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.