The uniform worn by karateka (someone who practices karate) is called a karategi and the belt worn around the waist is referred to as an obi. This is considered the traditional dress for the karateka. For us to better understand the origins and the significance of the karategi and obi, we must first travel back to the time when karate began to be taught in both Japanese and Okinawan societies.
The karategi is a relatively new concept, having only been in use since the 1920's. On Okinawa, there was no karategi. Instead, the practitioners wore something similar to the traditional kimono, called a hakama. This resembled the kimono, but had pants legs for more freedom of movement and it's still worn today both on Okinawa and Japan. Japan during the 1920's was still adhering to very strict social class structure, which meant in order to set ones self apart from another class, there was a different way to dress.
In Japanese and Okinawan society, there is a very strict social class structure. It is similar to America's "upper class", "middle class", and "lower class". In Japan, in the early 1900's, this social class structure was as strong then as it still is today. Karate was just beginning to be taught on mainland Japan even though it had been thriving on Okinawa for many years. Due to this social structure, you had all three classes training together. Some upper class students felt they deserved better treatment than the middle and lower classes. Funakoshi, Gichin, founder of Shotokan Karate sensed this problem from the very start. He felt that a uniform was necessary in order to make everyone equal in the dojo. The karategi is a combination of the hakama and the judogi. Traditionally, white was the only color and it was used to signify purity and also served to remove the class distinction in the dojo.
Here in America, the concept of equality and unification among fellow karateka has somewhat been discarded. Practitioners have traded the pure white uniform for gis that have "stars and stripes" as well as many other colors and styles. In some classes, the gi top is left out in favor of T-shirts.
One of the most frequently asked questions at any traditional dojo is, How does your "belt system" go? By this, the person is asking how do we show levels of achievement in our dojo. Of course, any information not known and any techniques learned is an achievement, but for some people, it was necessary to have visual proof of achievement. For both Eastern and Western cultures alike, the obi was introduced to the martial arts to award the practitioner with rank certification.
Before an explanation of rank certification is given, it is necessary to discuss the history behind the obi. The obi is also a relatively new addition to the martial arts.
In the beginning, there were no rank certifications, only titles. In China, one was considered a master, instructor, or student. On Okinawa, the titles of Renshi (trainer), Kyoshi (teacher), and Hanshi (Instructor of teachers) were the only certifications awarded.
The man credited with inventing the Dan/Kyu System was Kano, Jigoro, who also was the founder of Judo. Judo has been practiced on Okinawa since the 1920's. Funakoshi, Gichin, had met Dr. Kano while in Japan. Funakoshi, himself a teacher and a very educated man, was very impressed with Dr. Kano and decided to use the Dan/Kyu system in his teaching and awarding of rank certification. In 1924, Funakoshi awarded seven men with karate's first Black Belt Dan.
In 1937, Miyagi, Chojun, founder of Okinawa Goju Ryu, was the first karate expert to be awarded the title of Kyoshi. The next year, the Butoku Kai (butoku translates into "martial virtue") called for a meeting to discuss the standards for awarding rank certification. By the 1940's & 50's, anyone receiving a menjo (rank certification) had to have a member of the Butoku Kai sign the certificate recognizing his achievement. What this meant was any certifications issued were done so by an individual or organization that had set standards that were recognized by similar prestigious individuals or organizations.
The Dan/Kyu System did not take hold on Okinawa until 1956, when Chibana, Chosin formed the Okinawa Karate Association. Chibana, Chosin is the first Okinawan to name his type of karate shorin-ryu and was the first president of the Okinawa Karate Association. Chibana and a man named Toyama, Kanken were the only ones recognized by the Japanese Ministry of Education to grant rank certification no matter what style of karate one was studying.
In 1964, the Federation of All Japan Karate-do Organizations (FAJKO) was formed as the governing body for all karate, and by 1971, a standard system for issuing rank certification was adopted. This system is still in use today.
The original colors used for the obis were white, brown, and black, but today, especially here in the United States, a rainbow of colors has blossomed. This sprang from the American need to see all levels of achievement, no matter how minor.
In this dojo, the colors used are white, green, brown, and black. On each white, green, and brown obi, students are required to earn three stripes, which signify the different kyu ranks. Students are taught that the obi does not make the difference in the student. Wearing a black obi does not make one all knowing or make their karate better. In the end, it's skill and character that earn rank and turn the student into a disciplined karate practitioner.
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