Cheryl Hari recently wrote me regarding the judo belt ranking system.
When you begin judo your gi comes with a white belt. After several months of learning to take proper ukemi (falls), a few throws and holds, doing randori free practice and perhaps attending a shiai tournament the student progresses through the 3 ranks of ro-kyu, go-kyu, and yon-kyu, (yellow, orange, and green belt 6th to 4th class) followed by 3 ranks of brown belt san-kyu, ni-kyu, and ik-kyu (3rd to 1st class).
Hereafter, the levels are called dan. We thus find from 1st dan to 5th dan a black belt: Sho-dan (1st), Ni-dan (2nd), San-dan (3rd), Yo-dan (4th), Go-dan (5th).
Then the 6th (Roku-dan), 7th (Shichi-Dan) and 8th (Hachi-dan) dan are represented by a belt with wide, alternating red and white bands, the difference between grade being sometimes marked, in principle-slowly turning red, by the difference in width of the colored bands (6th dan white-red 20 cm, 7th dan white-red 15 cm, 8th dan white-red 10 cm. The 9th (Ku-dan) and 10th (Ju-dan) are symbolized by a red belt.
Some people believe that: "Being himself 11th dan, Jigoro Kano did not deliver grades beyond 10th. Today, this still represents a limit which cannot be exceeded." Symbolically, after his death he was awarded, by Jiro Nango, his nephew and successor at the head of the Kodokan, the 12th dan, represented by a wide, white belt. Philosophically, this meant that after having learned everything, even invented everything, it was necessary to relearn everything.
The awarding of this 12th dan took place in 1940, the year the first Tokyo Olympic Games should have taken place, for which Professor Kano had been the spokesperson for Japan's candidacy. At that time, already the highest ranking judoka, with his 10th dan, this 12th dan created an insurmountable gap that no-one will ever be able to bridge.
But this is actually a legend. “Kano Shihan has no dan grade, because he was the master who allowed his students to hold Dan grades. Nobody could give him Dan grade, because he was the founder of Kodokan Judo.” (source: Kodokan).
Kano Shihan mentioned there is no upper limit of Dan grade. However, 10th Dan is the highest grade ever given in history. We know that the differentiated belts are an invention of Jigoro Kano. illustrations corroborate the existence of a belt system, although the first written mention dates from 1913.
Professor Kano was inspired by the 'Menkyo' reward method, dating from the 16th century and corresponding to certificates presented in rolls. On each was written various information, such as the recipient’s name, their level, the techniques learned and the duration of the training.
According to Kano “I founded the Kodokan in the year 15 of Meiji  and established the ranks of the practitioners without delay. In the past, depending on habits, the number of ranks differed and each one was given scrolls with various names, but generally there were three main divisions which were mokuroku, menkyo and kaiden.
I felt there was too much time between each one for this to be of any help in terms of motivating practitioners. So, I baptized the beginners mudan-sha [people without dan] which I separated into three divisions, ko, otsu, hei and I set up a system in which we became 1st dan after a certain progression in practice then 2nd, 3rd , 4th dan and so on upwards, causing the 10th dan to be awarded to people who in the old system would have reached the kaiden level.
Subsequently, I still felt that with my system of three stages ko, otsu and hei for people without dan, the time was always too important between two to motivate them and I reformed the system by establishing a 1st, a 2nd , a 3rd, a 4th, a 5th kyu as well as a non-grade, which corresponded to six kyu. Thinking about it with the experience gained since then, I think it fits the needs quite well."
The dan was divided into two colors: the black belt for 1st to 9th dan and the red belt for 10th. It was not until 1931 that the red and white belt appeared for the grades of 6th to 9th dan inclusive and finally in 1943, the 9th dan judoka were authorized to wear the red belt.
Gunji Koizumi, founder of the British Judo Association and considered the father of British judo, revolutionized the rank system. In 1927, new colored belts appeared in the Budokwai reports. In Gunji Koizumi's program there are five colors (white, yellow, green, blue and brown), orange was added, to correspond to the six kyu of the Kodokan. It is believed that the colors were based on the color of the billiard balls.
The grade system invented by Jigoro Kano and developed by other experts was so successful that it was taken up by other martial arts and even other sports which adapted a ranking system as well based on the same concept. This kyu/dan system is still the most widely used.
The story that originally the belts were white, for a beginner, but lost their whiteness, becoming black while the judoka practiced from white to brown and then black is a myth that is commonly told to beginners as a motivation to keep coming to judo class.
Thank you Cheryl for these excellent insights!
From Black Belt Magazine’s new August 2022 Issue…
- Judo and TKD are in for 2024/ 28 Olympics but Karate as it was less appealing to younger fans.
- Kayla Harrison has re-signed with PFL (Professional Fighters League). I’ll have an update on both Kayla and Ronda in an upcoming Blog; stay tuned!
- 17th Sunday – Level 2 Coaching Clinic by Gary Goltz – Altoona, PA (contact Jan Finkbeiner)
- 17th Sunday - California State Games Judo Event, San Diego, CA
- 21st Thursday to 24th Sunday - Grassroots Judo Summer Nationals, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
- 28th Thursday to 31st Sunday - U.S. Open, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
- 3rd to 5th Saturday to Monday - Nanka Shorai Camp with Darcel Yandzi, Baldwin Park, CA
- 11th Sunday - 1st Annual North American Judo Championships, Wayne NJ
- 17th Saturday - Becerra Judo Challenge, Plano, TX
October – 2022
- 27th Thursday & 28th Friday - Nanka's Hand-On Police Judo Workshop, Santa Clarita, CA
- 2nd Friday to 4th Sunday - Grassroots Judo Winter Nationals & Clinics, Azusa, CA
I'm always looking for new subjects to write about regarding judo as well as contributions from my readers. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, thanks.
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