There is a popular myth told both in dōjōs‘ and out in the real world about how traditionally 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. At this point the student would have mastered their chosen martial art and thus a black obi was a sign of mastery.
There are many versions to this story, each with its own little variations;
- In some versions of the story 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 story go into detail about what caused certain colour changes. For example the obi changes to yellow due to the students sweat, then turns a shade of green due to the mould growing on it, etc. Different versions attribute different colours to different causes and the order they would occur in.
- Even the reason 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 the obi.
In all versions of this story though the core underlying myth is that the obi was never washed else it would never turn black.
How do we know it’s a myth?
1) 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.
2) The second piece of evidence 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.
- 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.
- 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?!
The true story.
The vast majority of martial arts students attended specialist martial arts schools. Just like modern schools, senseis 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. Students worked their way through specific ranks:
“During the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), titles or ranks of advancement such as soden, chuden, okuden or mokuroku, menkyo and kaiden were used to indicate the level of mastery of martial arts exponents.” (Source: ‘Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan: An Innovative Response to Modernisation‘, pg 111, 2009)
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. 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 when you left school.
It is around the 1870’s that Kanō Jigorō* was developing a new style of Jujutsu that would eventually be known as Judo. Initially Professor Kanō used 2 ranks:
(*In Japan, the family name is written before a person’s own name. If following the western method of personal name followed by family name, we would call him “Jigorō Kanō”)
“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.”
“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.” (Source: ‘Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan: An Innovative Response to Modernisation‘, pg 113-115, 2009)
The use of ‘dan‘ ranks is widely believed to have been inspired by the Chinese board game “Go“, which used a similar ranking system in competitive tournaments. It is also where we got the first 2 colours of belts, white and black.
Around the late 1880’s Professor Kanō saw his classes explode in popularity and size which necessitated the need to further divide students by ability. Professor Kanō modified the belt system to use 4 main colours; light-blue, white, brown, and black. The light-blue signified brand new students, white for beginners, brown for ‘advanced’ students and black for ‘expert’ students. It has been widely cited that Professor Kanō was inspired by the colours used in Japanese college swimming teams, when in fact it was the other way around.
Just like the modern Keikogi uniform (which was also designed by Professor 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 belt means differs across arts and styles as well.
What about the origin of the myth?
Unfortunately the precise origin of the myth is unknown.
It’s most likely that someone simply made up the story. Due to it sounding plausible to the uneducated listener, the story got passed from student to student and dōjō to dōjō. Like any piece of gossip the story changed with each re-telling, which may explain why we have so many versions of the same story today.
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.