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To Keiko Gi or Not to Keiko Gi?

The picture shows Karateka in Keiko Gi who practice Kata.

A Keiko Gi is “a symbol of your preparation for life” writes our columnist TD McKinnon in his latest article for Karate Essences. Like many traditional elements the Keiko Gi has also become challenged in recent years. However, there are many good reason why we should stick to the classic plain white Karate Gi for training.

The Origin of the Keiko Gi in Judo

Keiko Gi (稽古着) is the Japanese name for the karate training uniform. The origin of the uniform or training kimono starts over 100 years ago in Japan.  Its introduction as a martial arts uniform is generally attributed to Kano Jigoro, who developed judo from jujitsu, in the early years of the 20th century.  Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo, decided that he needed to create a uniform for his students.  He wanted something that would show uniformity; also something able to take a beating from the constant throwing, pinning and choking techniques of the art.

The story goes that Kano based his uniform on ancient jujitsu training attire, which was made of unbleached linen and cotton, a kind of coffee colour fabric.  Apparently, due to the effect of sweating, intense rubbing of the training practices, plus repetitive washing, they would eventually turn white.  So Kano decided to start with a bleached white Gi; and, using a thick, reinforced weave – a style of weaving that was mainly used for farmers’ or firefighters’ garments – and  the modern long-sleeved Judo Gi was born in 1906.  

The Introduction of the Keiko Gi to Karate

Kano Jigoro and Funakoshi Gichin were good friends.  In 1922 Kano invited Funakoshi to mainland Japan, from Okinawa, to demonstrate Karate to some assembled dignitaries at Kano’s Honbu dojo.  Funakoshi was persuaded to wear a Judo Gi, to present a more professional demonstration.  Thereafter, Funakoshi adopted the Judo Gi as training apparel. Generically known as a Keiko Gi, it was soon universally adopted as the official training uniform of most Japanese martial arts.

Sharing a common origin, the Karate Gi is somewhat similar to a Judo Gi; however, the material and cut of the uniform is much lighter, with a looser fit.  The heaviest Karate Gi being 16 ounces compared to the 35 ounce Judo Gi. Because of the nature of Karate training compared to Judo, emphasising striking and kicking over throws and grappling, the Karate Gi has evolved in a different direction.

Is the Traditional Karate Keiko Gi Still an Essential Item?

Since its early inception, the Karate Gi has morphed many times in cut and style as well as in weight and functionality.  Now, in certain sporting organisations, there is a Gi for Kumite and a different Gi for Kata.

Kata Gi

The competition Kata Gi is more like the old style, traditional heavyweight Gi; made from a heavy cotton, light canvas style cloth. The main reason for this, it appears, is to utilise the swishing and snapping sounds (for effect) during the stylised, competition kata performance.

Kumite Gi

The competition Kumite Gi is very different: made from an acrylic fabric, it is a super lightweight Gi, and with (because of the manmade fibre) lots of venting devises. The reason for this design is aimed at less resistance and more ease of movement, supposedly endorsing more speed for competing.  Personally, I think this style of Kumite Gi makes a mockery of the traditional Gi; however this adaptation is not surprising.  Training for competition Kumite has taken some seriously different directions too.

Keiko Gi or Tracksuits?

I am cognisant that, over time, scientific study is bound to change the preparation, apparel and equipment of any given ‘sport’. This merely outlines a point that I constantly make: the sport and the Budo are two entirely different animals.  Some forms of sport Karate, the World Karate Federation (WKF) for instance, are certainly developing a very different system of Karate, where in fact the sport is the entirety of the art. Their training is not the conventional, traditional Karate training of technique and form, and is largely done in tracksuits, T-shirts and shorts.  The Karate Gi is an absentee:

The Importance of Your Keiko Gi

There are various Dojos, some styles of karate, and some organisations that do not lend themselves exclusively to the traditional white Gi.  The International Sport Karate Association, for instance, do not insist on the use of the traditional white Keiko Gi. There are many debates fuelling arguments for and against the traditional white Gi.  

