How Long to Yellow Belt & What is Required?

bow or rei from Karate-do Kyohan by Funakoshi Gichin 1935

In the Shorinji-ryu (small forest) tradition of karate at the Vancouver Dojo—also known as the Shaolin-tzu—many of the new karate students want to know, what is required to earn a yellow belt and how long does it take to learn the skills required?

The estimated time to earn a yellow belt is roughly three to six months of dedicated training.

However, how long before you can earn a yellow belt depends on many factors including training time, your attitude, skill development, your sensei and your dojo. 

This article breaks down what is required to earn a yellow belt and how long it takes.

The Karate Colored Belt System

Karate belt ranking systems fall loosely into one of three major belt ranking systems:

  1. Japan Karate Federation (JKF)
  2. Kyokushin Kaikan (“ultimate reality”)
  3. Okinawan Karate

Different karate traditions follow different belt ranking systems and even within specific traditions, some differences depend on the sensei and the specific lineage of the dojo.

In the Vancouver Traditional Martial Arts dojo, our belt ranking system is rooted in the Okinawan karate belt system. We have eight ranks represented by six colors: white, yellow, purple, brown and black.  The brown belt represents three ranks.

The rank and belt colors are symbolic of a karate student’s level of training effort, level of skill and overall attitude.

The Kyu and Dan Ranking System

Most karate styles follow the kyu & dan ranking system. Kyu means level and refers to the beginner to immediate levels from white to brown belt. Dan can be translated as grade and refers to the multiple levels of a martial artist at the level of black belt.

When you join a karate dojo, you are a white belt from day one. 

The kyu rank number system descends while the dan number system ascends. In the Vancouver dojo, the karate belt order according to the kyu system looks like this:

Karate Belt ColorRank
White Belt7th Kyu
Yellow Belt6th Kyu
Green Belt5th Kyu
Purple Belt4th Kyu
Brown Belt3rd Kyu
Brown Belt2nd Kyu
Brown Belt1st Kyu

Following the 1st kyu brown belt are the different degrees of black belt.

The following is the black belt dan ranking progression:

  • 1st dan or shodan
  • 2nd dan or nidan
  • 3rd dan or sandan 
  • 4th dan or yodan
  • 5th dan or godan
  • 6th dan or rokudan
  • 7th dan or nanadan
  • 8th dan or hattan
  • 9th dan or kyuudan
  • 10th dan or juudan

Rankings beyond shodan require a demonstration of technical expertise as well as years of training and contributions to the art of karate and the individual’s dojo. 

In other words, the advanced rank cannot be achieved by technical training alone. 

An Overview of Yellow Belt Testing Requirements

Yellow belt test requirements have three components:

  1. Kihon
  2. Kata 
  3. Kumite

Kihon are basics or fundamentals. This includes stances, strikes and blocks.

Kata is a series of pre-arranged forms made up of blocking and striking techniques performed individually or against an imaginary opponent. The style and exact kata you learn will depend on the tradition of karate you are learning as well as your sensei.

Kumite or grappling hands, also known as sparring, is not emphasized in the early stages of learning karate; however, everything from stances to striking to blocking techniques has a real-world application. So in this sense, to have a balanced understanding of kihon and kata, a yellow belt would require basic knowledge of kumite. 

Karate practitioners of all belt ranks, even the higher dan ranks, practice kihon, kata and kumite for as long as they train in karate.

Yellow Belt Basics: Kihon

Practicing kihon, or basics, is an ongoing process in karate. Kihon training is a regular component of training, regardless of skill level or belt. You will see karate students from white belt to black belt practicing the fundamental skills listed here.

There are three categories of kihon—stances, punches and kicks—you will learn and master to the best of your ability in your journey to yellow belt.

Stances

In karate terms, stances describe a karate practitioner’s foot orientation, body position—particularly the legs and torso—as well as weight distribution.

Stances are the building blocks for every strike, block and kata in karate and therefore, karate practitioners can spend their entire lives refining and perfecting their stances.

These are three stance considerations to keep in mind:

  1. Endurance
  2. Stability and balance
  3. Flexibility and mobility

Front Stance or Zenkutsu Dachi

One of the first stances a karate student learns is the front bent-leg stance or zenkutsu dachi.

