Martial Arts Ranks: Clarifying Origins, Colors, and the Father of Japanese Swimming

The Legacy of Kano Jigoro: Judo and Education, by The Committee for the Commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Jigoro Kano, translated by Tom Kain, 2020


Martial History Team strives to promote martial arts history based on sound evidence and sourced research. Sometimes we don't find what we're looking for, so we write our own research, based on the best available sources, usually in the English language (unfortunately).

This is the case with the origin of martial arts rank. The history of rank is almost as hot a topic as the debate about the value of rank itself! Hopefully this article will shed some light on a topic that often reproduces unsourced or poorly sourced claims.

This article will support the following assertions:

1. Prof Mikinosuke Kawaishi did not invent colored judo belts; he only brought the idea with him to France in 1935. 

2. Prof Jigoro Kano was not inspired by "swimming ribbons" or "swimming grades" when he invented Kodokan Judo ranks. In fact, the opposite is true -- Kano brought ranks to swimming.

Let's start!

Accepted Origins

Fujimi-chō Kōdōkan, 1886-1889, Hishida Shunso, Kodokan

The following are excerpts from Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan: An Innovative Response to Modernisation by the Kano Sensei Biographic Editorial Committee; edited and translated by Alex Bennett, 2009. The book provides a good summary of the accepted history of the creation of judo 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.

Kano 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. His innovative promotion system was later utilised in kendo, kyudo, and the other martial arts…

Tomita Tsunejiro and Saigo Shiro became the world’s first yudansha in August 1883, when Kano awarded them the rank of shodan.” (pp 111-112) (emphasis added)

Documentation of these early ranks may be difficult to find:

Rank certificates were first printed in 1894The first such ceremony to confer promotion certificates was held at the opening of the newly-built Kodokan in Shimotomizaka-cho on May 20, 1894.” (p 113) (emphasis added)

“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.’" (p 115)

Lance Gatling's well-researched site notes the Fujimicho era of the Kodokan was 1886-1889, a fact confirmed by the book cited here.

Colored Belts at the Kodokan

Prof Kano's Original Judo Ranks, Wikipedia,; note that according to the table below, there was no "6th kyu"

The excerpts from Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan: An Innovative Response to Modernisation continue, with attention paid to the arrival of colored belts at the Kodokan.

"Kano permitted students to wear black belts about three or four years after the promotion system was first implemented. The use of coloured belts to signify rank was introduced gradually, culminating in a multi-coloured system to differentiate grades for lower-level students.

In the ‘Kodokan Grading Regulations’ (modified in 1923), the correlation between colour and grade were categorised as follows.


Seinen-gumi (adults)
1-kyu, 2-kyu, 3-kyu
Light brown
Shonen-gumi (children)
1-kyu, 2-kyu, 3-kyu
Seinen-gumi and Shonen-gumi 
4-kyu, 5-kyu, and no grade

Light blue
The coloured-belt system utilised to designate yodansha was further modified on March 1, 1926: shodan to 5-dan wore black, 6-dan to 9-dan wore alternating red and white, and 10-dan wore red belts.” (pp 114-115) (emphasis added)

Here we have documentation showing a colored belt system was used at the Kodokan no later than 1923

This will be important as we turn to the history of Prof Mikinosuke Kawaishi.

Prof Mikinosuke Kawaishi's Role

Kata Guruma by Kawaishi - © Michel Brousse Collection,

The following are excerpts from Bushido: A Complete History of British Jujutsu by Simon Keegan, 2019.

“Mikonosuke Kawaishi [1899-1969] studied Judo under Isogai Hajime, and also studied Aikijujutsu under Yoshida Kotaro while training at the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai’s Butokuden. 

Kawaishi also studied Judo with Master Tomio Kurihara (the 11th man to be awarded 10th dan by the Kodokan)...”

“Kawaishi had initially arrived in Seattle on May 17, 1926, on the merchant vessel Paris Maru, which had sailed out of Kobe with just two passengers aboard.”

“He had been a professional wrestler in San Diego from 1926-1927.”

“In 1927 Kawaishi established the New York Judo Club… Kawaishi arrived in the UK in 1931 and turned up at the Budokwai looking for work. Gunji Koizumi offered him work as an instructor.” (p 77) (italics added)

The italicized part is debatable. Kawaishi may have arrived in the UK in 1928 in Liverpool, and then went to London in 1931. 

