What’s the Meaning of Karate’s Different Belt Colors? (The Answer Will Blow Your Mind)

Did you know?

The various belt colors in Karate symbolize the stages of a growing plant.

It’s a circle of life.

The longer you practice Karate, the more you’ll see yourself changing and growing just as a plant does.

The belt colors tell a story…

Of life, growth & advancement.

From the beginning and birth (white belt) to the intermediate parts of development (orange, green, blue etc.) to maturing and going beyond (purple, brown, black belt).

The belts symbolize your progress as an individual – both inside & outside the dojo.

You’ll understand when you see my illustrations below.

Check it out:

White Belt

 

Yellow Belt

 

Orange Belt

 

Green belt

 

Blue Belt

 

Purple Belt

 

Brown Belt

 

Black Belt

 

And so…

The circle of life continues.

But remember; it’s not just about becoming more skilled.

It’s also about improving your core character, to become a better person as a whole.

Going up a rank gives you the opportunity to do and be better – to reach for more.

Expand on your knowledge and skills as you grow, and always try to embody the true meaning of each of the belt colors along the way.

It’s not really about the belt.

It’s about what it stands for.

49 Comments

  • Hisham
    Nice! But different styles have belts in different orders(mine included)...well I guess a little mix-up in the cycle may suit some people :D
  • Sven
    Waaaaaaaaay back everyone had the same belt - everyone's belts were white. In Okinawa tons of dojos were outdoors because they believed that being one with the world would root their souls and they would grow into better people.In the summer, their belts got stained yellow, orange and green by the grass and the sun. As they trained more and more for many years their belts started to fade in color. The winter rains helped in darkening the once bright, playful colors into darker blue, purple and brown ones. The belts eventually got so dirty and dark that it looked almost black.At that point the more knowledgeable student discovered that, even though his belt is black, it is still white beneath it all.
    • Neil
      I'm under the impression the belt system was taken from Judo, who used the colour coded system from Japanese university swim club caps. I also thought old school Okinawan karate students didn't wear Gi, so no belts. I've seen pictures of them training in traditional clothes or (what I'm guessing to be) underwear, though some do show the Sensei wearing a Gi and black belt.
    • I've heard this story several times with varying origins. I'm pretty sure this is an urban legend. The gi is more likely to go through these colour changes than the belt.What makes more sense to me is that the colour grades were taken from another system (I heard swimming classes was the source, but this could be wrong too).
    • Rohan
      Given the Japanese/Okinawan people's propensity for cleanliness, presentation and perfection in all they do, it wouldn't makes sense for them to keep their uniforms and belts stained unwashed. The dirty belt account, I fear, is just urban legend, no doubt perpetuated by certain teachers (Eastern and Western) who felt the need to mystify certain aspects of Eastern martial art culture.History tells us that as karate migrated to Japan, they adopted Jigoro Kano's judo belt-rank system, which in turn was borrowed from the Dan ranking system used in the ancient game of Go. Go is an ancient board game going back to the Edo Period, where black and white "stones" are used. To this day, they still use the Dan system for proficiency in Go and other games such as Shoji (Japanese form of chess) and Renju, and other activites like Ikebana (flower arrangement), Shodo (calligraphy) and Sado (Tea Ceremony).Kano Sensei's status in Japanese martial arts and his relationship with Funakoshi were key factors in Japan's acceptance of this "new" martial art. Hence, it stands to reason that Okinawan karate would adopt the rank system from Japan's most popular empty-handed art.As karate classes grew, it made sense to add more colors in order to quickly identify a person's level of skill and knowledge of the curriculum, as well as facilitate group training. Given the Japanese people's knack for giving symbolic meaning to everything (which isn't a bad thing, not at all), it also makes sense that each color would and could symbolize a certain stage of growth.I say all that to say, we should examine whether certain legends are true before we accept them as true. Osu!
      • vic arnoldS
        i HAVE CALLED A FEW SENSEI ON PERPETUATING THIS MYTH REMINDING THEM THAT OKINAWANS LIKE THE JAPANESE HAVE AN ABSOLUTE FETISH ABOUT CLEANLINESS.ANYONE SHOWING UP TO TRAIN WEARING A DIRTY ANYTHING WOULD BE ASKED TO GO HOME AND WASH IT
    • james
      um, they didnt use belts in Okinawa "way back when". much of the article is modern reasoning for something...or made up.
    • Ryoanji
      I've been training twelve years and wear a white belt in my current club. My standards as high, if not, higher, than a lot of the brown and black belts. Unfortunately, I feel some clubs ... use the coloured belt system as a simple money maker and a lot of the time the belt colour bares no reflection on the actual standard of the individual. There's clubs that do half grades too ..... compulsory courses that one has to go on to get the next grade etc
      • Ray
        Respect. I was thinking of doing the same as well. The idea hasn't left my head. But... how do you explain that to you sensei?
  • DWS
    Belts are barely over 100 years old. The notion that the belt colors are based on a white belt getting dirty is just as a-historical as some journey of meaning through the color belts.I love the added narrative, but this is all post-hoc modern mythology.
    • Matt S.
      First black belt was introduced to Judo in 1883. First rank belts in karate were 1922-1923. Colored belts were introduced to Judo between 1935-1937. So the belt system itself is 131 years old but the belt system as we think of it is, as you said, less than 100 years old. :)
      • DWS
