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A Short History of the Ranking

 Systems Used in Karate Today

Most Seniors will agree that originally, there was no ranking system or uniform used in the art of karate in Okinawa. If in fact rank was established, it was most likely given through the presentation of scrolls.  It was a customary act in the Japanese koryu ju-jutsu schools for these scrolls to be given and each would be inscribed with the "secrets" of the master instructor/ and the style. Some karate styles may very well have adopted this method of designating the ranking member or members of a dojo.

There is no doubt Kano, an educator himself, fully understood the importance of the class system in Japanese society and therefore knew it would serve as a valuable tool in his new martial art. Therefore, in 1883 Judo's founder, Dr. Jigoro Kano would begin the modern ranking system when he awarded "Sho-dan" to two of his most senior students, Saito and Tomita. Even after the rank of Sho-dan had been awarded, there would not be any method of distinguishing (other than possibly certificates or scrolls) these men who have been promoted and those who had not been promoted. This would not take place until in 1886, when Kano would require that all of his yudansha begin wearing black obi. Since the judo-gi had not yet been introduced the original obi worn by the yudansha was the traditional wide obi, the same one used to hold the kimono closed. In 1907, Kano would introduce the judo-gi, the predecessor to today's karate-gi and the modern type obi. At this time the students would wear either the white obi used to designate beginners and those not ranked as yudansha or the black obi used to designate those ranked at yudansha level. The kyu system and consequently  the wearing of the various colored belts (Kyu grades) would not come into place for several more year, not until Sensei Mikonosuke Kaiwashi introduced them in 1935,  when he began to teach judo in Paris.

When Gichin Funakoshi traveled to Japan to demonstrate his art of karate in 1917, it was inevitable that he would  make contact with  the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano. In 1922, when Funakoshi returned to Japan, he would soon realize just how much he and Kano had in common and the two quickly became close friends. Both Funakoshi and Kano were school teachers, both studied the martial arts and both were interested in promoting their arts to the Japanese public. Being educators, there is no doubt that both of these men understood the importance of systematic training as well as the importance of using a reward system in order to produce the greatest results in their students. On April 12, 1924, Funakoshi would adopt Kano's Yudansha ranking system when he awarded the first sho-dan ranks to Tokuda, Otsuka, Akiba, Shimizu, Hirose, Gima, and Kasuya . The adoption of the kyu/dan system and the adoption of a standard karate-gi (uniform) which  was modified and based on the judogi were 2 of the 6 conditions which the Dai-Nippon Butokukai (Governing Martial Arts Authority) required before recognizing karate as a "Legitimate" martial art. Early photographs taken during the training of Okinawan karate student's reveals that the training in the early part of this century would be conducted in their everyday clothes and since instruction seldom included women many times students trained in their underclothes as seen in the photo below.

Kanei Uechi trains Seiyu Shinjo 

Seiyu Shinjo (Left) & Kanei Uechi (Right)

With the Funakoshi's adoption of Kano's ranking system, it did not take long before Funakoshi would come to realize that the ranking system had yet another important feature.  In Okinawa the karate instruction was normally conducted with only a handful of students. This made instruction easy to conduct and with a small group of students, (many times training individually with the Sensei), each Sensei had little problem remembering the student's technical ability or skill level.  In Japan Funakoshi would soon find that the size of his classes were considerably  larger than those on Okinawa. The larger student body would require that he eventually have more assistance in conducting his classes. As the classes grew larger and the need for more instructors increased it became of paramount importance that each instructor know exactly what level of instruction to impart to each student.

Almost every karate system in the world today makes use of this Kyu / Dan Ranking system. Although the use of the Black Belt to designate dan grades is virtually universal in all karate styles, there is a multitude of colored belts that are used to denote the various Kyu grades within each style. In most karate styles the colors used to identify the lowest kyu grade will be a light color such as a yellow belt. This light colored belt will become progressively darker (brown belt) as the student advances in rank. After talking to many of the Senior ranking karate men in the United States (including Hanshi Dometrich) they recount stories of how the belts grew darker as the time in training increased. The students of years ago did not change belts with each promotion as the students of today do, but instead they kept the same belt. The white belt would became green as the student made contact with the grass  while training. As the training intensified the grass would eventually die from the contact and the belt would become brown with repeated contact of  the bare earth. As the student continued to train the brown belt would eventually grow darker until it became black. As the black belt became older (both the student and the belt itself) and their skill increased the contact with the earth became less, (They were seldom thrown, swept or taken down) the black belt would begin to fade into gray along with the hair of the karate-ka and the belt would eventually continuing fading until it eventually returned to it's original color of white and in a sense the belt as well as the student had traveled full circle.

