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The History of the Gi and Obi

By Mel Reyes


The uniform worn by  karateka ( one who practices karate) is called a karate gi and the belt is called an obi.  The gi is relatively a new idea, having only been in use since the 1920’s.  On Okinawa, practicioners  originally wore the hakama, or split skirt.  This resembled the kimono, but had pant legs for more freedom of movement.  During the weapons seminar,  tying the hakama is a requirement for the kobudo weapon, sai in our ryu, or school.

In Japanese and Okinawan societies,  there is a very strict  class structure. They are similar to the lower class, middle class, and upper class in America.  Due to the fact that the upper class expected preferential treatment,  Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of  Shotokan Karate, felt that it was necessary to implement a uniform to make everyone equal in the dojo.  The color white was the only color and symbolized purity.  This removed the prejudice between the classes in the dojo.  Funakoshi was the first Okinawan to represent karate in Japan.

As for the obi or belt, rank was not originally associated to it.  The belt rankings are also relatively new to karate.  In the beginning, there were no rank certifications, only titles.  In China, as in many kung fu schools, one is considered a master, a teacher, or a student.  In Okinawa, the titles, Renshi , Kyoshi, and Hanshi were the only certifications awarded.  The man credited for introducing the Dan/kyu ranking system is  Dr. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, the gentle or soft way.  Both Funakoshi and Kano were educators.  Funakoshi was very impressed with Dr. Kano, that he decided to introduce the Dan/kyu system into his teaching and awarding of rank certification.  Funakoshi awarded seven men with karate’s first black belt dan in 1924.

In 1937, the founder of our Goju Ryu system, Chojun Miyagi, was the first karate expert to be awarded the title of Kyoshi. The Dan/kyu system did not become in use on Okinawa until 1956.  This was due to Chosin Chibana, founder of Shorin Ryu, and a man named Kanken Toyama who were the only ones recognized by the Japanese Ministry of Education to grant rank certification no matter what style of karate one studied.  There have been numerous attempts to standardize karate, but due to so many offshoots and splintering of schools it has been an upward struggle for unification.

The original colors for the belts were white, brown, and black.  In our dojo, we use white, green, purple, brown and black.  The students are required to earn stripes which signify the different kyu ranks. The words dan and kyu mean man and boy respectively.  The obi does not make the difference in the student.  The black belt does not make you all knowing or that your karate is better.  It is the skill and the character that earns rank and forms the student into a disciplined karateka.  This discipline goes beyond the walls of the dojo.  Osu!!


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