When I was growing up in Karate as a young child it was rare that we saw people wearing a Gi that wasn’t white. By the late 1980’s the Gi was coming in all sorts of colors and they often would have stripes on the pants or tops too. In the past 10 or so years it seems that patches are the mainstay on uniforms everywhere, almost to the point that the uniforms now look like a boy scout one filled with merit badges. Patches on a uniform are very common and you can find photos from the 1950’s through the 1980’s of uniforms with a dojo patch on them but they weren’t as cluttered as we see today.
In my dojo I allow my students to wear whatever color uniform they want as long as it was purchased through us. That being said I do require my students to all own a very nice, pressed and presentable solid white Gi for belt exams and formal events. These Gi only have our dojo and system patches permitted on them but they are solid white since we are a traditional Okinawa dojo.
I do realize that I entitled this blog the “Cause for a white Gi” but in reality it probably would better be served as “the cause for less patches” because I realize that some systems use solid black as their traditional color of choice for the Gi. That being said let’s try an understand why allowing one’s students to put on a bunch of patches beyond their dojo and system patches is actually not a culture we want to grow in the martial arts world. In doing this part of the understanding we also must realize that many of the patch programs found in schools are part of the “enticement” method to keep students interested. This is great and I will explain more about methods to do the same thing without cluttering up the Gi. So, without further rambling on, why do we need to return to a solid, less adorned Gi in the martial arts?
Our beloved Karate uniform comes from the development of Judo. At the time when Karate was being introduced to the Japanese society they already had other arts such as Judo, Jujutsu, Kendo and Iaido. “In Japanese and Okinawan society, there is a very strict social class structure. It is similar to America’s “upper class”, “middle class”, and “lower class”. In Japan, in the early 1900’s, this social class structure was as strong then as it still is today. Karate was just beginning to be taught on mainland Japan even though it had been thriving on Okinawa for many years. Due to this social structure, you had all three classes training together in the dojo. Some upper class students felt they deserved better treatment than the middle and lower classes. Funakoshi, Gichin, founder of Shotokan Karate sensed this problem from the very start. He felt that a uniform was necessary in order to make everyone equal in the dojo. The karategi is a combination of the hakama and the judogi. Traditionally, white was the only color and it was used to signify purity and also served to remove the class distinction in the dojo.” (myemptyhands.com)
So as you can see the Gi became a method creating equality in the dojo where one’s social class was removed and everyone was expected the same of in training. The color white was selected as it showed purity in thought, behavior and one’s actions. Through research one can also find that the solid white uniform showed humility. Students didn’t wear a bunch of patches on it nor would it be adorned with anything showing accomplishments. So we have very valid reasons why a Gi was worn as well as why it was white and not multi-colored, or full of patches. In the martial arts we are to seek humility everyday in our training. The goal is not about how much better we can be than the others in the dojo but rather about how great of a person we can be through our own character. Strong character includes values such as honesty, integrity and humility as mainstays. Based on this factual information of why the uniform was worn as well as why it was white then we, as teachers of the way, should not have programs that fill the sleeves, chest or pant legs with patches because that shows ego, pride and lack of humility in one’s training and the teacher’s methods.
There many programs out there such as One Merit Badges and others that fill uniforms with patches up and down the sleeves, across the back and even up and down the pant legs. We also have “senior” master instructors who have all sorts of “association” or “rank” patches on their multi-colored uniforms. To those that truly study the martial arts as a way of life these things look terrible and hurt our feelings because they show a complete lack of understanding in the purpose of why the uniform is worn. During a conversation about this very subject with another instructor friend of mine he asked, and rightfully so, “The patch program gives my students incentives and keeps their interests longer in training. So why would I want to get rid of it?” This is a very valid question and definitely requires some deep thinking about how we serve our students’ best interests.
In my dojo we have patch programs. They are broken down into belt program patches, competition team patches, academic performance patches and character values patches. That being said they don’t wear them on their Gi (except for our Kid Tiger class). What I do in my dojo is offer a special customized jacket to my students that all of their patches can go on. This is something great for them and it keeps the Gi clean, obstructed and humble so we can focus on the core training without the mutlicolored patches all over the students. So, as you can see, an instructor can still have a great patch program that build excitement and incentives for their students without having it ruin the tradition of the Gi and the reason behind it.
In terms of multicolored / striped uniforms, well those are reserved for tournaments because, as I see it, that is sport Karate and not part of what we do in the dojo on a daily basis. Many of my students have seen pictures of me in my teen years wearing my black Gi pants with the white stripes down the leg as well as my half black/half white Gi. These pictures were at tournaments, never in the dojo. A tournament is not a dojo and students can dress what makes them feel most comfortable for those events but when heading back to the dojo and to train get that white Gi on. Today I no longer wear anything but a solid white Gi to tournaments. I have been doing this for the last 11 years at least. The only patches I wear on my Gi are our system patch, the dojo patches and the organization I belong to patch. There really is no need for anything more than that.
When we teach our students what we market to offer them then we must set the example in everything we do as their Sensei. Is it possible that a Sensei who wears a colorful Gi filled with all sorts of patches can teach humility? Yes but their Gi screams otherwise. It is possible that a student who has patches all over their Gi can understand they are equal with the ones in the dojo that don’t have them? Yes, but not likely. It it possible to teach exciting, fun Karate classes to people of all ages and not have a program where they put patches all over their uniform? Absolutely.
In the martial arts world today we are filled with negative connotations of instructors who preach one way and live their life another. They spout off about honor, integrity, humility and respect but behave in a manner that contradicts those very terms. One of the greatest character traits we are to learn as martial artists is humility. When society sees people running around in colorful uniforms filled with patches and instructors who have these extra wide, striped up colorful “master” belts it actually does the exact opposite of making them understand our values. A few months ago I attended an event and met a “Grand Master”. He was a few years younger than me and had on an outrageously patched up uniform and colorful belt. Throughout the day he took great pride in correcting anyone who referred to him by anything other than “Grand Master”. He bragged about his accomplishments, his tournament wins and more. The entire day that was all he did…brag. Eventually, even though I was trying to avoid him, our paths crossed. During the conversation I asked why not just wear a white Gi and black belt. To no surprise he stated because he was a “Grand Master” and people needed to treat him properly. I avoided speaking my mind because I have no temperament for those types of people but he pushed on in the conversation to where I was frustrated and finally turned around and stated “I have met many authentic Grand Masters and most of them wear a humble gi and belt. The fact that you won’t because people need to know you, your rank and your bragging of accomplishments tells me one thing for certain…” and I left it at that and walked away. I am pretty sure he knew exactly what I meant and that was he was no Grand Master.
When it comes to training just wear white. Be humble, focus on being great, helping your classmates and not being full of ego. That is how Karate is meant to be. The Gi was introduced to make everyone one equal in training. There is no need to grandstand on your rank, your accomplishments or anything of that nature. Your actions, your character will speak volumes over any uniform, patches or belt you could ever where. That is what people need to see, what our students need to learn and is what we market to help others achieve. There is nothing productive in marketing that you teach “character values” when you are nothing more than a character without the values. If you have a patch program that works then great but keep them off the uniform by offering a jacket for them. Keep the training humble, keep the spirit of Okinawa / Japan alive in your training. A uniform is nothing more than a tool for training…it is not meant to be, nor should it be, a billboard about your, your ego or things that just have no place in the dojo. Humility goes further than bragging and you are helping your students by being humble to become better human beings.
I am sure there will be plenty of people that disagree with me on this and that is completely fine. As for how I see it, well, one’s actions speak louder than any patch, colorful uniform or belt they will ever own.