Does Being a Black Belt Actually Mean Anything in Karate?

Ordinary people see black belts as a legitimate symbol of mastering karate. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. So, does being a black belt actually mean anything? 

Being a black belt means someone is well-trained and proficient in karate’s fundamental principles and techniques, but it does not represent mastery or expertise. There are 10 degrees of black belts, and earning a black belt marks a significant milestone in a person’s journey as a karate student.

The perception of all black belt karate students as masters has grown far and wide. To unlearn this misconception and understand what the black belt really means, we need to discuss karate ‘ranks’ in detail. Let’s get into it!

Is Black Belt the Highest Rank in Karate?

While most people believe that to be true — that’s not the case.

There are 10 degrees of black belts (dan ranks) — the 10th being the highest one. Hence, a 1st-degree black belt doesn’t represent an advanced rank in karate or the highest one. It’s only an intermediate rank that lands a little below the halfway point in karate’s entire kyu-dan ranking spectrum.  

Earning a black belt — or any new rank for that matter — is still a massive achievement for any karate student. As you get it from your teacher (or ‘sensei’ in karate), the acknowledgement for your competence is highly honorable.

It requires an incredible amount of hard work, resilience, persistence, and discipline to truly ‘earn’ a black belt for the first time. However, that’s not even close to where karate ends, unlike what most ordinary folk would think.

Karate’s Ranking System

Like many forms of martial arts, karate’s ranking is also based on the Japanese kyu-dan system. There are generally 8 Kyu levels and 10 Dan ranks.

Colored belts depict the Kyu trainee stages — starting from the white belt and going all the way to the brown one, representing different skill levels.

The 10 Dan ranks are all different degrees of a black belt. The final rank in karate is the 10th Dan rank, which is either represented by a 10th-degree black belt or a red belt for exceptional grandmasters of the art. I’ve covered the red belt in detail in a section down below.

Therefore, A karate student with a 1st-degree black belt is above the 8 Kyu training levels in skill. However, they still have a long road ahead of him in the 10 black belt ranks (dan ranks) — putting a new black belt at karate’s intermediate skill level.

Kyu System

The Kyu system doesn’t have ranks — but rather trainee levels. In karate jargon, it’s for mudansha students, i.e., rankless.

The brown belt (1st Kyu) is the highest skill level you can obtain before becoming a black belt and entering the dan ranks.

The belt colors in the kyu system represent different skill levels in students who haven’t earned a karate ‘rank’ yet. Kyu trainee degrees start from the 8th level (white belt) and progress to the 1st level (brown belt) as the student develops skills.

Dan Ranks

After surmounting the summit of all 8 Kyu training levels, mudansha (those without a rank) students will finally earn the title of yudansha (those with a rank) — as they enter the dan system of ranking.

Unlike the Kyu system, dan ranks start from the lowest number and advance to higher ones — all the way up to the 10th dan.

Hence, not all black belts are alike. While the higher degrees of black belts are masters and grandmasters of martial arts, the first black belt (or a dan belt) represents an intermediate level of karate skills.

Do All Dan Belts Look the Same?

While all dan belts are black, they don’t look entirely the same in all forms of karate. Different dan ranks are represented by the number of white stripes on a blackbelt — each stripe depicting one dan.

For instance, one stripe on the black belt would represent the 1st Dan rank. Similarly, two stripes on the belt would represent 2nd Dan, and so on — all the way up to 10th Dan.

Honorary Ranks

It’s important to note that not all 10 of these dan ranks get awarded based entirely on karate skill. Some of these are honorary and also consider factors like one’s notable contributions, reputation, or age.

Usually, ranks 7 to 10 are reserved as honorary, while students can obtain the first 6 through promotions from seniors, competence tests, and a skill-based merit system.

Karate’s Highest Rank — The Red Belt

A red belt indicating a 9th or 10th Dan rank is the highest belt in karate. While most Kyudan (9th Dan) or Jyudan (10th Dan) practitioners will still have a black belt with 9 or 10 stripes, respectively, the red belt gets awarded to exceptionally notable personalities of karate.

