What Is the Highest Belt in Karate?

karate red belt

In the world of martial arts, the black belt is commonly recognized as the highest belt of honor, but does this supreme recognition extend to karate? What exactly is the highest belt in karate?

The highest belt in karate is the 10th-degree black belt earned by a tenth Dan and is reserved for exemplary masters of the art. However, the color of this belt is sometimes red, therefore making it a red-colored black belt.

Generally, a red belt is one of several colored belts used in some martial arts to either denote rank or differentiate opponents in a competition.

Like the more commonly known black belt, its use varies between arts, with most using it for the style founder, grandmaster, or other high ranks, while others use it as the immediate pre–black belt rank or even to denote a beginner who holds no rank.

However, in karate which has a lineage related to Kodokan Judo, a red belt signifies ninth or tenth-degree Dan rank, the highest rank attainable.

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Highest Belt in Karate

The highest level of karate belt is the 10th Dan (Judan) with a belt color of either red or black (usually red). To gain this rank, you must be a founder of a certain style like Funakoshe in Shorokan, continue training, and must age at least 65 years old. This level is reserved for exemplary masters of the art.

In many martial arts, the black belt is the highest honor belt. For example, the taekwondo black belt is the highest belt in the art.

But, in Karate, the red belt is generally ranked above the black belt in many karate styles.

The Karate red belt signifies exemplary knowledge of skills, a high level of competence, contribution to the art through teaching, and an excellent reputation gained over the years.

It is reserved for the elite of the elite, including the founder, Grand Master, and other higher ranks.

Most never reach the level of the red belt, but to do so means that they represent the art in its highest form.

karate red belt
Seiyu Nakamura, 10th Dan Okinawa Dentou Shidokan Karate and Kobujutsu at his dojo in Kochinda, Okinawa, Japan.
Image credit: Travel67.com

In karate, even though grandmasters and non-black belts may both wear a “red belt”, the Dan rank belts are broader: kyu (pre–black belt) rank belts normally have a width of 4 centimeters and dan rank belts have a width of 5 centimeters.

Also, the grandmaster’s red belt is usually darker in color and embroidered with the grandmaster’s name and style as customary for DanDan rank belts.

In most Okinawan Karate styles and in some schools of Kobudo (Okinawan weaponry), the alternately red and white belt is used for seventh and eighth dans, whereas the solid red belt is used for ninth and tenth dans, which are purely honorary, i.e. cannot be attained by applying for (and passing) the respective exam.

From the seventh dan onwards, a practitioner can use the title “Shihan”, which translates as “expert examples”.

In modern Karate, as governed by the World Karate Federation and its subsidiary federations, red (aka) and blue (ao) belts are worn by competitors.

Only red and blue belts are to be worn for competition, with foot and fist pads of the corresponding color for kumite competition.

In tournaments sanctioned by the Japan Karate Association (JKA), red (aka) and white (Shiro) belts (colors of the Japanese flag) were previously worn.

However, this practice has largely been replaced after the 1980s, with both competitors now wearing black belts and the athlete designated as wearing a thin red tassel on his/her belt.

And you may be wondering, why is the red belt ranked above the black belt?

Well, to understand this you must understand the history of the karate red and white belt.

History of the Karate Red Belt

First, you must know that many aspects of karate are inextricably linked to its older sister, Judo.

Judo was established in 1882 by Professor Jigoro Kano. The striking art “Karate” was created in the 1900s.

When registering their new Karate art with the government the early Karate Masters borrowed (stole?) aspects of the already-established Judo to help gain their much-needed official recognition.

One aspect they borrowed was the use of specific training suits (gi) and the rank/belt system.

Around 1930, the Kodokan Judo created a new belt (“obi”) to recognize the special achievements of high-ranking black belts.

Jigoro Kano chose to recognize sixth, seventh, and eighth-degree black belts with a special obi made of alternating red and white panels (kōhaku obi – literally translated as “red and white belt”).

The white color was chosen for purity, and red for the intense desire to train and the sacrifices made.

The colors red and white are enduring symbols of Japan, and they have been used in Judo since Jigoro Kano started the first Red and White Tournament in 1884.

In 1943 the Kodokan created the optional all-red belt to recognize ninth and tenth-degree yudansha.

The selection of red-and-white colored belts to distinguish the highest ranks may have also been based on a simple cultural preference, according to Meik Skoss, a noted martial arts historian and author of numerous articles about Japanese martial arts.

Japanese typically divide groups into red and white sides, based on a pivotal historical event, the Genpei War – a dispute between two rival clans, the Genji and Heike.

The Genji used white flags to identify their troops on the battlefield, while the Heike used red flags.

The “kōhaku” obi is often worn for special occasions, but it is not required to be worn at any specific time and the black belt remains the standard obi for all the dan grade ranks.

Though not common in karate, the kōhaku obi is accepted as an option to the standard black belt for high grades, though there is some variance as to when the plain red belt is awarded.

Originally the Judo red belt was for 9th and 10th Dan grades, but in Karate it is often used for 8th Dan grades as well.

The decision as to whether the “Master” belts are worn varies according to karate style and association.

As you can see from the above…

the 10th Dan red belt is a black belt with a red color.

Martial Arts Republic

Karate Black Belt Levels

Generally, there are 10 degrees of black belt in karate with the lowest being the 1st Dan and the highest being the 10th Dan.

Below are the Black Belt Levels in karate.

Shodan (1st Dan)

One who has mastered the fundamentals of Karate.

Black Belt I Dan (Shodan) – Black Belt With One Dash Senpai –

Nidan (2nd Dan)

An expert karateka who has mastered the fundamentals.

The Sandan (3rd Dan)

One who has learned the fundamentals of Karate and is skilled in the art.

Yondan (4th Dan)

One who has mastered both the fundamentals and practical applications of Karate.

Godan (5th Dan)

An exceptional martial artist who has mastered both the fundamentals and practical applications of Karate.

Rokudan (6th Dan)

One who has mastered the true essence of Karate and is regarded as a master.

Nanadan (7th Dan)

An expert Karate practitioner who has understood the art’s deeper meaning.

Hachidan (8th Dan)

An expert Karateka is one who has studied and practiced the art for a significant period of time and has become extremely proficient.

Kyudan (9th Dan)

Judan 1oth Dan

In Kyudan and Judan, only the most deserving masters receive these prestigious honorary titles.

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