From Matt Sheridan, written in 2020.
Myths About the Karate-gi and the Factual History
- Originated in Karate?
False! The Karate-gi was borrowed from Judo after karate was brought to Tokyo in the 1920s.
- Ancient Tradition?
False! As mentioned above karate first adopted the karate-gi in the 1920s. However most styles in Okinawa did not adopt it until the 1940s and some styles never adopted it. Even in Judo, where the Dōgi was first introduced, it was not used until 1907. Due to how the Japanese define Koryu vs Gendai (old style vs modern) the use of a Dōgi is considered a modern practice.
- White for Purity?
True and False! Originally the Dōgi was not white, but rather a natural unbleached cotton. However when instructors started to notice that students where not properly washing their uniforms between practices. Due to this Jigoro Kano started requiring the uniform to be white, which requires more attention to keep looking nice. The most Japanese words for clean and hygienic, such as Seiketsu (清潔), Seijō (清浄, etc., also means pure. This causes a bit of confustion amongst westerners.
- Based on Samurai Burial Clothes?
False! Starting off there are no special historical burial clothes. In Japan it was standard practice to burry people in their underwear which was worn by all walks of life. This undergarment was usually a nagajuban or hadajuban. The purpose of this garment was to protect your kimono from body oils, dead skin, etc. This is a practice mirrored in European cultures, and later American cultures. Furthermore Jigoro Kano was very specific on what inspired the Dōgi. According to him they were a reinforced Kimono, Zubon, and Obi. He further elaborated that the Zubon were included for hygienic reasonings, and modesty’s sake, as he thought it was unbecoming to rub one’s sweaty groin on others (as he taught a grappling art).
- The Karate-gi is based on formal wear?
True and False! Many people who move beyond the “Burrial Clothes” myth are often met with a secondary false belief, that Kimono are formal wear, and since the Karate-gi is based on a Kimono they are also formal wear. However the idea of a Kimono as strict formal wear is actually a modern concept spread around the time of WWII. Around this time Japanese schools and businesses were requiring western style clothing, due to this Kimono makers were taking quite a hit in business, so they started an advertising campaign to promote Kimono as formal wear. However prior to this time Kimono were actually daily wear worn by all walks of life. You were just as likely to see a kimono on a poor farmer as you were a courtesan, as likely to see them on small children as you were men and women. However when Jigoro Kano introduced the Dōgi it’s original purpose was as a formal competition uniform, however he later decided to utilize it as a daily training uniform.
- Never Wash Your Obi?
True and False! In Japan both in Karate and Judo the obi is washed pretty regularly. The Obi used in martial arts is based on a Kaku Obi and even to this day many of them don’t have a core. These types of obi are washed regularly. However after the core was added many people, especially in tropical places like Hawaii and Okinawa where there is high levels of humidity in the air, stopped washing their belt in order to prevent the core from mildewing. However outside of these places, this is not an issue. In general it is a good practice to wash your obi between once a week and once a month. Wash by hand with a gentle detergent, rinse and wring out, and hang dry. This process is non-damaging. However you should not wash belts made of silk.
- Never replace your belt?
False! It is pretty standard in almost all martial arts to replace the obi when it becomes so damaged that it no longer fulfills it purpose: keeping the uniform tied and displaying relative rank.
This information is being provided for pure educational purposes. Within martial arts we have a tendency of believing dogma without researching the validity of such. This is not a good thing.