I could not find a reputable source for his 1928 arrival in the UK. His Wikipedia page says 1928, but it is unsourced. There is an online source in the book Mindful Movement by Martha Eddy (2016), but I do not consider it authoritative, and it is also unsourced. 

I should also note that the IJF says Kawaishi left Japan for the US in 1925, a year earlier than Keegan's timetable, but that does not affect the overall argument.

Therefore, the best we could say is the following, which I have included in the Wikipedia page for the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ranking system, a source that is frequently cited elsewhere:

"[W]ritten accounts from the archives of London's Budokwai judo club, founded in 1918, record the use of colored judo belts at the 1926 9th annual Budokwai Display, and a list of ranked colored judokas appears in the Budokwai Committee Minutes of June 1927. Kawaishi may have arrived in the UK by 1928, and appears to have first visited London and the Budokwai in 1931. From there he was probably inspired to bring the colored belt system to France."

The source for the assertions involving the Budokwai is original research by Mike Callan

Combining this timetable with the previous section, we can say the following:

Staff at the Kodokan, and perhaps Prof Kano himself, invented the colored belt system. It was in use no later than 1923. 

The London Budokwai was using colored belts no later than 1926, while Prof Kawaishi was still in the US working as a professional wrestler.

Therefore, Prof Kawaishi brought the idea of colored belts to France. He did not invent them.

The Father of Japanese Swimming

Swimming in Japan, possibly 1935,

Finally, one sometimes encounters claims that Prof Kano derived his grade system in part from practices in Japanese swimming.

These claims appear to derive from a 2005 article by a 4th dan judoka named Phil Morris, who wrote:

"The majority of people believe that Jigoro Kano was the founder the Kyu / Dan grade system, this is untrue. However, he is recognised as the first person to use this grading system within the Martial Arts. The idea of the Kyu / Dan grade system, or Dan-I, was in fact 'borrowed' from other sources of Japanese culture...

Later the Japanese public schools were using the Kyu / Dan system as a means to rank ability throughout the different athletic departments. These departments were using belts or ribbons to identify ranking ability, most notably within swimming, where advanced swimmers wore a black ribbon around their waist to separate them from beginners in swimming tournaments."

This is an unsourced claim that appears to be completely backwards, yet it appears in Wikipedia pages and other articles.

I first learned about Prof Kano's role in the development of Japan's modern swimming programs while reading The Legacy of Kano Jigoro: Judo and Education, by The Committee for the Commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Jigoro Kano, translated by Tom Kain, 2020

The book notes the following:

As early as 1902, the swimming program already had a grading system in place… Based on the students’ progress, officials would announce grade promotions several times over the course of the program… The program eventually incorporated dan ranks and began holding dan ceremonies, where Principal Kano would present certain high-performing students with special certificates.

When the 1904 winter swimming event wrapped up… Principal Kano [awarded] shodan (first dan) certificates to three deserving students.

In 1906 the Tokyo Higher Normal School began sending students to middle schools to teach swimming… the school was eager to start proselytizing the TNHS swimming style nationally on a broader scale. Kano’s approach to establishing a swimming style bore a remarkable resemblance to his efforts to establish judo: the swimming curriculum borrowed liberally from a variety of traditional schools; the formative process involved a healthy dose of competition; grades and dan ranks gradually entered the picture; and the drive to popularize the style relied on groups of trained, experienced students heading into middle schools and inculcating the younger generation with the techniques.” (pp 118-119)

Note the first sentence says "as early as 1902," meaning it could have been later. In other words, it's not "as late as 1902," meaning it could have been earlier. 

That story of Kano's involvement with swimming led me to two academic papers which made the case that Prof Kano was not only the father of judo, but the father of modern swimming in Japan.

“Jigoro Kano (1860-1938) is well known as the founder of Judo, the first Japanese martial
art to gain widespread international recognition, and the first to become an official
Olympic sport... 

[H]e was an educator, served as director of primary education for the Ministry of
Education, and also as president of Tokyo Higher Normal School, in which a lot of excellent teachers were trained. 

He told [sic, ordered?] that teachers must [be] able to swim, in order to secure their children with their professional responsibility (Sanada, Tsubakimoto, & Takagi, 2007). 

He insisted on [the] importance of the swimming education and made it with [sic] a compulsory subject in a teacher-training curriculum. 

Now we may call Kano not only a father of Judo, but also a father of sports in Japan, a father of education in Japan, and a father of school swimming.”

