Mits Uchida

Mits Uchida is the founder and head instructor of the “United States Taido Association.”

He’s a man who is in many ways paradoxical. Under his tough exterior, he is kind and compassionate. Though he sometimes finds it hard to recognize the contributions of others, he cares deeply for each of his students. Despite his current disdain for me, he has repeatedly placed me in a leadership position in his organization. Sometimes, he can be pretty difficult to understand.

Saint or Sinner?

Some people don’t like my teacher very much. Some say that his Taido is either incomplete or inaccurate. Some say that he is cocky, egotistical, or selfish. Many appear jealous that his personality and Taido knowledge are making him good money. I feel the concerns are simple politics. Those critics have probably felt some personal resentment towards him at some time or other. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that most of the people I’ve heard making remarks about Mits Uchida have seldom had a personal conversation with him.

On the other side of the coin, I see some people genuflect to him as if he were some sort of deity or vassal lord (a situation he enjoys and somewhat encourages). This group includes the usual collection of yes-men (rather, ossu-men) and sycophants that tend to form around charismatic and impressive people. There are also a few true-belivers who really feel that Uchida-Taido is the best martial art on the planet. My biggest disagreement with them is the notion that my teacher’s version of Taido represents the apex of martial theory and application; I believe it’s possible to make Taido even better.

At one point, both above-mentioned camps (detractors and supporters) had been actively attempting to recruit me. I found it interesting that people spent their effort trying to educate me about Mits Uchida. It was damn-near hilarious, in fact, because I’ve known the man for most of my life.

Some people have known him much longer, but few of them spent hours and hours in his presence every week, as I did from age 7 to 25. With the exception of his own children, very few people have received nearly as much of his interference and intervention as I have. I studied under him in Taido for a long time.

Beyond that, I have studied him – the way he teaches, the way he runs his business, the way he thinks, and why. He’s been a role model to me in many ways. I am something of an Uchida expert, and in the course of becoming such, I have discovered things I love and hate about the man I still call “Sensei.”

As far as Taido goes, Mits Uchida is the hardest-working man in show business. He’s full-time, all the time, and when I used to call the honbu dojo from Japan in the middle of the night, he answered. He’s given me a lot of good advice through the years, and he’s done genuinely nice things for me – even when nobody else was around to see it.

He has his reasons for doing what he does and how. It’s not my habit to make apologies on another’s behalf, nor to suggest that another should be apologetic. I know of my Sensei only what my own experience has shown me, and this includes actions and tendencies better and worse than anything I have heard from others. It’s on this experience that I base my beliefs, some of which will be revealed below.

From the Beginning

A few months past my seventh birthday, and a few weeks into the second grade, my father took me to enroll in classes at the original Taido dojo, on Buford Highway in Doraville. We talked with Uchida for a while, and then my father signed some papers. A couple of days later, I had my first class. I remember Sensei taught me fudozuki and left me alone for a few minutes to practice. I punched and punched and punched for what seemed like forever, and then Sensei returned and told me I was doing it all wrong.

I think a lot of people in American Taido had a similar first experience. Probably owing to his karate background, Uchida was always a stickler for kihon. The pattern I remember from my white-belt period centered on doing lots of repetitions until we got something right. At that time, children’s classes were a full hour, and at the end, we would all line up and “test” in front of Sensei one by one. Back then, we would often fail and have to try again. As the school grew and other students became black belts and instructors, it was less and less likely to have Uchida teach us for an entire class, but he would always appear at the end to test us. Earning his approval was the most important part of practice.

After a few years, we had built up a large group of advanced children, so Sensei started a special class for us – “Top Gun.” Top-Gun was a half-hour longer than the regular classes and included instruction in Taido theory and lots of jissen practice. For the first couple of years, Uchida made a priority to always teach this class personally. We loved him, and we were pretty sure he loved us back. Every week, he filled us up with all kinds of information about Taido. Some of the articles on this website are based on notes I took as a twelve-year-old in this Top-Gun class. No shit.

