If you’ve ever watched a traditional martial arts tournament in full flow, it becomes fairly obvious that most martial artists wear a similar garment or uniform. What it does for martial artists is quite fascinating so this common question is a very good question!
So why do martial artists wear a gi? Martial artists wear a gi because it is the traditional garment for practicing martial arts. While it respects the tradition, the gi allows for fluid and flexible movement, provides a sense of community (and the rank within), as well as a sense of commitment to the discipline.
Although the origins of the gi are somewhat mysterious, sensei Kano (who formalized the Judo system) gave us 5 guiding principles as to why martial artists should wear a gi. Let’s look at what those are.
What Is A Gi Exactly?
The word “gi” is an abbreviation of a Japanese word “keikogi”. The term is used to refer to the clothes or forms of dress that are worn in martial arts. However, it’s probably fair to say that the word “gi” has come to mean something closer to “uniform” in many martial arts training environments.
Oddly, in Japan the term “keikogi” is rarely used too. That’s because there’s a tendency to remove “keiko” from the front of the word and to substitute it for the name of the martial art. So, you find that in judo, you have a judogi and in karate, a karategi and so on.
In most martial arts, the gi is a three-part garment. There is a jacket (which is also called an uwagi in Japanese), a pair of pants (the zubon) and a belt (the obi) to hold everything together with.
The Roots Of The Gi
The origins of the gi are a little mysterious. There are some that say it is an Okinawan karate garment and it simply represents the style of clothing that peasant farmers would have worn when the gi was introduced into martial arts.
In that way, the peasants would have been happy to embrace the clothes as they were familiar. It was adapted from the traditional dress, allegedly, so that it would be lighter to wear and thus, you could do long practice sessions out in the sun to no ill-effect.
Unfortunately, there’s a problem with this tale. It’s almost certainly not true. While karate does have its roots in Okinawa – the gi probably does not come from there. Why? Well, there is plenty of photographic evidence that suggests that the when the gi was being introduced to karate, nobody in Okinawa was wearing one.
In fact, they appear to have trained whilst wearing shorts and t-shirts, in the main, and an adventurous few abandoned that attire and just trained in their underpants.
Thus, there tends to be something of an agreement that the modern gi was introduced into martial arts by Jigoro Kano. Sensei Kano is, of course, the teacher who formalized the system of fighting known as judo. This was an adaption of a form of jiujitsu and began in the early 20th century.
Initially, his students wore the clothes they turned up to classes in. However, their kimonos turned out to be quite capable of flapping open at inopportune times, so, Sensei Kano introduced the belt to keep them closed. (It’s worth noting that at this point in the development of martial arts – a belt was not yet a symbol of rank or fighting prowess).
Sensei Kano wasn’t content with this improvement, though. He noted that the kimono was a pretty terrible garment for grappling in and thus, it was time to look for something “new”. What he ended up with wasn’t entirely “new” – he found a garment in a old jiujitsu history book that looked ideal for the purposes and he updated it with a new fabrics.
He chose white, supposedly, for the gi because it was the color that most fabrics, of the time, would become with repeated sweating and washing.
The gi was then transitioned into karate when Sensei Kodakan came to visit Sensei Kano and was offered a gi to conduct his demonstration in as Sensei Kano didn’t think that his shorts and t-shirt would win over his students.
Of course, over the years, the gi has been modified for use in each martial art that is incorporate into. A judo and a karate gi may consist of the same 3 pieces but they’re not the same garment, the shapes, weights, etc. of each piece are quite different.
Why Do Martial Artists Wear A Gi?
Sensei Kano wasn’t the kind of guy to leave things to chance and he wanted to provide a framework for wearing the Gi for martial artists that would last. So, he specified a series of 5 reasons that the gi should be worn and they have endured until the modern day.
These remain the main reasons that martial artists wear a gi when they train even now.
A Sense Of Place In The World
Life isn’t an easy thing to navigate. Working, relationships, school, etc. can all bring us stress and distraction. That’s something that we can all relate to, right? Well, the trouble is that this stress and distraction can continue with us when we move on to other tasks.
For example, who hasn’t had a bad day at work because they had an argument with their significant other that morning? There’s something about the state of being human that makes it very easy for one environment to bleed into the next.
This isn’t always a bad thing, mind you, we’ve all had great days because a friend of family member chose to surprise us with something awesome. However, it leads to a state of general inconsistency in our behavior.
Sensei Kano fully understood this and thus the gi that he designed was meant to remind you that when you put it on – you’re not at home, you’re not at school, you’re not on a date, you’re not chilling out with friends, you’re in a dojo and the purpose of being in that dojo is learning.
The act of wearing a gi is meant to assist you in putting down the emotional and mental baggage that you carry from place to place and thus, it allows you to better focus on the learning experience that you have come to take part in.
The gi should, in theory, make it a simple business to allow your body, mind and spirit to act in harmony while you are practicing your chosen martial art.
A Sense Of Place In Your Martial Arts Community
Martial arts are fighting arts used for waging war. Sure, they’re not the key weapons of today now that technology has brought us submarines, fighter planes and tanks but they’re still very valuable techniques for many military and paramilitary organizations around the world.
