One of the questions most often asked by people taking their first aikido class with us is either "does aikido have grades, like karate?", or "why is everyone wearing either a white belt or a black belt?" Essentially, as I will try and explain in this short article, those boil down to the same question.

For decades, the term "black belt" has been synonymous with mastery of a martial art, and thought of in Western terms as the near-unattainable pinnacle of achievement. I remember reading, some years ago, that someone held a first- or second-dan black belt in each of two or three different disciplines and thinking "well, that's ridiculous... life's simply too short to achieve that level of skill in more than one school". However, I was probably misunderstanding exactly what the prized black belt was meant to represent. Although I now recognise that it is indeed possible, it is still an impressive achievement and a reflection of dedication on the part of the practitioner.

The black belt as a sign of rank in a martial art was apparently introduced by Jigoro Kano (the founder of modern judo) around the 1880s1. Prior to that, the traditional schools of Japanese martial disciplines used the so-called Menkyo system, defining broad rankings along a time-scale which, to Western eyes, can look forbiddingly long-range:

* Oku-iri (4-8 years of practice)
* Sho-mokuroku (8-15 years)
* Go-mokuroku (15-18 years)
* Menkyo (18-25 years)

However, those disciplines that have achieved widespread adoption in the West are now much more likely to use 5 or 6 kyu grades to mark students' progress towards 1st dan (shodan).

Jigoro Kano introduced changes such as the shodan concept and the judogi (uniform) as part of his over-all intent to modernise and broaden the appeal of (in his case) judo. Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan karate) apparently adopted the ideas of shodan grading and gi in the '20s. The awarding of coloured belts to distinguish levels of yudansha (or pre-black belt students) is reckoned to have been introduced by Mikonosuke Kawaishi, who taught judo in Paris in the 1930s; he apparently felt that the introduction of kyu grades with visible indicators of progress would provide Western students with better motivation in the early stages.

Since then, martial arts ranking systems have evolved in scope and detail in most disciplines, and in arts such as judo, jujitsu, karate and aikido the black belt marks the transition from someone who is still studying the basic techniques, to someone who is considered to have mastered the basic syllabus and is therefore ready to start studying in earnest the underlying principles (martial or otherwise) which those techniques illustrate. There is an excellent article here(external link) on the historical background to grading in aikido.

The Hombu aikido custom is that kyu grades (also referred to as mudansha) wear a white belt right up to the level of shodan (that is, although they do progress through the kyu grades, they still retain the white belt). Realistically, a part-time "recreational" student can expect to need somewhere between 5 and 8 years of practice to make that progression, depending on ability, application, frequency of training and so on. The white belt serves as a reminder of that need for long-term commitment to study and development.

François Warlet, of the Association Francophone d'Aikido in Belgium, puts it like this:

"shodan (...) se traduit par 'premier niveau'; en devenant shodan on devient... débutant titulaire et tant pis pour celui qui pensait devenir expert."

"shodan translates as 'first/beginning level'; in attaining shodan one earns the title of 'beginner' - and tough luck to anyone who thought it meant becoming an expert."

RW