Why we wear white

It is the bane of every dojo parent’s existence – the white karate suit. Why dress children in white? Of all the colours, why choose the most unforgiving, most difficult to maintain, most revealing colour of all? Why something that will get dirty 20 minutes before a grading?

I get it, I do. And after all these years, I still get annoyed when something stains my precious Shureido gi. I save up for literal years to buy each one, and then my toddler son comes up from behind me with sticky hands and leaves stains on the hem of my jacket. It is in those moments that I wish I trained in a practical black gi. Luckily, I have a special care guide for maintaining the quality of my suits – you can read it here.

But the white keikogi (gi for short) is a relatively new phenomenon, instituted by Kanō Jigorō, founder of Judo. He adapted it from kimono around the turn of the 20th century. Japanese martial arts historian Dave Lowry speculates Kanō derived the uniform’s design from the uniforms of Japanese firefighters’ heavy hemp jackets, hanten (半纏). In the 1920s, to help market karate in Japan, Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi adapted Kano’s design and introduced it to karate. The gi is not that ancient and mystic – it is only around 100 years old. For context, Wimbledon has been played since 1877.

Two young judo-ka in keikogi.

While the length of the sleeves and pants are different from style to style, the overall look is that of a white jacket that folds over itself, a belt, and pants. (And a shirt underneath for women, which sucks in the summer but is a bonus in the winter.) The gi ensures that everyone is dressed the same, that issues of class and income are somewhat equalised. It also allows for the rank system, since the only way to stand out is to excel. We see this same principle in school uniforms and blazers. (At my high school, we used to call overachievers Christmas trees, because their blazers would be laden with shiny badges and braiding). When Chojun Miyagi started teaching, everyone wore whatever they could. Mostly, their work clothes. Okinawa was desperately poor after the Second World War, and students made do with what they could find. Sensei Teruo Chinen Sensei writes in his biography about his first gi:

“Because I could not afford a new uniform, my first karate gi was tailored by my oldest sister, Shigeko…I borrowed my friend’s commercially-made gi and my sister copied it. Shigeko collected flour sacks donated by the US Red Cross. She reversed the sacks so the printed part was inside. She used a Singer treadle sewing machine and tailored the top, bottom and belt. That was great!” Forty Years of Chamber, Teruo Chinen.

As you can see, not all the students are wearing suits – some are just wearing casual clothes.

But why white? Especially since Judo has got blue suits, and some of the weapons-based styles (Iado, Kendo) wear black. (The black is to prevent staining from some of the oils used in maintaining weapons.) Why not adopt something more practical? Here we must delve into Japanese culture, which is deeply concerned with matters of hygiene. I always knew about this, but I only really understood the depth of it when I visited Japan and Okinawa and saw how the Japanese prize hygiene and cleanliness. From the absence of litter to the lack of body odour on a crowded train, the Japanese do not tolerate breaches of hygiene. It is why shoes are left at the door, people wear face masks when sick, and the toilets are the most magical monuments to personal cleanliness (my kingdom for my own TOTO washlet!)

And so we come to the white gi, all the easier to see dirt with. But a white gi is more than just a symbol of humility – it shows us the seriousness of the practitioner. The condition of the gi is a reflection of the state of the martial artist’s mind. It should be spotlessly clean, and mended as necessary. The belt is properly tied and the ends are the exact same length. Preferably, there is only a federation badge, and maybe some subtle embroidery of the name. The white gi is simple, humble and pure. It should reflect these qualities in the practitioner.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account the general rambunctious nature of children and their ability to get grass stains on a newly laundered gi, but it is also important to remember that Japanese children are held to the same high standards as adults. Japanese children are expected to keep their own schools clean, instead of janitors, unlike Western children. They are raised to take better care of their environments, and one might assume that this same attention to detail applies to their karate uniform as well.

How Japanese children clean the floors at school – from TheJapanGuy.com

And finally, and the best reason I’ve found for wearing white – it shows up blood immediately. For the same reason nurses started wearing white in the 1900s, we wear white in the dojo so that blood stands out and injuries can be immediately attended to. Overall, I feel like this is the best reason, but I also like the philosophical reasons as well.

