Meaning of Coloured Belt Ranks

Requirements and Intrinsic Meaning of Each Level of Examination - Part 1

Part of a series of articles by Sensei Roger Catchlove

My understanding of the intrinsic meaning and elements of the examinations is as follows:

White to Blue Belt 10-6th Kyu, “Incentive Rank, a beginner’s stepping off point”.

For their first examination, the student is required to demonstrate their understanding of basic warm-up, stretching, punching, kicking and blocking techniques. Through learning the Punch and Kick Routines, they have been introduced to the fundamentals of positioning footwork in moving forwards, backwards, turning and reversing direction and will be asked to show their burgeoning mastery of these techniques.

Some basic stances and postures will have been learnt, as well as straightforward techniques of defence against simple frontal attacks. Fundamental sparring tactics and strategies have been discussed and occasionally practised. They have begun their strength training and will be asked to perform a minimum number of well executed situps and pushups.

At this point of between three to six months of training, a beginner student has an “empty mind”, with no conscious thought or direction, because they are in a state of not knowing and do not yet understand the connection between their mental and physical actions. Their reproduction of their learning is by rote rather than through an intrinsic understanding of what they are presenting. This is not the same as an advanced student who has attained a state of “no mind” in which the mental and physical actions occur without conscious thought. In this advanced state, to which all Martial Artists aspire, the arms, legs and body remember what to do – the mind does not enter into it at all. The function of the intellect disappears. “The mind does not stop anyplace at all, and one does not know where it is”. (2)pg 24)

At this level, the mind is everywhere - all the time. (2)

Blue to Green Belt 6-4th Kyu, “First Sign of Strength and Purpose”

In their second examination, the student will be examined on demonstrating a better execution and understanding, of a wider range of striking techniques - kicks, blocks, punches, elbows and knees - while showing an early understanding of judging distance, timing and control, while sparring as well as during the execution of prescribed Yakzu (self defence). The elements and command, of the prescribed postures, stances and footwork should now be more obvious during sparring and Yakzu applications. Their introduction to and mastery of, a wider range of responses to slightly more complex Yakzu attacks should be evident. Improving strength, endurance and confidence should also be apparent.

With the introduction of the Combination Routine and the first of the traditional forms, Naihanchin, (narrow path of treacherous ground between rice fields on which fighting is occurring or, Iron Horse) the possibility of using combinations of attacking techniques both forwards, backwards and at the same time, as well as the benefits of a low centre of gravity combined with floor gripping feet positioning to give very strong stable balanced body postures, will now have been introduced to and developed by, the student.

After six to twelve months of regular, frequent training, the improving practitioner student now has some knowledge and understanding of the connection between the physical and mental elements of their development. The student is likely to still be somewhat discomforted if required to strike at, attack, or defend against an opponent. (2)

The mind stops involuntarily in many places, but can occasionally focus. (2)

Green to Brown Belt 4-2nd Kyu, “Strength Grading, First Sign of the Warrior Forming”

After about two years of consistent training, this third examination is an introduction to the physical and mental growth which will be more fully tested in the 2nd Degree Black Belt (Nidan) examination.

Now expected to demonstrate a higher standard and much broader repertoire, of blocks, kicks, punches, knees, elbows and movement conducted on a stronger base of better footwork and balanced stances, the student will also present to the observer, an early understanding of strategy, tactics, the use of the 8 angles, in attack and defence, as well as now producing the first of their own early of the warm up and Yakzu elements.

Good posture, smooth movement, good control, good balance, appropriate timing, judgement of distance, more elegant rhythm and good execution in all facets, particularly in the prescribed Kata, sparring and Yakzu, is expected at this level. The student is expected to be able to demonstrate their growing ability to defend themselves from all quarters. They will project a marked improvement in focus, a more positive and assertive attitude, while a definite increase in strength and fitness is expected.

The second of the traditional forms, the hard, closed fists, strength Kata, Sanchin, (Three Battles) which is studied for this level, offers further development of the strong, rooted postures introduce in the Naihanchin form, as well as the beginning control over directing one’s Chi (internal energy), an early understanding of developing a synergy between breathing and executing techniques, and a more highly developed level of focus. The latter two attributes, synergy of movement with the breath and the ability to focus while ignoring deliberate distraction, are developed largely as a result of the use of Ibuki (War energy) breathing, which is first introduced with this traditional form. This form is performed with all the muscles of the body fully tensed, to the point of breathless collapse. By tensing the body and using the strong Ibuki breathing technique, the intention is to develop strong abdominal muscles and to work the internal body organs(3).