Looking back through the years, I’ve always been impressed by the absolute precision of sensei’s movement. He’s always been so strong and tough. I even remember being somewhat afraid of him at times. Even as he’s gotten older, none of that strength and precision seems to subside. It’s almost funny sometimes that he can go for months without appearing to practice at all, and then out of nowhere, he’ll do some small thing that is just absolutely astounding to watch. I’ve come to the point where I can say I have some pretty strong techniques, but Sensei’s kicks amaze me still.

It’s that power to amaze which he seems to have really cultivated to an art form. Never content to keep up with others, Sensei loves to dream big. He’s not really what you would call well-rounded – there are lots of peaks and valleys with him. He likes to pick a few things that he can master and then work at making sure that nobody can come close to touching him. He’s never afraid of failure because he knows how to ensure success. Sensei once told me that, during his university days when he had to compete with senior students to get noticed, he would sometimes intentionally screw up to catch Shukumine’s attention.

Some Real-Life Lessons

All of that precision and strength notwithstanding, Sensei is a sweetie. If you ever spend much time in his presence, one of the first things you’re likely to notice is that he has a great smile, and he likes to use it. Speaking as someone at whom he is sometimes not-too-pleased, I have yet to spend more than a couple of hours around him and not see it. Even when he’s pissed, he still manages to feel joy in what he does and see the humor in things. He even laughs at himself being pissed. How can you not like that?

In fact, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned form watching Uchida has very little to do with how to kick or punch, or especially flip (because let’s face it, he was never very good at tengi). It’s how to use charisma. If anyone I know can turn up the charm to win people over, it’s Mits Uchida – the man practically sweats charm.

I’ve tried hard (with varying degrees of success) to learn how to make people love me the way they love him. Sometimes, I’d be teaching English to a group of usually quiet and bored-looking junior high school students, and I’d notice that they’re all looking at me intently with big eyes and bright faces, and I’d think to myself “don’t let go of what you’re doing now – you’ve got them! They’ll learn now!” and then it passed and I felt as if I was talking to the wall again.

The ability to use personality to reach people is important in business, which is no doubt where Sensei perfected his skills, but it’s also vital in education. I consider myself a teaching/mentoring type of person, and as a schoolteacher, Taido instructor, and fake big brother, I’m constantly working to “reach out and touch someone.” My personality clashes with some people, but it also makes my teaching style unique, and this ultimately leads to stronger relationships with my students and more effective practices. I learned this entirely by watching my teacher.

The art of winning people over is about more than simply persuading people to support you – it’s about creating relationships. Relationships work both ways – to lift each other up mutually, as brothers and sisters. While I’ll admit that I sometimes find it incredibly difficult to cooperate with Uchida, the give-and-take method has always been inherent my interaction with him. I’ve certainly found this process to lead me to greater accomplishments, and I’ve made contributions to various things in which he takes pride. I guess we’re cooperating after all.

I could also write about the take-no-shit-from-nobody attitude he’s taught me to employ when necessary (but he hates it when I use it on him). Or the fact that he has helped demonstrate to me that it’s OK to be paid for doing something you love – that your career doesn’t have to be work. Or the generosity he’s shown in helping me find ways to get by when I didn’t have much money to spend in college. Or, or, or… I could probably write a book about the things I’ve learned from my sensei, but you probably wouldn’t be interested in much of that…

“How much does he really know?”

OK, so after gushing about how much I’ve learned form Uchida inside and outside the dojo, I’m going to totally change my approach and put forth an interesting question that I never thought to ask myself until very recently. Primarily, I want to ask “Just how much does Mits Uchida really know about Taido?”

I guess I should preface this by saying that this notion was first brought to my mind in a conversation I had with another Taido instructor in early 2006. In essence, that instructor said something to the effect I would be returning to America knowing more about how Taido is currently practiced than any other American Taidoka. In this case, the context and wording aren’t very important. The message was: you now know more than your teacher.

