When I trained in the Japanese martial arts the first thing you got upon signing up for classes was a white karate gi (ghee). The first time you put it on, and had an upper belt help you tie your white belt, you had a special feeling: You were now a warrior, and you were part of something larger than yourself, a martial arts community of warriors. Everyone else in the class, instructor included, wore a white karate gi. This gave the class a sense of unity—that everyone there was following the same rules and had the same agenda.
Times have changed. Nowadays a karate gi can come in any color of the rainbow. It can have racing stripes along the sleeves and the pant legs. Instead of a single patch indicating your style over your left breast a karate gi can be festooned with all kinds of patches like bumper stickers on an old station wagon.
Why is that a problem? Because no longer do you have the same sense of unity in your training. Everyone is “doing his own thing.” That leads to a breakdown in discipline. There’s no more white karate gi. Everyone is “doing his own style.” And you know what that leads to: Incompetent teachers with a few years of training creating their own styles.
I submit that the rainbow effect on the karate gi is a microcosm of what’s wrong with society’s values in the main. Years ago you didn’t see a wide receiver in the NFL pretend to “moon” the opposing team’s crowd—then laugh off a $10,000 fine as if it were chump change. That’s a double insult--ten-thousand-dollars could mean the difference between solvency and bankruptcy to a lot of his fans. But, everybody is “doing his own thing.”
I think a return to the white karate gi across the board is in order. And a return to the traditional values of budo, or the martial ways, that it represents. These are best outlined by the Budo Charter established in 1987 by the Japanese Budo Association:
Article 1: Object
The object of budo is to cultivate character, enrich the ability to make value judgments, and foster a well-disciplined and capable individual through participation in physical and mental training utilizing martial techniques. Each student should wear a white karate gi.
Article 2: Keiko
When practicing daily, one must constantly follow decorum, adhere to the fundamentals, and resist the temptation to pursue mere technical skill rather than the unity of mind and technique. One fundamental is the wearing of a white karate gi.
Article 3: Shiai
In a match and the performance of kata, one must manifest budo spirit, exert himself to the utmost, win with modesty, accept defeat gracefully, and constantly exhibit temperate attitudes.
Article 4: Dojo
The dojo is a sacred place for training one’s mind and body. Here, one must maintain discipline, proper etiquette, and formality. The training area must be a quiet, clean, safe and solemn environment. The karate gi must be clean before each workout.
Article 5: Teaching
When teaching trainees, in order to be an effective teacher, the budo master should always strive to cultivate his/her character, and further his/her skill and discipline of mind and body. He/she should not be swayed by winning or losing, or display arrogance about his/her superior skill, but rather he/she should retain the attitudes suitable for a role model.
Article 6: Promotion
When promoting budo, one should follow traditional values, seek substantial training, contribute to research, and do one’s utmost to perfect and preserve this traditional art with an understanding of international points of view. Tradition demands the wearing of a white karate gi.
These are high principles indeed, but that’s what true budo is all about. And it starts simply with a white karate gi and the unity of spirit it represents.
Bob Ellal is a freelance writer living in Norwich, Connecticut. He currently practices aspects of various internal kung fu systems, which helped him defeat four bouts of cancer in the early 90’s. He’s written a book about his experiences using chi kung, ancient Chinese mind/body exercises, to help beat the disease. He’s been clear of cancer for eight years. He was an avid hard-style martial artist in his youth, when he had cartilage between his joints.