Monday, June 13, 2005

Random Thoughts on "Tradition"

Just some thoughts I had while replying to someone about the traditional (sic) nature of the karate gi on

Someone said:
"Please explain to me how the gi "is a relatively new innovation in karate"?a version of the gi and obi used to be the traditional underwear for Okinawans and Japanese, and thats what they originally trained in. The gi has almost been around as long as the birth of traditional karate in Okinawa"

And my response:

Sure. "The gi is a relatively new innovation in karate." But, I suppose that isn't sufficient...

So...what date do you cite as the birth of "traditional karate"? And what do you mean by "traditional"? The term itself despite being thrown around even by everyone including myself has very little actual historical meaning.

The use of the gi in karate is essentially what Funakoshi borrowed from judo in the early 1900s, only in a lighter form.Kano Jigoro himself didn't create the standard judogi we see nowadays until 1907. Funakoshi's decision was partly based on his efforts to successfully market karate as a "budo" similar to judo and kendo and as such he adopted some of the formalities required to be accepted by the Butokukai. Another reason was it simply got rid of any class distinctions that may have been evident by what kind of clothes you wore when you trained with others. In those days, class distinction, though long abolished was still a very real part of people's attitudes and perceptions. For example, Motobu Choki always went out of his way to bully and badger Funakoshi (who he considered inferior to him in class and skill) partly because he was offended someone of his class (and skill) was chosen to represent karate's mainstream introduction to Japan.

At any rate, the sharing of martial principles and techniques on Okinawa between masters and other students was common even before what now is known as "karate" was fully introduced to the public. Any sort of particular tradition regarding uniformity of dress, particular training locations or customs and courtesies were more the personal preferences of individual teachers if they existed at all.

Before Funakoshi's decision and even after, many karate practitioners wore it shorts, pants or work clothes. Yes, I would imagine sometimes before the formal karate gi was introduced some of them maybe wore something vaguely resembling the gi you see nowadays, but it wasn't very common. In some cases, teachers preferred students to not wear tops just so they can see the structure of the student's body easier.

Yes, the general pattern of what a gi is has been around for a long time. I never claimed it wasn't. However, saying its use in karate is a traditional aspect (there really isn't much that can be called traditional other than kata) is a bit mistaken. I'm saying they didn't care at all what you wore while you trained until recently. There was never any sort of mystique, reverence, tradition or any other sentiment attached to what they wore other than perhaps the lingering stench if it wasn't washed in recent times. In fact, much attention must always be made not only to the similarities to and influences from Japan that Okinawan martial arts and culture has in general, but also its differences.

But who knows. Maybe in twenty or thirty years everyone in MMA will soon regard their shorts and t-shirts as a hallowed part of their tradition. They may even come up with the story that everyone started with a white t-shirt but over time they turned black with sweat, blood and dirt, signifying that they truly became a master. At such a time, I can only hope someone remains historically objective enough to point out how things actually were. Sadly, it isn't the majority of cases when it comes to the same things regarding karate and "traditional karate".

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