One the one hand, I had just never really considered that I would ever amass more Taido knowledge than Sensei (though he’s always told me that I eventually should surpass him – in fact he used to be very explicit in stating that it was my job to be better than him). Part of me thought “Well, yeah, I guess that’s possible. After all I know many more of the hokei and am more familiar with the current versions of the technique and judging methods, etc, etc” Yet another corner of my mind just said “Huh?” And I sat there, stupid, not knowing how to respond.

Now that I’ve had some time to consider this instructor’s remark, I think I can decode it a little better. Firstly, I want to point out some of the factors that may fuel such an argument. Let’s start with Uchida’s days as a Taido student.

Looking at the Taido timeline, we can clearly see that my teacher spent only a short time studying Taido under an instructor. He joined the Taido club at what later became Tokyo International University (already having earned a karate black belt) in 1968. In 1970, he took a scholarship to Williamette University in Oregon. That’s only two years. After graduating American college (not Williamette, but Dana, in Nebraska), he returned to Japan and took one more year to earn an economics degree and Shukumine’s blessing to teach Taido in the States. So let’s call that three years of formal Taido instruction.

Now that’s not very long, and I’ve heard a few folks claim that this diminishes Sensei’s level somewhat. These people obviously don’t know Mits Uchida very well. I have never met anyone who is as focussed, driven, or achievement-oriented. When Uchida decides to do something, it happens. Simple as that. I’ve seen him workout (not in class – his real workouts) and can attest that he holds himself to some seriously high standards. When 20-year old Mits came to America with three years of formal Taido instruction behind him, he had the goal to be the best Taido teacher in the world. I’m not comfortable with superlatives, but he is damn good.

As for not knowing some of the hokei – well of course. Most of the hokei in Taido had not been created when Sensei was a student, and some of them were done in different forms. In recent years, American Taido has begun to incorporate the -in hokei into the curriculum. I have taught jinsei to a few students, and may someday teach the remaining -sei and -mei hokei. It’s not necessary for Sensei to be a hokei encyclopedia. Part of the reason for having a team is that we can each fill in the gaps in each others’ knowledge.

When I tested for 4dan, I performed a hokei that Sensei did not know very well. He had learned it but never really practiced it. However, he would have been able to tell if I had screwed it up. Genius mathematicians don’t need to memorize formulas – they understand the principles that make them work and apply them. I feel the same goes for master martial artists, and Uchida is one. He understands the principles on a level that very few instructors can match.

Still don’t believe he’s that big of a Taido expert? You don’t have to. His status was clearly conferred by the Boss (not Springsteen, Shukumine). The way I see it is this: if Shukumine thought that Mits Uchida had the knowledge and skills of a Taido 7dan, then who the hell am I to argue? Nobody. While I may disagree with Shukumine’s theories on certain details, I’ve not achieved a level of egotism at which I feel I understand what constitutes Taido ability better than it’s creator.

So how much does he know? Quite a bit. Sensei once laughed off his limited hokei knowledge, saying “How many hokei do you need, anyway?” (The answer depends on how you arrange your curriculum. In a kihon-based school like the American HQ, you really don’t need so many forms). Sensei’s done the work, and he knows plenty of stuff that you can’t learn by just watching a couple of videos. There’s a lot he doesn’t know, but what he does know is gold.

Do I know more than my sensei? About some things, yeah. I’m a nerd, so I know a lot of stuff about a lot of things, but these are mostly things he doesn’t need to know. Anyway, I’m still learning from him all the time. So I guess we both know more – it just depends on the topic.

Grinding seeds

One thing Uchida has always made clear to most of his students through the years is that he basically requires a certain amount of ass-kissing. He has expressed this in different ways at different times. I vividly remember one Top-Gun class lecture in which he explained to us that in Japan, kissing up to someone was given a euphemistic gesture resembling grinding sesame seeds in a bowl. This is a gesture I’ve seen him make suggestively many times.

Many martial artists in various styles lament the prevalence of politics in an activity that should by all rights be free of petty jealousies and such. But after all, martial arts are based in competition, and there will always be those who, failing to make the grade in one area or another, will attempt to make up for it by making others look smaller. Uchida’s love of flattery invites politics at a fundamental level. In fact, this is a classic Japanese trait and is pervasive in “traditional” martial arts schools.