        yeah, I suppose 131 years isn't "barely" 100. I knew it came out of Judo in the 1880s... but my mental/good-enough math still doesn't account for being 14 years into the 21st century ;)
  • Mathias
    Our sensei used to tell us that colors mean nothing and that - as Sven stated - there used to be only white belts and black. And the grand masters were wearing white belts again to show their understanding of how they are stil and always will be only at the beginning of their path.Then he said that colors were introduced to motivate kids and since that was very successful, it has been taken over for adult training as well. The order of colours has been given in a way so you can dye the belt each time you graduate with the next color without the need to buy a new one. There actually are students in our dojo who are doing it that way :)Whatever thr truth is (if there is any), I love your interpretation of this, thanks :)
    • maral
      This story sounds true
  • Damon
    What happened with the red belt?
    • Fiona
      In taekwondo the red belt represents danger and the student is reminded to control his techniques. In Shorin ryu karate (in Norway) we do not have a red belt grade - The red belt is 'Aka' , the opponent in competitions. Also our purple belt is a grde lower than the blue. We always got told that a black belt is a white belt who never gave up - the belt just gets darkened with years of use.
  • Gee, I always thought that every belt means the same: Sensei is going to hold me to higher standards now! :-)
  • Martin
    This is lovely stuff to show to your kids or students. It's always good to have this kind of material to keep kids interested.
    • Indeed! Feel free to print/share with kids or students.
  • Andrew
    Very nice artwork Jesse. All you proved was that MA'S love to be right and are pragmatic. It was good to see some had some imagination as I read the comments to the end.
  • The point of this article isn't to be right or wrong. Or historically accurate.It exists because there's a guy out there who loves karate so much that he feels compelled to create original art and share inspiring thoughts to help make the journey more fun, interesting, and meaningful to the people who choose to walk the same path.Awesome. Thanks, Jesse!
  • My Sensei always told me the belt was to hold up my pants.
    • Sven
      I like this
    • Ian
      Nice one, Jesse-san!This isn't about historical research ... it's about a fresh way of thinking about something we all are accustomed to in our daily karate-ka lives.As I think about it, I'd rather use "leaves on a tree" than a small plant ... white for the earliest buds of spring, yellow and orange for spring, green and blue for summer fullness, purple and brown for autumn colours, and black for the bare branches of winter ...... the difference being that in the "black" phase the tree is just preparing for the next season ... every season it comes back and grows a little more.(Feel free to incorporate that if you like! :) )
      • Good one Ian-san!
    • Fabian
      Gotta say this Mr. Miyagi style thou: "belt mean no need rope to hold up pants" =D
  • Matt S
    Usually I never disagree with your blogs but on this one I have to stand on principle. ;)History. History teaches us a fantastic and complete lesson about the belts. A Japanese Judo-ka was teaching in Europe and he decided three colors with a large time span between them was not adequate motivation for his European students. So he ponders to himself, "How can I encourage students during these long gaps." His solution was more belts representing a tangible form of motivation. But he was also thrifty. All he had to do was take the students existing white belt (which does have symbolism in Judo) and dye it a new color, yellow. Then again for green and finally blue or purple. This way the students could demonstrate therefor progress tangibly and be motivated to continue in their training. Karate and other style decided they needed more than 6 kyu ranks (white, yellow, green, blue, purple, and brown) so they added more colors.The colors are simply a motivational tool. If you want to connect a story to it that's wonderful, but no more truthful than any other story. I'm sure many of us have heard this one: White = Purity Yellow = sweat Green = grass Brown = dirt Red = blood Black = what the belt became after years of experience.
  • Matt S
    Also historically the black belt predates the white belt... Yeah, most (sadly) don't know that.
  • Brenda
    The last two sentences are really where it's at. Unfortunately I know someone that thinks the belt stands for being better than and knowing more than the lower ranks. One day the lack of humility will come back to kick the person in the teeth.
    • "Unfortunately I know someone that thinks the belt stands for being better than and knowing more than the lower ranks."That is partially true. That person should be informed that it applies only to him/her, i.e. a belt rank should be indicative that they are better and more knowledgeable than they were at a previous belt rank. But this does not mean that they are better than other people of any rank.
      • Great point Joël-san.
  • I love this! I think the children that I teach will really relate and understand better the belt ranking system with these beautiful illustrations. Adults, too, because they get so caught up in just getting a belt that they forget the impact and significance of the journey. Thanks Jesse!
  • Kevin
    Interesting, I used to use the same type of analogy with my juniors class to understand the progression of their study.Historically, the white turning black because of getting dirty is a myth. The colors were originally taken from the game of Jo and from swimming. It was white/black and purple was used for children. Later on, at least in the US, a brown belt was added.It wasn't until much later that the other colors were added. Every style/organization uses their own colors and the order of the colors varies as well. There is no meaning at all behind the colors for kyu ranks other than what we give to them.
  • pete ampil