Zenkutsu dachi is formed by extending one leg back, keeping it straight but not locked or tensed, while the front leg is forward and bent with the knee making a vertical line with the toe. The stance is wide and the hips are facing front. The majority of the weight is on the front leg.

Photo: Karate-do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi 2nd Ed. 1973, pg 29

Back Stance or Kokutsu Dachi

The second stance is the back leg-bent stance or kokutsu dachi. This stance is formed by extending the front leg straight but with a slight bend in the knee while balancing on the back bent-leg. The majority of the weight is on the back leg. The foot of the back leg is perpendicular to the front foot and the heel of the back foot is in line with the heel of the front foot.

Karate back stance or Kokutsu dachi

Photo: Karate-do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi 2nd Ed. 1973, pg 31

Striking

Lunge Punch or Oi-zuki

The lunge punch or oi-zuki is one of the first striking techniques you learn in karate. Oi-zuki is formed by assuming the zenkutsu dachi stance and striking with the arm on the same side as the leg that is extended to the front.

karate lunge punch or oizuki

Photo: Karate-do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi 2nd Ed. 1973, pg 31

Reverse Punch or Gyaku-zuki

The reverse punch or gyaku-zuki also uses the zenkutsu dachi stance but with the opposite arm as the striking arm.

karate reverse punch or Gyaku-zuki

Photo: Karate-do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi 2nd Ed. 1973, pg 30

Blocking 

The blocking kihon are critical skills to develop. There are five blocking techniques that a karate student is required to demonstrate at the yellow belt level.

Rising Block or Age Uke

The rising block or age-uke is used to deflect attacks from higher angles and is performed in zenkutsu dachi stance. The rising block is performed with the arm of the forward leg raised to protect your head. Think of a club being swung at your head and redirecting the blow with your forearm. Note that the gradual angle of the forearm prevents the impact of the strike from being a devastating strike to one concentrated area of the arm.

karate rising block or age uke

Photo: Karate-do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi 2nd Ed. 1973, pg 32

Downward Block or Gedan Barai

The downward sweeping block or gedan barai is used to block or deflect attacks from lower angles including mid-level kicks. Gedan barai is performed in zenkutsu dachi stance with the arm of the front leg extended to block a mid-ranged strike. 

karate low block or gedan barai

Photo: Karate-do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi 2nd Ed. 1973, pg 22

Inside Forearm Block or Uchi Uke

The inside forearm block or uchi-uke travels from inside outward and can also be considered a strike. Uchi uke is performed in the zenkutsu dachi back stance with the arm on the side of the front leg blocking the midsection towards the side of the front leg.

For example, in zenkutsu dachi with the right leg forward, the uchi-uke block would prevent a mid-section strike by deflecting or striking toward the right.

karate inside forearm block or Uchi uke

Photo: Karate-do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi 2nd Ed. 1973, pg 80

Outside Forearm Block or Soto Uke

The outside forearm block or soto-uke is an outside-to-inside block or strike that protects the face, chest, and midsection or even a roundhouse kick to the head. Soto-uke is performed using the zenkutsu dachi stance with the blocking arm on the same side as the bent front leg. 

karate outside forearm block or soto uke

Photo: Karate-do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi 2nd Ed. 1973, pg 127

karate outside block or soto uke

Photo: Karate-do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi 2nd Ed. 1973, pg 105

Knife-Hand Block or Shuto Uke

The knife-hand block or shuto-uko uses the kokutsu-dachi stance with the blocking arm on the same side as the extended front leg. This blocking hand is open-handed with the fingers together as compared with the fist formation in the previous blocks.

Shuto-uke is another example of a defensive block action that can quickly transform into an offensive grabbing of the opponent’s body or clothing.

karate knife hand block or shuto uke

Photo: Karate-do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi 2nd Ed. 1973, pg 57

Kicking

The first two kicks you learn are front kicks.