During my own martial odyssey, following whichever martial system I was studying: for instance, I have worn the black cotton Keiko Gi and Hakama of Iaido, and the hand wraps and loose satin shorts of Muay Thai. However, for me, when practicing traditional Karate, nothing is more appropriate than the white Keiko Gi.  Washed and ironed, fresh and clean, it mirrors the fresh and unencumbered frame of mind (Shoshin) that assists the Karateka to derive the optimum from their Karate-Do.

Keiko Gi: A Symbol of Your Preparation for Life

Any competing event, or indeed any training or learning event begins with the mental and spiritual preparation. Part of that mental and spiritual process is preparing the attire that will be worn for that event. This concept is not exclusive to karate or even the martial arts in general; it applies to life.

Prepare your own Keiko Gi

When I began the traditional Karate chapter of my martial odyssey I intuitively understood this concept.  As a member of my high school gymnastic team, as a boxer, and as a British Parachute Regiment soldier it had already become an intrinsic part of me. Most people can relate to the kind of mental preparation that the physical preparation prompts.

Every Karateka should, themselves, prepare their Karate Gi. Even the very young Karateka should be shown how, with the view to eventually conducting their own preparations. It helps to cultivate humility as a human being, while developing pride in the art; encouraging a healthy, lifelong habit. For instance, by the time my sons were 7-8 years of age they were ironing their own Keiko Gi in preparation for training, competition and grading. I believe that preparation discipline was part of what later assisted their achievements of becoming World Champions in their chosen combat sport of Muay Thai Kickboxing.

Keiko Gi Preperation as an Exercis in Mindfulness

For more than fifty years now I have prepared my Gi: for training, for competing, for receiving instruction and knowledge from those more knowledgeable than myself, and for teaching others.  At the start of any Karate event, my Gi is spotlessly clean, scrupulously ironed and prepared for the event, even as my mind, body and spirit is prepared.  Preparing the Gi is a symbolic representation of the ongoing process of mindfulness: a constant preparation for life.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

One can never be complacent about preparation. Complacency, in life, can mean the difference between smooth success and painful failure.

You can get away with being unprepared for a time; here, I am referring to being generally unprepared for life. I could cite many instances, especially from the early part of my life, as an example of unpreparedness…  However, preparation is an ongoing thing, like readying your Keiko Gi for each occasion.

So, I will cite an event that took place at a time I should have known better; a time I should have been entirely prepared:

I had been working as a bouncer for years; and this was just another night at work.

Earlier in the evening there had been an altercation: a powerfully built, six feet plus guy in his twenties, after yelling at and hitting his girlfriend, had knocked out a security operative who tried to restrain him. I put a sleeper hold on him, and evicted him.

Later that evening, while I was controlling the front door, ‘girlfriend-hitter’ tried to enter the premises again and I stopped him.

“I’ve already been in…” he said, irately, “My girlfriend is in there!”

“Yes, I know,” I said, “I evicted you for hitting her and assaulting one of the security personnel.”

He immediately attacked with a head-butt, but I tucked my chin and he broke his nose on the top of my head instead.  He was tenacious, and obviously had some boxing training. As he took an involuntary step back he threw a fairly useful right cross… but, simultaneously, slipping inside his punch, I dropped him with mae-empi (Sen no sen). 

“Come on, young fella, I think it’s time you went home before you get yourself really hurt…” and I reached down to help him up…  That’s when he grabbed my privates in a vicious, steely grip.

During my time as a working bouncer, most of the time I had worn a groin guard, but there was the odd occasion that I forgot to wear the said piece of personal protection equipment (PPE). On those occasions I had assured myself that it was fine because I’d never had an occasion to be thankful I’d worn it; wearing it was just a precaution… tonight I had forgotten to wear it.

A gedan barai broke his grip and then I broke his jaw, but I was in severe pain.  I spent the night in a hospital bed, sedated on pethidine, with an ice pack between my legs, feeling very sorry for myself.

