When you see martial artists wearing their black belts or white belts it may be a bit difficult to initially recognize what style they are practicing. This is because every martial art these days uses a gi and colored belt. However, Judo belts were the very first to introduce such a ranking system.
The Original Jigoro Kano Belt Structure
Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo and the Kodokan organization that stands as the official governing body of Judo, decided that there needed to be a system that showed a student what rank he or she was. It had to be a system that allowed a student to strive for the next goal.
It was this need that gave birth to the belt system.
Originally he only used two colors: white (kyu) and black (dan). The color white represented emptiness, meaning a student that had no skill or experience. As they gained knowledge in the art of Judo they would move on to the black belt, a color representing fulfillment.
Judo Belts and Ranking System
As Jigoro Kano continued to teach he refined the belt system and introduced five major colors. The original grading system according to Jigoro Kano goes as follows:
- 6th kyu – light blue belt
- 5th – 4th kyu – white belt
- 3rd to 1st kyu – brown belt
- 1st dan – black belt
- 2nd dan – black belt with 2 gold stripes
- 3rd dan – black belt with 3 gold stripes
- 4th dan – black belt with 4 gold stripes
- 5th dan – black belt with 5 gold stripes
- 6th – 8th dan – red and white belt or plain black belt
- 9th – 11th dan – solid red belt
- 12th dan – white belt
The highest ranking ever achieved and officially recognized by the Kodokan was the 10th dan. Jigoro Kano did mention that it was not impossible for someone to reach the 11th and 12th dan but to this date no one has reached those rankings. Only 15 people have been officially awarded with the 10th dan belt.
Judo Belts in Canada, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia
When Judo hit Europe, particularly in France, the Judo schools started to introduce new colors. White and black weren’t sufficient. It was hard to tell a 3rd kyu student from a 1st kyu student if they all wore white belts.
To change this and make it easier to identify ranks, European schools introduced other colors. The standard for these Judo schools now are as follows:
- White – 6th kyu
- Yellow – 5th kyu
- Orange – 4th kyu
- Green – 3rd kyu
- Blue – 2nd kyu
- Brown – 1st kyu
- Black – 1st – 10th dan
In some countries like Israel and Brazil (where Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was born) there are also some intermediate colors such as purple or grey. It has also become wide practice to separate juniors (students under the age of 19) from seniors (students aged 19 and above).
Judo Belts in the United States
Judo has grown in popularity in the United States and there are several overseeing organizations such as the United States Judo Association (USJA) as well as the United States Judo Federation (USJF). Both accept and recognize the ranking system of the other.
Like their European counterparts, the USJA and USJF have different colors instead of just white and black. Here is a quick list of the different belts according to organization and level:
- 12th class – white
- 11th class – yellow
- 10th and 9th class – orange
- 8th and 7th class – green
- 6th and 5th class – blue
- 4th and 3rd class – purple
- 2nd and 1st class – brown
- 7th class – white
- 6th class – yellow
- 5th class – orange
- 4th class – green
- 3rd to 1st class – brown
- 11th class – white
- 10th class – white-yellow
- 9th class – yellow
- 8th class – yellow-orange
- 7th class – orange
- 6th class – orange-green
- 5th class – green
- 4th class – green-blue
- 3rd class – blue
- 2nd class – blue-purple
- 1st class – purple
- 6th class – white
- 5th class – green
- 4th class – blue
- 3rd – 1st class – brown
Both the USJA and the USJF use black belts to represent students who have moved on to the dan levels.
In all organizations, solid red is still identified as the highest belt that can be achieved. The elusive 12th dan is the only high ranking belt that would wear a pure white color and this symbolizes the perfection of the art of Judo. However, not even Jigoro Kano ever wore the 12th dan belt.
In some organizations, such as the USJA and USJF, patches are worn on the uniform to identify rank. This is often done for students and practitioners in the higher dan levels. Patches are also used commonly during international tournaments since the Judo belts of one school may be different in another.