A lot of people who aren't involved in the martial arts perceive the black belt as the highest achievement in fighting skill. However, most martial arts grant "degrees" of black belt to indicate levels of training and experience above the first-degree black belt. Although individual karate organizations have their own specific customs, most conform to a set of similar conventions.
No centralized authority sets down rules about ranks of black belt for karate students. Instead, individual organizations, schools and instructors make those decisions for their own membership. This leads to discrepancies between programs as to the highest possible rank and the requirements students must complete to get promoted.
In karate, the traditional name for black belt is "shodan." Further levels of black belt use Japanese numbers, with a second-degree black belt having the title of "nidan," or "second step." A fourth-degree black belt is "yondan" -- "fourth step." In most karate organizations, the highest possible level is the 10th-degree black belt, "jodan." This rank often is accompanied with other honorifics, such as "Grand Master," "Hanshi" or "O-Sensei."
Time in Grade
Although specifics vary, time spent training is one of the more consistent requirements for a black belt to promote to a higher degree of rank. In general, additional training for the number of years equal to the student's desired rank is a typical span of time. Thus, a fourth-degree black belt would train for a minimum of five years after receiving this fourth-degree rank before being promoted to the fifth degree. These time-in-grade requirements assume that the candidate is actively studying karate throughout this period.
As a karateka ascends through the various black belt ranks, the requirements for promotion shift. At the second- and third-degree levels, requirements frequently resemble those for colored belts -- advanced strike combinations, elaborate katas and weapons techniques. From the fourth- through sixth- or seventh-degree levels, requirements move from physical mastery to theory and philosophical development. Seventh- and higher-degree candidates also are judged on their contribution to karate. These high-ranking black belts are expected to be leaders in their martial arts community.
The highest ranks, most often ninth- and 10th-degree black belt, may have limited membership within some karate organizations. One common model is reserving the ninth-degree black belt for the current leader of the system and 10th-degree for the system's founder. In such an organization, the highest grade achievable by most students would be eighth-degree black belt.
The Physical Belt
At the highest level of black belt, some karate systems no longer have the practitioner wear an actual black belt. Red belts, white belts and belts with a gold or red stripe are common indicators of high black belt rank -- although the specifics vary from organization to organization.