It all Begins with your Keiko Gi

I never forgot to wear that particular protection device, or any other PPE, again. More importantly, I was never again negligent with any preparations. Over the following years, my obsession with preparation saved me from injury many times. In fact I have no doubt that it saved my life. It all begins with the mindfulness of preparing your Keiko Gi.  

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What Makes a Genuine Budoka?

The picture shows a Kendoka, who are perceived as the highest form of Budoka.

In this month’s ‘Karate Essence’ column, as I answer the question, ‘what makes a Budōka?’ I will be revisiting some of the philosophical Budo themes I have previously examined in depth. While I allude, briefly, to an aspect of a Budōka I will reference a previous article or column for those readers not fully conversant with that characteristic. By TD McKinnon

Budōka: The Etymology of the Word

Budo (武道), of course, is a Japanese term; literally translated, it means the ‘Martial Way’, and may even be thought of as the ‘Way of War’. Budo is a compound of the root Bu (武:ぶ ), meaning War or Martial; and (道:どう) meaning, the way or the path. However, in this modern era, it has become a reference, describing the spiritual foundation of most Japanese martial arts. In that perspective Budo becomes an idea. Modern Budō needs no external enemy. The enemy is within; it is the ego that must be defeated.

The suffix, ka (家), with its kanji character meaning ‘family, house, home’, is recognised in Budōka (as in Karateka) as meaning ‘student’ or, perhaps more accurately, a devotee of the aforementioned, Budo. The Budoka follows a path of self-improvement, formulating propositions and subjecting them to philosophical critique.

What is a Budoka?

According to the hypothesis that Budo is the spiritual foundation of Japanese Martial arts, and that Ka is a student or devotee of said spiritual foundation, then a Budoka is, quite literally, one who studies or practices the art of war. In other words, it could be said that it is a warrior.

For the Budoka, it is not about winning or losing a competition, as in Sport Karate for instance. I am not saying that the Budoka cannot also be a sportsman, just that the Karate sportsman is not necessarily a Budoka.

Originally, for the Budoka, the idea was to safely learn techniques that would lead to victory on the battlefield, or in any hostile encounter. The trophy on offer, of course, was surviving; as opposed to being killed or maimed by an adversary.

In everyday living in today’s environment, the practical importance of technique has become less vital for actual physical survival. However – while other aspects, including spiritual, aesthetic or competitive may come to the fore – it is still essential to the Budoka that there remains a realistic practicality to their training and teaching.

Being one!

So far, I have talked about Budoka as an exclusively Japanese concept. I would like to add here that, the more I have learned about the meaning of the term, the more I realise that I have been a Budoka for most of my life. You do not have to be a Karateka, as such, to be a Budoka. I have already stated that not all those who practice Karate (Karateka) are Budoka; being a one involves a certain spiritual element, which not all Karateka embody.

In my humble opinion, those who merely go through the physical motions (as an exercise or for sport) may be Karateka but they are not Budoka. Those Karateka who embrace Karate-Do (the way/path) as a way of life, to be better each day (holistically) than they were the day before, are Budoka.

I have trained in the art of war (of fighting in all of its aspects) since my earliest memories. My rational was not to be able to hurt and dominate others; my goal has always been to defeat the fear, in me, of being hurt and dominated.

Fearlessness

The true Budoka does not strive to be undefeatable but to be fearless. True fearlessness is a spiritual quality that the one acquires, eventually, through the acquisition of Zanshin, Mushin, Shoshin, Fudoshin and Senshin.

1. Zanshin (残心):the lingering mind’ is aware of everything, without distractions.

2. Mushin (無心):the uncluttered mind’, without judgement and emotion, deals with situations from the moment point.

3. Shoshin (初心):the open, eager mind’, with its lack of bias, sees all options.

4. Fudoshin (不動心):the peaceful, determined and courageous mind’ provides the confidence to endure, no matter the odds.

5. Senshin (洗心): the enlightened mind’, striving to protect and be in harmony with all life, completes the five spirits of Budo.

Embracing the five spirits of Budo – the full Mantle of the Spiritual Warrior – endows the advanced Budoka with fearlessness; thus rendering that him, virtually, undefeatable.

