Uniforms

Note to those practicing Taido outside the USA: American Taido students typically wear standard karategi for Taido practice.

I started practicing Taido in 1984, when I was seven years old. For those of you who don’t remember, the 80s in America were all about flash, and the martial arts were no exception. I remember looking through martial arts magazines as a kid and seeing guys in American flag satin gi (the word “uniform” hardly applies), pink and black tiger-stripe gi, and all kinds of crazy patterns with patches for just about everything all over them. At one point, Century was even marketing “rugged” stone-washed gi that looked as if they’d ought to have been worn by the likes of Motley Crue.

You may laugh at the idea of seeing a karate school full of hair band rejects, but it’s not such a silly deal. In all seriousness, one could easily say the traditional white pajamas are just as silly in this day and age. Especially here in the West.

Just look at the standard uniform – the whole deal is made out of heavy white cloth that is rough on the skin and doesn’t breathe very well. In an environment that includes rolling around on dirty floors as well as loads of sweat and occasional blood, white is the worst of all possible colors, and cotton is not the best choice of fabric. The pants are cut from what appears to be a one-size-fits-some pattern with a drawstring that cuts into your midsection and bunches around the crotch. The jacket is secured with flimsy ties that frequently break off, begging the question of why they are included in the first place. But if the belt is tied tight enough to keep the jacket closed, it becomes difficult to move the arms and shoulders to any reasonable range.

On the plus side, the jacket looks sufficiently Japanesey to remind us of our samurai heritage (that’s funny – samurai heritage). It also makes it easier to see what color belt someone is wearing, which we all know is the most important part of practice. The cotton canvas material usually doesn’t rip unless you do grappling (in which case you should be wearing an even heavier and less comfortable Judo top), except for the knees which will rip frequently no matter what you do.

Of course, I’m not trying to imply that there are no good karate uniforms out there. There are some very good ones (Tech Taido orders ours from kamikaze). It’s just that most of the good ones cost a lot of money. This makes them out of reach for anyone other than instructors who will be spending a considerable quantity of time in them.

Of course in countries where students pay only a small association fee for instruction, the approximately $160 for a Taidogi is no problem. However, the Atlanta honbu dojo is the only place I am aware of that offers students the opportunity to practice six days a week in a purpose-built facility with professional teaching staff. This costs money in the form of tuition. Not to mention that students practicing several days a week often like to have more than one uniform. This makes the karategi (costing less than a third the price of a Taidogi) a lot more attractive – to new students especially.

I belong to an international affiliation of martial arts heretics that makes a habit of questioning just about any tradition or trend in the martial arts we encounter, and it has been suggested by several of our members that uniforms are wholly unnecessary for practice. This is very true, as the techniques do not require a uniform in their execution. Especially if said uniforms are uncomfortable or expensive.

However, in a dojo setting, it is easy to see uses for uniforming from a pedagogical/organizational point of view – they help to establish group identity, remind us where we are and what we ought to be doing while we are there, and establish a standard. These are nice things to have in a class environment. Besides all that, as silly as it sounds, punching and kicking around in a uniform somehow looks and feels more legitimate than doing so in street clothes.

Living in Japan, if I practice without a uniform, I often have people coming up to me and asking if I am a kick boxer, which I happen to find quite annoying because then I have to explain to them that I practice Taido (since they can usually tell that it’s not karate). And since they’ve probably never heard of Taido, this means that I have to try to explain it to them, lest they assume it’s an American import. This includes the brief history and writing out the kanji and making comparisons to judo and karate, and takes too much time to bother with. As a result, I make a point never to workout in public unless I am wearing my Taidogi, complete with hakama (so they can tell it’s not supposed to be karate) and kanji (so I don’t have to reach in my bag for a pen). I’ve also found that it’s easier if I pretend that I can’t speak Japanese.

This brings us to the Taido uniform, as worn everywhere outside the US. It’s a big improvement over the standard karate uniform by a long shot. The jacket is woven and strong. It’s also slightly off-white, so it doesn’t show dirt and sweat quite so badly. One thing that isn’t so easy to see at first glance is that the front is cut completely differently, with the “flaps” hanging almost straight down and overlapping only a few inches. This makes the top much easier to tuck into the hakama. The hakama serve the purpose of keeping the top in place and holding everything together at the waist. They do this without bunching at the waist or crotch. The pleated design also allows for greater flexibility in the legs and less binding when kicking. However, the pants are quite a bit narrower than aiki or iai hakama to prevent tripping during unsoku and acrobatic moves. The choice of black is nice because the pants will end up getting dirty, and this doesn’t show on black pants. Not only that, but black looks good and balances well with the off-white top.

