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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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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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Karate adopted the white uniforms of judo in the early 20th century for two complementary reasons:

  1. to increase its appeal to mainland Japan already familiar with its use in Judo
  2. as part of the requirements to be recognised as an official martial art by the Dai-Nippon Butokukai, an umbrella organisation seeking to regularise martial arts licencing and practice in Japan

In 1895, the Japanese Government sanctioned the formation of the first Martial Arts association, The Dai Nippon Butokukai (Japan Great Martial Virtues Association). This was formed to oversee, standardise and promote the various Martial Arts traditions of Japan.

...

The Judo practice uniform, Judogi, and Kyu / Dan belt system eventually spread to many of the other modern Martial Arts, such as Aikido and Okinawa’s Karate, which adapted them for their own purpose.

Karate practitioners in Okinawa didn't use any sort of practice uniform at all. The Kyu / Dan ranking system, and the Karategi (a modified Judogi) were first adopted by Gichin Funakoshi, in an effort to encourage Karate's acceptance by the Japanese people.

Funakoshi awarded the first Shodan ranks given in Karate, to Tokuda, Otsuka, Akiba, Shimizu, Hirose, Gima, and Kasuya on April 10, 1924. The adoption of the Kyu / Dan system and the standard uniform based on the Judogi, were 2 of the 4 conditions which the Dai-Nippon Butokukai required before recognizing Karate as a "real" Martial Art.

The author of this article claims that any philosophical implications of the karategi's colour in karate are ad hoc rationalisations, having originally just the colour of unbleached cotton:

The traditional karate gi however, was designed by Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Japanese shotokan karate. Consisting of a uwagi (jacket) and zubon (trousers), the uniform was patterned after the clothing of the judoka (judo stylist). but was a lighter fabric. It can be seamed, since the cloth is not pulled in karate, and is of a slightly different design. "When Funakoshi designed the karate uniform.” says Dave Lowry, noted karate historian, black belt, and author of BLACK BELT's Karate Way column, "Japan was under a great deal of Western Influence; so for reasons of modesty, he made the sleeves and trousers a little longer." The karate gi also has ties to keep the uwagi from coming undone.

The first gi were beige, simply because of the kind of cloth being used. White became the traditional color, but its spiritual significance probably fol- lowed after the white gi was standardized. “A lot of people attach some sort of philosophical significance to the color," notes Lowry, “but there wasn't really any reason for it to be white."

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    Great addition! – AerusDar Jul 3 at 0:10
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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'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
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    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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I've also heard that samurai wore white under their armour, and that it was a funeral garb. Therefore if he was to die he's already to go! Shows a real do or die outlook. I remember hearing this story years ago when i first started training but i cant verify it. I like it though.

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    It's best to have some kind of reference or experience supporting your answer; otherwise you just have a story you once heard on the internet. – mattm Aug 22 '16 at 21:07

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