Martial Arts Belt System – Is It Needed?

I’m Paul Willson I am a brown belt in Ju Jutsu, a centuries old Japanese martial art.

Photo by Matheus Natan on Pexels.com

Most martial arts have a some kind of belt system where you start with either a red or white belt and work your way up possibly following a curriculum and when your instructor thinks you are ready you take a grading exam and you get a different coloured belt until you get to black belt and then you get various degrees of black belt. However, is it needed?

The belt system is said to be a western invention and in the countries in the far east where a martial art originated a belt became black due to years of training and the belt not getting washed. Fun fact, I washed my belt once. Never again. It just didn’t hold my gi together properly afterwards, you need the starch in the material!

Fun facts aside, do we really need a belt system? From a ability point of view no. Think about it, do you really need a coloured belt to tell you how good you are or your martial arts knowledge? Would you forget everything if you put on a white belt? The answer is obviously no. Do you need that extra level of respect because you have a coloured belt which represents a higher grade to others? If you do then you need to look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you really are that insecure. Also in respect to Japanese martial arts the sempai (senior) and kouhai (junior) system worked for a long without coloured belts.

That is the argument against coloured belts. However, I do think the belt system does work for western countries where symbols of rank are important. Firstly a black belt implies an expertise in martial arts and the aura, for want of a better word, that black belt gives. For someone who goes to a dojo for the first time you would want to be taught by someone with a black belt as that black belt wearer would give a confidence that person has the expertise and authority to teach. Also the belt system helps westerners learn the sempai and kouhai system where the higher someone grades, the coloured belt teaches them the responsibility to teach and be responsible for their juniors (kouhai).

For the individual the answer to whether the belt system is necessary is a little bit of a grey area. If the tradition and cultural side of martial arts is important to you then I can’t see a belt system would motivate you much to improve as learning the the culture and language as much as the techniques is motivation enough. However, the belt system does give a goal aspect to your martial arts training and the feeling of pride after passing the grading exam and getting your new belt in the ceremony afterwards never gets old.

One thing that must be taught with the belt system is that the belt around your waist is a responsibility. The higher grade you are the greater the responsibility you have. One thing the belt should never be seen as is authority. I have seen it and it causes resentment. One criticism of the belt system is that that it can be manipulated to make money where students are graded and passed whether they are good enough or not. My sensei likes to say the belt represents knowledge and not ability. It is hard to argue against that.

So is the belt system needed? For me it depends on the individual whether they need the goal of the belt or if the culture of the martial art is more important. I personally like having a goal to work towards especially the as in my club and federation they do not give the techniques we learn Japanese names but that is just me I’m sure it is different for others. The important thing is that it works for you.

Published by Paul Willson

I am Paul Willson. I have reached the rank of brown belt in Ju Jutsu. Thanks to Coronavirus I not been able to take my black belt grading stopping my martial art's journey in its tracks which the only polite word I can think of as frustrating. I have created this blog to try and help anyone who is thinking of starting a martial art or has just started a martial art.

16 thoughts on “Martial Arts Belt System – Is It Needed?

  1. God insight, Paul. You may be interested to know that the implementation of a grading system using coloured belts started with Judo in the late 1800’s. But that aside, I once met a senior black belt who would always train while wearing a white belt. He felt that training and sparring with white belts could teach you more about how to properly defend yourself than with other black belts who recognize the structure and movements. But white belts were usually too intimidated to train with a master, so he started visiting dojos wearing white. At the end of the day, you’re absolutely right; the art is about the knowledge and skill you’ve accrued over your time in the dojo. The colour of your belt should never matter.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hi Shawn, good to hear from you again. As you probably guessed I didn’t research that comment but I wouldn’t have guessed it came in so far back. I thought it came in after the 2nd World War.

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  2. Good article, I gotta few things to say. Like what Shawn says the belt system was created in the 1800s for judo by Jigoro Kano. The important thing to know about Kano was that he was an educator by profession. One important aspect of education is the question of assessment of the student’s skill and knowledge. That’s why we have grades as in years to graduate as well as marks in a report card.