Perhaps all of this helps explain why so few people manage to remain active in Uchida’s organization for longer than a certain amount of time. Knowing my own tendency towards being opinionated, I used to worry about my future in Taido. American Taido has had a lot of full-time instructors in its 30+ year history, and very few of them are still on speaking terms with Uchida. To date, no American black belt has ever spent any significant time training Taido in Japan and returned home to any sort of welcome at the American headquarters.

Sensei’s single-mindedness causes friction when others disagree with his vision (or form any visions of their own).

Sole Proprietorship

To my teacher, control is primary. This is because he sees it as the only way to maintain quality – and the quality of Taido students is on average very competitive with students of other traditional martial arts. Some students even achieve great skill on a more objective level. For Uchida, this is confirmation of his success. My chief argument with him is that successful does not equal optimal. I feel that Taido could be more successful if we adjusted our methods in certain ways. Sensei doesn’t like people to talk about adjusting the way he does things.

For quite a while, a few years ago, the US Taido homepage was “under construction.” It sat there for over two years with a picture of Uchida, a phone number, and the words “coming soon.” I’ve come to believe that this was the most accurate possible representation of American Taido. In American Taido, there is only one man who is allowed to make decisions, and that man is Mits Uchida. He’s said repeatedly that his organization is not a democracy, and he carries the burden of being the one man in charge every day.

But that’s what makes him who he is, and it’s a large part of what makes his school what it is. Every day, Sensei is there, doing what he does, the way he does it. In many ways, it’s inspiring to see the man still personally directing every aspect of his school. I know that he’ll continue to do so until he is no longer capable.

Belt/Rank Meaning

Ok. So if you know me at all, or have read many of the things I’ve written, you know that one of my serious gripes about Asian martial arts (and their western copies) is the custom of “ranking” or awarding level-markers to practitioners. I’m not going to spend too much space in this article discussing the carrot-on-a-stick principle, the love of rankings as a japanese cultural phenomenon, or my opinions about the mental health of those who place too much importance on what belt they wear. I do plan to discuss a particular philosophy of meaning as it applies to martial arts ranks.

Before I get on a roll here, I would like to direct your attention to this belt-related article at 24fc.

Let me also point out that the irony of me downplaying the importance of belt rank in an article I have written about that very subject does not escape me (and for the record, I have yet to make any claims to mental health on this web site). I think belt ranks have exactly the meaning and importance that we ascribe to them. I tend to take a semiotic view of meaning and a transactional view of value, so don’t expect for a second that this article is going to try and analyze the concept of ranking in some sort of rational vacuum.

Martial arts are founded in competition – they are about combat (internal and external). Anyone who tries to tell you differently is trying to get you to enroll your child in his McDojo. Competitiveness is pervasive in the martial arts world. The kinds of people who do this sort of thing (develop and test their physical abilities against opposing parties) are competitive by nature, though some may deny it. I used to believe that I was not competitive, but I have since realized that I was merely fooling myself. I am competitive – just not when it comes to fighting ability or belt rank.

I can jump and shout all day long that belts are not a big deal, but the fact is very clear that a great many martial artists care a great deal about the issues surrounding belts and rankings. Thus, belt rank is an issue of great importance, by definition.

So belt rank is important. There is no denying it. It may not be very important to you, or you may not want anybody to know how important it really is to you, but it is important, and understanding this does matter to you. With that out of the way, we can turn to what belt ranks actually mean. This will be a much more difficult exploration.

Belt Equivalence Concepts

One popular notion of the meanings of various belts is the idea that the rank of shodan is akin to a bachelor’s degree from a university. The argument goes that the four years of traditional post-secondary education are thought of as preparation for entering the workforce. This is supposed to be roughly equivalent to the idea that a shodan will have basically learned the technical curriculum of a martial art.

I have also seen the comparison stretched to suggest that higher degrees of black belt may be likened to graduate studies. I can only hope that this is intended as a joke. Though I have yet to participate in any graduate-level studies in university, I know a lot of extremely “educated” people, and I do not consider my relatively high rank in Taido to be any kind of match-up to that level.