    Belt colors represent steps in the ladder.... and more steps on the ladder to the Black Belt represent opportunities for exam fees..... and good business sense - a POSSIBLE McDojo sign is debatable and I believe may invite comments on both sides of the spectrum....... Too many belt colors and steps in the ladder COULD be a McDojo sign if taken TOGETHER with the other factors in the past article....
  • Ralf
    sounds similar to the explanation i know: white = the seedling in the earth, inherent in every human being yellow = the sprouting seedling orange = the rising sun green = the first sprouts breaking through the ground blue = the plant is growing towards the SKY purple = the plants blooms brown = the bark of the tree that becomes thicker black = space, the place the tree strives for
  • It is lovely, Jesse. Some of the comments do show the pragmatic stubbornness which causes the divides in karate. Appreciate the sentiment, gentlemen. Any story told which enhances the students' perception of the art has value. Humans learn more from stories than facts.
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  • Bill
    My sensei says belts mean nothing its the techniques and the individual that have real meaning
  • Jean-Pierre
    As a Karate-ka since I was 3 years old and now a sensei myself that I always remind my students that no matter what the colour of your belt is you can still be better. To me on a more personal note the colour of one's belt shows the amount of experience and knowledge you gained since that is what is tested during grading after all. Plus during kumite there is only to colours on the field (which varies from style to style).
  • John
    Well , color belts are a way of identifying the progress of the students. As for the color, a friend of mine in the textile business said that it related to technology and availability . Thus your white belt could be dyed yellow , and your yellow orange and you must follow the color prism and thus wear the same belt all your life. So economics and availability.
  • Jerry
    The belt colors are a western thing. There was no such thing in Japan or China. Been training and teaching for 30 years and never heared such bs, it's to keep people busy. After all if you start kickboxing, you can forget about your blackbelt. It doesn't say a thing about your fighting capabilities. Only what you've learned and that you passed for it according your sensei or sifu. It also says nothing about the quality. I'm not saying that i've been the best around, but i've seen a lot of black belts where you can think boy o boy o boy were the h*** did you learn that, and performed like a very very powerfull euh think of something weak.
  • I study Wado-Ryu myself, and also practice ITF Taekwondo. While I've always been proud of my rank etc, it's never been the most important thing to me. However, these explanations are fairly close to the meanings of the belt colours that are taught in Taekwondo. An interesting similarity I've seen between the two, and not the first such similarity I've noticed while reading your content. Reinforces my belief that training in more than one art is not as heinous as some people would like you to believe!p.s. While I do love my training in Taekwondo, Karate was my first art, and always will be number 1 for me! ;)
  • james
    Belt colors are completely random and arbitrary. They have nothing to do with the months of the year, growth of plants (however this is a fun story to illustrate the growth of a Karate-ka) it was taken from Judo and the belt system replaced the old Menkyo system. my only issue is that some turnip is going to read stuff like this and the next thing you know its being taught as Dogma in some dojo. I have had students join my club with some weird ideas and misconceptions that their instructors give them with good intentioned stories. Its important to state in articles like this that the following article is for fun, or to illustrate but not to be used as a truth or historical fact....trust me we have enough false stories flying around to fill a dojo full of ignorance.
  • In China, many many many 1000's of years ago. All the belts were white. A black belt simply meant the wearer had been studying for so long, the white belt they started with turned black with the years of training. The darker the belt, the more training. In the 1920's when Karate was invented and turned into the national sport of Japan from master martial artists studying on the island of Okinawa. The belt system was adopted to show progress and promote motivation in the karate training
  • Loriane
    That's an interesting way to see it. In Kyokushin, ya go from white, orange, blue, yellow, green, brown and black, but that's not the point. I'm a green one. I guess I can say I'm in my prime lol I remember when I first started, I was all about the belt, now I'm all about what each class can give me. I still want to have my brown one, but I know I have to work hard and prove myself worthy of it.
  • Vatsal
    The kyoshi of our style also gave a very good explaination about this colours of belt... He said in olden times there were only three colours white,brown and black.. You start your journey with white...as time passes by this white starts turning brown due to you practise hardwork (in open field especially) and finally this brown turns black when you practise reaches a different level and you call it a master class... Colours we see today on belts like yellow,orange,blue etc are just to commercialise karate in people...
  • Tim
    My sensei's told me in Japan there are only two colours; white and black, and you get black when you're almost deemed good enough! Until then, you're white - which must be really tough! I have read in some books that the colour system was invented to make it easier for Westerners to stick at it and feel achievement. As a newbie, I certainly appreciate the colour system although sometimes you see a higher belt and think maybe they didn't deserve it just yet!! For me, it gives me something to aim for on an otherwise long road which probably never ends :-) But that's all part of the challenge for me.

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