Long before I had heard of the philosophical terms, of Zanshin, Mushin, Shoshin, Fudoshin and Senshin, I was on the path. And, while walking the long and winding road of the spiritual warrior, I have had the great honour and pleasure of the company of others; some were Karateka and some were not. In fact many of them, and at one time that would have included myself, had never even heard the term. Let alone the above Japanese terms for the five spirits of Budo.

So, what does make a Budōka?

I do believe that a thorough understanding of the five spirits of Budo can help the devotee on his path to enlightenment. However, I personally, firmly believe that an innate knowing and empathetic appreciation of the philosophies behind the labels is much more important than an intellectual verbatim of the philosophical labels themselves.

I will finish with a quote from lifelong martial artist and prolific writer, 88 year old, Bujinkan Soke Masaaki Hatsumi: “There are three kinds of Budoka: ones that try to look strong, ones that try to perfect there technique and ones that try to gain a good heart.” For me, being a Budoka, is about what is in the heart.

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Karate Do: The Path to oneself?!

The picture shows a practitioner of Karate Do at the beach during sunset.

“Karate Do is a path to oneself” argues TD McKinnon in his latest column Shotokan Essence. However, most of the people who start this path do not seek to arrive at themselves. Other motives are more relevant for them. That is explains a high number of dropouts. The ones who stay on the path are the ones who are encouraged to follow the Dojo Kun. Thus, karateka should focus on developing and cultivating the Dojo Kun.

Karate Do is a way of training, thinking, conducting oneself; a way of believing in oneself, for life. In other words, Karate Do is a life-long journey of self. The motivating factors for beginning this journey can be many and varied: self-defence, fitness, confidence building, and sporting competition, to name but a few. However, goals change. Your martial path, should you chose to take it, will have many twists and turns along the way, some of them 180°.

One person in 10,000 

After a lifetime of teaching, I do know that if you were to ask every wide-eyed beginner on their first day of training, “Why are you beginning karate training?” their motivations would be many and varied.

However, of 10,000 beginner only 50 percent will still train after the first six months. After one year, only 1,000 will be left. Maybe 100 will reach the third year. Maybe less that than 0.1 percent will earn their shodan. But an even smaller amount will go on to receive their Nidan.

What are the Reasons for the high number of Dropouts?

From all those individuals who begin training, there are those who will find out quickly that it is not what they imagined, and not for them. Some won’t make it past the second week. 

Some will learn a few techniques, maybe even take a couple of gradings, and then life will get in the way. And they will drift away. They may even promise themselves that they will be back. Very few return. 

There will be the achievers: those who will persevere until they achieve that coveted black belt, before moving on to their next achievement. 

There will be the sports people, who excel in the sporting arena. They may even have a relatively long career in sport karate. After their own competition days have run the course they might continue as judges, referees and sporting competition coaches. They are the perpetual sports people. To them, the sport is Karate. 

Then there are the shining few, who may indeed pass through some or all of the aforementioned phases, but who will then don the mantle and tread the cloistered path of Karate Do

How Long does the Path of Karate Do take? 

  • If you are seeking only physical benefits the chances are that, after your physical body peaks, you will lose interest. 
  • If it is a status symbol, the time it takes to get to black belt will probably be your maximum. 
  • If it is about self-defence or confidence building and it doesn’t go beyond that, it may be a short term or a long term thing, depending on your situation and life style choices. But eventually it will wane. 
  • If it is mainly the sport aspect that attracts and holds you, then after peaking in the sport, it will fare much the same as any sport. The young will enjoy the competition, and as they mature they may continue in an official role: sporting coach/referee/judge et cetera. However, not unlike any sporting involvement, it diminishes and eventually disappears. 
  • If you find Karate Do to have an honorable code of ethics, worth aspiring to, and Karate Do weaves itself into your very fabric, you may find that Karate-Do is your path, for life. 

Karate Do Encourages an Ancient Instinct: Honour

Honour, as a noun, meaning respectability and virtue, or a code of conduct valuing those concepts, is an ancient human instinct. Karate Do seeks to encourage and develop that instinct. The Dojo Kun, a set of philosophical rules for the smooth running and necessary control of the dojo environment, is a guiding light to illuminate the way. 

