4. The Keikogi–Do Clothes Make the Budoka?

The standard karategi
The standard karategi

Okay, so you joined a club. Now you get to buy one of them there cool looking pajama uniforms. After all, half the coolness of joining a martial art is looking tough in one’a them there white PJ’s, right?

Of course, you do run the risk of putting it the outfit on WRONG and then you look like a  total dorkwad, too. So for the complete beginner, here’s a little primer on how to wear those white pajamas. Or, we should call them keikogi (practice outfits); or more succinctly, depending on what you practice: judogi (outfit for judo), karategi (outfit for karate), kendogi…or simply dogi…well, you get the idea.

So that’s the terminology. A practice “uniform” is a something-or-other-gi, the “gi” meaning something you wear. For kendo and aikido people, you also strap on a hakama, a sort of wide breeches. It’s not a dress. It’s got pants legs, albeit they’re very wide, to allow for a wide freedom of movement.

To hold the top together, you use an obi, or cloth belt. For many Japanese martial arts systems, the obi color also denotes what rank you are; white or different colored belts to brown signify a –kyu level (such as sankyu, or third kyu), black means “black belt,” or yudansha (“someone who holds a dan rank). Kodokan judo also instituted teaching ranks, or professorship, which are signified by a yudansha being allowed to wear a checkered red and white belt. We’ll discuss the significance of the belt and the kyu-dan system later.

For now: the clothes.

When I was researching the origins of the white keikogi for an article in Furyu, I found scant historical resources. No one really knows its exact origins, although it’s pretty clear that Kano Jigoro, the founder of Kodokan judo, was probably involved in its development. He standardized the white cotton, thickly woven practice outfit used by judo players when he developed judo in the late 1800s, early 1900s. Like his own judo, the judogi was probably an amalgam of what he thought were the best, most logical and most practical points of traditional Japanese wear and Western athletic wear. Instead of hakama, he opted for a simple pair of pants and a jacket that could be grappled and pulled and yanked without tearing apart. The simple white outfit was practical as well as philosophically compatible with his concept of modern judo: a Western-style athletic endeavor that nevertheless contained some elements of traditional Japanese style shugyo, or austere mental, spiritual and physical training.

As such, the judogi was simple, austere, tough and without any ostentation.

Although there were antecedents, Kano appears to have been the one who really popularized this type of training outfit. In addition, Kano also popularized the kyu-dan ranking system. And we’ll talk about that later as well.

In due time, aikido and karate adapted the judogi.

One karate friend who has interviewed a lot of prewar Okinawan karate masters noted that some of them have alluded that early 20th Century karate was often done bare-chested, sans the stereotypical karategi. There were, they conjectured, two reasons for this: one, the Okinawan practitioners were often poor, and could ill afford specialized training outfits. And/or, in any case, when doing dynamic tension exercises, the sensei (teacher) could tell if the right muscle groups were being utilized by the student if he could see their muscles contracting and expanding. Hence, even now when doing a kata like Sanchin, many male practitioners take off their gi tops.

In any case, the white gi has evolved into blue-colored gi, striped gi, gi with longer tails to tuck into hakama, and thinner gi for karate, outfits with black edging for Korean Tae Kwon Do, and even multi-colored, stars-and-stripes forever gi for good ol’ American style kurrottee gee. Some modern martial arts also take to festooning their gi with all sorts of patches and sponsorships, so that their gi looks less like an outfit for austere spiritual training and more like the pajamas of an Indy 500 race car driver.

Putting the gi on is simplicity itself. Slip on the pants, cinch up the cords so they don’t fall off. Then put the top on. grab the left and right lapels with your two hands and pull them out in front of you. Tuck the right edge into the left side of your body and the left side over the right, so that the left comes around to your right hip. Karategi have ties that help you to secure the jacket in place. Please don’t tuck the wrong side in. Reversing it, so that the right edge goes over the left is only done (in Japan) for dressing a corpse.

Holding the gi close, wrap the obi around your waist and tie a square knot in front.