And this is where opinions start to differ. I cannot take anyone seriously when their suit looks like a Nascar racer. It’s like those chops who cover their cars in stickers saying “Ass or grass – no free rides!” and “no fat chicks!” Thanks for the heads up – now we know how insecure you are. It’s the bro version of a karate suit, the Cobra Kai sleeveless black gi. (Although, I admittedly love the new Cobra Kai series far more than the original Karate Kid movies). A gi covered in patches looks untidy and kitsch, and that’s before we even start on American flag suits, or camouflage belts.

Like this unmitigated garbage.

A uniform can command respect: Florence Nightingale realised this, and introduced uniforms for her nurses, which also included “colored bands that indicated their level of experience; pastel colors for young nurses, black bands for senior nurses.” A gi, well cared for and proudly worn, can command respect, and it is the instructor’s first impression when meeting possible new students. Let the gi speak for itself, and let your karate speak for you.

It doesn’t have to be an expensive gi – heaven knows there are plenty of rank amateurs wearing monstrously overpriced suits, while some of the best practitioners are wearing second-hand suits that they have meticulously repaired and cleaned. I’m not impressed by an Arawaza gi when some tedious boor is wearing it. A gi can hide your gut, but it can’t hide a bad attitude, and it especially can’t turn a MacDojo black belt into a real one.

The Launch of Martial Heart

Despite the flack that the martial arts community gets for the occasional thuggery andMartial Heart poster.png bad behaviour of some, I truly believe that most of us wish to be better and to be kind. A dojo is often a place of sanctuary and acceptance, a family that can be a great support in difficult times. I know that my dojos over the years have been places where I can be myself, which means being a bit weird and super nerdy about things.

It is with this in mind that I finally started an initiative that I have been thinking about for a long time. It is a small start, but I hope it will grow over time.

I have started with a simple bin for collecting old karate suits, training equipment and clothing in general. It is in the dojo reception area, and has a sign on it encouraging dojo members and family to donate. Every week, I hope to sort through the donations, then allocate them to dojo members on dojo account as well as dojos that are just starting out in less fortunate circumstances. Whatever is left over, I will take to charities in the area and build up relationships between our dojo and charities we personally approve.

We have tons of parents and kids coming through the doors every week, and we are so lucky to have the time and resources to train. Why not make it easier for people to give back with a collection point in a trusted environment? Parents often ask if there’s anywhere they can donate the good clothes their kids grow out of. Let’s make it easier for them!

If you would like to start something like this in your dojo and theme it (pet food as entry to a gashuku, toys for Christmas, whatever), please feel free to download the posters using this link. 

Martial Heart poster

I would be honoured if this appeared in even one other dojo. Please send me photos!

We have the opportunity to give back, always. I believe every dojo is special, and has so much to give.

Follow your martial heart 🙂



How to look after your gi

They say the suit maketh the man, and while that’s a bit narrow, it is helpful to paraphrase it as the gi maketh the warrior. A clean gi (or do-gi) is a sign of respect, not only for oneself but towards one’s dojo and fellow training partners. To arrive in a dirty, untidy gi is to show a lack of self-respect, and is especially egregious in Japan.

This year I invested in several high-quality gi, as befitting my journey towards becoming an instructor. After all, I spend upwards of twenty hours a week in my gi, and that’s excluding gashuku and other training seminars. If I am sitting on a grading panel (even in just an observational capacity), it still behooves me to look the part. Having a few good suits to switch between extends the lifespan of each one, and the old ones still have their place for outdoor training. I would never take a Shureido out on the mountains, after all.

To whit, I’ve created an infographic that has some basic and easy care tips for a gi. In the spirit of martial cooperation, it is yours to download and share amongst all members of your dojo. Feel free to print it out and staple it to every gi your dojo sells, or to put in your next dojo newsletter. If you put it on your website, please just link back to me, that’s all. And if you print it, please don’t crop out my website name.

I hope this will help students (and parents of young students) in all styles keep their gi in great condition. If you have any suggestions, corrections or stories to share, please do!