Front Snap Kick or Maegeri Keage

The front snap kick or maegeri keage is performed with a fast, snapping motion of the leg with the ball of the foot as the striking surface. The kicking leg recoils the moment the strike is delivered. Depending on the karate student’s flexibility and balance, this kick can be used to strike the opponent’s chest or solar plexus.

karate front snap kick or mae geri keage

Photo: Karate-do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi 2nd Ed. 1973, pg 24

Front Thrust Kick or Maegeri Kekomi

The front thrust kick or maegeri kekomi is performed with a thrusting motion, pushing the energy through the opponent. The striking surface could be either the ball of the foot or the heel.

karate front thrust kick or maegeri kekomi

Photo: Karate-do Kyohan by Gichin Funakoshi 1935, pg 75 (PDF: 22 of 109)

Yellow Belt Kata

Pinan shodan is the required kata to be performed for the yellow belt test. Pinan shodan, also known as heian shodan, includes the four basic techniques learned as part of the yellow belt kihon or basics: the downward block, mid-level lunge punch, rising block, knife-hand block and knife-hand block.

Learning your first kata is an experience best left to first-hand experience in the dojo since even a long, drawn-out explanation wouldn’t be sufficient.

That said, aiming to master your first kata, to the best of your ability, is a great achievement.

Yellow Belt Kumite

As mentioned earlier, there is no specific kumite requirement as part of yellow belt tests; however, the concept of bunkai— disassembling or analysis—of forms learned in kata is present in regular martial arts training.

In other words, bunkai demonstrates the real-world application of any given karate form including the movements within any kata.

Even if kumite is not an emphasis for yellow belt training, everything you learn leading up to your yellow belt test can be thought of in the context of bunkai and real-world applications.

Months of Consistent Training 

After all that’s said and done, the most direct path to achieving your yellow belt and the most important part of karate training is the time and effort you devote to the art. 

Consistent training will be the difference between achieving your yellow belt in three months compared to six months or longer.

Showing Up

As a beginner karate student, presumably with a busy life, no one expects you to show up to 100% of your classes without fail. On the other hand, joining karate, like many martial arts, is not the same as signing up for drop-in basketball at your community center. 

Showing up regularly to train is as much a part of yellow belt training as learning the basic skills.

Hard Work

When the shine of your karate gi starts to wear off and your training gets challenging, it will be tempting to be lazy in class. 

The effort you expend and how hard you train when you show up to class is important and taken into account before you qualify to test for your yellow belt. Part of developing your skill level is remembering that hard work is required most when you feel your motivation is waning.

Attitude

Traditional karate training, especially at the white and yellow belt rank when students are most vulnerable, requires a certain attitude beyond just sportsmanship that is unique to the martial arts. 

Respect for your sensei, the dojo and lineage, respect for higher ranks as well as karate students equal to you or lower in rank, are all critical to the traditional martial arts attitude.

From White to Black Belt: Estimated Time Required

This table provides a guideline of the estimated class attendance and training time that correspond to each belt, according to the Shorinji-ryu karate tradition.

Karate Belt ColorRankTraining Time Estimate
White Belt7th KyuFrom day 1, you are a white belt
Yellow Belt6th Kyu35 classes – 3 to 6 months
Green Belt5th Kyu35 classes –  3 to 6 months from your last belt test
Purple Belt4th Kyu35 classes –  3 to 6 months from your last belt test
Brown Belt3rd Kyu35 classes –  3 to 6 months from your last belt test
Brown Belt2nd Kyu75 classes –  6 months to 1 year from your last belt test
Brown Belt1st Kyu75 classes –  6 months to 1 year from your last belt test
Black BeltShodan75 classes –  6 months to 1 year from your last belt test
In addition to training effort and technical expertise, the next belt up from shodan up to the highest rank takes into consideration years of training and contributions to the art and the Dojo of the karate student.

You may also have the orange belt and the blue belt as part of your belt ranking system. These were two later additions to the ranking system and are not included in the belt ranking system at the Vancouver Dojo.

Yellow Belt Training Time

The actual time it will take you to earn a yellow belt will depend on more factors than simply time spent in the dojo and skills acquired. 

Karate students at the Vancouver Dojo take an estimated four to six months to achieve their yellow belt. Although achieving your yellow belt is a significant milestone, remember that the speed at which you achieve your yellow belt, or any belt, is not something that is emphasized in karate.

Your months of active training, repeated practice of basic skills, improving your physical strength and general attitude toward training, your sensei and dojo, are far more important than achieving a colored belt or even joining the intermediate ranks or higher dan ranks. 

If you achieve your first belt and start looking toward the next level, remember that the effort you invest in your training and your attitude is what will determine how far you will progress.

Topmost photo credit: Karate-do Kyohan by Funakoshi Gichin 1935, pg 78 (PDF: 68 of 109)

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