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Belts and Rank in Karate

by Alan Pope - 13:22 on 15 July 2021

In the martial arts it is common to use a system of coloured belts to recognise rank within the art. A beginner will typically start with a white belt and then work their way through various colours such as orange, red, yellow, green, blue, purple and brown until they reach the much sought-after black belt. The colour sequence varies from one association to another. Sometimes a belt will have one or two white or red stripes running along the centre. A student is typically referred to as a kyu grade until they reach blackbelt level. They are then referred to as dan grades. A kyu grade starts at 10th kyu and works their way up to 1st kyu. Dan grades also have ranks. The starting point is first dan (shodan), next is second dan (nidan). Ranking in this way continues to 10th dan. Some associations will use small tags on a black belt to indicate a dan ranking.

So, what’s the point of having a ranking system? For the student of karate, it can be seen as a reward to recognise achievement in the art. The student would have learnt something of their specific syllabus, gained some knowledge, skills and experience of it and then demonstrated their understanding of it during a grading session. It also makes sense to break up a martial arts syllabus into small and easy to digest chunks of learning with specific aims and objectives just like in any other educational system. For the instructor the grades are an easy way to group students together for the purpose of learning a specific part of the syllabus. You know instantly where a student is at in their training, what to teach them at each stage and how to gradually increase the challenge for the students.

Karate gradings for students are roughly every three months, some groups will be specific and specify a number of hours training (12 to 20). Some groups recognise that a student may reach the required standard in less time than usual and will either grade the student earlier or train them onwards for their next rank along (double grading). At brown belt level gradings can be spread further apart to 6 or 12 months apart depending on the complexity of the syllabus to be learnt. For dan grades these gradings become further and further apart increasing incrementally as they progress. For example, between 1st and 2nd dan a two-year gap is expected. Between a 2nd dan and 3rd dan a three-year gap is expected. 

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