It’s said that white belts who train long enough would eventually become black belts due to a collection of sweat, blood and other grime that affixed itself to their belts. As a result, these dirty white belts would eventually darken and become recognized as black belts.
That sounds like an excellent story, but it’s just that – a story. Many sources state outright that it’s a myth. Others don’t mention it at all in their history of martial arts, suggesting to me that this story is not the case.
So, what’s the real story?
Using a belt – obi in Japanese – is a relatively modern way of displaying one’s rank.
Dr. Jigoro Kano, who developed judo in 1882, introduced the concept within his new art as early as 1883, according to Neil Ohlenkamp, a world-renowned judoka. Kano used only white belts and black belts to begin with. Ohlenkamp says colored belts were not used until judo spread outside of Japan, when Mikonosuke Kawaishi introduced them while teaching to Western students in Paris in 1935.
“(Kawaishi) felt that Western students would show greater progress if they had a visible system of many colored belts recognizing achievement and providing regular incentives. This system included white, yellow, orange, green, blue, and purple belts before the traditional brown and black belts.”
Prior to the introduction of belts and the kyu/dan system in general, Ohlenkamp says students were presented with certificates or scrolls, “often with the secrets of the school inscribed.”
However, in Secrets of the Samurai, authors Ratti and Westbrook say that using colors to define ranks goes back as many as almost 1,300 years:
“There are indications that some of the feudal ryu of bujutsu also divided their students into ‘as many as nine grades of achievement,’ and that the device of using colors to identify ranks, after all, traces its roots as far back as the bureaucratic system of the Heian culture…”
Each school uses a different ranking system, likely set forth from the organization with which they are associated.
Be sure to read about how to say your rank in Japanese, and watch how to tie your belt.