    Just like in martial arts with the belt system, educational systems for centuries never really used grades. However, they are good to have when used right. I also have to agree that the belt system does get manipulated a lot, especially when it comes to the McDojos. At the same time, it’s no different than how grades get manipulated in education. Ask me about the Thai education system, lol!

    I do have say, though, once I got my 2nd dan in taekwondo I stopped caring about ranking and cared more about the training. I’d rather be a well-skilled white belt than a mediocre black belt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comments. I have heard similar things with black belts I know. where they just want to train rather than get a higher degree black belt. Once I get my black belt I will probably still train for the higher black belts but I want to try out other martial arts too.

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  3. You largely echoed my long time sentiments on the subject. Belts can help provide structure and a sense of accomplishment, but they’re external signs. Ideally the student is supposed to develop those internally. That internal growth is what helps the martial artist as a person and “fighter” (using the term extremely loosely).

    VERY much in agreement about the belt requiring an increased level of respect and responsibility. That’s one of the things that I truly liked about Parker Kenpo. Every belt level had a creed that the student had to memorize as part of the promotion test. At yellow level it’s all about not looking for trouble. As the levels increase, the creeds become more about duty to innocents, fellow students and the art.

    The only MINOR point I’d debate is the whole teacher exploiting students via unearned promotion thing. I’ve seen FAR more cases where “soccer moms” DEMANDED that their kid got a promotion because he showed up for class and they paid the money. I even had a couple of former schools close because they went under when the teacher insisted that students earn their promotions. The West has a major self-entitlement problem, but that’s a separate discussion.

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    1. Thank you for comments. Got to say the culture between in the US and UK is a bit different. Generally the parents in the UK are quite relaxed in this respect, as long as the kids enjoy it that is all that matters. I was referring of a few “federations” in the UK which is code for businesses who grade and pass their students every few months irrespective of whether they deserve it. The head of these businesses are very rich men. Won’t say who as I can’t afford the legal fees.

      I had a look at Parker Kenpo on YouTube with Ed Parker before replying. There was so much I recognised but the difference being you guys go for the strikes and we would go for the throw or strike then throw. I really enjoyed watching it. I also like the idea of the creed for the kids, it teaches them a lot about respect and why they are doing what they are.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nice to hear that things are better in the UK in regards to that sense of entitlement. 🙂 I’ve heard of similar things to what you describe occurring here as well, but it’s typically more a case of individual schools “cutting corners” to stay afloat.

        Parker Kenpo… It was originally a mixed art with striking and grappling. Probably why you see some similarities. 🙂 Somewhere along the line, it was decided that focusing on striking was better for whatever reason. If you look at my recent post on trying to learn martial arts from a book or video though, I highlight where forgetting the grappling roots makes the techniques vulnerable in one case (there are others).

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I use belts for my BJJ and Judo programs, but we don’t have any for Sumo or Folkstyle wrestling. I think it belts add a carrot to dangle for students to chase, but I also think it detracts from the beauty of the arts in that instead of chasing the entirety of the art, they chase the next belt.

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  5. This is good! I appreciate the insight. My sensei says that I’m a black belt in nutrition, but still a long way from being a black belt in our system. I’m learning the Chuck Norris System and Qi Gong.

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    1. Hi Malissa. Keep up the good work. I love hearing about all these different martial arts and systems I haven’t heard of. I should be a black belt by now but this damn coronavirus has stopped me training for a year. I would say I am low ranking belt in nutrition, I should do better.

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  6. When I studied shotokan karate–that’s years ago now–the belts did give us a way to measure our progress. Not because of the belts but because we tested for them, and the tests were a useful reality check.

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    1. Absolutely, belts can measure progress especially when you have to pass a test. Belts give a big carrot to work towards. However, there is a big But to this where students are tested, passed and promoted when they are not to the required standard. I know of a number of clubs and organisations who do this. My instructor gives us a mock test before we take the test for real just to see if we are ready to do it for real.

      Liked by 2 people

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