Drawbacks to the Taidogi are as follows: they cost more than twice as much to make as a medium-quality karategi; they can only be purchased from one manufacturer in Tokyo (and I think in Finland too), which means that shipping costs become a major factor as well; and the hakama necessitates a lightweight fabric that doesn’t hold up well to a lot of groundwork – in fact, you often see DIY patch-jobs on the hakama worn here in Japan. Practicing any grappling at all in hakama can be a very expensive proposition. These factors make the Taidogi less practical for us in the States than karategi, but anyone who has practiced in one for more than a few sessions will tell you that they are far more comfortable for Taido practice.

So what can we do? Well, I’ve got some ideas, but no solutions. Ideally, I would like to find a custom manufacturer to produce Taidogi in the US with a slightly sturdier hakama that includes reinforced knees, a zip-fly hidden in the front pleats (a must for instructors who are in uniform for several hours at a time), a microfiber lining in the jacket to wick away sweat (which should be standard on all uniforms anyway), and snaps instead of flimsy ties. The big problem here is that doing this would be expensive, and asking students to pay two-hundred dollars for a uniform is unreasonable. Without a large standard order, getting the prices even that low would be difficult.

Secondly (and I know a lot of folks will hate this idea), I’ve looked at ditching the “martial arts uniform” look for something distinctly western and modern. Something very much like a track suit. It would have to be made sturdy and flexible, but could be implemented without a lot of changes to any existing design. The major requirements would be slightly shortened sleeves and legs and no dangling zipper-pulls or other potentially-hazardous metallic pieces. This uniform would be relatively inexpensive and comfortable. Underneath the jacket, students could even wear high-performance sports clothes such as underarmor. The only real problems is that we find ourselves again looking like we are practicing some kind of modern dance with odd punching and kicking movements.

There are good points to not looking too martial-artsy though. For one, the Japanese-style uniform is only traditional in Japan. I am an American, and “traditional” to me means jeans or khakis, a t-shirt, jacket, and sneakers (I’ll address the issue of shoes at a later date). Modern style clothes fit better and feel like the clothes we wear everyday. Another positive is that there is no place to put a belt. To me, this is a beautiful thing.

7 thoughts on “Uniforms”

  1. My son practices Taido at the Atlanta honbu. In fact, you were his instructor 2 years ago at summer camp. I would love to get a Taidogi for him and was wondering if I could make arrangements through you to purchase one. Also, I have a very good friend who is a seamstress and costume designer. I’d love to get the two of you together when you get back to the states. If nothing else, we may be able to come up with a sewing pattern, with suggested fabrics so people who wanted to make their own, or have their taidogi made would have a less expensive option than importing them from Japan.

  2. My son practices Taido at the Atlanta honbu. In fact, you were his instructor 2 years ago at summer camp.

    perhaps 3 years ago, but not 2. my last summer camp was 2003. i’m happy to hear that i didn’t make him want toquit taido…

    I would love to get a Taidogi for him and was wondering if I could make arrangements through you to purchase one.

    i don’t think this is going to happen. i would love to help, but there are a few reasons that i won’t in this instance. firstly, it’s a pain – not so much for myself, but for the girl at my dojo who has to take time out of her practice to order a uniform for someone she doesn’t know.

    secondly, since about four years ago, uchida sensei has been making a very obvious shift in his uniforming practices, adopting a mix-and-match style for instructors and a more grappling-friendly top for students. i’m not even sure if he wants anyone wearing the japanese dogi aside from black belts instructors. i think it would be best to ask sensei if you want to get one.

    thirdly, i only get to be involved in the handling of uniforms for my own students – those at tech. i made an arrangement years ago to find my own uniform supplier for them because i didn’t like the ones at the honbu at that time. since the uniform at tech is my decision, i don’t mind ordering a japanese dogi for students there, but i would consider it out-of-jurisdiction to order one for a honbu student.

    and finally, if i get one for you, i have to get one for everyone. i have turned down lots of email inquiries about taidogi for the same reasons i mention here.

    all that said, if you were to get together a group of several students who wanted to pay for taidogi, shipping, and pain-in-the-ass fee, you could possibly convince me. the caveat is that you would also have to get uchida sensei to agree to this – i would need to see some note from him that i wouldn’t be infringing on his uniforming policies. if you can do that within the next month or so, i will get together a uniform order.

    about your seamstress friend – that sounds great. of course, there again, we would need the presidential seal before we could undertake such a project. in the past, we have done such, and my father may still have an old, child-size hakama pattern somewhere.

    however, many people also still have a bad taste in their mouths from when sensei ordered a large number of hakama from a local seamstress a few years ago. everyone paid about $80, and nobody got uniforms. we would need to have some assurance of trustworthiness and quality before making another such order would be feasible.

    so anyway, sorry i can’t help you get the uniform for your son. i just don’t think it would be the right thing to do, as things are now. however, it would be great to dicuss possibilities for designing a pattern when i return stateside.

