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I was reading about some of the history of Karate recently, and this question came to me. I can understand, in modern times, different coloured gis with sport martial arts, but can anyone tell me, or point me to a resource, that can explain why traditional karate gis are white?

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The question doesn't blame anything on anyone, regardless of how silly I may think it is. The comment about the use of coloured gis in sport martial arts is an example that I can understand the reasoning for the colour of the gi. – AerusDar Nov 12 '13 at 7:15
up vote 10 down vote accepted

From the origin of belts and gis themselves:

Kano apparently began the custom of having his yudansha wear black obi (belts) in 1886. These obi weren't the belts karateka and judoka wear today -- Kano hadn't invented the judogi (Judo uniform) yet, and his students were still practicing in kimono. They were the wide obi still worn with formal kimono. In 1907, Kano introduced the modern judogi and its modern obi, but he still only used white and black belt ranks. The white uniform represented the values of purity, avoidance of ego, and simplicity. It gave no outward indication of social class so that all students began as equals.

Essentially, the gi is white because unbleached cotton is white-ish and Kano wanted an unadorned gi for his students. Nowadays we bleach the cotton so we get a white gi instead of white-ish.

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When I first started training, I was expected to learn about the history of Karate and answer questions regarding the colours and symbols of our uniforms. One such question was: "Why is our gi white?"

I believe that what I was taught goes well with what a previous poster stated: "The white uniform represented the values of purity, avoidance of ego, and simplicity. It gave no outward indication of social class so that all students began as equals." To put it simply, the white was to represent the beginner because each of us started as one. Even when you reach Shodan (first degree black belt), you're still considered a beginner in so many ways. Refraining from ego and social class reminds us that we had others to help us when we were beginners, so we must not forget our roots.

I remember reading a book many years ago. It was either "The Karate Dojo" by Peter Urban or "The Classical Man" by Richard Kim (I apologize as it has been a long time since I have read them and I do not have either on hand at the moment). In the the book, there was a story that explained how many schools had their students wear fancy clothing that did nothing to excel their training. It was all flash and dance and nothing more. The writer criticizes this practice because (from what I recall), it is an emphasis of ego, which does not belong in martial arts. So many students fall for the fancy uniforms and what not, forgetting about their roots as beginners. It has become all about "me" and less about "the other." I even saw it happen to my former school (which ironically advocated the white colour as the representation of the beginner). Eventually, money took control of the instructor and if parents were willing to pay more, their children would don black uniforms, be given special attention and instruction, and would be part of the so-called "Black Belt Club." I had one parent complain about it to me, and I agreed that it was wrong. It was a very sad day for my former club.

Anyway, I apologize if my extended answer was too much. I hoped I helped.

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I remember reading that in (ancient) Japanese culture the Samurai wore the colour white as a symbol of death.

I can't find anything immediately to support that specific memory, but the wearing of white robes for formal suicide (or Seppuku) is in line with this.

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White is the colour of death in Japan. I have never heard of it as a symbol of purity apart form Victorian England with respect to wedding dresses. Do you have references? – Sardathrion Nov 12 '13 at 11:19
You're right, it's death (hence the "willingness to die in battle" and seppuku comment), the purity part must have been a figment of my (western) imagination. – Nathan Nov 14 '13 at 23:00
no worries. ^_~ I've edited your answer to reflect the comment. – Sardathrion Nov 15 '13 at 7:40

I've always heard that white gi's were their casual wear. They might use them to do chores or something like that and their nice gi's would have color, use a finer material, etc. As result of it being the most commonly used, it became the uniform adopted by traditional martial arts.

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Do you have a reference for that? – Sardathrion Nov 18 '13 at 7:25
No it's just what I was always told and it made logical sense. I can see if there are any good sources if you really want know. – Robert Dechant Nov 24 '13 at 4:02
I just talked to my brother and he did some research on wikipedia. He actually believes that it's for purity and tradition since Judo is the first style to officially use gi's. The heavy weave for Judo is actually based off of the gi's that would be worn for firefighting. – Robert Dechant Nov 24 '13 at 14:48

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