    General Rank Identifiers

1.    Mudansha: (Kyu-Grade) Term used to describe those student below the grade of Black Belt.

2.    Yudansha:  (Dan-Grade) Term used to describe those students who have acquired the rank of Black Belt.

3.    Kodansha:   (Senior Dan Grade) Term used to describe those students who have advanced to the Senior Black Belt level Ranks.

4.    Mu-dan:   (Beyond Rank) Term used to describe an already high ranking martial artist who abdicate their rank. This normally takes place when the high ranking martial artist has succeeded the senior master of the style. In many cases this person will be referred to as Soke upon the death of the master who may very well have been his father. This persons rank will be suspended and the person will be considered Mu-dan.

               Yudansha {Black Belt} Identifiers

I have seen very little information in print over the years in reference to the various types of Yudansha belts or obi that are used in many karate styles and therefore I am including the information below.  In several of the Japanese and Okinawan karate systems one may see a variety of belt types being worn in the Yudansha grades.  It is very common to see both English & Japanese Kanji (as well as other languages) on all belts worn in the Yudansha grades. The writing on these belts will include information such as the rank holders name, organization, rank, style, school, country and/or state. The colors of the letters on the obi may vary, but most often will be done in either gold, white, red or blue and may appear on one end of the obi or both ends of the obi. The writing (in most cases) will be aligned so as to be readable when the belt is being worn.

There are no hard fast or certain rules that apply to all karate styles in reference to the types of belts being worn as well as the methods of using stripes to designate the various rank levels. The method of rank recognition is almost as vast and complicated as the styles themselves. Be this as it may, the information below should help those interested in the methods generally used to identify the various ranks and levels of students, instructors and teachers.

 Solid Black Belt:






Picture taken 1982 during Dr. Chitose's last visit to the United States.


Hanshi Van Horne (right side of photo), Hanshi Dometrich (left side of photo) & Kyoshi Davenport (seated in seiza) all wearing solid black belts while Dr. Chitose (seated) is wearing a gold belt.

A solid black belt is the belt most often worn for those members in the Yudansha grades and regardless of the Dan level of the Yudansha they are all considered to be what has become known to be a "Black Belt." The Black Belt has become the universal signification for one who has learned and/or teaches the basic techniques that comprise the systems of karate.

Japanese Styles, Dan (Yudansha level) Stripes:

Many styles of karate, especially Japanese styles will make use of horizontal stripes on one end of the black belt to designate the level of the Yudansha grade holder. These stripes are normally 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide and will totally encircle the belt. These stripes are usually white especially since many times athletic tape is used, but other colors such as red or gold may be used especially when the stripes are embroidered onto the belt. With this type of stripe system Sho-dan (1st Degree Black Belt) would only have one stripe near the tip of one end of his belt, while a Go-Dan (5th Degree Black Belt) would have five separated stripes starting near the tip of one end of his belt and moving toward the center of the belt. When this type of stripe designation is used even the 10th dan of the style will have 10 stripes on their belt.


  Gold stripes on Black Belt depicting rank of belt holder.





Click to enlarge



 Kanji and Stripes on Black Belts as well as the wears names printed in English.





Okinawan Styles, Dan (Yudansha level) Stripes:

Most Okinawan styles of karate make use of a separate type of stripe system than does the Japanese karate styles. In most Okinawan styles there are no stripes worn to denote the ranks of Sho-dan thru Go-dan. To designate the rank of Roku-dan (Renshi) one gold stripe is worn horizontally on each side of the obi. Two gold stripes are worn to on each side of the obi to denote Shichi-dan & Hachi-dan (Kyoshi & Hanshi). Three gold stripes are worn on each side of the obi to denote a Ku-dan (Kyushi).

