So if I haven’t grossed you out or scared you off with the title and you’re still reading at the moment, today’s post will be about karate uniforms. The “crotch” comment mostly references the wear and tear that the stitching on the crotch of one’s pants potentially go through during karate training. Mostly. But we won’t get into the “not mostly.” That can be for another day. But I digress… Moving on!
Karate is most often associated with the wearing of a white, cotton uniform or gi. But what most people are usually unaware of, is that karateka or students originally didn’t wear any sort of uniform while studying karate at all. In fact, you can still find a number of old black and white photos of Okinawan practitioners, training on the beach in nothing but a pair of shorts. In a lot of ways, this was preferable as it allowed teachers to see if proper muscle tension was being used by the students.
The introduction of the recognizable, white karate gi as we wear it today came about as a result of it being introduced by Jigaro Kano, the founder of Judo, who developed the gi, which was later adapted by Okinawan Karate. Nowadays, you can see all kinds of ridiculous bullshit, depending on where you are and what dojos are available. I’ve seen karate gi of all colours, including blue, red, pink, camouflage and even multi-coloured. Since some of those colours have snuck their way into some dojos’ ranking systems, I think the whole thing is rather stupid and moves away from tradition. But that’s mostly because I’m a traditionalist.
Others may feel that it’s an evolution and one that’s unavoidable. After all, karate started with no ranking system at all. You had a teacher and you had students. No matter what your opinion or thoughts on the subject may be, the reality is that joining a modern karate dojo will usually involve the purchasing and wearing of a karate gi at some point, which brings me to the content of today’s post. Over the past 30-plus years, I’ve burned my way through about a dozen different gis, for many different reasons. I’m going to share some of that here, so that if you’re looking to buy a martial arts uniform for the first time, you’ll have an unbiased opinion of multiple brands. This is where I should clarify that I neither endorse nor discourage any specific brand of sports apparel, nor have I accepted any compensation for any positive comments provided herein. Buckle up!
First, let’s start with the basic, bare bones options. As seen in the photo above, I use a black, cotton karate gi that’s manufactured by Century Martial Arts. I use this one because the Regina Institute of Kempo Karate where I currently train, use black gis as opposed to white. Not a big deal and I’ve often worn my white gi on laundry days when I didn’t have my black one available. This cotton gi is single-layered and single stitched, making it ideal for beginners and junior belts, since there may not be as intensive a level of grappling and grabbing involved. It’s also comfortable and easy to wash, making easier to maintain even though it may not last as long as the subsequent brands below.
There are a few of these really good North American companies that manufacture some reasonably low cost karate gis. I love Century Martial Arts! They have an American and a Canadian website and have a ton of martial arts training equipment. But I need to calm down; we’re talking about uniforms. In New Brunswick, Sensei used to obtain his basic karate gis from a company called GeneSport, which is based out of Quebec. They had that same single layer and single stitch hem, making them an excellent, low-cost option for beginners. I went through three of them during my time climbing the junior ranks. But once I stepped up to brown belt and things got rougher, I needed something that could keep up.
Next, we have the Tokaido. As you can see from the tag above, this is a 100% cotton karate gi that has double and sometimes triple-stitched hems for durability and strength. This company boasts being the oldest manufacturer of karate uniforms. I went through two of these during my years climbing through brown and black belt. They’re of a much thicker cotton and are an excellent quality. I can highly recommend this brand to someone making a long-term commitment to karate. I still have one today!
That being said, buyers should be aware that you’re paying quite a bit for that quality. As a comparison, my last GeneSport gi was roughly $40 (in 1996) and my Century gi was approximately $60 (2016). My last Tokaido cost me $230, but I still HAVE it! And it’s still functional, despite some holes here and there. So deciding on which brand to settle may have a great deal to do with one’s budget, especially if you join a McDojo that’ll charge you an arm and a leg for absolutely everything. But before I go on a rant, let’s move on to the last one…
The last brand I’ll touch on in this post, is Shureido. This company holds a special place in my heart, as it is a small, privately owned manufacturer of karate gi and martial arts weapons and equipment located in Naha, Okinawa. I visited this location in 2001 when I traveled to Japan, and I had the pleasure of getting myself a karate gi with Uechi Ryu’s banner embossed directly on the gi jacket. My black belt is also from Shureido and is stitched with my name and karate style. It’s pretty sharp.
Although they have a US distributor and an official Facebook page, there doesn’t seem to be an actual website available. This puts them in a bit of a different category than other manufacturers. I’ve recently reached out to the US distributors as well as sending a message to the Facebook page, without any response thus far. But since they cover all Okinawan and Japanese territories as they relate to karate and kobudo, I would imagine that they’re pretty busy. Cotton material and double or triple-stitched, these gis are top-of-the-line and are prominently used in the tournament environment. At least they were, when I was there in ’01.
These are the top-tier of price range, with a gi costing anywhere ranging from $250 to several hundred dollars, depending on size and accessories. Since I got a specialized gi and specialized belt, my package cost me well over $350. So it may not be ideal in terms of budget. Another issue is that my increase in size over the past five or six years has made it to snug to train in, which is problem. But I’ve had that gi for twenty years, at this point. It’s seen me through my black belt test and all the fun, in-class violence that ensued.
What level and quality of gi you decide to purchase depends on your perspective. An advanced student who buys one of the lower-priced, single-stitch gis may find themselves replacing it within a year or two as it’ll get torn to shit while sparring and grappling. That’s the issue I used to face. So if you burn through three or four of those gis, you’re already halfway to the cost of a basic Tokaido gi, which will be tougher and last longer overall. So you need to find a way to balance the scales.
You may also find yourself limited by the requirements of your dojo and what THEY require. Most traditional and functional dojos don’t care what their students wear, so long as they train hard and put in some effort. That is, until the time comes for a significant climb in rank. Most dojos don’t want to issue a green, brown or black belt to someone in their sweats and a Blink-182 t-shirt. But if you reach those ranks, the safe bet is you’ve invested in a gi already. The important thing is to have your gi loose enough to be comfortable and allow movement, while being snug enough to prevent snagging and grabbing on your opponent’s end. ☯