By Dennis Lawson
Published on Apr 29th, 2011

When discussing the martial arts we often hear about the lineage, origin, or development of a particular style or system. No one knows when the martial arts, as we recognize them, developed in human society. Some say they developed in China or came from India or even Egypt or Greece. I tend to think of the martial arts as a product of human pre-history, as having developed with the skills and mythology of hunting in our prehistoric ancestors. My argument is that the marital arts developed along with human civilization instead of as a separate discipline associated with a particular time or culture. That discussion will wait for another time and article. Modern students may study martial arts from a variety of cultures, mostly Asian. Martial arts from China, Okinawa, Korea, Japan, The Philippines, Malaysia, America, etc. may be readily available at your local shopping mall. What I find interesting about the martial arts in Western civilization is the focus on the “Black Belt”.

This use of belt ranking in the martial arts is a recent phenomenon. If the arts date back to ancient China, India, or Greece, no modern scholars have found any reference to a belt system. The black belt or kyu / dan system of ranking martial artists is believed to have originated in Japan with Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, at the Kodokan about 1883. This puts the development of the kyu / dan system back less than 150 years ago. A realistic time comparison would be to think of “belt system” developing with the U.S. at the end of reaching its Western frontier or Victorian England “ruling the waves”. The idea may have been co opted from the belt ranking systems of Tea Ceremony and the strategy game, Go. Remember this was a time when Japanese society was embracing everything Western, thanks to the opening of Japan’s trading limitations by Admiral Perry’s “black ships” arriving in Tokyo bay. The traditional uniform, as we know it, was also developed about this same time. Prior to its development, martial artists trained in their normal dress. The short kimono jacket, pants, and belt were also developed by Kano as a standard uniform for the Kodokan. The Classical Japanese martial arts (Judo is a modern “do” form of martial arts) did not use the belt system to differentiate the levels of expertise of their practitioners. The classical Japanese, like most (non-prehistoric) human cultures, were still conscious of prestige and rank. They used a system called the Menkyo system. This was a method of licensing teachers in various martial traditions. The Menkyo system usually divided practitioners into three or five levels similar to the European apprenticeship system used for trades in medieval times.

Another modern development is the colored belt system. Under Kano’s grading system black belt wearers of any level are called yudansha (graded ranks). Practitioners who have not yet achieved black belt are considered mudansha, mu literally meaning “nothing”. Under Kano’s original ranking system there were no colored belts awarded. Yet, if one visits any modern studio, whatever tradition or method that studio purports, one will see a rainbow of colors worn by the students. I can only end this article with questions. Why have belts and their associated rank become a part of so many martial arts traditions? Why martial arts from cultures other than Japan would, embrace Kano’s kyu / dan system? Why did the colored belts develop from the mudansha or “not graded” ranks to the various approaches we see today? If this article intrigues you, please send your comments to We’d enjoy hearing from you.

Filed under History

Author Bio :: Dennis Lawson

Dennis Lawson has trained for 4 decades in Ed Parker's Kenpo. During his varied career, Mr. Lawson has been an IKKA Regional Director for Region #3, has acted as Master of Ceremonies for the International Karate Championships, and has published numerous articles in publications for the International Kenpo Karate Association, The Martial Arts Learning Community (TheMALC), and Kenpo 2000.

Mr. Lawson has had the opportunity to study other Martial Arts and holds advanced rank in Aikido and Takemusu Aiki Budo. Dennis taught, competed in, and promoted events in the New Orleans area for 20 years. Among his list of favorite achievements is choreographing and performing Kenpo for the Dance Council of New Orleans. His academic background in psychology and love of music allow Dennis to offer a unique and entertaining approach to tailoring "the Art" to the individual. Dennis has taught seminars in Ireland, Jersey Channel Islands, The Netherlands, Portugal, and throughout the United States.

Dennis holds a Sixth Degree Black Belt in Ed Parker's Kenpo and was awarded the title “Professor” under the auspices of The Martial Arts Learning Community (TheMALC). Mr. Lawson was inducted into the International Black Belt Hall of Fame as Master Instructor of the Year for 2006.

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