Simple enough? Not quite. You need to make sure that the obi rides just above your hip bone. For men, it shouldn’t ride too high. For women, riding high is OK due to the different hip structure. When seen from the side, the obi tends to slope down slightly at the front compared to the back. The knot in the front should go around all the obi wrappings. The ends of the obi should come out of the sides of the knot and hang down. If the ends are too long, you need a shorter obi. Or you could tuck the ends back up into the obi itself, so they don’t get in the way.

–Interestingly, I found that tying up the obi in the front was also not standardized until somewhat recently. I was helping Charles Goodin (http://museum.hikari.us/) set up a show about the history of Okinawan karate in Prewar Hawaii. He had an amazing trove of old photos, culled from different resources. Among them were Okinawan karate practitioners dressed in thick judo-style outfits. They held their tops together with a standard cotton martial arts belt, but it was tied in a loop, sort of a half-butterfly knot, and cinched at the side, like how some Okinawans used to tie up their regular, everyday obi and kimono.

The lapels should be prim and closed up. That means the jacket should be big enough so that it at least covers up the chest when you are not grappling or having it yanked around by an opponent.

If you do aikido, you slip a hakama over this. If you do kendo, then you just use an uwagi (top) and a hakama, sans the cotton trousers. Tying up and wearing a hakama can be somewhat more complex, and in fact I found that aikido people do it differently, as do Shinto Muso-ryu jo people, as do kendo people, as do different ryu (styles), so if you are at a loss as to how to wear a hakama, ask your own sensei or your seniors.

Hakama over a gi.
Hakama over a gi.

One of the reasons Kano chose a white gi was hygienic. You can wash it and dry it and you don’t have to grapple with bare nekkid men and go skin to skin all the time, catching their fleas and skin rashes. So I think it behooves you to keep your training outfit clean and neat. If you had a particularly exhausting session, wash your outfit! There is no glory or machismo in coming to class stinking of stale sweat, although it might keep people afraid of grappling with you.

Another reason might have been aesthetic: a simple outfit allows you to concentrate on the main point to budo, the training. So my tendency would be to forego the many patches, insignia, and assorted paraphernalia. Stick with basics. As a corollary, while military dress uniforms allow for shiny medals and spit and polish buttons, you don’t go into battle dressed like that. You go in as simply as possible.

As far as accessories go, you’re not prancing down Rodeo Drive, girl (or guy)! Traditional Japanese budo dictates that you remove jewelry, watches, earrings, etc. Jewelry is both an aesthetic distraction and a real danger to you and your training partners. It can get caught during a throw and may hurt you or your partner. Or you may implant your “Waialua High School Class of ’98” ring design on someone’s face when your punch goes wild. Not very nice. Aesthetically, removing jewelry is part of the shugyo process. Training is not the time to show off your wealth or to call attention to your outward beauty.

Going further, being physically clean (yes, guys, wear washed undies; please no two-day old stinkers!) is the accepted norm. Although budo is a physical regime, it’s not considered cool to stink and look like you just got out of two months in the wilderness. Being filthy and gross may seem manly in some subcultures, but it’s not in budo. You should avoid really strong perfumes or colognes.

Lest you think these considerations seem prissy for budo, it’s not limited to these art forms. The same restrictions tend to hold true in many other traditional Japanese pursuits, including tea ceremony (be clean, dress clean, no jewelry or strong perfumes while doing tea), flower, music, dance and so on.

Again, the reason for this is that in all such arts, you are participating in something personally enjoyable for yourself, but it’s also a form of shugyo, of personal training of the mind, body and spirit. As such, there’s a tinge of asceticism to the training. So think Quaker furniture, not Louis XV. Think Franciscan monks chanting in a monastery, not a Black Eyed Peas concert in the park.

A couple other notes, which may turn into rants: First, the dogi or keikogi are meant for training. In Japan, I’ve seen little kendo kids hurrying to practice on bicycles already dressed in kendo outfits. That’s cool in Japan. And maybe for little kids in America, it’s kind of cute to see those little urchins dressed in clean white outfits piling into and out of an SUV, stopping at a grocery store or Pizza Hut on the way home.

