Believe it or not, but the classic martial arts uniform we know today is only around 130 years old, much younger than many of the martial arts that use it today. There is no singular date for the invention of the uniform, but it is widely accepted to have been initially developed between 1882 and 1889 by Kanō Jigorō* (Shihan). Today Kano is mostly remembered as the founder of Jūdō, and his work with the International Olympic Committee, but he also gave us the modern day martial arts uniform.
(*In Japan, the family name comes before a person’s own name. In the west, we would call him “Jigorō Kanō”)
What’s the name?
The uniform is known by many names, but the most common two would be “Keikogi” (稽古着 / 稽古衣) and “Dōgi” (道着 / 道衣). Keikogi translates to “practice clothes”, as ‘Keiko’ means ‘practice’ and ‘gi’ means ‘clothes’. Dogi translates to “clothes of the way” as ‘Dō’ means ‘way’ or ‘path’ and again ‘gi’ means ‘clothes’. This ‘Dō’ (道) is the same as used in ‘Dōjō’ (道場) the ‘place of the way’, and ‘Budō’ (武道) the ‘martial way’.
Keikogi and Dogi are both generic words for the uniform, though you may hear it called various other names, often when referring to versions used for specific martial arts, such as ‘Judogi’, ‘Aikidogi’, Jujutsugi’, ‘Karategi’, ‘Kendogi’, etc.
It’s important to note that none of these are actually Japanese names though. In Japan they would call their uniform a ‘Judo keikogi’ or ‘Aikido dogi’, etc. In the western world however we tend to be lazy and shorten them to the names above, or even just ‘Gi’, which are all incorrect when spoken in Japanese.
These however are just a few names based on Japanese martial arts, but the uniform is used in other parts of the world too. Some variations include:
~ 🇰🇷 In Korea it is known as a “Dobok” ( 도복 ). Like the Japanese Dogi, the name translates to “way clothes”
~ 🇻🇳 In Vietnam it is known as a “Võ phục” (越武道).
~ 🇨🇳 In China it may be called a “Róu dào fú” (柔道服), literally “judo suit”
~ 🇧🇷 In Brazil, the uniform is most commonly known as a “Gi”, but also sometimes referred to as a “Kimono” by non-Japanese speakers.
To keep things simple from this point forward we will stick to calling the uniform a judogi, even though we did just say it’s a western made-up word, mostly because its development is intrinsically tied to Judo itself, but also as it’s what most of us already know it as.
Before the Judogi.
If the judogi was not developed until the late 1800’s, then what did people wear before then? It is likely that students practiced in clothing suitable for exercise or physical labour, just like people today may wear a t-shirt and pair of shorts to the gym.
On the top half likely candidates would have been various types of Kimono (着物) undergarments such as the Juban (襦袢), Han-Juban (半襦袢) or Hadajuban (肌襦袢). In the winter they may have worn a Hanten (法被) a type of winter coat.
For the bottom half, many wore Suteteko (ステテコ) a type of men’s long underpants (resembling loose Bermuda shorts), or a Fundoshi (褌) loincloth.
If you would like to learn more about Kimono terminology and the different parts that make up a Kimono, you can find an excellent resource here – https://www.oldjapan.org/menskimono/glossary.html
It is interesting to note that before the arrival of the Americans in 1853, nudity or near-nudity was considered socially acceptable in Japan. Many instructional diagrams from the time period often depicted people in as little as a Fundoshi loincloth. Martial arts historian Dave Lowry writes:
|It may be surprising to learn how often people in old Japan went naked or nearly so. Early accounts by some of the first Westerners in Japan – Portuguese explorers – noted that the common Japanese were often “naked as frogs.” Centuries later, in 1859, the newspaper correspondent and business pioneer to Japan, Francis Hall (1822-1902), wrote that “The dress of the common people was quite as free as their manners. The [common] class were either naked, with the exception of the loincloth, or wore a loose cotton robe all the length in front and revealed quite as much as it covered.”
(Source: Lowry, D 2006, In the Dojo: A guide to the rituals and etiquette of the Japanese martial arts, Pg 39)
Certainly a good way to avoid damaging your clothes would be to simply not wear them in situations where they might get damaged, which would include martial arts training. However once the Americans did arrive, many reforms were passed in Japan to modernise the country, with an aim of making Japan appear ‘civilised’ in the eyes of the western world. One such change was making public nudity illegal, with Tokyo specifically making it illegal in 1872. This wasn’t a problem for Kano as he didn’t open the Kudokan until 1882, but his students did need something that would be able to withstand the training practice.