However, the third traditional form, Tensho (Rotating Palms), which is also introduced at this level, even though it has similar postures and breathing, teaches the student that devastating (rip and tear) techniques can be executed with light rhythmic breathing, open hands, soft smooth movements and a relaxed body.

In learning these two Kata at the same time, the student is simultaneously exposed to the importance of breath and muscle control; that is, how the breath can provide a strong base for hard smashing techniques while, if used in a slightly different way, the same breath can induced a foundation of relaxed movement for smoothly executed, but still devastating, techniques.

To this point, the student has learned to become more balanced (physically and mentally), to improve their coordination, to understand movement, to improve suppleness, to become fit and to learn basic techniques and strategies – in a phrase, they have “learnt the tools of the trade” but they have not yet become a Budo (Bu = war, do = way, ergo Warrior).

The mind still stops in an abiding place and is detained. (2)

(Note, in this context, “Abiding place” is the place at which the mind is focused and is detained by at that point in time causing your actions to falter and the conflict to be lost. In Zen Buddhism this is known as “the affliction of abiding in ignorance” (2))

Probationary Black Belt – Shodan Ho, “The Emergent Warrior – The Beginning First Step”

This is the first part of earning one’s black belt and is mostly concerned with the advancing physical development of the Karate student. A higher degree of fitness and consistency, in both strength and mental application, is now expected from the progressing Karateka. Strong focus in the performance of all prescribed applications should be shown and is now an understood by the practitioner. Further exposure to the mental and physical strength and stamina, of all the elements which will be required from the student in their future Nidan grading should be in evidence. This evidence of the ability to dominate oneself by completing and overcoming demanding physical tasks by drawing one’s mental tenacity and strength, rather than merely physically dominating one’s opponents, should also be obvious at this level.

After at least 3 years of consistent, frequent training, a good understanding and presentation, of all the Kata learnt to this level is expected from the student. Little discernable faults or hesitancy should be seen in the Kata performances, though some improvement (eg fluency, rhythm, strength, focus, emotion/passion) might be possible.

Our fourth traditional form, Seinchin (“Sein = pull off balance, chin = fight” or “Lull before the storm”(3)) is the first Kata that has introduced the concept of dealing with attackers from all sides (all points of the compass). It also combines the hard/soft, fast/slow elements learnt previously in Sanchin and Tenscho. Breathing is important in this Kata so as to ensure that the proper timing and rhythm of the form is consistently maintained.

The teaching rank of Sempai (assistant instructor or mentor ie guiding other students through the Sensei’s teachings(3)) may be granted at this time. Also, at about this time that, subject to surviving a “Black Gi” test, a student may be granted the right to wear an all black Gi. The black Gi is a symbolic acknowledgement that the wearer is one who has displayed “tough” fighting attributes – both physical and mental - and who has trained so consistently hard for a long period that they deserve the recognition. Because of their personal poise and presence, they cannot be overlooked.

They have thus identified themselves as personifying the Budo (war way = warrior, one who is following the martial path) and the Bushi fighting spirit (Bu = war, shi = person, ergo Person of war).(3)

The Black Gi is a subjective recognition which may, but will most unlikely, occur at an earlier stage in one’s progress in the style and encourages a harder, realistic edge to the students’ application of their learning in making them “streetwise”. Those who pass this test have earned the right to join the elite level of the Karate practitioners in their understanding of the possibilities of the Art and have begun to distinguish themselves from those who see their training as an entertaining fitness activity. They are committed (“Dinkum”) about their practise of the Martial Arts and display controlled assertiveness (Mongrel) in their application of what they have learnt. This is a rank which is worthy of striving for by seeking to emulate those who have already achieved the Black Gi status.

The result of disciplined training and much repetition is now becoming apparent with smoother movements and techniques in evidence. Confidence in self and a growing personal presence is apparent.

Mind and body begin to blend as one as comfort with technique becomes apparent.(2)


(1) Inazo Nitobe, Bushido, The classic Portrait of Samurai Martial Culture

(2) Takuan Soho, The Unfettered Mind, Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master

(3) Kyoshi Dean Woodhams, Traditions of ZDK 1988

(4) Sensei Roland Winter, ZDK Sydney, frequent email conversations over the last 5 years


Sensei Heinrich Hofer

Kyoshi Gary McRae

Renshi Anthony Hudson

Sensei Renee Romeo