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Why We Use the Coloured Belt (Kyu) System | Pacific Wave Jiu-jitsu

Why We Use the Coloured Belt (Kyu) System

Many people eschew the use of the coloured belt system (or ‘kyu’ ranks) as not being traditional to the Japanese roots, claiming that they are simply a carrot dangled to keep impatient westerners interested. Mikonosuke Kawaishi is generally regarded as the first to introduce various colored belts in Europe in 1935 when he started to teach Judo in Paris. He felt that western students would show greater progress if they had a visible system of many colored belts recognizing achievement and providing regular incentives who felt that it would help westerners learn and stay.

While that was the original reason for the introduction of the coloured belt system, and not an altogether complimentary one towards westerners at that, there are a number of other reasons why the system makes sense, even if it’s not used as a dangling carrot.

In our dojo, we use the various ranks to break up our students’ learning into logical blocks. This is to provide the best platform for learning for our students, to ensure that the proper foundation is being built so that people don’t focus always on learning new stuff when they don’t have the skills they need to move ahead. The kyu system is also designed to help keep people safe. If people don’t learn the proper skills before doing live training like sparring or grappling, the chances of injury are greatly increased.

Belt/kyu gradings give us teachers a system whereby we periodically take a focused look at our students’ progress to ensure they have learned what they need to know before moving on to more advanced curriculum. In our dojo, a new belt is not a trophy to be coveted or lorded over other students, nor would we ever put up with such behaviour. It is meant to indicate what level of curriculum the student knows, serving as a guide for us teachers. It also helps newer students understand who can help them best when they need it.

This may not necessarily be the way it is done in dojos throughout Japan, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t equally valid in a western context. It is not necessarily a reflection of “the impatience of westerners.” Different cultures learn in different ways. In the west, people are more accustomed to systematized learning systems and tend to do best when knowledge is broken up into stepping stones.

At our dojo, you’re only invited to grade for the next belt level when you’re ready, as evaluated by the instructors. If a student takes twice as long as the average to move to the next level, so be it. I’ve had students wear the same belt for over a year, even two years without progressing. And I’m not talking about senior belts, I’m talking about lower levels here. If they haven’t learned what they need to learn to move on to the next level, they simply stay where they are. Many dojos would consider this practice bad for business, but in the kind of dojo I’m running, it is much worse for business to let people move up a level or learn curriculum they’re not ready for as it produces poor martial artists and can lead to injury (their own or others’).

This is not to say that I have anything against the traditional Japanese way, I just think that each way has its place and is relevant in different contexts both inter-culturally and even within one culture. Neither way should be looked down upon unless it is being improperly used (i.e. people are not learning what they need to learn) or with cynical motivations (just to make more money without care for quality).

Comments (5)

5 thoughts on “Why We Use the Coloured Belt (Kyu) System

  1. I don't think there's anything wrong with the coloured belt system aslong as a high standard is maintained and they aren't handed out like candy after a certain time period as in so many McDojo's. It's a good way to motivate people to keep up their training to the point where they start to care more about their own internal development and not so much about the outward manifestation of it. Getting a new belt is like getting good grades in school: if you passed it proves you did your best and the result was adequate, if not it tells you you need to work harder and focus more on certain aspects. Getting a black belt is comparable to getting a university degree: it's proof you mastered the basic technical aspects of your field and it's a reward for the dedication and the work you put in, yet it's no garantee you'll be able to deliver the goods when push comes to shove just as an academic degree isn't a garantee you'll succeed in life. It's a start, nothing more.


    PS: the kyu-system is used in traditional Japanese systems as well, the only difference being they have two or three belts instead of 6 or 7 before shodan. A friend of mine practices genbukan ninpo and koryu jujutsu: there are 10 kyu-grades before black belt, they're divided in one level of white (beginner) and 9 levels of green with black stripes to reflect the level. From black belt on there are also 10 degrees, shown by golden stripes on the belt, and a more traditional system of 3 levels per school or ryuha in the system: okuden, menkyo and kaiden, kaiden meaning you received all of the school's teachings.

    I think the exact grading system doesn't really matter per se, as long as the system itself is sound, the teachers legit, competent and honest and the students hardworking and humble enough to accept criticism, hardship and failure. There's much merit in your reasoning: it's foolish and dangerous to teach beginners advanced techniques and every style or activity has a learning curve, just as you'd first learn to count before studying algebra.

  2. Just an addendum on that, Mikonosuke Kawaishi created is generally accepted as the first to start using the KYU system, but Kano Jigoro is the one who formalized the DAN system.

  3. I kinda had a hunch that the belt system was created around the time that Eastern martial arts were introduced to “westerners”. I guess it’s all, in the end, about individual feel – which one is right for you. Chinese martial arts in general don’t have belts. Japanese and Korean MAs have them. It’s funny I wrote this post regarding seniority:

    It’s my personal belief that the few belts, the better. Belts are accurate measurements of ability only up to a certain point.

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