Where did it all come from?
I was told a story by my late Sensei, about the origins of belt colors.
You see, in my dojo, we are taught not to wash our belts. Nor drag them on the floor, or wear them outside of training. We always wrap them in furoshiki when they are not in use. The common understanding in our dojo is that any wear and tear on the belt be gained through honest training. My Sensei's belt was so old and tattered that you could literally see the threads hanging from it, and he had to effect repairs, for it had started to part.
The story he told was of the first judo dojo in Japan, which was really not that long ago. The dojo floor was of wood and only 10 feet square. At that time, all of the belts were white. Of everyone.
One accidental and interesting thing is that the belts that they had were made of flax. Flax is strong enough, but it weakens and falls apart when you wash it. So they learned not to wash their belts, unlike their gi's which they took pains to keep crisp and white.
Over time, the belts of the more experienced judo-ka became quite grimey. Eventually they became downright dark. New students quickly came to realize that when they are faced opposite someone with a dark belt, look out.
After some time, the Dai Nippon Butokukai was formed. This was an eclectic organization of many different martial arts; judo, karate, etc. It was from this organization that many of the war leaders of the second world war would eventually get their schooling.
Well, the interesting thing about getting all of these different arts together, is that often a judo-ka had a difficult time determining exactly how good a karate-ka was at his art; or a karate-ka, a kendoist.
So from the judo experience, they adopted a ranking system. Black belts for those who are certified as "proficient" in their art, and a white belt for those who were still working on it.
The different colors of belts as we have today did not come into existence, as I understand it, until the West got involved. You see, Westerner's are impatient -- we need those little bits of encouragement along the way.
I like having colored belts for the younger ranks. I DO think that it makes a difference in OUR culture for many people. It helps them feel they are accomplishing something along the way.
And somewhere along THAT way, you stop giving a damn.