This article is from the Martial Arts FAQ, by Matthew Weigel email@example.com with numerous contributions by others.
Many arts have a ranking system. A typical ranking from beginner to
most experienced master is: 10th kyu, 9th kyu, ..., 2nd kyu, 1st kyu,
1st dan, 2nd dan, ..., 10th dan. "kyu" and "dan" are Japanese words;
Korean systems use the word "gup" instead of "kyu". 1st dan and above
frequently wear black belts.
That being said, do not put too much stock in rankings, and put even
less in belt color. Belt colors are HIGHLY dependent on the art,
school, and instructor. Some arts don't have any belts. Some have
only white and black. Some have white, brown, and black. Some have a
rainbow. Some instructors hand out rank/belts like candy, others are
very stingy. A given color will frequently signify different ranks in
Rather than rank or belt color, what will determine an individual's
skill are how long and how intensely they have studied, the quality of
instruction they have received, and (to a lesser extent) their
A brief history of kyu/dan ranking systems and belts, contributed by
Steve Gombosi (firstname.lastname@example.org), is given below:
Before Jigoro Kano invented Judo, there was no kyu/dan ranking system.
Kano invented it when he awarded "shodan" to two of his senior
students (Saito and Tomita) in 1883. Even then, there was no external
differentiation between yudansha (dan ranks) and mudansha (those who
hadn't yet attained dan ranking). Kano apparently began the custom of
having his yudansha wear black obis in 1886. These obis weren't the
belts karateka and judoka wear today - Kano hadn't invented the judogi
(uniform) yet, and his students were still practicing in kimono. They
were the wide obi still worn with formal kimono. In 1907, Kano
introduced the modern gi and its modern obi, but he still only used
white and black.
Karateka in Okinawa didn't use any sort of special uniform at all in
the old days. The kyu/dan ranking system, and the modern karategi
(modified judogi) were first adopted by Funakoshi in an effort to
encourage karate's acceptance by the Japanese. He awarded the first
"shodan" ranks given in karate to Tokuda, Otsuka, Akiba, Shimizu,
Hirose, Gima, and Kasuya on April 10, 1924. The adoption of the
kyu/dan system and the adoption of a standard uniform based on the
judogi were 2 of the 4 conditions which the Dai-Nippon Butokukai
required before recognizing karate as a "real" martial art. If you
look at ph otographs of Okinawan karateka training in the early part of
this century, you'll see that they were training in their everyday
clothes, or (!) in their underwear.
Most other arts that have ranking/belt color systems adopted them from