Dear Adult Beginners: It Gets Better

For whatever reason, you’ve decided to join a dojo. Maybe your kid trains there, or a friend does. Maybe this is the year you get stronger. Maybe there’s a sadder reason that you’d rather not talk about. For whatever reason you joined, there will hopefully be many reasons to stay.

It is difficult to find exact figures for how many people get from white to black belt. A quick google search churns out mostly forum discussions, and it seems to be between 1 and 5%. Probably less than a third make it to their second dan. Some styles have a lot of belts between white and black, and some have very few, but with longer waiting periods. Overall though, the attrition rate for martial arts is ridiculous, but I can understand why so few people stay. I am hoping, though, that I can maybe convince you to stay.

David Wong wrote an amazing article titled How The Karate Kid Ruined The Modern World, and he sums up one of the major reasons why people don’t stick with something:

The world demands more. So, so much more. How have we gotten to adulthood and failed to realize this? Why would our expectations of the world be so off? I blame the montages. Five breezy minutes, from sucking at karate to being great at karate, from morbid obesity to trim, from geeky girl to prom queen, from terrible garage band to awesome rock band.

In the real world, the winners of the All Valley Karate Championship in The Karate Kid would be the kids who had been at it since they were in elementary school. The kids who act like douchebags because their parents made them skip video games and days out with their friends and birthday parties so they could practice, practice, practice. And that’s just what it takes to get “pretty good” at it.

Nothing in this image has anything to do with karate.

Nothing in this image has anything to do with karate.

Everyone thinks they’re a training montage away from being good at something, but getting a black belt within a good federation is a years-long process. (You can get one in 6 weeks at a terrible McDojo, but that’s a whole different blog post.) It takes anything between five and ten years. In my case, it took eight whole years, and that’s with regular, consistent training and the work of several teachers.

But that work is invisible to someone has just joined.

The adult beginner sees other adults with senior rankings, and it looks attainable. And the seniors, we sometimes look so graceful. (Well, I don’t, but there are those that do.) We do these advanced kata, and we move like Sensei does, and we know the terms. It isn’t great to ever be the junior, especially when in other areas of your life, you’re senior in every respect. Being shown how to do basic stepping by someone ten years younger – that stings a bit.

I want you to read two articles. I want you to read this one by Jesse at KaratebyJesse.com, called How to Feel Good About Sucking at Karate. If you read the comments, there are fifth dans and higher admitting that they feel that way all the time. I see instructors getting corrected, people who have been training longer than twenty or thirty years. The learning never stops. Unlike corporate, for example, there’s never really a plateau where you’ve learned everything there is to know at your level. There’s a hundred years of research, ideas and history that informs your training. Of course no one expects you to scratch the surface for a few years. And remember: there’s no rush.

There are no deadlines in karate that you have to chase.

It seems like shameless self-promotion, but I’d also like you to read this piece I wrote about Impostor Syndrome. It was after a really pathetic night of training, when I honestly wondered if I had been given my black belt out of pity. I want you to know that that feeling comes, and it will go. And that there will also be days when some things fall into place, and you will hear the angels sing, and you will deserve those precious, bright moments.

But as an adult beginner, the constant corrections are overwhelming, and sometimes humiliating. It’s hard not to feel like a failure, and to think that no one else has ever been this bad at karate, or aikido, or judo, or whatever you choose to do. But you know what? There isn’t a senior who wasn’t a junior, and who doesn’t learn every day from the junior students they teach. You’re not slowing anyone down by asking for help. 

There are a lot of good reasons to do martial arts, and I hope that you will stick with it. When it is hard, push through. On the other side of frustration lies progress. You will be amazed how many people really do care that you stay. No senior worth their belt will refuse to help you, and if the seniors in the dojo are offish or rude, then get out and try another dojo.

In a year’s time, you will be glad you stuck with it, and in five years’ time, you will wonder why you ever thought of quitting. I promise. So don’t be scared to ask for help, and always train with someone more senior than you. You’ll learn a great deal, you’ll progress quicker than you expect, and you’ll find out more about yourself than you ever imagined.


Credit: Karate by Jesse.com