Though martial art grading syllabi often require “research” or some kind of “thesis,” close examination reveals that the actual requirements are very light. For shodan and 2dan, the world-standard Taido examination requires the applicant to answer 5 fill-in-the-blank questions. For 3dan, the requirement is a 3 to 5 page paper on the topic of “Taido.” I wrote five page papers on more specific topics in high school. Yet, this “academic requirement” is one justification for exalting higher belt ranks.

I would suggest that, if one were truly serious about drawing a comparison between martial arts education and standard western academia, the analogy receive a thorough overhaul. I say that reaching shodan does not require anywhere near the amount of work or learning we expect of college graduates. I would place shodan as a high school graduate.

We could look at it this way:

White belt is like kindergarten. You learn the rules. You get indoctrinated into the group. You figure out what is expected. You move around a little bit, but you still can’t really read or work with numbers too well.

Purple belt would be the primary school of martial art education. You learn the basics and simple combinations. You build vocabulary. You gain core competencies and study skills.

Green belt is junior high. Here you start to have a little more autonomy in your training, but more is expected of you. There is more sense of competition among classmates. Classes are harder. Tests are harder. You realize that it is very possible to fail your next grading.

In high school, you have to demonstrate that you have learned all the stuff the school system has told you to learn. Brown belts must do the same if they wish to reach black belt level. Upon graduation, many students get jobs at the video store. Upon reaching shodan, many martial artists cease to practice.

I’ll suggest that shodan is like freshman year of college in that students have to learn how to teach themselves. Perhaps 2dan and 3dan could be seen to represent the remaining three university years, such that reaching 4dan would equal a college degree (in a very figurative sense). If actual research were presented, I would have no problem calling 5dan a master’s and 7dan a doctorate in that martial art.

Actually, scratch that

Looking back over those last few paragraphs, I still believe the comparison to be really, really limp. An academic education requires codified and objective standards to be met. Furthermore, grades are awarded. Graduating high school with a 2.0 average does not guarantee admission to college. Graduating college with a BA in comparative religion will not do much to land a steady job (nor will a PhD in astrophysics, in case you were curious).

In the martial arts, a black belt is a black belt. We don’t qualify black belts based on their grades at the time of promotion (though perhaps we should). Would it be ridiculous to suggest that a 2dan with a 4.0 outranks a 4dan that barely passed his last exam with a D? Maybe it would, but we could easily see a student failing to reach brown belt because he couldn’t pass punching.

Another thing we don’t do is specify someone as a 3dan in sparring or a shodan in basics. Martial art belt ranks are supposed to be comprehensive (though they seldom are) in the scope of expertise they signify. I often hear martial artists talking about their senior instructors in terms of being good at one aspect but not another. Why don’t we just go ahead and specify the rank to a particular skill? My guess is because it would destroy the hierarchy our egos demand.

For the above reasons, I have to say the analogy to any real educational system (designed by trained educators and tested by objective third-parties such as prospective employers) is seriously lacking. However, I wouldn’t mind using a system that made use of letter grades, subject concentrations, objective standards, and verifiable research. Under such a system, my transcript might look something like this:

  • Date passed 4dan: 10/2004
  • Cumulative Grade Point Average: 3.3
  • Major course of study: Education, with concentration in Taido Theory
  • Minor course of study: Hokei

Of course, this transcript doesn’t show that I barely passed my sparring requirement, still can’t do shajogeri worth a damn, have a knack for pissing off my instructor, was the founder and head instructor of my own Taido club, and have participated in several “study abroad” programs. Nor does it include a list of publications or shit-lists I’ve landed in, but I don’t think it’s anything to worry about – somehow, I doubt if the majority of the Taido community is going to go for this system.

What is involved?

I feel we should attempt to relate the meaning of each level to the kinds of things we expect of people at those levels, or possibly to the kinds of things we expect of people prior to achieving that level. This means we will look at what students do at a particular belt rank. As one of my poetry professors once told me: adjectives describe reality; verbs define it.

