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How Do Karate Gradings Work?

Updated: Apr 18

how do karate gradings work

What are karate gradings?

Gradings are tests of varying levels of formality to determine if a student is ready to progress to the next kyu (level) of their training. In our dojo, students aged 5 to 14 have 3 tests a year, and students over 14 have two longer tests twice a year. Once a student gets their blue belt, they have only two gradings a year. The gradings cover material taught in class, so it is important to attend training as regularly as possible in order to know the

required syllabus (just like school!)

How do karate gradings work? Well, a grading attempts to cover the syllabus taught over the last 3-6 months, and uses pressure testing to see how well the student understands what they have learned. It is best conducted in front of a panel. Gradings get more intense the higher a student goes, and by black belt, the test may take place over several days and over a wide syllabus to ensure that the candidate is a worthy contender for the coveted title of shodan (first level black belt). Our dojo's shodan test is one of the toughest in South Africa - not because we expect SEAL Team 6 levels of fitness from everyone, but because each candidate is pushed to their individual limit.

OGKK logo

Our grading certificates are ratified by OGKK (Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate-do Kyokai), and it means that our students’ grades are validated by our governing body in Okinawa. This gives real meaning and weight to the rank the student receives, and as such must be treated with respect. The instructor’s decision regarding a student’s progress is final, and is not made lightly. Failing and passing is done at the discretion of the Sensei and the grading panel, and we believe that failure is an important learning tool. It also maintains the standard of our dojo if belts are not given freely to unworthy candidates, as it cheapens the hard work of

other students who do try their best and meet the criteria set by the dojo. We believe in a culture of hard work, and the value of teaching the students that nothing worth having is free.

However - it's also just a grading, not heart surgery. It is not a life or death situation, or something to lose massive sleep over. It's just a test, and it is as much for us as instructors as it is for the students. It allows us to see where we need to work harder and teach better, and what is working best for our students.

students preparing for karate grading

Grading etiquette

  • The student must wear their full karate suit, and from blue belt, MUST have a federation badge on the left chest of their suit.

  • Female students must wear a plain t-shirt under their gi jackets. Male students can wear t-shirts when it is cooler, or for modesty.

  • Belts must be neatly tied.

  • Hair to be tied back or in a headband. No hairpins or metal clips allowed.

  • No long nails, watches, bracelets, earrings or jewelry - these can lead to injuries to oneself and training partners.

  • Students are to be at the grading at least 10 minutes before it starts – punctuality is an important quality to instill in students.

  • Bow to the grading panel and to the moderator at the beginning and end of every grading.

  • If in possession of an OGKK karate passport, please bring it to the grading table to be stamped and updated (from brown belt only).

Grading Criteria

Every student must fulfil the following criteria to successfully grade to their next stripe or belt.

1. Time: has the student attended the requisite number of classes since their last grading (or since they started)? Someone who trains 2x a week or more, as opposed to someone who trains sporadically, will be graded regularly. The minimum age for a belt will always apply, regardless of the amount of training a student has done.

2. Content: Does the student know the required material? Can they complete the kata appropriate for their belt, or the required bunkai? If this knowledge is inadequate, the student will either be asked to regrade in a few months, or if they are falling just short, they will wear a probation belt.

3. Ability/potential: is the student training and grading to the best of their ability? Are they working hard? Are they making the most of their talent, or given ability, or coasting through on the bare minimum?

4. Improvement: has the student improved since their last grading? This may be just purely technical improvement, or overall improvement in effort, focus, attitude, and knowledge.

5. Dedication: does the student commit to regular training? Do they make a consistent effort to get to the dojo?

6. Character: is the student an asset to the dojo and to our art? Do they carry themselves appropriately? Are they teachable? Do they show compassion and good manners? Bad behaviour will prevent the student from progressing, and possibly lead to expulsion from the dojo.


On our grading forms, you will see 4 rankings: Fail, Pass, Merit, Distinction. Every student is graded on their own merit, and NOT on a class grading curve. Because every student is graded according to their individual ability, history and potential, their marks are a reflection of their progress, and not in relation to other class members. Parents, please do not compare your child’s marks to that of others, as we grade your child on THEIR merit, and not in comparison to other students. We also know the personal context of every student - some overcome great difficulties just to get to the dojo, or even to perform in front of Sensei. What mark each student gets and why is that student’s business. After all, comparison is the thief of joy.

Ranking systems at GRKC

The belt system is designed to encourage progress by giving students visible markers of their hard work. It has its history in students’ belts getting progressively darker the longer they trained, before we had training uniforms. The ranking system has been adopted from Judo, and while it is not infallible, it is a generally useful way to reward progress within

the dojo.

Students will change systems as they get older, and the demands of their training change. Adults and teenagers are expected to remember more material between gradings, hence the reduced number of ranks. Children’s karate requires less material and is broken up into more manageable chunks.

Students migrating from junior yellow to solid yellow will be adjusted according to Sensei's discretion, depending on their age, dedication and ability.

karate grading

Why the stripes? Can’t we just change belt colours?

At school, do children change grades every four months? No! So why would they change belts every four months in the dojo?

The stripes are designed to slow students down, especially those who start at 5 years old. This is so that they do not get stuck on brown belt at age 10,11, 12, and then must wait 3-4 years for their junior black belt. It is better for them to do their time when they are younger. The minimum age for junior black belt is 14, and 16 for a senior black belt.

We do not do accelerated gradings, and we will ratify students coming in from other styles or dojos in order to place them at the appropriate belt. Only McDojos give black belts to children – we don’t believe that a child is equipped to handle the responsibility and knowledge that comes with a black belt.

It is at Sensei’s discretion when a child will move from one age group to another, depending on their maturity and ability. The system is flexible in order to match the abilities of students while meeting the syllabus set by our home dojo in Okinawa.

Past students who return after a number of years or join from another karate dojo will be re-evaluated and placed at the belt appropriate to their knowledge and experience, also entirely at Sensei's discretion.

how to add karate stripe to belt

Okay, but do I really have to grade? I don't like doing karate in front of everyone!

Well, yes, technically - you could be a white belt forever. But one of the benefits of grading is that it forces everyone out of their comfort zone. Sometimes in life, you will have to advocate for yourself, whether it is for a sales pitch or meeting future in laws or rising to meet opportunities as they come. And yes, grading is an introvert's idea of hell, but it also one of the best ways to build confidence.

Quick story time: we have a student, who I will call N. When N arrived, this teenager could not do anything at all in front of the class. I remember asking him to count for warm-ups, and he left the mat. Now? N leads classes confidently in warm-ups, teaches small groups and has become a confident young man that I can trust to teach his juniors.

If we had let him stay in his comfort zone, he'd still be there: too shy to survive in this world.

How long does it take to get a black belt?

How long is a piece of string? As long as it needs to be.

I know that's not the straightforward answer you might want, but it really does depend. If you start at 5 years old, then a minimum of 9 years, because, again, a 10 year old has no business wearing a black belt. (Hence, the stripes we previously discussed). If you start as an adult, then about 5-6 years, assuming you don't miss any gradings and are consistent in your training (which is hard!)

A better question is, how long does it take to become a black belt? This is a better philosophical question. You could walk into a sports shop and buy a black belt, and walk around telling people you have a black belt. But a lion doesn't have to tell people its a lion, and those who know, will know. It takes time to mature into the belt, and it takes a while to learn all the material.

So no - there's no shortcut to black belt; or at least, not at Goju Ryu Karate Centre.

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