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The Origins of the “Dan/Kyu” Degree and the Meaning of the Belts

The creation of the dan/kyu system as it is known today belongs to Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo, who had a dans system in his school divided into five grades. In 1883 he gave the first danes to two of his most outstanding students (Saigo and Tomita) and in 1920 advised to apply this system on karate so it could be accepted as a sport. By 1935 Mikonosuke Kawaishi introduced the colors in the range of Kyu or Mudansha in Paris, these are the most important references for the modern sport.

Meaning and Symbolism of the Degree

“Dan” as a term, dates from a previous era, was used to differentiate the level of the adept in the different stages of progression in the martial arts. The Degree was used to determine the progression of the disciple and could be in three levels: SHODAN, NIDAN and SANDAN (low, medium and high level). On the other hand, a “Kyu” is a student. It comes from the kanji used to represent the word thread. In this case, the thread symbolizes the will, which must be discovered and cultivated so that it does not cut and reach continuity in practice. So, Dan refers to the level to reach and Kyu to the grade achieved by the disciple.

Symbolism and Meaning of the Belt Colors

According to the ancient Japanese tradition, the human being energetically and symbolically possesses a scale of colors, and in each one of them are represented their own temperament, humor, feelings, imagination and is influenced by them in all their moods. The colors have symbolic associations that appear in rituals, dresses and Japanese art.

The belt (Obi in Japanese), of karate, symbolizes the learning cycle of a Kyu in the different stages of his practice of karate, the practical purpose of the belt, is to hold the karate gi to avoid excessive slack and allowing a better performance. But in the martial arts, it also symbolizes the scale of learning in that path of technical, physical and spiritual improvement, as well as a reward for the effort and experience acquired.

The color of the belt starts in white and it’s darkening with the years of dedication and practice of karate until the student reaches the Black Belt and its subsequent Dans. Now, the symbolism of every color of the Mudansha grades, set of lower grades divided in decreasing order from the white belt 6º Kyu, to the brown 1º Kyu. It all starts with the white belt, it symbolizes the ingenuity and cleanliness that characterizes the student who doesn’t possess any knowledge. The beginning of the learning and transformation, followed by the yellow belt that symbolizes the awakening, realism and discovery of the karate student. The one who starts to get familiar with the art.

The orange belt: symbolizes the student’s illusion, love and deep emotions for karate. It’s in this level in which the student discovers its risks and the precautions he or she must take to not get out of the way, afterward the green belt is awarded and it symbolizes the hope and faith of the karate student, it’s the knowledge that begins to grow and flourish.

The blue belt represents the idealism and purity of the student, seeing the new horizons of learning and the maturity of the progress in the practice of karate, then the brown belt follows, symbolizing the consolidation of the roots and establishment of the knowledge base of the Black Belt. Lastly, the black belt comes, and with it, begins a new vision of karate and the path to true knowledge of martial arts. It represents the accumulation of knowledge during years of practice and as the opposite of the white belt, it’s the previous one to the next step on the way to Yudansha.

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