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How do the belt systems work? PDF 
Many arts have a ranking system. A typical ranking from beginner to most experienced master is: 10th kyu, 9th kyu, ..., 2nd kyu, 1st kyu, 1st dan, 2nd dan, ..., 10th dan. "kyu" and "dan" are Japanese words; Korean systems use the word "gup" instead of "kyu". 1st dan and above frequently wear black belts.

That being said, do not put too much stock in rankings, and put even less in belt color. Belt colors are HIGHLY dependent on the art, school, and instructor. Some arts don't have any belts. Some have only white and black. Some have white, brown, and black. Some have a rainbow. Some instructors hand out rank/belts like candy, others are very stingy. A given color will frequently signify different ranks in different arts.Rather than rank or belt color, what will determine an individual's skill are how long and how intensely they have studied, the quality of instruction they have received, and (to a lesser extent) their "natural" ability.
A brief history of kyu/dan ranking systems and belts, contributed by Steve Gombosi ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ), is given below:

Before Jigoro Kano invented Judo, there was no kyu/dan ranking system. Kano invented it when he awarded "shodan" to two of his senior students (Saito and Tomita) in 1883. Even then, there was no external differentiation between yudansha (dan ranks) and mudansha (those who hadn't yet attained dan ranking). Kano apparently began the custom of having his yudansha wear black obis in 1886. These obis weren't the belts karateka and judoka wear today - Kano hadn't invented the judogi (uniform) yet, and his students were still practicing in kimono. They were the wide obi still worn with formal kimono. In 1907, Kano introduced the modern gi and its modern obi, but he still only used white and black.

Karateka in Okinawa didn't use any sort of special uniform at all in the old days. The kyu/dan ranking system, and the modern karategi modified judogi) were first adopted by Funakoshi in an effort to encourage karate's acceptance by the Japanese. He awarded the first "shodan" ranks given in karate to Tokuda, Otsuka, Akiba, Shimizu, Hirose, Gima, and Kasuya on April 10, 1924. The adoption of the kyu/dan system and the adoption of a standard uniform based on the judogi were 2 of the 4 conditions which the Dai-Nippon Butokukai required before recognizing karate as a "real" martial art. If you look at ph otographs of Okinawan karateka training in the early part of this century, you'll see that they were training in their everyday clothes, or (!) in their underwear.

Most other arts that have ranking/belt color systems adopted them from the Japanese.

 

 

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Source: Answerbag.com by rec-martial-arts
 
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