Colored belts have their origin in Judo, as does the training ‘gi’, or more correctly in Japanese, ‘dōgi’ or ‘Keikogi’. In Kyokushin the order of the belts varies in some breakaway groups, but according to the Honbu of Oyama, the kyu ranks and belt colors are as follows:

Note: Mukyu of the white belt literally means “no grade”

Each colored belt had two levels, the second being represented by a stripe at the ends of the belt. The white belt however, does not represent any level and is only meant to hold the ‘gi’ in place. As such, the white belt is used by practitioners who are not yet graded. The belt system under Mas Oyama followed this order since the 1960s with the exception of the yellow (red) belt, which was incorporated only in the last year of his life, replacing the earlier used white belt with one and two red stripes for the same kyu grades.

Whilst some groups also use red belts for high dan grades, it is not the norm and Oyama himself did not follow this practice in his dojo or organization, always wearing a wholly black belt himself.

There are many ideas of how the belt colors in the martial arts came to be, some more romantic than others. One quaint tale says that students of a karate school would be given a white belt. The students’ belts would gradually become stained darker from use and eventually a person who was of a high standard and who had trained for a long time would then have a black/brown/dirt colored belt. This is an inspiring way to encourage students to train harder, and might have its basis in truth since martial arts practitioners as a general rule don’t wash their belts after training. However, no evidence exists of this, so there is no hard and fast rule according to the Japanese and romantic notions of the belt containing the training spirit and hard toil of years of training are generally invented in the West. The tradition of only sparingly washing the belt is more likely based on the more practical reason that belts tend to lose their color if washed too often.

Perhaps the most widely read and respected interpretation of the fundamental psychological requirements of each level is found in the book, The Budo Karate of Sosai Masutatsu Oyama, written by former interpreter to Sosai Masutatsu Oyama, Cameron Quinn. Kyokushin karate has a belt grading system similar to other martial arts. The requirements of each level vary from country to country, some far stricter and more demanding than others. For example, in some countries in Europe, the grading for each level requires the student to complete the entire requirements for each level up to the rank being tested. So the student attempting first degree black belt will do all the Orange belt requirements, THEN all the blue belt requirements (including repeating the orange belt requirements) and so on. The free fighting (kumite) requirements for first degree black belt also ranges from ten rounds to forty rounds, depending on the region, usually at a very high level of contact and with no protective gear other than a groin guard and mouth guard. It is not so much the number of fights but the intensity of the effort that defines the grading. Some areas don’t even have formal gradings per se, instead presenting the student with their new rank in training after the instructor feels that he/she has reached that level and is capable of all the requirements.

The belt assigned to each student upon commencing training is a white belt. With each successful grading attempt the student is awarded a kyu ranking, and either a stripe on his current belt or a new belt colour altogether. Grading, or promotion tests, include calisthenic and aerobic training, kihon (basics), ido geiko (moving basics), goshinjitsu (self defence), sanbon and ippon kumite (three and one step sparring), (prescribed series of movements/forms, sometimes described as a form of moving meditation), tameshiwari (board, tile or brick breaking) and kumite (contact free fighting). Achieving a 1st dan black belt, or shodan, can take anywhere from four but often six to ten years of training. A belt may be awarded only by a teacher after a grading, some lower grades, e.g., yellow stripe or yellow, can be assessed in a local dojo by an instructor, after 2 or 3 grades, you will have to wait until a “grading” usually only performed approximately 4 times a year or at martial arts camps where there are shodan and above gradings, and 50 man kumite also are performed on rare occasions. At the highest ranks (6th dan and above) tests are performed by international committee, or, as is more common in the post-Mas Oyama era, presented honorarily. Nobody can achieve a 10th degree black belt for this was a special honor created only for the Sosai (Oyama).

Each belt has a different number of fights required for the rank sparring for grading starts at white belt. Of all aspects, it is the strong and spirited contact kumite that most defines the Kyokushin style, and it is this aspect that has always brought the style the most respect. The one thing that usually defined the Kyokushin black belt was the spirit, strength and courage of the kumite.

The number of rounds required may increase or decrease after Shodan, again depending on the region. 40 rounds of hard contact sparring is required as part of a grading or as part of a special training requirement, is no easy feat and involves non-stop fighting of one and a half hours or more. It is a test of fortitude as well as skill.