Gradings in karate are the formal recognition of a student’s progress, with higher ranks and the associated belts being awarded. the use of coloured belts in karate (and other martial arts) is perhaps one of the most recognisable aspects of the art, and yet it is a relatively modern (and western) invention. While there are many who criticise the system and its imperfections, discussed briefly below, the karate ranking system is a useful shorthand in organising classes and tournaments to allow students to work and compete at an appropriate level. Perhaps more importantly, gradings are synonymous with karate and it there are very few dojos that operate without a ranking system. Thus it is useful to be familiar with the system and what it means for the studying karateka.
Format and timing
A general rule of thumb is that progress through each successive kyu grade (see the explanation of belt system below) takes a number of months; while this is not usually rigorously enforced, most clubs do not hold gradings more than a few times a year. Regular training between gradings is essential, otherwise you may not be permitted to grade or, worse, may waste your money by failing. When a student approaches brown belt level, the timing between gradings often increases due to the increased difficulty of the gradings. From the first black belt to higher dan grades, the time in between grades will be several years.
Gradings are formal events, and may be held with a visiting examiner, but for the main part are similar to everyday training; there will be elements of kihon, kata, and kumite, and you should not be asked to do something you are not familiar with. Most clubs have a formal syllabus for each grade, outlining what you are expected to know, and this should be made available in good time beforehand. For lower grades, techniques may also be demonstrated beforehand.
Gradings will more often than not follow a (mandatory) training session held by the examining instructor, and attendance at this session can act as an informal part of the grading, allowing the examiner to note individuals before the formal grading. This may inform the examiner’s decision if mistakes are made in the grading itself, and so it is a good idea to push yourself in this session!
A typical grading will begin with a formal bow to the examiners, and then a group of students (perhaps six) will be asked up while the others sit down and wait. Usually, gradings begin with lower grades and work upwards, in groups such that the examiner can watch each student individually. Various kihon combinations are then performed, appropriate to rank, before performing their tokui kata and kumite exercises paired up with another student. After kihon, kata, and kumite appropriate for the rank being tested are performed, the examiner may ask for lower kata or kumite exercises also. For higher grades, there can follow a section of free kumite, where the student is observed for both attacking and defensive skills. Unlike higher judo grades, winning matches is generally not required.
After all candidates have completed the grading, the examiner will call all the students round and announce the results, giving feedback on the grading from any notes taken. Actual belts are not awarded; these will need to be bought following the grading, or may be obtained (if you are lucky) from higher students passing theirs down.
Karate ranking systems
The belt systems employed by karate clubs around the world are essentially uniform (no pun intended), though different organisations occasionally differ in specific details. A typical ranking system, in order of lowest-to-higest grade, might look like:
10th kyu – white
9th kyu – orange
8th kyu – red
7th kyu – yellow
6th kyu – green
5th kyu – purple
4th kyu – purple-with-white-stripe
3rd kyu – brown
2nd kyu – brown-with-white-stripe
1st kyu – brown-with-two-white-stripes
1st dan (shodan)
2nd dan (nidan)
3rd dan (sandan)
4th dan (yondan)
5th dan (godan)
All dan grades correspond to a black belt; this belt thus does not directly indicate exact grade. The dan system continues to 10th dan, though higher dan grades may be awarded by committee and reflect services to the art instead of a physical examination. The number of people at each dan grade drops dramatically.
Criticism of the belt system
Common criticism of the belt system is that is exists solely as a money-making enterprise, and that the grades awarded have no relevance outside of the dojo they are awarded in. Both of these criticisms are often valid, where small organisations run by individuals have an interest in making money and may award belts as often as they choose. There are many stories of clubs and organisations run by individuals who profess to be masters of their (usually invented, non-classical) ‘art’, who award grades and rake in money as they see fit. And this, while immoral, is not illegal; in a consumer market, people are free to do what they like; you can buy yourself a black belt from the internet, and you can print yourself a dan certificate at home. There is no national standards watchdog for dan grades in martial arts, and as such the best way to counter such accusations of irrelevance and/or poor standards is to have clubs belonging to a larger association.
The belt system does have a number of compelling advantages, though: for westerners, and children particularly, it appears that the regular and continuous progression through very obvious coloured milestones acts a good motivator, and serves as a reminder of progress made. We simply respond to the belt system very favourably. Further, the convention of standing in grade order allows for quick and appropriate splitting of the class for different levels of experience, and it makes categorisation for competition workable.
In truth, though, any such criticism or defence of the belt system, of karate in general, or indeed anything at all, rests only with the answer to the simple question whether, as a consumer, you are prepared to accept the product being offered at the price specified.
What to bring to a grading
For a grading, you will need your karate uniform and belt. You will also need to bring your licence (make sure it is in date!) and the appropriate fee if you have not already paid. At higher ranks, you will need protective equipment for free sparring. Bringing a drink (water) is recommended.