Why create a new uniform?
If budōka had been training in their own clothes (or lack thereof) for hundreds of years, then why did Kano want or need to develop the judogi? As with a lot of things there was not one singular reason, but rather overlapping reasons. The main three reasons may be broadly described as “equality”, “reputation” and “safety”.
It’s important to note that up until the Meiji Reformation in 1868, Japan was still a feudal society with a rigid social caste structure. To put into some context the Samurai still existed when Kano was born and were dissolved in 1869 when Kano was 9 years old. While the caste structure of Japan had changed by the time Kano founded the Kodokan dojo in 1882, there was still a heavy class divide with many people of formerly high status trying to retain or regain what they had before.
Kano understood that clothes were (and still are) used as status symbols, and that intentionally or not, some people may be treated unfairly based on aspects not relevant to what they should be judged on. Much of Kano’s professional life was in the field of Education, having worked in schools, universities and for the Japanese Ministry of Education. It was normal for students in Japanese schools to wear a uniform in the classroom, so why was it not in the dojo?
|Kano wanted jūdō to be practiced by everyone, rich and poor, as a means of education and for the betterment of society. By putting everyone in the same white, modest uniform, one could not tell a jūdōka’s social class and students would be judged solely on the merit of their training and effort.
(Source: What’s in a colour? The Judogi and Japanese Aesthetics: Carl De Crée & Llŷr Jones, Pg.2)
Requiring all of his students to wear the same uniform prevented any individual student from displaying any social status they might have held outside of the dojo. Inside the dojo the only way a student could earn any status was through their effort and dedication. This would later be displayed visually via the colour of their belt, itself known as an obi, which we will look at later in this article.
Another major contributing factor was the reputation of martial arts in Japan at that time, with most of them falling out of favour with the Japanese public. Jujutsu was no exception to this, and is cited as one of the reasons Kano chose to rename his martial art to ‘Judo‘, rather than the existing ‘Jujutsu‘. In Kano’s own words:
|In an effort to reverse the decline in their incomes, some jujutsu masters began staging exhibition matches. They issued challenges to sumo wrestlers and to practitioners from other jujutsu schools. The admission fees that they charged spectators helped to boost their salaries. In this way, the world of martial arts started to be transformed into an entertainment business and thus the true character of these arts was altered and degraded radically. Partly because of this changing situation, the former popularity of jujutsu as a participant activity began to wane further. When I began teaching martial arts in earnest, I did not instruct traditional jujutsu as such, but an art that was based on a deep and far reaching spirituality. Since Jujutsu had by then largely fallen into disrepute, I purposely did not use the term jujutsu at all, but thought it better to use a different name; the one that I selected was ‘kudokan judo’.
(Source: Watson, B.N 2008, Judo Memoirs of Jigoro Kano, Trafford, Pg 15)
A modern day comparison to this could be professional wrestling. Wrestling itself is seen as one of the worlds oldest martial arts, but professional wrestling is considered entertainment. There is a vast difference between the wrestling seen at the Olympics, and that offered by the likes of the World Wrestling Entertainment [WWE].
It seems reasonable to assume then, that Kano would want to distance his judo from jujutsu not just in name, but visually too. Dr Jonathan Clements offers:
|[Kano] also devoted considerable thought to the way that his students should dress while training. Kung fu practitioners in traditional China simply wore their everyday clothes, or stripped down to their underwear to practice – the modern ‘uniform’ seen in taiji is merely a reproduction of how Chinese people used to dress in the nineteenth century. Kendo practitioners, however, got to wear the broad hakama trousers of a samurai warrior, with impressive armour and protective headgear. Kano was savvy enough to realise that judo’s image would suffer if it did not come up with a similarly iconic uniform that would be both recognisable and practical.
(Source: Clements, J 2016, A Brief History of the Martial Arts, Robinson, Pg 128)
A final possible reason may be of safety. A common misconception about judo is that when Kano was developing the katas of what would later become judo, he excluded the ‘deadly and dangerous‘ techniques he had learnt while studying Jujutsu, which isn’t quite the truth. He instead altered the way those techniques were taught so that they could be practiced safely, many of them even in sparring. The techniques he did exclude were those that didn’t fit with his ideology of maximum efficiency.
|At the age of twenty-four, Kano abruptly gave up the teaching of this ancient and altogether brutal activity and never taught jujutsu again. In his attempt to create for the modern age a non-violent, spiritually inspiring antagonistic art, he carried out research on several styles of jujutsu. Primarily in the interests of both safety and practicality, he altered and added his own devices to the techniques that he was later to incorporate into his newly conceived system of skills, which he named ‘Kodokan judo’.
