Judo Ranks and Grading

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Judo rank is generally not of primary importance among jūdōka who participate in tournaments. Modern judo is primarily practised as a sport, so there tends to be more emphasis on tournament records than on rank. Since rank does not determine competitive performance, and since tournaments are not structured by rank (except at the lowest novice levels), it is not uncommon to see lower-ranked competitors defeat higher-ranked opponents.

An active competitor may not pursue high ranks, preferring to focus on preparation for competition; for example, a silver medal was won by an ikkyu (brown belt) female competitor, Lorena Pierce, in the -70 kg category at the 2004 Paralympics.

Since rank requirements typically include a minimum age, it is not uncommon to find teenage competitors at national-level competition who have been practicing judo for 10 years and can beat most adult practitioners, but who are only purple or brown belts due to being too young to qualify for a dan rank.

Once an individual attains the level of a dan rank, further promotions can be for a variety of reasons including skill level, competition performance and/or contributions to judo such as teaching and volunteering time, therefore a higher dan rank does not necessarily mean that the holder is a better fighter (although oftentimes it does).

JÅ«dōka are ranked according to skill and knowledge of judo, and their rank is reflected by their belt colour. There are two divisions of rank, below black-belt “grades” (kyÅ«), and black belt “degrees” (dan). This ranking system of was introduced into the martial arts by Kano and has since been widely adopted by modern martial arts.

As initially designed, there were six student grades which were numerically ranked in descending order, with 1st kyū being the last before promotion to first degree black belt (shodan). There are ordinarily 10 dan ranks are in ascending numerical order. For dan ranks the first five are coloured black, 6th, 7th, and 8th dan have alternating red and white panels, and for 9th and 10th dan the belts were to be solid red.

The tenth degree black belt (jÅ«dan) and those above it have no formal requirements. The president of the Kodokan, currently Kano Jigoro’s grandson Yukimitsu Kano (Kano Yukimitsu), decides on individuals for promotion. Only 15 individuals have been promoted to this rank by the Kodokan.

On January 6, 2006, three individuals were promoted to 10th dan simultaneously: Toshiro Daigo, Ichiro Abe, and Yoshimi Osawa. This is the most ever at the same time, and the first in 22 years. No one has ever been promoted to a rank higher than 10th dan, but Theoretically the Judo rank system is not limited to 10 degrees of black belt.

The original English language copy (1955) of Illustrated Kodokan Judo, by Jigoro Kano, says: “There is no limit…on the grade one can receive. Therefore if one does reach a stage above 10th dan… there is no reason why he should not be promoted to 11th dan.” However, since there has never been any promotion to a rank above 10th dan, the Kodokan Judo promotion system effectively has only 10 dans. There have only been 15 10th dans awarded by the Kodokan in the history of Judo.

Although dan ranks tend to be consistent between national organisations there is more variation in the kyū grades, with some countries having more kyū grades. Although initially kyū grade belt colours were uniformly white, today a wide variety of colours can be seen.

Belt colours: In Japan, the use of belt colours is conversely related to the age of the student. Some clubs will only have black and white, others will include a brown belt for advanced kyū grades and at the elementary school level it is common to see a green belt for intermediate levels.

Some countries also use coloured tips on belts, to indicate junior age groups, and historically, women’s belts had a white stripe along the centre.

Examination requirements vary depending on country, age group and of course the grade being attempted. The examination itself may include competition and forms. The kyū ranks are normally awarded by local instructors (sensei), but dan ranks are usually awarded only after an exam supervised by independent judges from a national judo association. For a rank to be recognised it must be registered with the national judo organisation or the Kodokan.

Europe: For most of Europe and Canada the belt colours in ascending order are white, red, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and finally black. Some European countries additionally use a red belt to signify a complete beginner, whereas other European countries such as the UK use a red belt as the belt one grade above a beginner to show that the person is a full member of a club.

Brazil: Brazilian belt rankings different, using white, blue, yellow, orange, green, purple, brown and black. A grey belt may be given to very young judoka (under 11 or 13 years old) just before the blue. Competitors are organised into two categories depending on grading; the first is from white to green, and the second is purple through black.

United States: Only senior players (adults, usually those age 16 and over) are allowed to earn dan levels, signified by wearing a black belt. Advanced kyū levels can be earned by both seniors and juniors (children under the age of about 16) and are signified by wearing belts of various colors other than black.