Sensei Seiko Toyoma, Senior Uechi-ryu stylist was one of the last Karate Sensei to training directly under the Uechi-ryu founder, Kanbun Uechi. Sensei Toyoma serves as the Senior Technical Advisor to the Kenyukai Association.

Seiko Toyama  Special Thanks to my friend Sensei Alan Dollar for permission to use this photo.

The three stripes shown in this picture denotes Toyoma Sensei as one of the most senior of Okinawa's Karate Sensei

Striped Yudansha Belts: 

Centered Horizontal Stripes; 

Female Identifier.

Some systems will designate the difference between a female yudansha and a male yudansha by the use of a red or white strip in the center of the black belt or a red belt with a black strip in the center of the red belt running the entire horizontal length of the belt for female grade holders. It was believed that by using this identifier the wearer of the belt could be identified as either female or male from a distance by the Sensei. Although this type of belt is seldom used today there are some systems who still use it as an identifier for female students.


           Female Identifier


   Junior black Belt Identifier

Junior Black Belt Identifier:

There are also systems who use the designator of the horizontal stripe to identify "Junior" Black Belt, "Yudansha" or those members who fall below the minimum age requirement for yudansha level in their respective organizations. The stripe used in this case is normally a white stripe although some organizations will use a red stripe. This stripe is centered and running the entire length of the black belt. Sensei Fumio Demura of Genbu-kai Shito-ryu makes use of this type of Junior Black Belt Identifier.

Advanced Level Colored Belts:

Sectioned "Vertical" Blocks or Stripes & Full Length "Horizontal" Stripes:

Yon-dan & Go-dan: Some systems will identify 4th & 5th Degree Black Belt grade holders by the wearing of a Black Belt with wide red sections approximately 5 to 6 inches apart on the belt. The red/black stripes or blocks will run the entire length of the belt from tip to tip as black, red, black, red, etc,.

Yon-dan, Go-dan and Roku-dan: Some systems will identify 4th, 5th or 6th Degree Black Belt grade holders by the wearing of a belt that is red and black. The color stripes on these belts will run the entire "vertical" length of the belt from tip to tip and in this case either the red or black may be worn facing up to designate the rank of 4th,5th or 6th dan and then when the student advances to the next level in rank the belt is worn with the opposite side facing up. This belt will may also be solid black when totally flipped over which allows the student of change their colored belt to solid black simply by turning the belt over.        

Belt-Poom Belt-Red over Black-Size 0-6

Yon-Dan, Go-dan, Roku-dan, Vertical Striped Belt.

This Belt may be worn with either red or black facing up.

 When this belt is turned completely over, it may be solid black on the opposite side.


Roku-dan, Shichi-dan & Hachi-dan: 

                                                                                                                                      Hanshi George Van Horne wearing a Red & White Belt                                                                                    Some systems will identify 6th, 7th & 8th Degree Black Belt by the wearing of a Red & White Belt with each striped section approximately 4 to 8  inches in length.  These Red/White stripes or blocks  will run the entire length of the belt from tip to tip as white, red, white, red, etc,. 

Some organizations will make use of a striped belt as described in the paragraph above except that the red sectioned area is instead, black. These black/white, black/white sections will run the entire length of the belt from tip to tip. When this type of belt is used it generally designated and identifies the wearer between the ranks of Go-dan (5th Degree Black Belt) to Hachi-dan (8th Degree Black Belts.) This belt is worn by some karate organizations, but more often by Jujutsu or Aikijujutsu systems.

Whether the white/red or white/black sectioned belts begin at the tip of the belt with red or black and move to white or begin with white and move to red or black is inconsequential. This configuration is more a matter of how the belt was manufactured as opposed to any significance of this configuration. There may very well be an organization who use these types of belts as an identifier, but when this same question was put to Mr. Nakasone of the Sureido Martial Arts Company in Okinawa by Sensei Doug Perry a senior student of Master Shugero Nakazato of Kobayashi-ryu as to whether there was any difference in the relation to the tips starting as white or red/black, his comment was: "It is more a matter of what fabric we have more of when we decide to manufacture the belts as opposed to doing it on purpose."