Shu, Ha, Ri

The traditional Japanese view of the educational process works through three stages:

  • Obey (shu) – beginner-level.
  • Adapt (ha) – advanced-student level.
  • Break (ri) – mastery.

Shu, ha, and ri are said to mean obedience, divergence, and transcendence, respectively. A more accurate translation would be: follow, break, separate. For an in-depth discussion of shu, ha, and ri, see (once again) 24fc.

In a nutshell, the idea is that a student begins by doing as the instructor says to do. Eventually, he knows enough to make small adjustments for his own purposes. He goes from copying to adapting. Beyond a certain level, the student will have have learned all he is capable of learning from someone else, and he will have to teach himself. At this point, the student leaves his instructor and goes off to learn the lessons that will make him a master in his own right.

“Shu, ha, and ri” sounds nice and poetic. It would be great if things actually worked that way. After spending three years as a school teacher in Japan and as a member of a Japanese Taido dojo, let me give you a better description of the process:

obey, copy, obey, copy…

it goes on like that for a very long time. Eventually, a small percentage of students get to a point where they may: think, and try something new. The student will then: seek approval from his instructors. If they do approve, he will continue to obey. If they do not, the student has the option to: leave. Whichever path the student takes at this point, there is a good likelihood that he will then: teach, either as a representative of his own teacher (whom he will continue to obey), or as the leader of a new organization. In either case, he will expect his own students to obey and copy him.

Traditional Western Approach

In the west, we have a different terms for this process: indoctrination, memorization, practice, application, which would be roughly equivalent to the school analogy I gave above (primary, junior, secondary, university). I mention it again only for the purpose of comparison to the shu, ha, ri idea. Though focussing on what the student actually does at each level this time around, I still don’t see this way of looking at belt ranks as holding much water unless some very concrete changes are made to the way we administer gradings.

The Meaning of Meaning (or, what meaning means to me)

To come back to my earlier statement about value being transactional, my belief is that personal meaning of an object is tied to what one does to acquire that object. If one would willingly trade $10,000 for a Rolex, that watch means $10,000 to that person. If one believes that having a Rolex will allow him to sleep with beautiful women and impress other men, that watch means sex and power. The important questions surrounding meaning are:

  1. What would you do to acquire the thing?
  2. How do you expect to benefit by acquisition of the thing?

These two vital questions are just as true for objects (or situations) that we do not believe we are capable of acquiring, as well as those we have long-since acquired. With regard to belt ranking, we could sum it up by asking:

What are the requirements, responsibilities, and privileges associated with this level?

Looking at these factors scientifically would perhaps allow us greater understanding of why so many martial artists get their proverbial panties in a wad over belts. (Un?)fortunately for us, such subjective questions are outside the realm of science. The best we can hope to do is keep these subjective factors in mind when we think about belt rank issues, realizing that objective comparisons are not going to be attainable.

This is Not a Competition

So, let’s all get over ourselves. Martial arts are inherently individual sports. There is a social aspect to being a member of a dojo, but the actual practice is personal. In order to get the most out of our practice, I believe that we all need to spend less time comparing ourselves to others and a lot more time exploring our own experiences. Competition is an inherent part of that process, but the overall goal is not competitive in and of itself.

Instead of all this focus on requirements, responsibilities, and privileges (ranking and what they mean to us), we could all benefit from viewing our practice as a gateway to greater self-awareness and actualization. The irony is that, as we improve ourselves and our abilities form the inside out, we meet all of the external signifiers naturally and effortlessly. We also find greater joy in what we do. Finding this peace makes it difficult to be concerned with what other people say and do.

Looking at things this way, I suggest that ,if we’re not going to be rigorous about it, let’s just drop the belts. There’s nothing to be afraid of. People can still tell who’s good and who knows what he or she is talking about. Bullshit stinks in any form, but people will always know the genuine article when they see it. Talented martial artists and skillful teachers needn’t fear a lack of credential. Only the charlatans have anything to lose by relinquishing their fancy uniforms, titles, and stripy belts.

As instructors, the only thing we really have to lose is our integrity.

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.