The ‘Unwashed Black Belt’ Myth

The Myth.
There is a popular myth told both in dōjōs‘ and out in the real world, supposedly about how the black belt became black.

The story goes that before the modern martial arts era, when a student joined a martial arts school they would be given a white belt, or an ‘Obi‘ to use its actual name. The student would wear this obi all throughout their years of training gradually accumulating dirt, sweat, blood, and other filth associated with fighting, causing it to slowly darken over many years until it eventually became black.
By this point the student would have (or should have) mastered their chosen martial art and thus a black obi was a sign of mastery. When you think about it, the myth is also an origin story for all the Kyū colours in between white and black.

There are many versions to this myth, each with its own little variations;

  • In some versions of the myth the student was never allowed to take their obi off once they had put it on, as a sign of how dedicated they were to learning their chosen martial art. Other more realistic versions allowed students to take it off when not training but still forbade them from ever washing their obi.
  • Many versions of the myth go into detail about what caused specific colour changes. For example the obi changed to yellow due to the students sweat, then turned a shade of green due to the mould growing on it, etc. Different versions attribute different causes to different colours and the order they would occur in. In most cases they all start off white and somehow work in every colour in the rainbow (bar pink and grey) until they reached black.
  • Even the reason (or reasons) given about why the obi could not be washed has a few variations on it. Supposedly, washing your obi would not just remove any dirt but would also wash out any luck, knowledge, or strength “contained” in it.

In all versions of this story though the core underlying myth is that the obi was never washed else it would never turn black.

The Truth – A History of Belt and the Kyū/Dan System.
The vast majority of martial arts students attended specialist martial arts schools (ryū’s), or they received private tuition. Just like modern schools, the sensei would know how skilled their students were by what they had taught them, how hard they saw them train and by testing them to see if they could achieve set goals.

In the early years of most koryū there was no formal organisation beyond a teacher and their students, but a menkyo (免許 licence) system became widespread towards the end of the seventeenth century as the koryū became more institutionalised and such a system remains in use in many koryū today.
(Source:Teaching and learning in a Japanese koryū dōjō: A classical Japanese martial art as a community of practice‘, Anna E Seabourne, pg 160, 2017)

Using this ‘Menkyo system‘ students could work their way through various titles or ranks of advancement such as soden, chuden, okuden or mokuroku, menkyo and kaiden. When the sensei believed a student was ready for the next rank they faced an examination, where if they were successful they would be awarded a certificate, a practice we still follow today.

An example of a traditionally styled certificate, this being for a 7th Dan in Kendō. (From Wikipedia Commons)

No sensei would use the colour of their students’ clothes, let alone their obi, to evaluate how skilled that student is. Nor did students receive a new obi when advancing a rank. The obi was simply a functional piece of clothing that stopped your kimono from coming undone, and was not an important status symbol. Think of it this way; To a student back then receiving a new obi after their examination would be like your headteacher giving you a new pair of shoes.

However there wasn’t any universal ranking system, with each school setting their own criteria for each rank or advancement. Enter Kanō Jigorō*, who was developing a new style of Jujutsu that would eventually become known as Jūdō. Kano founded his Kodokan Dojo in 1882 and chose to adopt a modified version of the ‘Dan-i’ ranking system used for the Chinese board game “Go“, which used a similar ranking system for competitive tournaments rather than use the traditional Menkyo system.
(*In Japan, the family name goes before the personal name.)

To cite Wikipedia’s explanation of Go’s ranking system;

Traditionally, the level of players has been defined using kyu and dan ranks. Kyu ranks are considered student ranks. Dan ranks are considered master ranks. Beginners who have just learned the rules of the game are usually around 30th kyu. As they progress, they advance numerically downwards through the kyu grades. The best kyu grade attainable is therefore 1st kyu. If players progress beyond 1st kyu, they will receive the rank of 1st dan, and from then on will move numerically upwards through the dan ranks.
(Source: ‘Wikipedia | Go ranks and ratings’, viewed 26/02/2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_ranks_and_ratings)

For Kano, this took the form of dividing students into ‘Mudansha’ and ‘Yudansha’;

Kanō devised his own system dividing trainees into two groups: “no grade” (mudansha) and “grade-holders” (yudansha). For yudansha, he created a system where the student could progress one step at a time from shodan (1-dan), to nidan (2-dan), sandan (3-dan) and so on.
(Source:Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan: An Innovative Response to Modernisation‘, pg 113, 2009)

However there was no visual distinction between any grades. All students wore the same all-white uniform. Kano understood that clothes were (and still are) used as status symbols, and that intentionally or not, some people may be treated unfairly based on aspects not relevant to what they should be judged on.

Kano wanted jūdō to be practiced by everyone, rich and poor, as a means of education and for the betterment of society. By putting everyone in the same white, modest uniform, one could not tell a jūdōka’s social class and students would be judged solely on the merit of their training and effort.
(Source: What’s in a colour? The Judogi and Japanese Aesthetics: Carl De Crée & Llŷr Jones, Pg.2)

Requiring all of his students to wear the same uniform prevented any individual student from displaying any social status they might have held outside of the dojo. Inside the dojo the only way a student could earn any status was through their effort and dedication.

