The origins of the coloured belt systems (from a Japanese point of view)
Belts’ are used in Japanese martial arts as a description of rank or experience. It seems that this idea gained somewhat in popularity around the early to mid part of this century, influencing other styles. In Kung-fu a similar approach, only they use a coloured sash instead. As for Korean styles, I believe there belt systems were copied from Japan as they use identical belts with similar colours, but I am not too sure on this point. The concept was very simple you start with a white belt, end of story! In early martial art training the colour white was simply to match your clothing which was of a simple style (you dont wear your best tunic to roll around on the floor). Your belt really was only to hold your trousers up. As time progresses, the belt became dirty turning in to a darker colour. The suit (gi) would be washed for hygiene reasons, but the belt (obi) was not really very important so would get no more than a brushing or quick soke.

In time this lead to a simple rule of thumb to how much ‘mat time’ someone had accumulated – the dirtier the belt and the more experience.

When the belt system was originally introduced, there were only three colours white, green and black. In time more colours joined this list, mainly due to Western influences. Today there can be between 5 and 10 different coloured ranking belts, including black in a given martial art style.

All colours except black are called kyu grades, a black belt is the first dan grade. This markes the completion of basic training and the start of 'mastering' an art, hence so much emphisis is placed upon getting a black belt.