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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.