The Purpose of a Karate Uniform

I’m exactly the wrong person to write this article, given how much of my earlier life I spent avoiding anything to do with uniform dress. The very concept seemed silly. Why do fancier clothes always come with discomfort and impracticality? Why do women enjoy an endless variety of fashion, while men get variations on a single outfit? Why can’t police wear sneakers? Today, however, I find myself happily distributing a high-quality uniform, known in Japanese as a gi, to each eager, beginning student who joins our karate school. What happened?

In my 20s, I was invited to stand as a wedding groomsman for a second time and it brought an epiphany. (It didn’t during the first one, in large part because the entire bridal party was required to wear sneakers. The only clue I’ll give you of who offered this fun gaffe is his status as one of Granite Forest Dojo’s Shotokan instructors and most senior students. Today, Jim {oops} owns more uniforms than you and me put together.) It took two expensive ceremonies to get the concept through my head: I realized I was dressing out of respect for someone else. In one evening I learned—and ever since have only had reinforced—that there is no benefit to minimal decorum. In truth, there are several advantages to dressing in the best, appropriately-possible way to honor my hosts. 

That latter, outward point is secondary, however, always trumped by the inward benefits of proper outerwear in general, and your karate uniform in specific. These aspects can benefit even three-year-old children. They drive our uniform policy at Granite Forest Dojo.

The care and wearing of a uniform brings a small amount of self-consciousness even for those of us who seldom look in a mirror. That awareness influences our self control. For worry-free children, a uniform begins to guide them toward the sense of responsibility that accompanies small tasks, like when to remove and where to store their shoes, how to line up in class, and how to address the instructor. It lets them know, at a developmentally appropriate scale, the boundaries of what is acceptable. It is the smallest, most accessible stepping stone on the path toward personal dignity.

We ask each student in our dojo to be fastidious in the care of his or her uniform. Here are some suggestions to help make this more feasible:

  • Give it a home, a special place where only your gi is stored. Whether it’s a hangar on a hook or folded in a bag, setting it aside from other clothing will help form the habit that will grow to become a value. 
  • Set the rule. Once its location is established, your gi is either there, being washed, or being worn, period. I’ve always owned at least two gis so I’ve never been without one at the ready. (Now I have…more than two!) Because I participate in events outside our dojo, I’ve even established a complete setup that stays clean, folded, and in a bag (along with water, a towel, a spare belt, and spare undergarment) for grabbing at a moment’s notice.
  • Hygiene first. To support fellow students in their focused karate practice, we should remain odor-free. Our gi must be always clean and in good repair when arriving to class.
  • Wear your full and proper uniform. That is, your zubon (trousers), uwagi (jacket) with all patches, and obi (belt).  As the jacket can often become disheveled during training, ladies are encouraged to add a T-shirt and/or sports bra beneath it. It is considered improper for a gentleman to wear a T-shirt under his uwagi. Youngsters may wear imprinted Granite Forest Dojo T-shirts (and no other T-shirts) during normal Kids’ Class training. But in that context the shirt is to be considered a part of the uniform, and so must be clean and unwrinkled. When class begins, those out of uniform (i.e. missing any part of it) are expected to respectfully line up at the end of the student line, below the lowest ranking students. Some schools don’t allow students to train at all when arriving late or out of uniform. I believe it’s better to train in less-than-ideal conditions, so karate-ka should always show up and do what they can. All black belts have experienced less-than-ideal dress and timing during our karate career; as with everything else in class, we have been encouraged to do our best with what we bring. During exams and mock exams, however, a full, white gi and early arrival are required.
  • Use dojo dressing rooms. We encourage students in adult classes to change at the dojo, rather than wearing their uniforms to it. This may sound trivial, but using a bag to speedily change and a tidily repack civilian clothes is actually a practice that aids your awareness of the world around you and your preparedness for its challenges.

In the practice of martial arts and elsewhere (including friends’ weddings!), uniforms aren’t only about dogmatic dress-code adherence. They are visible manifestations of self control, which is one of the highest purposes of our craft. Our training hall is a forge for tools we use in a challenging world. Our gi is an important reminder of our potential to meet those challenges. It helps us stand at full height, find our spirit in lesser moments, and enables us to better approach the hard tasks we signed up for.

All this having been said, your uniform is only a tool to facilitate your training. I own many books. Those in perfect condition have been of little use to me. The ones with worn spines, however, have contributed to my growth. My better gis, like my better books, are dog-eared. Enjoy your gi, and the obi that secures it. You further earn your right to wear them every time you train hard in them.

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