Remember, whatever their underlying motives: this is a group of people who are there to learn how to inflict physical violence on an adversary. When you think about it, that environment could run quite quickly out of control: becoming unruly, aggressive, and possibly quite violent. In my time I have actually witnessed fight training centers, a karate dojo or two, even one Shotokan dojo, where, to one degree or another, this was in evidence. 

The Dojo Kun: Its Origins and Implications 

The Dojo Kun is set in place to modify behavior, both inside and outside of the Dojo. Most traditional Dojos recite a Dojo Kun, or a modified version of that Kun, at least once every training session. Stating the moral code of the Kun before beginning a class can be said to ready the mind and spirit for learning and practicing implied violence, non-violently. Whereas reciting the Kun on completion of one’s training is like the final, centering thought as you finish a meditation. Resetting the mind before re-joining ‘normal’ society. Some Dojos, emphasizing and promoting humility, recite the Kun at both the beginning and the end of a class. 

Funakoshi Gichin Sensei, 1868-1957, the founder of Shotokan, is generally credited with creating of the Dojo Kun. According to Funakoshi Sensei, The Dojo Kun contains the general, guiding principles of Karate. Funakoshi Sensei also set out the Niju Kun: twenty specific and subordinate principles of Karate, encompassing morality, technique, and proper mindset. 

Gichin Funakoshi was the founder of Shotokan Karate Do. He coined the Shotokan Karate Philosophy in a pacifistic way.
Gichin Funakoshi was the founder of Shotokan Karate Do. He coined the Shotokan Karate Philosophy in a pacifistic way.

Others credit Sakukawa Kanga Sensei, 1733-1815, with creating the Dojo Kun. I would venture that Sakukawa did instigate a Dojo Kun. That being said, however, I would also suggest that wherever the martial arts have been studied, seriously, a Kun (a set of philosophical guidelines) is likely to have been set in place. 

The Dojo Kun varies throughout the martial arts fraternities to suit cultural and philosophical differences. Even within Shotokan, now seeded throughout the world, the Dojo Kun has morphed. There remains however a similar, underlining message of humility and respect. 

Karate Do and the Meaning of the Dojo Kun

JKA Dojo Kun

The following is the JKA Shotokan Dojo Kun

  • 一、人格 完成に 努める こと hitotsu, jinkaku kansei ni tsutomeru koto
  • 一、誠の道を守ること hitotsu, makoto no michi wo mamoru koto
  • 一、努力の精神を養うこと hitotsu, doryoku no seishin wo yashinau koto
  • 一、礼儀を重んずること hitotsu, reigi wo omonzuru koto
  • 一、血気の勇を戒むること hitotsu, kekki no yū wo imashimuru koto 

In the West, particularly the UK, the following is a widely accepted translation of the essence of that Kun: 

  • Each person must strive for the completion and perfection of one’s character 
  • Each person must be faithful and protect the way of truth 
  • Each person must endeavor (fostering the spirit of effort) 
  • Each person must respect others and the rules of etiquette 
  • Each person must refrain from hot blooded behavior (guard against impetuous courage) 

Concise Dojo Kun

When I began my Shotokan journey in Scotland in the early 1970s, I recited a more simplified version: 

  • Seek Perfection of Character 
  • Be Sincere 
  • Put maximum effort into everything you do 
  • Respect Others 
  • Develop Self Control 

Since those early days I have heard several terser versions; the following is just one of them: 

  • Character 
  • Sincerity 
  • Effort 
  • Etiquette 
  • Self-Control 

Karate Do, Dojo Kun and the Path to one Self

The Dojo Kun appears in many styles and arts, varying according to the general precepts of the style. A book could be written on a veritable proliferation of Dojo Kun

Like the many paths ascending the mountain, striving to reach the summit; so too does any true study and practice of the martial disciplines strive to achieve enlightenment. Hence, practicing Karate Do and following the Dojo Kun means to be on a life long path to oneself.