Jinbei

 

Compared to other parts of the world Vancouver summers are rather cool. It rarely get above the mid 20 degrees Celsius. That’s why the weather lately is such a surprise. Climbing into the high 20s and even 30s, Vancouver is breaking temperature records over 100 years old! Since Vancouver is so far north, the sun sets relatively late in the evening at around 9:30, so with the current heatwave the surroundings stay hot for most of the day.

Training in this heat makes Karate and Kobudo practice feel a bit more like training in Japan and Okinawa; mercifully without the humidity. In Japan and Okinawa, training in a dojo at night can be stiflingly hot. There is no air conditioning and if you’re lucky perhaps there may be a small fan pathetically blowing around the hot air that envelope the dojo. Even opening the windows provides almost no relief from the heat and you are left standing in the dojo melting away drop by drop. Eventually all that is left of you is a puddle on the dojo floor.

Not surprisingly, one of the first things to disappear during practice are students’ ‘uwagi’ or jackets. They quickly become saturated with sweat and cling uncomfortably to your skin. It’s not a pleasant feeling. An ‘uwagi’ is the top half of the training uniform that we use in Karate Do (and other budo) and the bottom half is referred to as ‘zubon’ or pants. The two are held together by an obi or belt and together it’s referred to as a dogi or keikogi in Japanese, but most westerners refer to it simply as a ‘gi’ (1). The origins of the dogi / keikogi are not very clear, but most of the credit for its modern iteration is given to Kodokan Judo founder Kano Jigoro.

Now coming back to the mini heat wave we’ve had here in Vancouver. The combination of heat and my uniform sticking to me during practice made me reflect on why we still use such badly designed and over-priced piece of clothing for practice? Think about it for a moment, Okinawa is a sub-tropical island with mild winters and hot and humid summers with an average temperature of 30 degrees Celsius in the summer; in other words, hot and muggy. If we look at the typical Karate practice attire used in the early and mid-20th century we see two main pieces of clothing used, jinbei and fundoshi. Jinbei consists of a light top and matching shorts made from cotton or hemp and are typically worn at home during the summer. A fundoshi is essentially a loin cloth that was worn as an undergarment right up until the end of WWII. This clothing, although no longer fashionable, seems more practical in some respects for training compared to the dogi / keikogi.

Vancouver, Karate, Goju, Kobudo, Kitsilano, BC
Miyagi Chojun (left) & Kyoda Juhatsu (right) wearing the bottom half of Jinbei

As an aside, there’s a great story about Funakoshi Gichin and Taira Shinken, and some fundoshi. It was told to Nakamoto Masahiro by Taira who wrote about it in his book, “Okinawa Dento Kobudo”. Here’s a quick translation of it.

The Shuri Nobility and No Underwear
When commoners became adults they typically began to wear a loincloth in their day to day life, but men and women of the nobility did not and would leave the hem of their clothing long dragging across the ground. Bearing this in mind, the following story is about the famous Karate teacher Funakoshi Gichin.

Around the time when Funakoshi sensei opened his first dojo in Tokyo, Taira had been accepted as a live-in student and would do daily chores for his teacher. He’d prepare his meals three times a day, wash his clothes and sweep the floors in addition to learning Karate from his teacher.

One hot afternoon day, Taira found himself with a bit of free time and wandered into the dojo where he found Funakoshi sprawled out, asleep on the floor. Looking over to where his teacher was sleeping he realized he wasn’t wearing any underwear so he went out and bought a pair. When he gave them to Funakoshi sensei he scolded him, “You idiot, nobility don’t wear something that looks like a loincloth!” (2)

 

Vancouver, Karate, Kobudo, Vancouver, Kitsilano, Goju
Shinjo Seiyu (left). Uechi Kanei (centre). Uechi-ryu students wearing fundoshi.

I’m not advocating that we should get rid of the dogi / keikogi; it is part of Karate tradition after all. But perhaps what we need to do is relegate the dogi / keikogi (and the obi for that matter) to special occasions only? Like demonstrations and the like. The rest of the time we could simply wear a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. Or perhaps we could comprise and do like a few Okinawa dojo have done and wear only a t-shirt and zubon for practice. This makes far more sense to me, but I doubt this will happen. Too many teachers and students alike are attached to the dogi / keikogi and even more to their obi.

(1) FYI, referring to your uniform as a ‘Gi’ makes no grammatical sense in Japanese and if you said as much to a native speaker they wouldn’t understand what you were talking about.

(2) Nakamoto, M. (1993). Okinawa Den Kobudo: Sono Rekishi to Tamashi. pp. 37 – 38.