Advanced Senior Level Belts

                                                                                Dr. Chitose wearing a Red Belt.

O-Sensei Nova Scotia 1.jpg (25750 bytes)

Ku-dan & Ju-dan:  Some systems will make use a solid red belt to designate a 9th or 10th Degree Black Belt.  10th Degree Black Belts under certain circumstances may be seen to wear a Gold Belt. O-Sensei (Dr. Chitose)  wore a Gold Belt at times when he visited the United States. There are also pictures of O-Sensei wearing a Red Belt. Another Okinawan who can be seen to wearing a Gold belt is Taika Seiyu Oyata, Sensei of Okinawan Ryukyu kempo.






Dr. Chitose wearing a Gold Belt.

Formal Karate Titles

1.     Sensei "Teacher or One who has gone before": This title is by far the most often used title in karate and generally refers to someone of Yon-Dan level (4th Degree Black Belt.) Many senior instructors including Hanshi Masami Tsuruoka, will state that this is the most honorable title that a student can use when referring to the senior as their  teacher. The title Sensei implies a close bond between the student and teacher's relationship.

2.    Shihan: "Master or Expert Teacher":  It is important to understand that the meaning Master as used in the martial  arts is someone who has mastered the basic and advanced understandings {Principles} of a particular style or system, thus the title Shihan means someone who has mastered the basic and advanced techniques as well as the principles, concepts, and theory of their respective style of karate. The title Shihan does not mean that this person has stopped learning because they know all of the answers. On the contrary, they are considered to be the most serious and dedicated students in any style of martial arts. The title Shihan is generally considered to be an organizational title alone and has little meaning (May not be recognized) outside of the holders style or organization.

3.    Doshi:  "Leading Teacher": Title sometimes used before Renshi

4.    Renshi: "Senior Expert Teacher": This is the first of the three generally (Most Often) used teacher titles. Although this title is independent of rank, it is seldom given to anyone below the rank of Go-Dan.

5.    Tasshi or Tesshi:  "Apprentice Master Teacher": This title was originally the title used instead of Kyoshi. It is now sometimes used between the levels of Renshi and Kyoshi by the Dai-Nippon-Butoku-Kai.

6.    Kyoshi: "Master Teacher, Teacher of Teachers": This is the second of the three generally (Most Often) used teacher titles. Although this title is independent of the ranking system, it is seldom given to anyone below the rank of Roku-dan and in most cases Shichi-dan).

7.    Hanshi: "Senior Master Teacher": This is the third and highest of the three generally (Most Often) used teacher titles. Although this title is independent of the ranking system, it is seldom given to anyone below the rank of Hachi-Dan (8th Degree Black Belt)

In Reference to the three titles Renshi, Kyoshi and Hanshi

Ren= A Trainer of the Way                                                                  Kyo=A Teacher of the Way                                                                Han=A Model of the Way

                     Other Formal Karate Titles

1.    Seito Deshi or Deshi: A student, pupil or disciple of a martial art.

2.    Uchi Deshi:   A personal student who lives and trains with the Master of a martial art.

3.    Kohai:  A title used to refer to one who is lower in rank than oneself. The opposite of Sempai

4.    Sempai: A title used to refer to one who is higher in rank than oneself. The opposite of Kohai.

5.    Kancho: A title sometimes given to the head of a dojo or organization. This title is independent of any rank, but in most cases this person will be a very senior student of the arts. In most cases the person holding this title will be the highest ranking instructor of a specific Ryu-Ha or Kai-Ha.

6.    Kaicho: This title generally refers to a Regional Head or Director of a style. It may also refer to a Branch/Regional or Head Representative of an organization or association.

7.    Taiso:    The term used to designate a great master of the martial arts.

8.     Kaiso: The founder of a particular style or organization/association. A Senior Advisor of the founder may also hold this title.

9.     Soke:  Founder of a system or style. This title may also be used by the successor of the founder of a style or system. This person will be a Ju-Dan (10th Degree Black Belt) in most all cases.

