This may be a topic that will make a few guys squirm in their chair, but as you know I do not shy away from such topics.
If you didn’t know when a female human being reaches a certain age they begin menstruation. Part of this process is the sluffing off of a blood rich lining of the uterus which we call “a period.” This is completely normal and natural. Periods are often accompanied by cramping, bloating, and physical pain in many women, while in others these symptoms are less problematic.
During their period many women refrain from attending karate classes. Sometimes this is due to the above mentioned cramping, bloating, and pain. Other times it is simply due to fear that this blood rich mixture will soak through the Zubon (pants) of their Karate-gi. Especially during activities like stretching and kicking. I have even witnessed this happen first hand at a Judo tournament, where the match was postponed until the competitor had time to go clean up and switch out her pants. I have also witnessed this first hand as a middle school teacher. It is generally embarrassing for the young ladies involved.
As such many martial arts schools have started allowing dyed pants. When I was coming up through the ranks in Youn Wha Ryu we used white uniforms up till our equivalent of 2nd Kyu, then black uniforms starting at 1st Kyu. As a young man I remember how many women gave a sigh of relief when they were permitted to wear black. Even when I trained in the Shorinkan they utilized white and black karate-gi in a similar fashion, and again many women expressed a feeling of relief when they were permitted to wear black pants.
Now when it comes to the history, the wearing of dyed uniforms to hide blood stains is something that is very common in Kobudo circles already. But in karate there seems to he some resistance to this idea. Why?
1. Dogmatic views of Tradition.
2. Esoteric views of Purity.
Let’s address both.
When it comes to tradition we have to understand that the idea of a set uniform for training is actually a modern concept, that went through several changes since its inception. The idea was originally introduced at a 1906 meeting of the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, but it was actually intended to be a Competition uniform, and the task of creating such a uniform was given to Jigo Kano of the Kodokan. His original competition uniform was non-bleached cotton.
Now we get to our first changes:
1. Instead of only utilizing this uniform for mixed style competition, Kano began requiring it to be worn as a training uniform within the Kodokan.
2. He noticed that many of the young men were neglecting to wash their uniform between sessions and before said competitions. As such he began requiring the uniform to be bleached white. This was intended to stop the spread of bacterial infection, as well as encouraging the young men to wash their uniform more often.
3. The type of obi originally used was a traditional Kaku Obi. The obi went through several changes of its own: The knot was swung around to the front. The way the knot was tied was modified. Eventually a core was added to stiffen and reinforce the obi.
4. When the idea was introduced to Karate the material the uniforms were made out of also changed. Instead of a reinforced weave still common in Judogi and Kendo-gi, the Karate-gi utilized a duck cloth/ canvas material.
When it comes to the esoteric concept of Purity we have to understand a little bit about Japanese culture and linguistics, as this concept is getting Lost In Translation.
If you ever go to a Buddhist or Shinto temple in Japan, chances are the first thing you’ll notice other people doing upon entering is rinsing their hands and mouths at a fountain, upon entering the sacred grounds. Why? Purification? Yes… and no! This is called “Chōzu” which is short for, “Chōzu o tsukau” (手水を使う). Water for washing the face and hands.
Japanese are generally very hygienic people, Japanese scholars found out long ago that washing the hands and rinsing out the mouth was a good way to prevent the spread of illnesses in public places, like temples. As such most Japanese words that means Pure also mean, Hygienic and Clean. Such words don’t just describe cleaning your hands and mouths at temples. They also describe the hygienic practices used in hospitals, schools, gyms, etc. You know, places where bleach water happen to be used as cleaning agents…
Now back to blood!
With modern clothes washing technology the use of bleach isn’t needed to maintain sanitary clothing. We put our clothes in the Laundry Machine, make sure to add the correct amount of detergent, and depending on if the clothes will shrink we either throw them in the Drier or hang dry them. Hang drying still being the preferred method in Japan, where space is a commodity and most homes don’t have a Drier.
As such continuing to require bleached white pants is actually an outdated and dogmatic practice. And in my not-so-humble opinion, women (and lets face it, messy children) should not be forced to wear white.