Monthly Archives: March 2017

1 No, Karate Belts Weren’t Invented For Lazy Americans

Last week we discussed a popular myth about the origin of karate belt colors. Another, even more popular, myth is that karate belts were invented for “lazy Americans.”

According to the story, the “ancient and true” martial arts masters of yore never needed belt colors. They trained because of a love of the art, and didn’t measure themselves. Belts only came along when the martial arts moved to the west – specifically the United States. Those lazy westerners (especially Americans) wouldn’t train if they couldn’t see some outward measure of their progress. So the supreme martial artists invented belt colors to keep those lazy Americans training.

There’s a common theme between this myth and the last one: the idea that martial artists of yesteryear didn’t need or use belt colors. That part is true. But it wasn’t so much from a love of the art. Before the late nineteenth century, students of the Asian martial arts basically fell into one of two categories: soldiers or monks. The monks studied the art as a form of discipline to aid their religious studies. The soldiers studied them because they literally concerned life and death. Then, as now, few people actually studied the arts for decades on end just for pure love.

But there’s a huge underlying flaw in this theory: belt ranks predate the widespread acceptance of the martial arts in the western world. Gichin Funakoshi adopted the kyu/dan rank system in the early 1920s and awarded the first karate black belts in 1924. The study of karate, however, didn’t spread outside of Japan until the 1950s.

Next week: Where Karate Belt Colors ACTUALLY Came From.

1 How Your Karate Belt Colors DIDN’T Come To Be

There’s a legend surrounding karate belt colors. I’ve heard variants of it in many dojos, but the core of the legend goes something like this:

In the beginning, the only two belt colors were white and black. Since ancient tradition dictates that washing your belt washes all your knowledge away, over time, a student’s belt would begin to fray and yellow. After a bit more time, the belt would start to get moldy and turn green. Eventually, years of training would leave it dirty and brown. When it reached that point, the ancient instructors knew the student was nearing time for a black belt. Thus, eventually, we got the first belt colors of white, yellow, green, brown and then black. Later, this system evolved into the broader spectrum of colors we see today.

It’s a fun story. Kids, especially, love it. Why wouldn’t they? It’s all about how something awesome happened from not washing, right? And it puts a rhyme and reason behind your belt colors. And it makes sense, at least internally.

It’s also complete bunk. There are at least four completely fabricated falsehoods in this story.

First, the tradition of not washing your belt is not ancient. As near as I can tell, it’s not even a Japanese tradition – it’s American in origin. The Japanese have a cultural obsession with cleanliness, and this tradition makes no sense within that culture.

Second, this isn’t actually the way white actually changes colors over time – unless you wash it. If you don’t wash it, it’s going to become brown from dirt first. White fading to yellow is something that only happens if you do wash the dirt off.

Third, even within the discipline of karate, belt colors are highly non-standard between schools. In many dojos, these colors won’t even relate to the colors they actually use on their belts. I’m continually caught off guard by students coming in from other dojos with various belt colors – which is why I’ve stopped even asking. I just ask how long they’ve been training. That gives me a much better idea of their status than any color does.

Fourth, these aren’t even the original belt colors. Gichin Funakoshi’s original belt color system for Shotokan (as near as I can tell, the earliest karate belt coloring system), was white-brown-black. That kind of fits the legend. But these are predated by Jigoro Kano’s Judo belt color system, which used the colors light blue – white – brown – black. That’s right – the original belt system didn’t even start with white!

It’s a fun story. Enjoy it when you hear it. Heck, even tell it a few times if you must. But recognize it for what it is: a story, not the history of the martial arts.

Next week: Karate Belt Colors Weren’t Invented For Lazy Americans

A Student In Need

Friends,

We’ve been through some wonderful times together as a dojo. Unfortunately, sometimes the times aren’t so great. Last weekend, tragedy struck close to home for one of our youngest students. Ethan LaPietra came out on Saturday to perform wonderfully at his belt test and earn a well deserved blue belt. Sadly, the next day he found his world turned upside down when his father passed away from a heart attack.

Beyond the terrible emotional shock, the family now also finds themselves facing a financial shock as well. In addition to the immediate costs associated with the tragedy, they’ve also lost a major pillar of their support. The family has launched a GoFundMe campaign to help ease their burden.

This morning I made a contribution to their campaign. Now I’m asking any of our students and friends who are able to chip in a little of their own to help out. Even a little bit can help in their time of difficulty.

Thank you all, as always, for your generosity.

Sensei Russell Newquist

[Cross posted to my personal blog]