Thus, when we study a martial art, we embrace the martial tradition. Have you ever looked at a soldier’s uniform and wondered what his rank and job was? Well, if you were another soldier that would be immediately apparent from the uniform.
This is also true of the gi wearing individuals within a given dojo. It is very simple to look around a training room and identify your sensei, the higher and lower ranked students and of course, yourself.
Ranks and hierarchies serve many purposes but the most beneficial to a martial arts student are the fact that they allow for a sense of progression as they study and improve and they create an environment in which everyone has a place and that place is understood in context with everyone else.
Finally, the understanding of your place within your martial arts community also enables you to know what must be done to improve that place and progress through the rankings.
A Visible Sign Of Commitment
When a Westerner gets married, the first thing, that they will do in the long series of events that leads them to walking down the aisle, is get down on one knee and ask their partner to marry them. At this point, or sometimes shortly afterwards, they will provide their partner with an engagement ring.
This ring is worn as a sign of visible commitment throughout the period of the engagement until the marriage is complete. At this point, both partners in the marriage will select and commit to wearing wedding rings which allow them to demonstrate their commitment to each other publicly without having to speak that commitment to everyone who passes by.
There is a lot of value in commitment. Not just in relationships but also in our hobbies, pastimes, careers, etc. and there is a lot of value in being committed to being a better martial artist today than you were yesterday.
Wearing a gi allows you to show your commitment to your dojo, your sensei and your fellow students. It may be an act of conformity, but it is also a powerful statement that you belong in that place and that you are ready to learn and grow there.
The Practical Nature Of The Garment
Imagine if you walked into the dojo on the very first day and instead of a gi, you were handed a pair of stiletto shoes, some stockings and a garter belt as well as a large thick jumper and a long but very tight overcoat to wear. What do you think would happen when you started to fight in this bizarre uniform?
You’d quickly discover, if it wasn’t already apparent, that these clothes are not really very good for fighting or even training in. The heels would make it hard to balance, the tight-fitting coat would make it awkward to move, the straps on your garter would be very easy for an opponent to grab and so on…
The gi, on the other hand, has been designed with your martial art in mind. It’s meant to be comfortable, but it will also support the kinds of movement that you make during a fight and it will be hard wearing and last you for a long time.
When you are comfortable and able to move freely, you can devote more of your energy to concentrating on fighting and less on having to deal with impractical clothes. Sensei Kano knew that this was an important consideration and thus, the gi is an intensely practical garment.
It Celebrates The History And Integrity Of Your Martial Art
The greatest institutions of our world are great, not just because of their achievements but also because we can identify, almost at a glance – the people that made them great. NASA is great for its astronauts who wear a uniform. The Bolshoi Ballet is great for its dancers, who wear a uniform. And so on.
Wearing a gi is an acknowledgement that your martial art has a long, interesting and exciting history and that you are proud to take on its traditions and bear them forward to a new generation.
In doing so, you show respect for the people that developed the art and the gi that you wear. You show that you care about the cultural origins of your martial art and that you are capable of making decisions that represent your martial art effectively to the wider world.
Sensei Kano knew what he was doing when he introduced these five principles to the world – they are timeless and it’s clear how they can add value to your martial arts lifestyle.
Why Is It Important For Martial Artists To Have A Uniform?
In addition to Sensei Kano’s list there are some other beneficial attributes to wearing a uniform:
- Recognition by others. If you see someone wearing a gi, you know that they are a martial artist, right? In the same way that if someone’s wearing a shirt with a golden “M” on it, that you know they probably work for McDonald’s. This can help others engage with you about the art you love.
- Conservation of other clothes. Uniforms tend to be affordable and easy to come by. This means when you train, you’re not wearing out your more expensive clothes and you have a feeling of the “personal” when you take off your gi and put back on your “outside clothes”.
- A sense of belonging. This is pretty important but the people around you are likely to feel like “your people” when you are all dressed in a similar manner
- A sense of equality. Sure, there’s a ranking system built into martial arts clothing but there’s also a sense of everybody being at the same level somehow too. You can’t see “rich and poor” or any other kind of division when everyone has the same uniform.
- A sense of support. The sense of belonging and equality leads to a cultural environment of support – when you feel like you are in the right place and among equals, asking for and receiving help and encouragement is easier and personal and mutual growth are often the same thing.
Additional Symbolism Attributed To The Gi In Martial Arts
One other thing about the gi is a series of additional forms of symbolism that appear to have been attributed to the garment in the West. These appear to be based on perceptions within the Western culture of the color white and are unlikely to appear in the East where the color has different “properties” from a symbolism point of view.
These properties include:
- A sense of purity. The cleanliness of white as a color, can motivate you to lead a clean life and be the best for those around you.
- A sense of mental clarity. The clean white slate presented by the gi can represent the clean slate of learning the student will be aiming to fill.
- A sense of simplicity. The whiteness is basic and straightforward and helps to eliminate ego
Thanks to Sensei Kano’s enduring principles, wearing a gi allows us to establish our identity and commitment within our art as well as providing practical support for both our bodies and minds to flourish as we train.
The gi is an important part of a martial aritst’s lifestyle. Wearing one is not an imposition, but an honor.