10.    Shoshu:    The title used to designate a Master of a particular art.

11.    Saiko Shihan or Shihan-Dai:  This title refers to the person who has been designated as the Senior or Head Shihan. Shihan-Dai is sometimes issued prior to the recipient receiving the full Shihan title and therefore in this situation it would be considered a lesser or lower title than the title of Shihan itself.

12.    O-Sensei or Dai Sensei:  This title means Great or Greatest Teacher, Highest Respected Teacher. This title is spoken by students in honorable reference to the traditional martial arts founder.

13.     Sosai: Governor, (Highest Honorary Position of an Organization.)

14.     Soshi:  Title used to designate the Head Master of an Organization.

15.     Shidoin: Title used  referring to a Senior Instructor.

16.     Meijin:  Title used for a Martial Arts Master.

17.     Kensei: Sacred Fist, a title used for Chojun Miyagi, founder of Goju-ryu, by his students.

18.     Mukyu:     One who does not hold any rank in karate.

19.     Shokyu:     Secondary level learning grade such as a Sho-dan.

20.    Chukyu:   Used to denote a student who is at the post secondary grade/Intermediate level learning grade.

21.    Jokyu:      Advanced grade. Used for a Yon-dan Sensei who is in the advanced learning stage and is on foreign assignment.

22.    Hokai:     Used to denote a student below dan grade.

23.    Nyumon:    Entry level learning grade.

24.    Kyoren:   A student of San-dan grade who is not in training for instructor grade (Yon-dan)

25.    Ani-deshi: Senior disciple

Informal Titles often used in the Western World

1.    Kir-obi:             Yellow Belt

2.    Midori-obi:     Green Belt

3.    Cha-obi:            Brown Belt 

4.    Kur-obi:           Black Belt


  Koshin-ha Chito-kai Grading System

The Koshin-ha Chito-kai makes use of nine kyu-grades and ten Yudansha-grades.

 The following is a list of the Kyu/Dan ranking system as used by the Koshin-ha Chito-kai. This rank system will begin at Ku-kyu (9th Kyu)  and will advance through Ju-Dan (10th Degree Black Belt).

     {Mudansha} Kyu Grading System

1.    Ku-kyu (9th Kyu) White Belt. (Yellow Stripes may be used during this period of instruction)

2.    Hachi-kyu (8th Kyu) Yellow Belt.

3.    Shichi-kyu (7th Kyu) Orange Belt.

4.    Roku-kyu (6th Kyu) Green Belt 3rd level.(3-white stripes on one end of the obi)

5.    Go-kyu (5th Kyu) Green Belt 2nd level. (2-white stripes on one end of the obi)

6.    Yon-kyu (4th Kyu) Green Belt 1st level.(1-white stripe on one end of the obi)

7.    San-kyu (3rd Kyu) Brown Belt 3rd level. (3-white stripes on one end of the obi)

8.    Ni-kyu (2nd Kyu) Brown Belt 2nd level. (2-white stripes on one end of the obi)

9.    Ik-kyu (1st Kyu) Brown Belt 1st level. (1-white stripe on one end of the obi)

    {Yudansha} Dan Grading System

1.    Sho-dan (1st Degree Black Belt) (It is at this level that the student is considered to be a serious dedicated student.)

2.    Ni-dan (2nd Degree Black Belt)

3.    San-dan (3rd Degree Black Belt) Assistant Instructor grade

4.    Yon-dan (4th Degree Black Belt) Instructor Grade (The Title of Shihan may be awarded at this grade and designated by the wearing of a red and black belt.)

5.    Go-dan (5th Degree Black Belt) (May wear a red/black belt if one has received Shihan title.)

6.     Roku-dan (6th Degree Black Belt)  This rank may be designated by the wearing of a sectioned Red & White obi.

{Kodansha} Senior-Dan Grading System

7.    Shichi-dan (7th Degree Black Belt)  This rank may be designated by the wearing of a sectioned Red & White obi.

8.    Hachi-dan (8th Degree Black Belt)  This rank may be designated by the wearing of a sectioned Red & White obi.

9.    Ku-dan (9th Degree Black Belt)

10.  Ju-dan (10th Degree Black Belt)

The rank of Ju-dan is reserved in memory of Dr. Tsuyoshi Chitose, the founder of Chito-ryu Karate-do.