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Ranking and Testing in the Martial Arts

Mark W. Swarthout

Shido Kan Kanji

What belt are you? It is probably the first question that someone with little or no experience with the martial arts will ask you when they learn that you are a practitioner. And they understand White Belt and Black Belt and most of them realize that Brown Belt is pretty far up there. But if the answer is Green with brown tips, or Purple with two stripes or Blue even a veteran martial artist’s eyes will glaze over.

A better way of asking the question is, “What rank are you?” Whether the answer is in Kyu (Japanese and Okinawan) or in Gup (Korean) the lower the number, the higher the rank. Unless your are talking about Blackbelts or Dans, in which the higher number is the higher rank.

But belts are a relatively modern invention. They provide a way of quickly understanding how people in a school relate to each other in their journey down the path of martial arts. Most styles are pretty consistent in their ranking colors which allows you to figure out where you fit in the hierarchy when training with other schools. A ranking system helps an instructor gauge what forms or katas to concentrate on in class, or how to divide the class up in relationship to the number of assistants there are available. Schools work it differently. Some have students purchase belts at every advancement, stripes running the length of the belt. Other schools use a permanent marker to add rings around the ends of the belt and others use a band of tape. We dye or paint five inches at each end to indicate the steps between the solid colors. Less expensive then buying belts all the time!

And, let’s face it, it also helps feed our egos! We can see progress through the slowly changing colors around our waist.

Tradition says that originally the belt started off white. Through the process of time and age it slowly changes colors on its own. First to yellow and then to green and then into the browns until it is black with dirt and age. And then the belt slowly starts to turn white again.

But be careful! Just because someone is a white belt does not mean that they are untrained, or without knowledge. Each individual should be treated with respect. I know one individual that I met and worked out with in regional seminars for several years. He always wore a white belt. It was obvious to anyone that spent any time working with him that he had a great deal of experience. He had decided to switch styles and that he wouldn’t try to work his way up the ranks, he would study until ready to be accepted at his original highest rank. His black belt looks pretty sharp!

And one will often encounter individuals that have studied more than one style or art. Many of the members of my dojo have studied other styles, myself included. There is the Shodan who arrived wearing a white belt, having just moved to the area and not able to find a school in his style. He decided that we were the closest to his previous learning and he liked the people. There is the white belt who, with permission of course, demonstrated a beautifully executed Judo throw on the 5th Dan leading class. The same 5th Dan also holds a 3rd Dan ranking in Aikido, sharing joint locks and other techniques to increase our knowledge.

And to the uninitiated, seeing someone wearing a white and red belt, or even a red belt means nothing. In some styles a red belt is a step on the way to black. In many, it is the ultimate goal, red belts are worn by the 9th and 10th dan holders.

In many styles, in addition to the knowledge levels of katas and forms, kumite and sparring, there are age requirements. My current style limits the Black Belt to 14 or over. Nidan is as high as one can go until after graduating high school.

The traditional Chinese arts use a much simpler ranking system. White is a beginning student, Yellow is more advanced student, and red is an student who is also an instructor.

In today's society, immediate gratification is more common. We need the rewards as encouragement and the belts give us goals that we can see and feel. The study of a martial art is a life long endeavor. The goal is supposed to be self improvement rather than a specific rank.


Different styles have a wide variety of different ways of promoting individuals. As discussed above, belts are a relatively recent development in the world of martial arts, the first systems appear to have developed in the late 1800's. As more styles sought recognition from national based organizations, particularly in Japan, they adapted to the system then in place.

Originally most people trained with their teacher until they had learned as much as they could, then they either sought additional instruction or they continued to refine their skills with their current instructor.

If a practitioner was particularly skilled, his instructor might provide him with a document that had a certification that he had learned all that he had to teach. And in some styles the teacher would paass on his certificate to the senior practitioner in his style, passing the torch to the next generation.

Others would allow their senior students to copy the documents that they had been handed, passing on the knowledge that they had recorded, often using difficult to understand notation of limited value without detailed instruction to go with it. See The Bubishi.

In many styles, particularly outside of the Asian area, promotion requirements are carefully layed out. Many include a list of skills and a time frame, either actual calendar weeks/months or perhaps a specific number of classes.

Testing can be a very formal affair. A date is set, you are expected to be there at the designated time with the appropriate uniform and gear. A board of examiners will be in place and carefully watch each and every technique as the testees perform them one at a time.

Testing at the lower ranks tends to be a little less strenuous. It could be a simple as a senior student coming out with a clip board and checking off each technique as you do it in front of him.

I have had a number of people tell me that they would be surprised by their teacher approaching them after class and telling them to get a new belt of x color, they are promoted.

The testing for Shodan, that first level of Black Belt, is often a very strenuous one. Some styles will take a full day to do the testing, including miles of running and sparring with every other black belt present. In many cases they are expected to perform every single technique they have learned over the previous years, but only after they are so tired they can hardly move.

Many styles include a written knowledge test about the style, the terms and definitions and its history and origins. Others require an essay about some aspect of the martial arts in order to be promoted to Black Belt.

There are others that have a very specific testing pattern. While you are expected to perform a certain number of kata, step drills and bunkai, what is just as important, if not more important, is the classes leading up to the test. Here the instructors watch and evaluate the student, observing and helping them to grow, helping them improve their techniques and smoothing out the rough spots.

When you select a style or dojo in which to learn a martial art, it would be worth while to understand how they accomplish testing. This may be better asked of another student, rather than the instructor. The instuctor might think it a bit forward if you ask what is on the Black Belt test before you have even signed up!

But testing is a milestone to reach. It involves focusing one's own energy and moving forward to that goal, knowing that there are further challenges beyond. It can serve as an opportunity to show off what you have learned. And it is an opportunity to be the center of attention in a way that seldom happens.

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A version of this article was originally published on Suite101

Copyright 2006, Marek Swarthout