teacher's philosophy or personal style. As a youth, Kano first learned the basics of jujutsu from Teinosuke Yagi. Later, he studied Tenshin Shinyo Ryu jujutsu under Hachinosuke Fukuda and Masatomo Iso, as well as Kito Ryu jujutsu under Tsunetoshi Iikubo. He was initiated into the secrets of both schools. After founding his own school; the Kodokan in 1882, Dr. Kano also made academic studies of many other styles of jujutsu. In addition to visiting and practicing with the remaining masters, he carefully examined the densho from other jujutsu ryu ha.
8 Sometime shortly after he decided to form his own jujutsu style, Dr. Kano also revised the ranking system, creating ten steps with relatively short intervals to keep judo students interested in progressing through the various technical levels. "In 1883, Dr. Kano divided students into two groups, which was the non-grading (mudansha) and the grading (yudansha)," according to Naoki Murata, curator of the Kodokan Judo Museum. "The first yudansha, or shodan grade, were two famous students in the Kodokan at that time, named Tsunejiro Tomita and Shiro Saigo. These two students were also the first ones promoted to second dan a year later." Shiro Saigo, immortalized in Tsuneo Tomita's fictional novel, "Sugata Sanshiro,"
9 and Akira Kurasawa's 1940s movie adaptation about the infamous tournament between judo and jujutsu, skipped third dan and was promoted directly to fourth dan the following year in 1885, Muraka reports. At this time, all dan grades were announced either directly by Dr. Kano or by posting a notice on the board in the Kodokan.
10 Black belts were not worn as symbols of dan grade in the Kodokan until 1886 or 1887, Murata recounts, about the time of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police tournament between the jujutsu school founded by Hikosuke Totsuka and Dr. Kano's Kodokan.
11 After the Kodokan's decisive victory, certificates or diplomas were not issued by the Kodokan until 1894, nearly eleven years after the creation of the judo dan grading system.
12 Eventually, the ability or rank of judoka came to be denoted by different colored belts worn around the waist with the judogi. In Japan, white belts are generally worn through all kyu grades, although some individual schools also use the brown belt to indicate the higher kyu ranks. The blue, yellow, orange, green, and purple colored belts used by intermediate kyu grades originated in Europe and were imported into the U.S. system during the early 1950s. Black belts are traditionally worn by the competitively ranked practitioners, first dan (shodan) through fifth dan (godan). A red-and-white belt is worn by the ranks given for service to judo, sixth dan (ryokudan) through eight dan (hachidan), with solid red belts reserved for ninth dan (kudan) and tenth dan (judan).
13 Karate incorporated both the dan grading system and the use of the black belt when Gichin Funakoshi, the Okinawan karate master, first demostrated and later taught his Okinawa-based fighting art in Japan during the 1920s at the Kodokan.
14 The dan ranking system was eventually incorporated into kendo (Japanese-style sword fighting), aikido, and most other forms of traditional arts. The origin of the colored belts, though, as well as the significance of the particular colors, is still shrouded in mystery and may be permanently lost to history. While he left no documented reason for the various colors used, Dr. Kano did leave some clues. According to his philosophical doctrine, he thought there is no limit on how much progress or improvement one can make in their judo training. Thus, Dr. Kano believed that if someone achieved a stage higher than tenth dan, "one transcends such things as colours [sic] and grades and therefore returns to a white belt, thereby completing the full circle of Judo, as of life."
15 In case of this eventuality, it should be noted that the Kodokan decided the belt worn by such a person should be "about twice as wide as the ordinary belt" to prevent any novices from mistaking the significance. To date, Dr. Kano is the only person raised to twelfth dan and given the title of shihan. Dr. David Matsumoto, author of "An Introduction to Kodokan History and Philosophy," cites a combination of two possibilities for the traditional use of white belts, the symbolic meaning of the color and practical aspects of uniform production.
16 "First, white has had a special, symbolic meaning in Japanese culture for centuries," Dr. Matsumoto writes. "The Japanese people have generally considered the color of white to reflect cleanliness and sacredness since ancient times." Thus, white belts may be more appropriate to reflect the pure innocence and virtue of beginners, according to Dr. Matsumoto. It may also reflect the selection of cotton used in judogi material. After usage and frequent washing, the natural off-white or yellow colored cotton material tends to turn white. One unauthenticated supposition regarding black belts worn by dan grades is that Dr. Kano borrowed the concept from Japanese high school sports. Advanced competitors were separated from beginners in swimming tournaments by a black ribbon worn around their waist. As an distinguished educator and sports enthusiast, Dr. Kano was most certainly aware of this tradition and may have incorporated it into his practices at the Kodokan. The selection of red-and-white colored belts to distinguish the highest ranks may have also been based on a simple cultural preference, according to Meik Skoss, a noted martial arts historian and author of numerous articles about Japanese martial arts.
17 Japanese typically divide groups into red and white sides, based on a pivotal historical event. The Genpei War was a dispute between two rival clans, the Genji and Heike.
The Genji used white flags to identify their troops on the battlefield, while the Heike used red flags.18 As examples, Mr. Skoss points to the Kodokan's semi-annual Kouhaku Shiai, where the judo students are divided into two groups, red and white.
This semi-annual contest was started soon after the Kodokan was formed and has become a traditional event. Further, contestants in modern judo are distinguished by either a white or red waist band, while kendo competitors are identified by either a red or white tasuki, a small ribbon tied to the back of their protective armor. Dr. Kano had a particularly affinity for languages and was academically interested in classic Chinese literature, especially the I Ching, or Book of Changes. The I Ching is basically a collection of moral and political wisdom based on the concept of mutual opposites, referred to as Yin and Yang.
Dr. Kano's selection of red-and-white colored belts may have been a symbolic representation of the principle of harmony suggested by the balance of Yin and Yang. On the other hand, Dr. Kano's dan ranking system may have represented a radical rejection of Japanese culture and a deliberate way of distinguishing his new and improved system from traditional jujutsu styles, according to Skoss. "Consider the times--the Meiji era was a time of great social, economic, and political change--and Kano was right in the middle of it all," Skoss said. "He was quite an innovator in his way, and he had some definite problems with a lot of feudal Japanese culture and mores. For instance, he wasn't at all happy with the way many jujutsu trainees were little more than ruffians, street punks, who used what they had learned to extort money from passerbys or to satisfy their distorted egos."
As an educator and a rationalist, who disdained unfounded superstition, Dr. Kano wanted to create a training system which was not physically injurious to his students and also lead to the development of higher moral standards or personal character, Skoss said. Yet, he was in competition with the older jujutsu ryu and felt much of the traditional culture was worth preserving. His adoption of a new ranking system may have been both a rejection of jujutsu traditions and a preservation of traditional Japanese hierarchy. "Japanese society is vertically structured," Skoss explains. "A strong sense of relative position is present in all social interactions, and symbols of rank have also been a part of the culture dating back to the Heian period and even before." Skoss cited the adoption of court ranks in earliest records of the Japanese imperial sovereignty, as well as the colored caps denoting rank and strong regulations regarding rank relationships during these periods. Dr. Kano's use of colored belts to denote the grading system ranks may have evolved from these traditions, according to Skoss.
Whatever the reason, the attainment of the black belt still represents a significant achievement in both technical skill and competitive ability for most judoka throughout the world.
However, as all first dan ranked judoka quickly learn, it also represents the initial step in a path to even higher awareness and greater achievement, one which may take a lifetime to pursue.