  3. That’s fine. I understand. I wasn’t planning on him wearing the taidogi at the honbu without Uchida Sensei’s approval, I was more interested in him having a “traditional” (I know you love that word) gi for personal use. Anyway, I certainly understand your decision. And yes, it was summer camp 2003. John Edgar really enjoyed learning from you, and his dedication to Taido increased significantly after that camp.

  4. thanks for understanding.

    “traditional” (I know you love that word)

    very perceptive. actually, i have no problem with traditions that serve some purpose. my major issue with the notion of tradition in the martial arts is that most of them are by-products of japanese imperialism that were incorporated into martial arts by way of kano’s formalization of judo and the spread of the jka through the japanese university system. these traditions stifle individualism and enforce a dominance hierarchy. genuine traditions such as working hard and asking questions get overshadowed by “important” details such as the order in which students line up. i think we need less arbitrary karate tradition in our taido practice.

    cultural traditions, such as japanese kimono, russian folk dance, or american monday night football have social purposes. these are the traditions i think we need to spend our time observing and studying.

    John Edgar really enjoyed learning from you, and his dedication to Taido increased significantly after that camp.

    i appreciate you saying that, though i wouldn’t claim i had anything to do with his increased dedication. i do remember putting a lot of effort in at that camp because i knew it would be my last one for a while (i moved to japan four days later). taido is a wonderfully fun thing to spend one’s time studying and practicing – summer camps really drive that home because they are intense. i’ve had similar experiences to what you describe with your son after all 17 of the summer camps i attended.

  5. I, too, believe I understand your feelings about tradition, especially when it comes to the uniforms. I used to be a martial arts practitioner, and even studied Taido for a couple of months until my knees gave out under a sadistic instructor (another type of martial arts tradition, but a story for another time).

    However, as impractical and uncomfortable as it is, a “traditional” uniform always performed another function for me. It set my time in the dojo/studio/whatevertheartcalledit apart from my time in the real world. When the uniform went on, whether as a student or instructor, my frame of mind changed, my focus became sharper. After the class, taking the uniform off then folding it in the traditional way (well, trying to, anyway), treating the uniform with respect, actually helped heighten the martial arts experience for me. One thing the uniform never did was rob me of any sense of individuality.

    As an instructor, I experimented with other types of clothing for classes; however, I always came back to the gi. If nothing else, the uniform always seemed to help the students take the class more seriously. I suppose it may also have helped me take martial arts more seriously, too.

  6. sadistic? in taido? no, no, no! ok, yeah. but he’s mellowed since then. and now taido is “family friendly”! glad you found the site, kenny.

    anyway, i totally agree with your comments, which is why i use uniforms, and why i require my students at tech to use them. it’s also why i found my own uniform manufacturer, as opposed to reselling the ones used at the honbu. i think quality uniforms have utility for classes, so they will always be a part of any “formal” martial arts program i lead.

    however, i’m not sold on the notion that the uniform has to be a japanese dogi. i see no reason that students need to swish about in imitation samurai outfits, barking pidgin japanese, and calling each other by titles they don’t understand. to me the karate gi is a part of martial arts tradition that is arbitrary and tied in with a lot of other “cultural baggage” that doesn’t serve any practical purpose. if the current uniforms were practical, it would be one thing, but they are not.

    i think that being part of an international martial art community has a lot to offer students, but i don’t believe that being in a “traditional japanese” martial arts class will give anyone any appreciable cultural benefits aside from those which they create for themselves. in that respect, i dislike the current uniforms as they seem to trade on some notion that we are trying to learn about japanese culture, when in fact, it is only a bastardized, strip-mall version of that culture. i think most people have very specific reasons for practicing martial arts, and any social/cultural benefits are usually considered icing.

    perhaps i’m being cynical and harsh this morning. at any rate, practical, comfortable uniforms would be very useful to a martial arts program, and i hope to one day find some.

  7. and by the way, i am still holding out for that american-flag-pattern, satin gi someday.

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