Many decades ago, a great master called Jigoro Kano decided that he'd create a system called the Kyu/Dan system in order to differentiate the different skill levels of his students. This is the system our club follows today.
The 'Kyu' grades are the junior/novice grades and are denoted by the wearing of coloured belts which generally darken in colour as students progress. The 'Dan' however was a Degree, a similar concept to Degrees you get in universities and is indicated by the wearing of a black belt. These black belt degrees, just like the kyu grades, were also broken down into different levels to indicate skill and experience. These degree levels go from the first degree(called Shodan in Japanese) all the way to the tenth degree(Judan). Dedicated practitioners train for many years and decades and their progress is shown by the the award of higher degrees.
All grades require successfully passing an examination called a grading in order to be promoted. Although they require hard work and preparation, gradings are momentuous occasions which should be enjoyed. They may take place on one day, or over multiple assesments. Certificates called menjos are awarded after passing gradings. The number of Kyu and the coloured belts use can vary slightly from one organisation to another but they generally increase in darkness as the student increases in rank. The following are the karate grades used in our club in the order of seniority.
10th Kyu (White Belt)
9th Kyu (Red Belt)
8th Kyu (Yellow Belt)
7th Kyu (Orange Belt)
6th Kyu (Green Belt)
5th Kyu (Blue Belt)
4th Kyu (Purple Belt)
3rd Kyu (Brown Belt)
2nd Kyu (Brown Belt + 1 stripe)
1st Kyu(Brown Belt + 2 stripes)
1st Dan (First Degree Black Belt after a total of 2 1/2 - 4yrs consistent training.
(Minimum age is 16yrs old)
2nd Dan (Minimum time as 1st dan, 2yrs)
3rd Dan (Minimum time as 2nd Dan, 3yrs)
4th Dan (Minimum time as 3rd Dan, 4yrs)
5th Dan (Minimum time as 4th Dan, 5yrs)
6th Dan (based on contribution to the developement of martial arts)
10th Dan (The most senior of masters, normally a figure head of a world wide organisation)
In addition to RANK there are various levels of TITLES that are part of ancient traditions around long before the use of belts. Excepional practioners tend to be eligible for masters' titles after achieving the rank of 5th Dan or 6th Dan. The requirements vary from one organisation to another. Titles are as follows.
Sempai - Senior Student
Sensei - Teacher
Renshi - Master (Shogo) title
Tasshi - Master (Shogo) title
Kyoshi - Master (Shogo) title
Hanshi - Master (Shogo) title
Shihan - A collective term that can encompass Renshi, Tasshi, Kyoshi & Hanshi
Some organisations have stripes on black belts to indicate master levels
1 Stripe - Renshi
2 Stripes - Kyoshi
3 Stripes - Hanshi
To make matters more complicated various groups will use less common or even unique titles such as Shidoin, Kaiso, Kancho, Kaiden Shihan and Sandai Kichu.