(Source: Watson, B.N 2008, Judo Memoirs of Jigoro Kano, Trafford, Pg xvi)
So did Kano introduce the judogi to prevent injuries? It appears the answer is actually ‘No‘.
As we read above, the judogi was initially introduced for other reasons, but we also know that some of the changes made to the judogi during its development were changes in the lengths of the sleeves and trouser legs, apparently to protect the elbows and knees from scrapes and abrasions that arose from practicing on the Tatami floor mats. This is also something we will look at in more detail later on.
Scrapes and abrasions are of course very minor injuries. As for more serious injuries, the judogi may have softened the impacts from throws but it wasn’t intended to protect the wearer completely. If that had been the intention Kano would have introduced some form of body armour, such as the Kendogi Bōgu armour or western boxing gloves. As the International Judo Federation [IJF] writes:
|It is interesting to understand that judo is one of those very rare disciplines in which the equipment the practitioner carries on their shoulders is in fact not intended to help or protect them, but is on the contrary designed to offer their partner in training or opponent in competition the opportunity to perform techniques in the best possible conditions of respect and safety.
(Source: “Judogi: Much More Than Armour”, International Judo Federation, viewed 17/02/2021, https://www.ijf.org/history/judo-culture/2244)
Today at least, the judogi is seen as an equalising tool, in that it ensures that during matches both competitors have an equal chance of grabbing onto clothing. This is something we will look at in more detail later in this article.
It’s clear then that Kano did at least consider ways for students to train safely. He understood that while some degree of risk and conditioning was acceptable and indeed needed, they should not come at the expense of his students being potentially maimed, disabled or killed. As we said above, Kano was concerned with making the techniques safer. He still expected his students to train hard, but also anticipated that they may eventually receive an injury.
As for the judogi providing protection, it seems that was an unintentional side effect. When you happen to make your uniform out of thick, durable materials, you will end up with some rudimentary protection.
The Evolution of the Judogi.
Now that we have established why Kano developed the judogi, now lets look at that development. Unfortunately this is where the details get ‘fuzzy‘. Many details in the history of judo were either not documented because no one at the time thought that any particular event was noteworthy, or were lost to time due to being misplaced or destroyed. The development of the uniform is one such detail lost.
We do however have various writings by Kano reflecting on the development of the judogi many years later, as well as a small number of photos from that time. Please bear this in mind as what we present next is an educated guess of the evolution of the judogi. We will look at the 3 main parts of the judogi in turn.
The Uwagi 上着 (Jacket).
As we saw before, most commoners and budoka wore clothing such as the Juban ( 襦袢 ) or Han-Juban ( 半襦袢 ) for their top half. In the 1880s all of these would have been made from simple, sturdy cotton. Ideal for everyday clothing but not fantastically durable. In the winter they may have worn a Hanten ( 法被 ), a type of winter coat with longer sleeves. A popular theory is that the jackets were based on those worn by Japanese firefighters, but these thicker coats were already being used by common farmers and in Kendo underneath their armour.
The Hanten and Kendo jackets were seen as sturdy thanks to the type of fabric used in their construction, which was known as Sashiko 刺子 or “rice grain” fabric:
|The ‘Sashiko’ fabric is a type of decorative stitching that finds its origin back to the 6th century but democratized during the Edo era (1615-1868). This fabric was known at the time for its traditional pattern consisting of a succession of ‘rice grain’ stitching said to recall snow falling around farmhouses giving it its typical appearance and offering enhanced durability to clothes. This weaving process was then mainly used to patch pieces together, to repair ripped clothes or for decoration. Although several patterns could be woven, the rice grain pattern was one of the most used and is widely known around the world nowadays. The functional properties of this type of traditional weaving brought it to be widely used among Japanese society and by the Meiji era (1868-1912) evolved into winter clothes for farmers and functional clothes for firefighters.
