Saturday, 16 April 2011

Understanding the Judo ranking system

For those of you unfamiliar with Judo’s rank system it is divided into two sections. The Kyu grades called collectively in Japanese Mudansha and Dan called collectively in Japanese Yudansha.

There are normally 6 levels of kyu grade with 6th being the lowest and 1st being the highest.

Referred to in Japanese as:
Rokkyū – 6th kyu
Gokyū – 5th kyu
Yonkyū - 4th kyu
Sankyū - 3rd kyu
Nikyū - 2nd kyu
Ikkyu - 1st kyu

There are 10 levels of dan ranks with 1st being the lowest and 10th being the highest.

Referred to in Japanese as:
Shodan – 1st dan
Nidan  - 2nd dan
Sandan – 3rd dan
Yondan – 4th dan
Godan – 5th dan
Rokudan – 6th dan
Shichidan – 7th dan (Also called Nanadan)
Hachidan – 8th dan
Ku-dan – 9th dan
Jū-dan – 10th dan

6th dan and above are considered high grades and are sometimes referred to as Kohaku grades.

The Origins of the Kyu and Dan system:

The Kyu and Dan system was invented for the Japanese board game Go in the 17th century by Honinbo Dosaku, a grandmaster of the game, and is now widely used throughout many Japanese disciplines not just the martial arts, for instance, Ikebana or the art of flower arranging.

The kyu and dan system was also adopted by the Japanese school system and a black sash was used in swimming to denote advanced swimmers from novices.

Kano adopted the kyu and dan system in 1883 issuing two dan grades to Shiro Saigo (Sugata Sanshiro of Yama Arashi fame) and Tsunejiro Tomita. Kano's move was part to help integrate Judo into the Japanese education system as was his aim and to differentiate from Jujutsu which used certificates or licenses to rank.

Shoden (entry level), Chude (middle level ) and Okuden (“secret teachings”). Different levels could be also included in each major level to designate further achievement depending on the Jujutsu school, schools had between 3 and 5 total levels some stretched up to 9.

Normally these ranks weren't indicated on the gi in anyway, but plaques would hang on dojo walls indicating level with the owners name. Some Jujutsu schools used black sashes to indicate advanced practitioners and some Jujutsu schools such as Tenjin shin'yō ryū (Kano possessed Okuden in this ryu and Kito ryu) used different colour stitching and fabric on gi to indicate rank.

Kano's adoption of the kyu and dan system and abandonment of the certificate system was part of his attempt to set Judo apart from Jujutsu, which had developed a thuggish reputation during the 19th century.

Until 1886 no black belt was worn to indicate dan rank in Judo all practitioners wore a white sash which was a common practice in Jujutsu for average level students and as such some saw the Kodokan as an inferior school of Jujutsu. The black sash was introduced to indicate senior Judoka in time for the famous Tokyo metropolitan police contest between the Kodokan and Jujutsu schools.
The black belt as we recognise it today was introduced to Judo at the same time as the modern Judogi in 1907.

Finalising of the Dan system:

In 1931 Kano wrote that 6-9th dans were to wear a kohaku (red and white panels) obi and 10th to 12th dans were to wear a solid red obi. All others were to wear white.
For those of you who speak or read Japanese here is the original quotation:

"十段以上を紅帯とし、その以外は白帯とする帯は修行の段階に依って色を異にし、初段より五段ま を黒帯、六段より九段までを 紅白のだんだら、十段以上を赤帯とし、その以外は白帯 とする"

Kano thus specified that Judo would have 12 ranks, however, there was room left open for the possibility for more ranks which the quotation indicates would likely have worn a white belt. Other sources indicate that this would likely have been a double width white belt, presumable in order to distinguish it from a beginners white belt.

Upon Kano’s death this open ended 12 dan system was subsequently revised. As Kano only promoted up to 10th dan it was decided that no one could override Kano and so no rank higher than 10th dan would be awarded from the moment onwards. The belt colours were then altered from only 10th to 12th wearing a red belt to 9th to 10th dans  being able to wear a red belt and 6th to 8th dans being able to wear a kohaku belt. The standard belt for randori and day to day Judo activities remained black, however.

A mistranslated Kodokan pamphlet Q&A section contains a line indicating that the colour for 10th dan would be ‘purple’, however, this is a mistranslation from the Japanese into French and then French into English.

Coloured kyu belts:

The origins of coloured kyu belts are often believed to have originated with Mikinosuke Kawaishi. It should be noted also that contrary to popular belief Kawaishi did not study Jujutsu or Aikijujutsu or any other form of Koryu. He attended Himeij Middle School and then Waseda University, where he studied Judo and some Kendo. He was awarded shodan in Judo from the Dai Nippon Butokukai in February 1918, but his early Judo studies were in Himeji. He started at Waseda University in 1919, and in the following year enrolled at the Kodokan, where he became a 4th dan in 1924. He left Japan in 1926 for the US where he taught Judo and graduated from Columbia university. He then travelled the Amazon in Brazil before arriving in London in 1931 due to disagreements and a court case he left England for France in 1935 where he proceeded to fall out with more people.

Gunji Koizumi is actually the likely originator of the coloured kyu belt system, whilst teaching at the London Budokwai.

The coloured belts for Kyu grades as we now know them were instituted in 1927 at the Budokwai in London. Then it was decided that 5th kyus would wear a white belt, a 4th kyus would wear a yellow belt, a 3rd kyus would wear a green belt, a 2nd kyus would wear a blue belt, a 1st kyus would wear a a brown belt. It was later decided that the number of kyu grades would be expanded to 6 and so orange belt became 4th kyu, yellow 5th kyu and white 6th kyu.