This was fine for Kano in the early years of the Kodokan when there were fewer students. It was easy for Kano and his students to remember who had the most experience and who was skilled at what. During the late 1880’s however Kano saw his classes explode in popularity and size, having moved the Kodokan from the Eishōji Temple with 12 tatami mats, to the house of one of Kano’s friends at Fujimi-cho which had 40 tatami mats, in 1886. The increase in students necessitated the need for students and coaches alike to be able to quickly gauge the skills and knowledge of each other.

The Fujimi-chō Kōdōkan Dōjō (used between 1886-1889). Kano is seen wearing black on the left. Note how some students are wearing black obis’. ©Kodokan

Kano introduced the use of coloured obis’ to help identify ranks, but it is not exactly clear in which order he did so;

  • Some sources seem to indicate that Kano began with a two colour system – white for mudansha and black for yudansha.
  • Others sources imply that he started with a four colour system;
    1. Light blue – Ungraded beginners
    2. White – 5th and 4th Kyū
    3. Brown – 3rd, 2nd and 1st Kyū
    4. Black – All Yudansha (1st Dan and above)
  • It has also been widely cited that Kano was inspired by the colours used in Japanese college swimming teams to denote a students rank, when in fact it was the other way around. Kano introduced the colours to the swimming classes he taught after he had introduced it to Judo.

It is also not clear when this changed happened. By most accounts, coloured obis were in place by 1887, but may have been in use as early as 1886:

Although it is unclear exactly when the practice was first introduced, yodansha started to wear black belts (kuro-obi) as a symbol of their rank and became the envy of other students. Otsubo Kazukatsu, who joined the Kodokan on May 28, 1884, made mention of this custom in 1916:
Black belts first appeared when the Kodokan was in Fujimicho. There were no other schools using black belts at the time so it must have been a Kodokan innovation. When Kodokan members wearing black belts participated in the Keishicho Bujutsu Taikai, they stood out from skilled fighters from other schools.”
(Source:Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan: An Innovative Response to Modernisation‘, pg 115, 2009)

The only thing we can know for certain is that all the black obi was in use as an additional colour by 1887. The light-blue and brown obis’ were added and in use for many years, we just don’t know if they were introduced at the same time the black obi was, whenever that was.

As for the the other kyū colours, we cross over to the UK. The earliest surviving record of coloured Kyū obis’ outside of the Kodokan comes from The Budokwai, a Ju-jitsu school in London founded in 1918 by Koizumi Gunji*. Kano had visited the Budokwai in 1920 while on route to the Olympic Games in Antwerp. Koizumi agreed to the Budokwai following the Kodokan’s syllabus for Judo, including the use of the judogi uniform and obis’, which had been standardised by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai (Greater Japan Martial Virtue Society) at this point.
(*In Japan, the family name goes before the personal name.)

Gunji Koizumi

At some unknown date between Kano’s visit in 1920 and 1926, Koizumi appears to have further sub-divided the Mudansha into more Kyū grades, assigning them a sequential colour pattern going from white to black. In 1926 coloured judo obis’ were seen being used at their annual “Budokwai Display”. A year later, and a list of ranked coloured judokas appeared in the Budokwai Committee Minutes. As the International Judo Federation writes:

In 1926, Japanese master Gunji Koizumi, founder of the British Judo Association and of the first European dojo and therefore considered the father of British judo, made an invention that revolutionised the rank system. He introduced additional color belts. As early as 1927, these new belts appeared in the Budokwai reports. In Gunji Koizumi’s programme there are five colors (white, yellow, green, blue and brown), to which orange was added, to correspond to the six kyū of the Kōdōkan at the time. Without it being possible to be verified, there is a possibility that the colours were based on the color of the billiard balls.
(Source: “The Belt: Myth and Reality of an Essential Symbol”, International Judo Federation, viewed 09/03/2022, https://www.ijf.org/history/judo-culture/2250)

From here the story jumps to Kawaishi Mikinosuke* who visited the Budokwai in 1928, and established a judo club in Liverpool with the Budokwai founder Koizumi. Kawaishi later went on to establish a Judo club in Paris where he adapted the teaching methods to suit western needs.
(*In Japan, the family name goes before the personal name.)

Kawaishi Mikinosuke

Kawaishi is often credited as the person who added the extra colours to the Kyū obis’, even though the evidence suggests it was actually Koizumi who did this. Kawaishi’s role appears to be that he helped popularise Judo as a sport, as he taught in both the UK and France as well as authoring books in both English and French., which helped Judo spread in Europe.

