Rank is used in karate to indicate experience, expertise, and to a lesser degree, seniority. As with many martial arts, Shotokan uses a system of coloured belts to indicate rank. Most Shotokan schools use the kyu/dan system but have added other belt colours. The order of colours varies widely from school to school, but kyu belts are denoted with colours that in some schools become darker as a student approaches shodan. Dan level belts are invariably black, with some schools using stripes to denote various ranks of black belt. Master Gichin Funakoshi himself never awarded a rank higher than Godan (5th degree black belt/5th Dan).

The ranking used in Shotokan was not always as it is now. In the early days of Te, there was no real concept of belt colour. There were only two types, white and black. A karate practitioner's belt was simply something worn around and to hold the gi. Unlike the gi, which is always kept in pristine condition, Okinawan dogma stated that the belt was left unwashed as it contained the fighting spirit and soul of effort put into training. Effectively, a white belt would just get dirtier over time and eventually give the appearance of being black. This could mean that someone who had been training for two years would often wear the same belt as an absolute novice. Only highly proficient and long standing students would have belts that were literally black.

It later became practice for a new black belt to be presented to a student whom the teacher thought to be highly skilled. When Funakoshi brought Karate to Japan from Okinawa, he introduced a green and a brown belt to structure the progress from beginner to those deemed highly skilled. The belt system was later modified to include a number of other colours that allowed a more structured progression.

As karate was becoming more of an international art, it had to appeal to as many people as possible. Although Japanese students were traditionally patient and repetitive in their karate training, cultural differences resulted in students in the western world predominantly wanting to learn a lot in a short time, coupled with wanting a more quantifiable means of determining progress. The use of coloured belts offered this by acting as a series of shorter termed goals that could be used to signify incremental advancement.

Club belt colours

The order of coloured belts has now come to vary between different institutions and associations that currently practise Shotokan, with the exception of the use of white belts for novices and of brown belts being awarded prior to black. The sequence of belt colours/kyu grades used within the Fudoshin Karate Club are as follows:

  • 10th kyu
  • White belt
  • 9th kyu
  • Red belt
  • 8th kyu
  • Yellow belt
  • 7th kyu
  • Orange belt
  • 6th kyu
  • Green belt
  • 5th kyu
  • Blue belt
  • 4th kyu
  • Purple belt
  • 3rd kyu
  • First brown belt
  • 2nd kyu
  • Second brown belt
  • 1st kyu
  • Brown belt with one white stripe
  • Shodan
  • First degree black belt
  • Nidan
  • Second degree black belt
  • Sandan
  • Third degree black belt
  • Yondan
  • Fourth degree black belt

Links to the grading syllabus for each kyu are can be found on the syllabus page of this website.

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