A 10th dan red belt is awarded to practitioners who are genuinely the Grand Masters of the art, with a spotless history and decades-long reputation of teaching, serving, and contributing to karate.

Names of the 10 Black Belt Ranks

Aside from the different number of white stripes on black belts, each dan rank also has a particular term in Japanese.

Dan Ranks Japanese Name Belt
1st Dan Shodan Black belt with one stripe
2nd Dan Nidan Black belt with two stripes
3rd Dan Sandan Black belt with three stripes
4th Dan Yondan Black belt with four stripes
5th Dan Godan Black belt with five stripes
6th Dan Rokudan Black belt with six stripes
7th Dan Shichidan Black belt with seven stripes
8th Dan Hachidan Black belt with eight stripes
9th Dan Kyudan Black belt with nine stripes / Red belt
10th Dan Jyudan Black belt with ten stripes / Red belt

 

As mentioned above, the Shichidan, Hachidan, Kyudan, and Jyudan ranks are uncommon and only awarded on an honorary basis. However, the Kyudan and Jyudan ranks are so rare that the practitioners who earn them are often well-known figures within the karate community.

Belts Aren’t Everything

Historically, proficiency in the art of karate would only be determined by your skill and competence, not by your belt’s color or markings.

In fact, the concept of colored belts is a fairly modern introduction to karate ranks, dating back to the 1880s.

Naturally, karate belts are flashy and have a seemingly fascinating concept of advancing skill levels behind them. Thanks to this, it’s often the only thing most ordinary people know about karate.

However, it’s important to note that while they are a key part of karate, the entire art shouldn’t be reduced to just belts.

There’s a famous Bruce Lee quote on the matter — he said, “belts are only good for holding up your pants.”

Essentially, they are a way to classify students of different levels of experience and training into separate categories. It only makes sense that the general skill level increases with each training level (or belt) as the tests get harder and moves get tougher.

There’s no guarantee that a yellow belt student will always beat a white belt student in a fight — but it’s likely. In that sense, belts and ranks are generally symbols of one’s competence, but it’s not set in stone.

Someone’s overall skill level in karate has always been mainly determined by their performance and competence.

Benefits of the Belt Ranks System of Karate

The belt system has been incredibly helpful in fueling karate’s popularity and growth as an art form. Here are a few of its key benefits:

Promotes Goal Setting for Beginners

Experienced karate sensei’s realize that proficiency in karate doesn’t just have to do with belts. However, beginners don’t see it that way.

Children who first get introduced to karate with a white belt see a long road of progress ahead of them. The opportunity of earning higher belts by learning and practicing provides a great sense of motivation to beginner students of all ages.

The belt system provides a way to incentivize new karate students to learn, improve, and earn more respectable belts from their sensei.

Belts Are Benchmarks for Skills

Each belt is awarded after passing a series of tests and meeting an established set of criteria.

For instance, if you see a brown belt, you’d instantly know that they’ve passed the required tests and met all of the criteria to be at the top of the Kyu range of training levels.

In that sense, it makes belts an effective indicator of karate students’ invested time and effort.

They Make for Incredible Achievements for Karate Practitioners

While earning the first black belt doesn’t mean someone has mastered the art of karate, it’s still a massive achievement for passionate fighters who have invested blood, sweat, and tears into this art.

It holds a tremendous amount of sentimental value. It also symbolizes emotional factors that are far bigger than the belt itself — such as your sensei’s recognition of your growth as a fighter, validation for your competence, and acknowledgment for your persistence.

Conclusion

Earning a 1st-degree black belt can be compared to the point where a child confidently removes the training wheels off of their bike. At that point, he starts to experience biking for what it really is but is still far from being an expert.

Most believe that a black belt represents the highest level of skill in karate, but that’s not the case. There are 8 Kyu levels and 10 dan ranks in karate’s comprehensive ranking system.

Students get their first black belt upon surpassing all 8 Kyu levels, which marks the beginning of their journey in the Dan ranks.

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