In 1927 Kawaishi was still settling into life in America and would not reach France where he is normally supposed to have developed the coloured kyu grades until 1935. Budokwai minutes also detail that at the 9th annual Budokwai display in 1926 Baron Hayashi and Prince Chichibu under the guidance of Koizumi and Tani, Hayashi awarded 3 dan grades and "belts of various colours". So the Budokwai was issuing coloured kyu grade belts in 1926 the year Kawaishi left Japan and had codified their issue by 1927.

The probably reason that the origin of coloured kyu belts in Judo is attributed to Kawaishi is because he not only produced the famed Kawaishi method, by which techniques were numbered rather than named and so it was ease for people to conflate coloured kyu grade belts into the Kawaishi method. Also because the Budokwai was a private and clique organisation and there was little Judo teaching outside of the Budokwai. Whereas in France Judo was far more widespread under the likes of Aida Hikoichi and Ishiguro Keishichi and so when Kawaishi arrived in 1935, presumably bringing the Budokwai’s kyu belt system with him, it found a network of clubs nationwide which adopted the new belt practices and so became far wider spread and instituted in France than in England.

Japanese cultural origins of rank colours:

The colour white is associated with new life a.k.a beginnings through its association with womanhood and birth. This is why traditionally in Japan women have worn belts with a white stripe on them the joshi obi. White is also the funeral or Ososhiki colour in Japan so it's associated with endings. Hence why it was chosen to be both the beginning belt and the ultimate belt- 12th dan and above.

White is also associated with purity, pure intentions and honour, think Jita kyoei... This is why it is the colour of the Judogi and why in Japan it remains the only acceptable colour for Judogi with blue gi being tolerated in certain situations and dojo.

The colour red signifies happiness, the sun and completeness. The red belt signifies one who is complete or close to becoming complete in their mastering and/or knowledge of Judo. The kohaku obi shows that one is beginning the process of trying to accomplish becoming complete in Judo, the combination of white - beginning and red completeness.

The colour black being an absence of colour symbolizes emptiness, an absence of individualism and opening the mind and body to absorb knowledge and to "start a new chapter" in one's life. In Japan traditional wedding dress is black for the groom and guests. Black is considered a unique colour and shouldn't be combined with other colours except white.

The effects of Judo’s rank structure on martial arts

 Judo’s ranking system has been almost universally taken up by the other Gendai budo that emerged from Japan in the same period. In particular the notions of ‘kyu’ and ‘dan’ with variously coloured belts making up the ‘kyu’ or beginner grades and ‘black’ marking the transition into the ‘dan’ or advanced grades and with red symbolizing the top rank, have spread to pretty much every style of martial arts from Tae Kwon do to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Indeed the effects of Judo’s rank system have spread beyond the confines of martial arts into the popular imagination. Where ‘the black belt’ has become associated with immense skill, wisdom, fighting prowess and overall deadliness. The black belt has become a symbol of mastery in popular culture to such an extent that the business management strategy Six Sigma issues the rank of ‘black belt’ to expert practicioners.

How modern dan ranks are awarded in Judo:

Dan ranks are issued by the national governing body (NGB) for Judo in each country and its affiliated organisations. The  NGB is always the recognised governing body for Judo by that nations Olympic committee. All national NGBs are members of continental unions – EJU, AJU, JUA, PJC and OJU. These continental unions are all members of the International Judo federation, IJF, which is recognised by the International Olympic Committee as the world governing body for Judo.  As well as each countries’ respective NGB and affiliates two other organisations issue dan ranks globally the IJF and the Kodokan. 

In national NGBs dan ranks from 1st to 5th dan are awarded either on the basis of contest results and technical exams or purely on technical exams.

Awards for 6th dan and above are generally given for advancement and understanding of the principles and philosophy of Judo, not for fighting prowess.

At present there are 6 legitimate Judo 10th dans worldwide. The Europeans; Henri Courtine of France, George Kerr of Great Britian and Jaap Nauwelaerts de Agé of Holland who have all been awarded 10th dan by their respective NGB. However, many consider the only ‘true’ 10th dans to be those issued by the Kodokan, the three current Kodokan 10th dan are pictured below.

(From L to R: Ichiro Abe -87- 10th dan, Yoshimi Osawa -83- 10th dan and Toshiro Daigo -84- 10th dan)


  1. RE: "Whereas in France Judo was far more widespread under the likes of Aida Hikoichi and Ishiguro Keishichi and so when Kawaishi arrived in 1935, presumably bringing the Budokwai’s kyu belt system with him, it found a network of clubs nationwide which adopted the new belt practices and so became far wider spread and instituted in France than in England."

    Hello, when M.K. came to France, there was ONE Judo Jujutsu Club operating in Paris, under M. Feldenkrais, no nationwide network.


  2. u are old hahahahahaahahahahahahahazahsa

  3. Found this very enlightning as I had no idea on how this is all structured.
    On a side note what about 'honorary dan grades'? The IJF website states "..While each country and organization has its own criteria and policies for the conferral of rank..."
    Does this mean you can get a degree without ever doing judo but by being a great supporter of judo? Seem to be the case in my country, and seemingly the IJF says countries can set their own rules and criteria...a loose leash?

  4. What is the source of this Kano's writing?
    And what part of it (in your opinion) states that there are 12 dan degrees? To me it says 10th dan or more wear a red belt. Could "and the others wear white belt" In this writing refer to mudansha instead of those ranked higher than 12th dan?