I tracked down the referenced Sanada paper, Reconstruction of Suijutsu by Kano Jigoro, by Hisashi Sanada, Shozo Tsubakimoto, Hideki Takagi, 2007, and found the abstract enlightening:

“A study was conducted to clarify the features of suijutsu (Japanese traditional swimming) led by Kano Jigoro (1860-1938). 

In 1898, Kano organized suijutsu for the students at his private school, Zoshikai, and consequently suijutsu was named Zoshikai-suijutsu

Most of the swimming styles taught were derived from Nihon Yueijutsu written by Ota Sutezo (1825-1892), who had tried to integrate all the traditional swimming styles. 

Kano agreed with the idea of Nihon Yueijutsu, and tried to spread this swimming style by holding swimming athletic meetings and introducing a step-system like that in judo.

Kano also organized Koshi-eihou for the students of Tokyo Higher Normal School in 1903, when he was president of the school. This swimming style was composed not only of Nihon Yueijutsu, but also various traditional swimming sects, such as Shinden-ryu, Kankai-ryu, Kobori-ryu and Suifu-ryu. 

Nakano Jiro, who was a Shinden-ryu swimming teacher, selected the swimming styles for Koshi-eihou. Kano tried to reorganize suijutsu and to have it introduced into the school education system in Japan. 

All first-grade students were obliged to participate in swimming practice for two weeks to learn Koshi-eihou. As most of the students who graduated from Tokyo Higher Normal School became teachers at normal schools and middle schools, the swimming style of Koshi-eihou was introduced into various schools all over Japan.

The features of the reorganization of suijutsu led by Kano were as follows :

·While Kano tried to integrate all the traditional swimming styles, he organized Zoshikai-suijutsu and Koshi-eihou for the training of the young body and for cultivation of the mind.

·Koshi-eihou was organized at Tokyo Higher Normal School from the various traditional swimming sects, with the aim of being introduced into the school education system in Japan. Kano asked swimming teachers to devise a swimming style for Koshi-eihou.

·As Kano held swimming athletics meetings while practicing, the effect of the practice became evident.

·In the same way as for judo, Kano adopted the step-system into suijutsu.

In other words, Kano did not borrow from swimming when creating judo. Instead, he borrowed from judo when promoting swimming.

Now, there is a separate but related idea in play: some claim that Japanese swimmers wore black ribbons on their waists to show their level of experience. This is not the same as a dan grade, so Kano's role in creating dan ranks is still without question.

Kano became involved in Japanese swimming no later than 1902, and he has students wearing black belts by 1886 or 1887. Could he have see swimmers before 1886-1887 wearing black ribbons? Given that Japanese swimming only started to become a competitive event around the time of Kano's involvement, I doubt that black ribbons in swimming were even used in 1886-1887. I am open to other sources and arguments however!


Prof Kano Statue, Japan Travelogue,

To repeat the claims supported in this article:

1. Prof Mikinosuke Kawaishi did not invent colored judo belts; he only brought the idea with him to France in 1935. 

2. Prof Jigoro Kano was not inspired by "swimming ribbons" or "swimming grades" when he invented Kodokan Judo ranks. In fact, the opposite is true -- Kano brought ranks to swimming.

There's more that we could look at, like idea that Prof Kano had no rank in judo, despite a one-time assertion that he was a "12th dan" (mentioned in this well-sourced article). The role of dan ranks in Go and their influence on Kano is also worth investigating in the future.

It bothers me that Wikipedia claims Honinbo Dosaku invented the dan system for Go, but the only source I could find appears on the Sensei's Library site.

That site is very thorough, but I'd like to see more, especially with citations.

I found this bit of Go history interesting, for example:

"In 1588, Nobunaga's successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, organized a large-scale competition to systematize the rankings of go players."

Perhaps Hideyoshi deserves more credit than he has received?

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Addendum 12 May 2020: Lance Gatling left a comment on Facebook with the following excellent information:

The _Zôshikai_ 造士会 (building gentlemen society) was not a school. It was the first of a number of organizations that Kanô shihan established to coordinate his publishing and educational activities. The Zôshikai published 国士 _Kokushi_ 'Patriot' magazine in the 1890s; it included a large section on swimming. Every summer Kanô led a large group of students to the shore for training for several days. 

Suijutsu 水術 is simply a generic name for swimming - Kanô was trying to salvage some traditional techniques against the tide of modern Western strokes by combining the best. Traditional Japanese swimming was being rapidly replaced.  


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