If you’re just getting involved with Karate, you’re probably quite excited about the thought of, one day, having a black belt and winning the respect of your peers and admiring glances from the general public. You’re also probably wondering if you can hurry that process along a little?
So can you skip belts in Karate?
Yes you can skip belts in Karate but the truth is that you probably shouldn’t. If you are serious about learning the discipline of Karate you shouldn’t skip belts. Every belt represents a level of mastery that deserves its own dedication and should not be taken lightly or hurried along.
Let’s take a look at how the karate belt system came about, what earning a belt should be about and how you can skip belts but only by cheating yourself in the process.
Two Myths About Karate Belts Which Aren’t True
We’d like to clear a couple of things up before we examine the ranking system in more detail, and these are two myths that just won’t seem to go away in karate – even though they’re both completely untrue.
The Decaying Belt Trick
The myth: Originally, there were only two colored belts in karate. One white and one black. However, ancient wisdom says that it’s not done to wash your karate belt. Over long periods of study the karate practitioner’s white belt would become yellow and frayed, eventually it might turn moldy and start to go green, then years later it would be so filthy it would be completely brown and that was the day that a sensei knew his student was ready for a black belt.
The truth: There were originally only two belt colors, white and black but the rest is ridiculous. Americans may not wash their belts but the Japanese, to whom the invention of karate belongs, certainly do. Even if it were true, your belt is much more likely to get brown and filthy long before yellow becomes an option.
Finally, karate belt colors vary from dojo to dojo and style to style. This might be a nice story to remember the order of belt colors in some disciplines but in others it makes no sense at all
The Lazy Americans
The myth: Americans could not be trusted to have the patience to go from white belt to black belt, a process which could take years. Therefore, the additional belts were to give “lazy Americans” an incentive to practice and progress.
The truth: The belt system was incorporated in Japanese karate in the 1920s. Nobody outside of Japan picked up the sport until the 1950s.
However, there is a grain of truth in this story. If you change Americans for Europeans and karate for judo, then you have accurately described the introduction of judo to Europe and the assumption that Europeans wouldn’t be motivated to wait around for a black belt for years without seeing some progress.
A (Very) Brief History Of The Karate Grading System
Karate’s grading system of belts was inspired by the Judo grading system of belts. Before belts were introduced, both disciplines relied on handing participants a certificate of achievement to commemorate their progress through the ranks.
However, in the late 1800’s judo introduced two belts, a white and a black belt and over time, they brought in additional belts (first to commemorate ranks above black belt, the “dan”) and then to allow for the introduction of ranks below black belt (the “lazy Europeans” requirement).
Karate followed suit and the kyu/dan system was introduced into karate by Gichin Funakoshi in 1924.
The kyu grading system works in the opposite direction of the dan grading system. Participants in karate begin with a high kyu number (somewhere between 10 and 5) and then count down as they move towards earning a black belt.
Once the black belt is gained – a participant could then earn dan ranks going from 1 to 10 (and potentially even higher though 10 represents an incredible level of skill in karate).
While there are several different color ranking schemes employed that relate to kyu and dan in karate, most schools follow a similar pattern.
The Symbolism Of Karate Belt Colors Explained
We’ve taken the most typical system of color grading and offer the most traditional explanations of the symbolism and proficiency required for each rank. However, it’s worth noting that because color grades can vary between schools – so can the explanations for the symbolism.
- The white belt (6th kyu) – this is the belt given to any beginner in a martial art. The white is said to represent the birth of a new light. This is echoed by the idea that new practitioners are “pure in nature” and have committed to learn karate as a means of personal growth.
- The yellow belt (5th kyu) – the first ray of sun arrives, and the yellow belt is awarded after a student passes their first examination and opens themselves up to progressing on their journey.
- The orange belt (4th kyu) – by this point the learner is starting to understand how to manage distance, now the sun’s rays touch the earth and the field becomes fertile
- The green belt (3rd kyu) – now the student is becoming aware of how their opponent moves, as the fertile fields bloom, green can be seen everywhere
- The blue belt (2nd kyu) – the student should be showing much better awareness in sparring and self-defense, the student’s attentions begin to soar, and he looks to the blue sky for encouragement
- The brown belt (1st kyu) – the student shows solid control over their moves and is able to take on a resisting sparring partner – the fields are ready to harvest
- The black belt – the student has attained a standard of competence that enables them to truly learn karate as they progress through the dan ranks – black signifies the shadow of knowledge that sits behind the student
- Striped black belts (1st – 10th dan) – all dan gradings are black belts and as such there is no additional symbolism here just statements of mastery for each stripe gained
Why Karate Belts Get Darker
The belt system was introduced in Japan and Korea during a period in which there were high-levels of poverty in these countries. Many people simply could not afford to keep replacing parts of their martial arts uniform in order to mark progression.
Thus, an interesting solution was implemented – each color to be used in grading was one that could be dyed over a previous color. That meant that belts had to become darker over time as you can’t dye a light color over a dark one easily.
How Long Should It Take To Gain A Particular Belt?
If you’re looking to earn a given belt, then the typical times for progress from one rank to the next are as follows. It is possible to earn belts faster by increased amounts of practice or because of incredible skill.
|Belt Color and Rank||Typical Time of Studying At That Rank To Progress To The Next Rank|
|White (6th kyu)||3 months|
|Yellow (5th kyu)||6 months|
|Orange (4th kyu)||6 months|
|Green (3rd kyu)||9 months|
|Blue (2nd kyu)||12 months|
|Brown (1st kyu)||18 months|
|Black||Minimum of 18 months/ level|
Note: While the first 6 dan levels are earned through examination, levels above this are earned only by award among your karate peers. They are for high levels of excellence in this martial art form.
What Should A Belt Examination Involve?
For a belt to be of worth, an examination should test two key ingredients:
- A karate participant’s prowess and skill at the required level – this is to ensure that the person can fight to a given standard
- A karate participant’s understanding of the art’s philosophy – that is they must demonstrate they have the wisdom to appreciate the martial art and when it should and should not be used
Some of the best dojos require live demonstrations of moves, live drills with fights with real opponents as well as both written and verbal examinations.
The Rise of the McDojo
Unfortunately, there is no standardization by law of the karate and martial arts system. Anyone who wants to can set up a dojo, call what they do “karate” and then issue belts and certifications can do so using any means that they see fit.
Thus, there is a rising tide of “McDojos” that promise rapid progression through the ranks and certificates and belts galore, as long as you are willing to pay for them, that is.
Yes, thanks to the McDojo, it is entirely possible to skip a belt in karate. However, there is no value to be gained from this, (apart, perhaps from bragging rights on a playground). Skipping a belt means that you have failed to master the skills and philosophy required to earn that belt.
No reputable dojo would allow you to move on to a higher level without demonstrating prowess as the levels below. It would make a mockery of the ranking system and devalue the ranks of all fighters within that dojo.
The True Test of the Value of A Karate Grade
The true test of how much a karate grade is worth lies within the person holding the belt. You must know that if you did not work to gain your belts and didn’t follow the course laid out by your martial art – you may have a belt, but you are still a fraud.
Rising through the ranks by recognition of your skills and understanding of karate can be the only way for you to take pride in the accomplishment of holding a particular belt.
Yes, you can skip belts in karate by spending money at a McDojo but the only person you are cheating is yourself. Karate belts are there to show you have achieved a certain standard in your martial arts, if you skip a level – you have missed out on fundamental learning and will not be able to fight well if called upon to do so.
After all, martial arts is all about discipline. Being impatient and skipping a belt level is not in harmony with the underlying philosophy of the craft of combat.