Just like the modern Keikogi uniform (which was also designed by Kano), the use of the coloured obi was adopted by other martial arts styles (and swimming schools) who in turn added more colours to further subdivide students according to their level of experience. This is why there is no shared order of colours used across all arts and all styles of those arts. The vast majority do follow the idea of starting at white and working towards black, but what a black obi means differs across arts and styles as well.

Some supporting observations.
While not direct evidence, there are a couple of supporting points that give a broader idea of the reality.

Religion
First we can look at Japans’ two major religions, Shinto and Buddhism. Both religions have high regard for hygiene and cleanliness, both personal and of the world around you. As such personal hygiene became ingrained into everyday life for everyone including martial artists.

Even if you personally didn’t follow either religion you were expected to keep yourself clean and presentable. Not doing so could be seen as blasphemous and could lead to being ostracized. It therefore would not make sense for a martial art student to constantly wear a dirty and very smelly obi.

Incorrect colours
Secondly there is the observation that white cloth wouldn’t turn black even after years of literal blood, sweat and tears. For a start, both sweat and tears are mostly clear, colourless liquids which would not discolour white cloth that much, though over time sweat does leave a yellowy stain on clothes. We also know that even when you clean modern made white clothing, over time it tends to fade to a light-grey rather than a bright-white.

Blood will stain fabrics but you would need quite a lot of blood to stain a whole obi. Unless you had to use an obi as a makeshift bandage or tourniquet, in most cases a student might only get a few spots of blood spilt on their obi at a time, if at all.

As for grass or dirt stains, then students may also have trained outside during the summer months which may result in grass and/or dirt stains, however there are a couple of limiting factors here too.

  1. As already mentioned this would only be during warmer weather. The rest of the time would be indoors inside a dōjō where they trained on wooden floors, or on thin rice-straw mats called Tatami. Neither of those would stain clothing.
  2. In order to get grass or dirt stains on your obi would require some degree of rolling around on the ground, which isn’t done in all martial arts. In Jujutsu it was expected and part of normal practice, but in other martial arts such as Karate it was not. This would also apply to the majority of weapon based martial arts. Going to the ground was not normal so you would be unlikely to pick up grass or dirt stains.

In other words even after many years of training, the best you would get from your blood, sweat and tears would probably be a grungy yellowy-grey obi with some red splotches. Even if the myth were true, would you even want to wear such an obi?!

Martial arts master, or dirty hobo?

A convenient lack of detail.
It’s quite common in most martial arts systems that use coloured belts to follow similar order of those colours. For example, the first 4 belts might go White > Yellow > Orange > Red. In many versions of the myth, the causes also go in the same order.

Of course the belt starts out clean and white. Then turns yellow from sweat. Then…. what happens at orange? We just covered how supposedly a red belt might have been due to a persons blood and how in reality unless someone used their belt as a tourniquet, they would be unlikely to dye the whole belt a consistent red colour. But we’ve still glossed over orange. Is it a combination of the students blood and sweat. We all know if you mix yellow and red paint, you get orange!

The most common explanation is that the colours are only representative of these things. They represent the blood, sweat and… er, oranges they ate?! When you look at all the other common colours, not all of them even have a thing they supposedly represent. Green might represent training outdoors, Blue might represent ‘the soul’, and Purple might represent all the bruises gained.

The thing is, there isn’t any reason why these colours have to go in the order that they do. In reality, humans have a tendency to like things to be in a certain order. In this case, its colours going from light to dark. So of course, so do the ‘origins’ of those colours.

What about the origin of the myth?
Unfortunately the precise origin of the myth is unknown, however there is a plausible cause though. This is a speculation based on other known facts.

The first mass-produced keikogi‘s were not the clean all-white uniform we know today but actually beige as they were made from unbleached cotton. The Japanese however love to keep their clothing as clean as possible. The colour white also carrying meanings of ‘pureness’ and ‘holiness’ in Japanese culture, so it was not long before they began to bleach their Keikogi’s in order to make them a brilliant, clean white.

Natural, unbleached cotton

Bleaching would have been fine for the jacket (Uwagi) and trousers (Zubon / Shitabaki), but not the belt (Obi). As you can imagine, if the obi was anything other than white it to lose its colour if washed in bleach.

It’s possible that this aspect got ‘lost in translation’, so to speak. Japanese judoka teaching outside of Japan might have warned their students not to wash the obi, and when asked why may not have given the most accurate answer.

The colours are visual representations of a persons rank and experience. Should they accidently wash their obi, they might suddenly appear less experienced than they actually were – “they might wash away their experience!” Except of course they wouldn’t. They would only wash away the visual representation of their experience. It’s not unreasonable that the idea that the obis’ “contained” any luck, knowledge, or strength could be a type of cultural miss-translation.

Conclusion.
Some martial arts schools today still tell their students not to wash their obis’, citing the myth in some form or another as to why. In reality we know the myth could not have been true and there isn’t really a good reason to not wash an obi other than the colours potentially fading.

Should you wash your obi? If it’s dirty then yes, please do. Just don’t wash it at the same time as your keikogi in case the colours run.

Further Reading.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.