But for adults, in America, I would advise that if your training area has a place to change, take advantage of it. Avoid driving to practice dressed in your outfit. Wearing a karategi with a white belt is simply asking for trouble if you encounter some drunken or crazy person with a history of violence while you’re buying a hot dog at the 7-11 on the way home. Plus, mustard stains are hard to get out of a white gi. I know. I’ve tried.

I recall a story someone related to me from my youthful days in karate. He was a professor at a local college, a studious, bespeckled, skinny guy who just started karate. On the way home, two drunken thugs in a beat-up truck noticed him driving his BMW dressed in a white gi with a white belt and started following him, making obscene gestures about what they proposed to do to him when he stopped his car. Fearing that they might injure his wife if he drove straight home, he stopped his car (not the best tactic, in my opinion, but anyway…) on a lonely stretch of the road and stepped out to meet them. We had just begun nunchaku practice so he could only think of draping it around his neck. The thugs ran out to attack him. He told me that the only thing he remembered from training was to swing his nunchaku at an attacker in an arc, so he did that. The wooden tip struck the first attacker on his head just when he was about to throw a haymaker punch, and he fell face forward to the ground. The sudden attack from what seemed like an easy mark probably scared him more than hurt him. The thugs ran back into their truck and drove off quickly, leaving my friend unscathed.

While I was happy that my friend avoided physical damage, I dissected the lead-up to the confrontation and surmised that the whole affair might have not happened had he changed his clothes and not stood out like a sore thumb while driving. And it would have been a sorry affair had we not been practicing nunchaku, but doing something like sword or sai work. Yikes.

When you doff your keikogi, you can simply throw it into your gym bag and head home. If you want to be more disciplined about it, you can fold it flat to be neat and have it take up less room. The pants are laid flat on the floor, then folded over lengthwise so the legs are on top of each other. You fold the pants into thirds, making a neat rectangle. Likewise, you place the uwagi, or gi top, flat on the floor, lapels tucked in, right on top of left. Fold it in half lengthwise at its spline so that one sleeve is right on top of the other sleeve. Fold the sleeves at the elbow and shoulder so it sits atop the uwagi in a rectangle. Fold the gi from the bottom up in thirds so the fold covers the folded sleeves. There, you have a neat little bundle!

You can also slip the pants into the uwagi bundle and then wrap your obi around it, making a neat little package if you like.

As soon as you get home you hang up the gi to air out, or throw it in the laundry.

As for folding the hakama, I found that different people do it differently, so I’d recommend that you consult your sensei about folding and storing it.

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14 thoughts on “4. The Keikogi–Do Clothes Make the Budoka?

  1. I was once told that “gi” cannot stand alone in Japanese, because it must be preceded by something else, as in “dogi.” My Japanese is not good enough to say whether that it true. Of course, in North America, “gi” is very widely used by itself and everybody understands. So two questions: Can “gi” be used by itself in good Japanese? And since the usage is so common, does it matter even if it’s improper?

    1. Good question. I tend to straddle two cultures a lot; in America you can just say “gi” and it makes sense. In Japan, come to think of it, it’s always used in context; as in dogi, karategi, etc. It’s used so much as a standalone, I think in the States it’s OK. Not sure in Nihongo, really. Hmmm. Probably not.

  2. “Gi” is written with one of two characters – 着 or 衣. In this case, they both represent the stem of the verb “ki-ru”, meaning “to wear”. The stem “ki” becomes “gi” because of euphony in compounds. By itself it can never be “gi”.

    One I was doing aikido the common term in my dojo was “do(u)gi”, which can mean either “Way-wear” (way as in “do” – judo, the Way of Suppleness, etc.) or also “torso-wear” (in this case “do(u)” as in the Kendo “Do!” body strike).

    In my koryu, however, the term everyone uses is “keiko-gi”. Training wear.

    For those who have made grievous budo fashion faux pas, don’t take it too hard. You’d think the Japanese people would know how things are supposed to look, but I’ve seen more than one Japanese newbie put their hakama on first, and their keiko-gi on above that.

