Several years ago I was at an event where there were a bunch of black belts running around in colorful uniforms, patches all over the place and really neat / fancy belts. There I stood in my plain, old white gi and black belt with a single patch on it. During the course of the event I had a young black belt look at me and actually say “well, you must not be anyone important…look at your gi and belt”. I was taken back by this but to be honest it seems that many people associate being good at martial arts with a fancy uniform, fancy belt and a bunch of patches on it…however those are signs of arrogance, not ability.
So I looked at this young guy, just smiled and walked away. It doesn’t bother me to be seen as someone that just does Karate even with the accolades of my career as a competitor as well as a teacher…but there is real reason why we wear white, plain uniforms. Let’s first examine some of the traditional aspects why white is the preferred Gi color. I say preferred because some do wear black too.
The Gi came from Judo. This we know as a fact. It was white, often oversized with short sleeves and very short pant legs (almost like shorts today that go just below the knee). They were made of white cotton because that was the cheapest and most readily available material in the late 1800’s. Over the years there have been all sorts of urban legends why a white Gi was chosen but in reality it was for function as they were designed to compliment the training and worked perfectly for it. The purpose for the white color is that it represented the values of purity, avoidance of ego, and simplicity. It gave no outward indication of social class so that all students began as equals. Read that again…it is symbolic of the absence of ego…it makes everyone in the dojo equal regardless of social class, financial means or status in their community. These things are very much needed today!
White is also seen as the universal color of purity. In Karate we train to become balanced in our mind, bodies and spirit so that every action we do is pure. This means that we don’t react hastily, don’t fight for stupid reasons and we don’t brag about our rank, status or other things. The white Gi exemplifies that realities of leading a peaceful life.
I have been to numerous hall of fame events, tournaments, seminars and more things in the martial arts. During those events I am a people watcher. That means I sit back and observe people. I also avoid standing around people wearing those loud, flashy, fancy uniforms too. Not because they may not be qualified martial artists but because those types of uniforms and belts signify arrogance to me.
Karate training is to be pure, void of ego. We are to train, then help others learn and use our skills to become a productive member of society. We are not training to brag about our trophies, our ranks or our associations. Sadly many people today, who do not know any different, believe that those fancy uniforms, patches and belts signify the person wearing them must be important or very good at the martial arts. In most cases this is absolutely wrong and foolish to think that. The absolute best martial artists I have ever met, known or trained with in my life time wore a plain white Gi with a school patch or style patch on it. They didn’t need flashy uniforms or fancy belts…their actions spoke accolades of their abilities…not their uniform.
This is what people should be learning when looking for a school to train in. The uniform and belt, even in most cases the certifications / dan ranks, don’t mean squat. What does matter is the quality of instruction, the quality of the art / authenticity, and the ability of the teacher to instruct others. I have met some incredible world champions who could fight rings around anyone in their path but they couldn’t teach others how to do a simple technique. Winning a trophy doesn’t make one a good teacher…learning to teach does. In my dojo my black belts learn how to teach others just as I had. We have an entire course available on it for those aspiring to make Yondan (4th degree) or above. These are the men and women you want leading the class…not the champion at the back of the class who is more interested in their ability to win trophies than help the white belt learn some basics.
At that same event where I was told I must not be important because I wore a plain Gi and black belt I ended up winning grand champion in weapons, kata and kumite. I even beat the kid that said that to me in both Kata and Kumite during the grand champion run off. He never apologized, never even said congratulations but rather scoffed off in his nice bright red uniform with patches all up and down it. That, in itself, proves my point that the uniform was all ego. As for me, well I got my trophies, went home, put them in the box with the other ones and went back to teaching and training the next day not even worrying about or bragging about winning. If I hadn’t seen a picture posted on Facebook today with about 11 people wearing uniforms and belts like I mentioned and a caption reading “Real Grandmasters of Karate” I probably would have never though about this at all.