Origin of the Martial Arts Belt

An undeniable staple of traditional and eastern martial arts is the belt.  Ranging from one to two inches in width, the belt is reminiscent of the traditional obi of Japan, a sash-like waistband intended for the practical use of keeping the kimono closed.  In this regard, they are hand tied, the center knot a noticeable icon of the belt itself.

A practical method of denoting rank, the early iterations of the belt first came to prominence in the late 19th century in Japan.  Initially, there were two belts, a white belt for disciples and black belt for experts.  Some tales claim the white belt as the only option, going on to darken overtime with blood, sweat and dirt, eventually reaching a darker color with repeated use.

Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo, is credited with introducing the formalized belt system, eventually adding other colors to denote various stages of experience and ability.

Now, over 100 years later, there are many styles both in the east and west that have adapted a certain version of the formal belt system.  In various instances, separate belt systems are created for kids, with more variables to maintain motivation throughout the training process.

The coveted black belt has grown to resemble various levels of ability dependent on the style or system with which it's earned.  In some styles, a black belt can be achieved in relatively short order, sometimes in less than three years.  For other arts, black belt may take 8-10 years or longer to earn.

In traditional Japanese systems, the first rank of black belt - Shodan, is translated as the first step.  With this in mind, achieving the first rank of black belt shows that the student has reached a definitive level of competency with the basics.  At this point, they are able to proceed into more advanced training methods.

Although the belt is found primarily in traditional systems of martial arts, it has grown to be adopted within other realms of training.  In the United States, for instance, the US Marine Corps have adopted a belt system for their martial arts program, both for students and instructors, as part of their Marine Martial Arts Program, or MMAP.

With the rise of various styles and options of training, many have argued the measured value of rank has diminished overtime.  For this reason, it is not uncommon for black belts within a specific style to claim superiority over that of others.  Lastly, as martial arts has intermixed to form more flexible fighting abilities, some practitioners have pursued rank within various styles of necessity.  For instance, someone may pursue rank in a striking and grappling style exclusive of one another.

What are your thoughts on belt systems? Share your insights and feedback below!


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