    I remember seeing a photo of Donn Draeger in keiko-gi and hakama, and he looked positively heroic. I always looked frumpy and sad. But after a year of working at it, I eventually got to the point where I looked pretty stylish. Fashion point: your keiko-gi will look a lot better, and your budo a lot more effective, if you maintain a proper, strong posture. Slouch, and your budo will suffer, and you’ll look sad doing it!

  3. Thank you, Wayne and Josh.

    Ohshima Tsutomu wrote that the kanji for “keiko” is comprised of 稽 (“think”) and 古 (“old”), so that the Japanese word for practice implied “to think of the old.” I understand that, depending on one’s point of reference, the keikogi itself can be considered a modern innovation, barely older than the 20th century, but nonetheless, a multi-colored “gi” festooned with patches doesn’t suggest much thinking of the old, so that “keikogi” seems an inappropriate name for such a uniform.

    A different writer and karateka suggested that a long uwagi is especially good for kata competition, because it hides imperfect hip movement and the tails fly about in a way sure to impress judges. It’s quite possible I’m just being crotchety, but that kind of thinking seems distant from the concept of do 道 I have been taught. Then perhaps such a “gi” isn’t really a dogi, a uniform of the way, although it surely is a dogi, as in “torso wear.”

  4. Doug, I have to agree with you about your crotchety-ness. To “impress judges” by making the tails fly about doesn’t strike me as what should be a major reason to wear a certain kind of outfit. The keikogi should be mainly to facilitate training. Then again, that’s why I started this blog…to present a crotchety, “old fashioned” way of thinking about budo that is fast disappearing, perhaps.

  5. Does anyone find there is a cult-like, anal-retentive style of folding the hakama? I mean, I know some groups that are laid back about it, others that believe that it should be folded exactly the way it came out of the box. I also find there is a lot more hubub about it overseas than there is in Japan.
    Is it just me?

  6. Russ, nope. Not you. I found some aikbunny types positively nutso about folding the hakama or dressing a certain way in a dojo. My attitude is that as long as your (white) keikogi is clean and you’re hygenically healthy without many transmittable diseases, you’re good to go. One time I gave a short workshop on sword handling at a dojo and at the end I was getting out of my hakama and a student insisted he fold it for me. That’s how they do it in aikido, I guess; fold the hakama just right for the senior students. But for me, it was real grouchy old man koryu attitude: I fold my own hakama because I don’t trust anyone not to slip in a poison shuriken tip, especially from a different dojo.
    I am, of course, saying this with tongue-in-cheek.

  7. I knew a guy years ago from Manilla that carried a special brush and a flat board about six or eight inches long that he used to clean and smooth wrinkles away as he folded his hakama. It took him twenty minutes to do the whole ritual. I asked him why he did such an elaborate ritual to fold his clothes. He was amazed that I was folding mine on my chest while standing up in a couple of minutes, and mine looked as neat as his when finished. He told me the hakama was sacred and that he was “folding his soul and giving praise to the kami.” I told him that mine was just a regular hakama made from regular cotten and that my soul was wash and wear and needed no folding. He thought I was really crude and undisciplined as I remember.

  8. Chuck, I guess some people gotta find their spirituality in a pair of pants, and some find it elsewhere. Reminds me of when I was invited to a dojo by the teacher to interview a visiting hachidan aikido teacher. I showed up in my working journalist’s clothes: dress shirt and jeans, and the teacher led me away from the doorway and said he couldn’t let me in because I should have been dressed better for the dojo, which was on the precincts of a Buddhist temple.
    I reminded him that HE invited ME but he said I should show more respect and come back in dress pants and tie, and I said, forget it. I was working and taking time away from my day job for this.
    I was about to step into my car when the visiting hachidan sensei called me, told me to enter the dojo, and wondered what the fuss was about. I said I had to go home to change my clothes. He thought that was ridiculous and we sat down for an hour-long interview. In the dojo. In my jeans.

  9. Thanks Chuck. I was really starting to get worried when I saw some of this going on. Poison Shuriken are ALWAYS a problem around here. I do, incidentally, find my spirituality in my pants. 🙂 Prayer too.. “oh god, god…oh god….”

  10. Chuck, yes, and my wife keeps telling me that pretty soon she’s going to have to replace my pants with senior diapers if I start to ignore those messages.

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