The History of the Gi
As we start to think about training again, getting out our gis, and giving them a wash so that they are all fresh for training, it is worthwhile spending a minute or two to ponder where our gis come from. The word gi comes from the longer Japanese word - Keikogi. Many martial arts use a gi, and these become the karate-gi, the judo-gi, and the jiu-jitsu-gi depending on the martial art being practiced.
In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, as with other martial arts, there are set requirements for the gis if you plan to compete. While they do come in a range of colours, the traditional gi is still white.
The Okinawa Story
The humble martial arts gi originally comes from Okinawa, Japan, and is similar to the typical clothing that the fishermen and farmers wore at the time, a strong heavy unbleached white cotton jacket, pants, and a belt. It was designed for functionality and ease of movement. Karate originated in Okinawa and developed from the indigenous martial art, Tode or Te, under the influence of Kung Fu as there was a community of Chinese living in Okinawa at the time. While we often think of karate as a striking martial art, historically, as well as in some modern styles, grappling, throws, joint locks, restraints, and vital-point strikes were also taught.
So, the men that trained karate wore their normal clothes to train rather than a uniform. As such, while it was just everyday gear, the gi, it can be argued, was first used in karate in Okinawa.
Pyjamas or GI
Where does the white colour of the gi come from? Is it from purity of the mind? Purity of the soul? Or is there another story that can be told here. Well, another part of the story of the origin of the gi was that gi may have served a dual purpose.
In 13th Century Okinawa (1477 to be precise), the use of weapons was outlawed, and so the training of martial arts was done in secrecy at nighttime. This is probably where the meaning of “empty hand” in reference to the martial art was derived as the men were training without weapons, this term further developed at a later stage, but we are discussing gis and not karate.
The story goes that the gi not only provided fluidity of movement for training, but it could quickly double as the white sleeping garment that was commonly worn by men at the time in case authorities intruded upon a training session. It is around here that the history of the gi in Okinawa seems to fade. Men still trained karate, but they trained in their normal everyday clothes of a jacket, pants, and belt.
The modern gi
The modernisation of karate in Japan during the 20th Century also included the widespread adoption of the white uniform that consisted of the jacket, pants, and the colored belt that showed the wearer’s rank. This uniform was called a Keikogi. The keikogi was developed and popularised by Jigoro Kano, who was the founder of modern judo. It is evident in the literature that karate schools adopted the use of the keikogi in order to attract more people to the martial art and to lift its prestige from an Okinawan martial art to a Japanese martial art.
So, in a way, the history of the gi starts with karate in Okinawa in the 13th Century, was popularised by judo in the late 19th Century, and has been adapted and modified for a range of martial arts ever since. As an aside, in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the gi is often referred to as a kimono.
Today there are all kinds and colours of gis. However, there are strict regulations in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, competition colors may be black, white or blue, and no combined colors (white kimono with blue pants, etc.). There are also strict rules regarding sleeves, legs, and lapels. For example, the jacket lapel must be 5 cm wide; there must be at least 7 cm of room from the bottom of the competitor's wrist to the bottom of the sleeve; and the jacket lapel must not be thicker than 1.3 cm. We will leave you all here at the end of this short story about the gi, and, hopefully, we will all be back in the gyms in the next few weeks!
And don't forget to wash your gis!
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