(Source: “The Manufacturing Steps: A journey from the reel to the mats”, 2019 , The KuSakuraShop Blog, viewed 22/02/2021, https://www.kusakurashop.com/blogs/the-kusakura-blog/03-the-story-of-the-iconic-judogi-first-manufacturing-steps)
A much more in depth look into Sashiko and the modern judogi production process can be found here – https://www.kusakurashop.com/blogs/the-kusakura-blog/05-focus-on-the-sashiko-fabric
The Sashiko fabric was durable because it was made from several layers of cotton cloth sewn together with a cross pattern, making it much stronger than the single layers of cotton used for other clothing. Sashiko fabric could also be made out of other materials such as hemp or leather, and even mixed together to combine the properties of any of it’s constituent layers.
We presume then that Kano took the design of the Juban or Han-Juban and had it made using cotton Sashiko fabric, creating a modest looking jacket with mid-length sleeves that was also very durable.
These are the changes that we know were made:
~ The sleeves originally only reached the top of the elbow, and were made longer to cover the elbows though not so far to cover the wrists.
~ The top half of the jacket would be made with the Sashiko fabric above the waist, with the bottom half remaining unembroidered. Presumably this was because not all of the jacket needed reinforcing, only the areas that were commonly grabbed and held.
~ For the same reason, the lapels were made thicker. This extended all the way around the collar as one long part.
~ The ‘tail’ or ‘skirt’ of the jacket was initially quite short, only extending as far as the top of the thighs, but was made longer to extend almost as far as the knees.
The Obi 帯 (Belt).
Traditionally the sides of Juban or similar jackets would have been held closed with a wide cotton obi. While we know that different coloured belts were introduced around this time period as well, we don’t know anything about the evolution of the obi’s construction. All we do know is that the obi went from being a simple strip or sash of cotton, to being made from Sashiko fabric as well, presumably for the same reason the jackets were.
The colour of the belts being associated with specific ranks is something that was started by Kano, who initially used only 2 ranks:
|Kanō devised his own system dividing trainees into two groups: “no grade” (mudansha) and “grade-holders” (yudansha). For yudansha, he created a system where the student could progress one step at a time from shodan (1-dan, to nidan (2-dan), sandan (3-dan) and so on.”
“Although it is unclear exactly when the practice was first introduced, yodansha started to wear black belts (kuro-obi) as a symbol of their rank and became the envy of other students.
(Source: ‘Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan: An Innovative Response to Modernisation‘, pg 113-115, 2009)
The use of ‘dan‘ ranks is widely believed to have been inspired by the Chinese board game “Go“, which used a similar ranking system in competitive tournaments. It is also where we got the first 2 colours of belts, white and black.
Around the late 1880’s Kano saw his classes explode in popularity and size which necessitated the need to further divide students by ability. Kano modified the belt system to use 4 main colours; light-blue, white, brown, and black. The light-blue signified brand new students, white for beginners, brown for ‘advanced’ students and black for ‘expert’ students.
As for the other kyu colours there is much less documentation. The earliest surviving record of coloured Kyu belts comes from The Budokwai Judo Club in London when in 1926 coloured judo belts were seen being used at their annual “Budokwai Display”. A year later, and a list of ranked coloured judokas appeared in the Budokwai Committee Minutes.
From here the story jumps to Kawaishi Mikinosuke* who visited the Budokwai club in 1928, and established a club in Liverpool with the Budokwai club’s founder Gunji Koizumi*. Kawaishi later went on to establish a judo club in Paris where he adapted the teaching methods to suit western needs. One of those changes appears to have been to further sub-divide the Mudansha into more Kyu grades, and assigning them a sequential colour pattern going from white to black. Kawaishi certainly didn’t invent the idea, but did expand upon it.
(*In Japan, the family name comes before a person’s own name.)
On a related subject, there is a popular myth surrounding the origins of the black belt that claims students traditionally earned a black belt over many years of hard training, by causing their white belts to become so discoloured over time that it turned black. You can read more about this myth here.
The Zubon ズボン / Shitabaki 下穿き (Trousers).
Out of all of the parts that make up the judogi, this is the one we have the least information on.
Traditionally commoners and budoka either wore Suteteko (a type of underwear trousers) or a Fundoshi loincloth underneath their chosen top. Kano opted not to use the Hakama as used in Kendo because it was not practical to do so.
Kano is known to have taken inspiration from western style trousers though it is unclear what exactly he was inspired by as again, there was very little written about the construction or design of these trousers. We do know that at some point, the length of the trousers were made longer to protect the shins, presumably from scrapes and abrasions that arose from practicing on the Tatami floor mats.
