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By Rob Redmond, www.24fightingchickens.com
Every sport has a uniform. Despite the fact that neighborhood games spring up with everyone wearing street clothes, our society has a habit of putting athletes into uniforms. In some cases the uniforms are practical, as in the case of swimmers or bicycle racers. Other sports uniforms are impractical nods to tradition, such as the baseball uniform. Karate is no exception, and it seems to be one of those sports which have a tradition of wearing a very well-known yet somewhat impractical outfit during training.
Karate players tend to dress in a cotton jacket and pants combination known as a “gi” or “doh-gi.” Say ‘g’ as in ‘game’ and pronounce the word “gee.” A karate gi is a de-evolution of the excellent uniform that judo requires its players to wear. The Judo uniform is extremely sturdy and designed to accept a lot of pulling and sheering before succumbing to abuse. The karate uniform has, over the years, has moved away from the woven uniform of judo and toward white cotton canvas in varying weights. Although cotton is favored as a uniform in karate circles, it is a poor quality cloth by today’s standards. Cotton is not particularly absorbent, so it does little to draw sweat away from the body. And, once it does become soaked with sweat, it becomes much heavier, clings to the body, and begins to rot. Most karate uniforms start off as beautiful white, almost light blue, soft, duck canvas. As the uniform is worn, though, it begins to stain yellow from sweat, particularly in the armpits, and the stitching begins to rot and disintegrate. A karate gi that has been worn many times first self-destructs at the stitching that holds the sleeves to the jacket. Also, the stitching in the crotch begins to unravel as well. Proper care and treatment of the uniform is necessary in order to prevent it from becoming a yellowish, smelly, rotting testament to the odors that humans would probably regularly emit if there was no soap.
I have always worn my karate uniform to and from practice sessions in my car, on my bike, or when walking to practice. When I lived in Nagoya, I noticed that the Japanese were never seen in their karate uniforms riding on a subway train or bus. In Japan, one apparently does not wear a karate uniform in an inappropriate place. The Japanese are very sensitive to context, and therefore don’t appreciate the more casual Western approach to clothing in which one might not take time to change clothes before changing locations. Where as in the West, you might see someone in their workout clothes at the gas station or other public place, no Japanese would ever do this. Instead, they make sure that they change into appropriate attire before changing situations. Most people put their karate uniform into a gym bag to take it to the dojo.
While in Japan, I saw people just stuff their karate uniforms into their gym bags without any concern at all. My instructor was a different matter. He never stuffed his karate uniform into his gym bag. He always had his uniform folded carefully and then placed into the bag. Usually, one of the senior club members would fold it for him and put it into his bag. You might also enjoy folding your uniform carefully the way the Japanese do: tied together with your belt. Then you can place it like a neat package into your bag.
Some people are very proud of their yellowed and torn karate uniforms as if they are a sign of seniority. I think this is very similar to the urban legends surrounding the need to never wash a karate belt. Some people seems to extend this belief even farther to include their uniform, and they continue wearing a uniform even though it has long outlived the point beyond which it should be burned to prevent it from stinking up a landfill somewhere. Senior karate experts may own many uniforms of varying ages, and I wish we would do a better job of getting a new uniform when it is time. To me, a yellowing, stinky karate uniform is a sign of poverty, nothing more.
Another foolish notion is the one that says you should never wash your belt. I have been doing karate a long time. I wash mine regularly, though not daily or even weekly. If you wash your belt, which should be no problem at all for it, just make sure you avoid bleach and allow it to soak in soapy water for a long time. Your belt can probably go through the dryer, and it should be washed much less frequently than the rest of your uniform. If you don’t wash your belt, it will begin to smell like urine, it will rot, and every time you or anyone touches it, you are risking an infection from the dangerous bacteria growing within it. Putting on a two year old belt that has never been washed and then rubbing your eyes with the same hands? Your mother taught you better than that. Wash your belt. But don’t wash it with your uniform unless you want your gi to change color. One secret of washing belts that only a few seem to be aware of is that belts will hold their color longer if you soak them in salty water for a while then rise them out good after the soaking. I have no idea why this is true, but colors hold to clothing longer after a bath in salt water.
I remember looking at the people in books and video tapes and thinking how much better they look in their karate uniforms than I did in mine. So, I bought the expensive brand of uniform that I saw them wearing, hoping I would look better. But I didn’t. I didn’t realize it at the time, but buying a standard sized uniform is apparently not good enough for some people. The people you see in videos and books demonstrating kata usually have their uniforms hand-tailored. They have the uniform custom designed around their measurements, and that’s why their uniforms never have quite the sloppy look that yours and mine have. The price tag for such a uniform might exceed US$300.00.
Even though I buy my uniforms mass produced with standard sizes, there are still a variety of makes and models available to choose from that are radically different from one another. Shotokan experts tend to prefer moderately expensive heavy weight cotton uniforms with 3/4 length sleeves and 4/5 length legs. Beginners should probably not invest in expensive uniforming until they are sure that they enjoy the practice of karate. Very inexpensive karate uniforms are available from almost every manufacturer and retailer of karate supplies and equipment. Belts also come in a variety of flavors.
Color belts are usually pretty standard, although there are noticeable changes in quality from one brand to another as far as color tone, cloth, cut, and stitching. Black belts come in a variety of styles and materials. The most common belts purchased are heavy-duty cotton belts that last for decades and the silk/satin covered kind. Cotton belts wear out more slowly, but silk belts are prettier when new. Also, the silk belts wear out gracefully and have better movement and presentation quality when performing a kata in front of a crowd. There is a lot more information about belts and issues surrounding them on this web site.
Wearing a karate uniform can be a great psychological boost for your mental state in karate. However, perhaps it is also a crutch after a little while, and it is a great idea to do a lot of karate training in regular old street clothes just to change your experience around a bit. Like most things in karate, there are no real shortcuts. Expensive uniforms and belts do not make your kata more beautiful. Nice wrapping does not make a crummy present less crummy. However, if you are one of the best of the best at kata, perhaps getting a custom-tailored uniform for performances is an excellent idea.
One of my long-time students used to say that Karate is a Japanese word that means “art performed in difficult clothing.” I have to agree. After wearing karate uniforms for much of my life, I feel secure saying that I think I am firm in my opinion that they are annoying. My uniform is always in need of tucking in here, pulling down there, or retying here and there. The belt comes loose, the drawstring in the pants comes loose, the jacket pulls out of the belt, and the whole thing soaks up with sweat and doesn’t wick any of it away from my body. I much rather prefer to do my training in some regular athletic shorts and a t-shirt than I do a Karate uniform. For me, uniforms have become something that are worn to dress occasions like tournaments and rank examinations, or to teach a class. When training on my own, any old crummy clothing will do as long as it is roomy and flexible.