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.
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.
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.