The Final Judogi.
Author and Director of the US Embassy Judo Club (Tokyo), Lance Gatling writes:
|In the last days of the 19th century, Kanō shihan describes the final, premodern keikogi jacket as 白木綿 筒袖 袷襦袢 – white cotton, tight sleeved, lined juban – modified with triple layers of cloth above the waist, sleeves extending so far beyond elbows, longer coat tail to reach mid thigh, gathered in the front and held by an obi like a standard juban, etc., etc. He describes the pants as 白木綿 下穿 – white cotton ‘underpants’ – a term used more widely today to include exercise pants, etc.
(Source – The evolution of the jūdō keikogi (‘gi’) – The Kanō Chronicles®)
In 1895 the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai (the “Greater Japan Martial Virtue Society” or ‘DNBK’ for short) was founded under the authority of the Japanese Government to ‘solidify, promote, and standardize martial disciplines and systems throughout Japan’.
In 1899 Kano, at this point working for the Japanese Ministry of Education, proposed a set of written rules for competitions to the DNBK. These rules were based on the rules he had already implemented in the Kudokan dojo for internal competitions, and included the judogi as a requirement. One year later these rules were accepted and became judo’s first formal competition rules, and included specifications for the cut of the judogi to standardise it. Later in 1906 another conference was held under Kano’s lead at which (amongst other things) the judogi was again discussed and further standardized. Bar a few minor changes, the design of the judogi has remained the same since 1906.
Another of the standardisations was making the wearing of a judogi compulsory at every level. Everyone from new students on their first day in a class to seasoned veterans competing at the top level were required to wear a judogi. Initially judogi were not commercially available. Instead students could buy or were given the instructions on how to sew their own. Those students would then buy the fabric and make it themselves or take it to tailor for them to make it. It didn’t take long for these tailors to start making pre-made judogi.
In 1908 Kano, again working for the Japanese Ministry of Education, made it compulsory for all students in Japanese schools to take up either judo or kendo for their physical exercise, coming into full effect in 1911. Students had the free choice of which art they picked, but judo had a few advantages:
- As the wearing of the judogi had already been made compulsory a few years prior, commercially made judogis had become more available.
- A large number of schools already had after-school judo clubs, meaning the schools already had the staff and the facilities to tech judo when it became compulsory.
- Out of the two arts, Judo was more popular. Japan was still modernising and Kendo was seen as an old art, where as Judo was seen as much more modern. In other words, Kendo was falling out of fashion while Judo was very much in.
- Both groups would have to buy their respective uniforms, but the Kendo students would also have to buy their own Bōgu armour and Shinai swords. Kendo students would have also needed to carry these around with them during their school day, something the judo students did not.
It is to little surprise then that Judo became very popular amongst not just Japanese students, but Japan as a whole.
Adoption by other Martial Arts.
As with anything that becomes popular, there will be those that follow suit (pun intended). For the sake of brevity though we won’t cover the origin of every other martial art uniform, but we will look at one. The story of the Karategi is a good example of how the uniform spread to other martial arts.
Karate is arguably the first martial art beside Judo to use a variation of Kano’s uniform. The founder of Shotokan Karate, Funakoshi Gichin, is said to have been given a judogi by Kano when Funakoshi visited Japan for a demonstration in 1922.
A native of Okinawa, Funakoshi then adopted a modified version of the judogi when introducing his Shotokan Karate to mainland Japan. Much like Jujutsu had fallen out of favour with the Japanese populace, Okinawan martial arts were seen as ‘brutish’. By following the example set by Judo and the judogi, Funakoshi was able to make his Karate look more presentable to mainland Japan by wearing a similar uniform.
By the 1930’s the judogi had become synonymous with martial arts. Improved production methods meant that not only could judogi uniforms be mass produced, but any and all variations could be too. This most likely had the snowballing effect of making the uniforms more available and practical for other later martial arts to adopt as well.
While each martial art has it’s own variations on the uniform, they all stemmed from Professor Kano’s modest and conservative design. An icon.
We would like to thank author and director of the US Embassy Judo Club (Tokyo), Lance Gatling for taking the to time review this article and giving us constructive feedback.
Lance Gatling also runs the ‘Kanō Chronicles” blog which documents a great deal of Kanō Shihan’s life and those around him.