| The concept of coloured
belts was taken from Judo, as was the basic design of the dogi. Jigoro
Kano, the founder of Judo, created the dan/kyu grading system in
1883, when he first awarded the shodan degree. By 1886, the dan
levels were represented by the black sash worn with the traditional kimono
used while training. In 1907, these were replaced by the more practical
and modern dogi (largely based on peasants' work clothes, if I'm
not mistaken) and the narrower belt was then introduced.
Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern Japanese Karate-do, adopted this grading system but with a significant variation. He introduced a quantitative grading system, whereas Kano simply awarded the grade when he saw fit. This system was later adopted by other martial arts, especially when their practitioners became so numerous that the respective Chief Instructors could no longer evaluate them all. Given the 10 million or so worldwide practitioners of Kyokushin alone, this seems like a reasonable system to use. It theoretically also eliminates personal prejudices that can happen with a single examiner, just as it does in any other quantifiable educational subject, but it introduces variations in the standards of grading and of course, the personal prejudices can still be there. You win some, you lose some.
At first, there were only white, brown, and black belts. While students still went through a kyu grading system, their belt colours didn't change that often. This is still the case in some schools, at least in one Aikido club I have visited. It is thought that the additional colours were again a Judo innovation, possibly due to the introduction of Judo to the Olympics in the 1960s. There is a (useful) myth about how the belts were all white, as as you kept training, the belts became successively dirtier, until at last they became so dirty they were black i.e an indication of time and intensity of training. This is a useful allegory, but is unlikely to be true. The Japanese are far too fastidious to let something become as dirty as that, regardless of the symbolism it offers..
The colour scheme adopted for both the IKO(1) and the IKO(2) in 1997 is white, orange, blue, yellow, green, brown, and black, with 2 kyu grades associated with each of the non-white and non-black colours, for a total of 10 kyu. White is ungraded. Until recently, a red belt was used for 10th and 9th kyu, and then, shortly before Sosai died, this was changed as a sign of respect (and to avoid confusion) for those styles for which red belt is a senior dan grade (5th dan and up, depending on style). At first, it was replaced with a white belt with one black stripe and two black stripes respectively, but only some dojo used this, quite possibly because at that stage in the game, most people want to see (and show) more obvious signs of progression and a couple of inconspicuous black stripes on a white belt would certainly not suffice for that! Hence the move to orange instead. However, some organisations still use the red.
In the Budo Karate of Mas Oyama, Cameron Quinn explains in some detail his interpretation of the original choice of colours for the belts, relating the significance of those colours to Zen-Buddhism and its nominal precursors, the Ayurveda, Hinduism, and Yoga.
On the other hand, I have also been told that Tadashi Nakamura (now the head of World Seido Karate), in his book The Human Face of Karate takes credit for the colour system with no regard whatsoever for chromato-spiritual connections. You choose.
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