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The sound of bursting bubbles: Common myths in the martial arts


AP Photo/Francois Mori

Myth /mith/: a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially: one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society

If you have practiced for any length of time at any dojo in the world, you would have been subjected to a number of common myths.   You may even have unwittingly perpetuated some of these myths yourself.

The exotic traditions in martial arts, often adopted from foreign lands, have given rise to a number of stories, explanations, and concepts that are often accepted as factual

Martial artists have a fertile imaginations to begin with, and differentiating fact from fiction can be challenging.  This is a small attempt to list some of the better-known myths.

Myth Number 1: All martial arts are ancient

In fact, there are only a few martial arts that are truly ancientMost popular martial arts, such as Judo, Aikido, and Karate were actually founded in the 19th century and early 20th century.  The fact that many dojo feature photographs of the arts' founders should be a very pointed hint as to the young age of most martial arts. 

This is not to say that everything in every martial art is fresh and new.  In fact, many of the techniques practiced in many arts are ancient, originating hundreds, or even thousands of years ago. 

Determining the "age" of a martial art can be complicated due to fact that many of today's martial arts did not originally exist as independent fighting systems.  What we consider a martial art today was often an unarmed subdiscipline within a complete system of combatives, ranging from sword fighting, archery, to swimming in full armor, and storming fortifications.  These traditional training systems, known as koryu, provided a comprehensive military education to the samurai of old.  It was not until later that these subsystems of koryu were carved out as independent martial arts.

Myth Number 2: Black belts must register themselves (or their body parts) as deadly weapons

While it can be argued that this myth is partly true because martial arts were regulated in post-World War II Japan, the purest form of this myth is peculiar to the United States.  Its recurrence has diminished in recent years, but still crops up every now and then.  Assuming that one could be convinced that it were even necessary, the regulation of an activity such as martial arts would have significant legal implications and cost that would make it highly impractical.

The regulation of martial arts did in fact occur in post-World War II Japan.  Martial arts, believed to be a contributor to the nationalistic fervor that drove Japan's expansionist drive, were banned for about five years during the American occupation to enact the

the removal and exclusion from public life of militaristic and ultra nationalistic persons.

Only few martial arts, including Aikido, were exempt from the ban, and many others were forced underground temporarily.  Many martial arts were also changed, to de-emphasize any characteristics that could be interpreted as militaristic in nature.

The origin of this myth comes not from the martial arts, but from the boxing world.  In the early days of boxing, local police were often invited to press conferences, so that fighters could be publicly "registered" as deadly weapons.  If one can overlook the blatant misuse of local law enforcement, the fact that this myth is still being discussed is a testament to the brilliance of this publicity stunt.

Myth Number 3: Originally, there were only white belts. The colored belt system symbolizes the white belt darkening with age, stained with blood and sweat, eventually turning black, and in some variations, getting worn down back to white again.

This is a very appealing myth, rich in symbolism and philosophy.  Who could resist such a poetic metaphor for the journey of martial artist?  The extended version of this story is even more captivating, narrating the return of the seasoned black belt, as his or her belt gets worn down, to the pure state of shoshin, or beginner's mind.

This is the kind of story that can bring sentimental tears to the eyes of even the most hardened martial artist.  Sadly, it is also false.  In fact, this story is more of an explanation after the fact, known in some circles as backfill.

According to Dave Lowry's highly informative book, In the Dojo, the ranking system used by most martial arts, formally known as the dan-i system, was originally developed and implemented in 1886 by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo.  The system, which divides students into experienced ranks (dan ranks) and inexperienced ranks (kyu ranks) was soon adopted by other arts. 

The dan-i system did not originally use belts for ranking.  It was not until 1889 that Kano awarded the first black belts.  The belts at the time were the standard silk kaku-obi, also used for securing everyday clothing.  In 1907, the cotton belts were introduced.

Colored belts were introduced in the mid-20th century in Paris by a renowned Judo innovator, Mikonosuke Kawaishi.  Kawaishi was famous for introducing Judo to westerners, and incorporating modifications that made the art more palatable and understandable to foreigners.  The introduction of colored belts was intended to simplify the identification of students by providing them with an "insignia of rank".

By the 1950s, this practice of colored belts had spread worldwide.  However, there are no references to any elaborate metaphors that the colored belts were supposed to represent.  Nor is their any evidence in the rainbow of hues used in today's belts that there is supposed to be some sort of gradation towards black.  

Myth Number 4:  The keiko gi is an ancient garment, worn by samurai for training.

The keiko gi, despite its passing resemblance to the happi coat and momohiki worn by taiko drummers and festival revelers, was actually developed specifically by Jigoro Kano for Judo.  In fact, it may have been adopted from the garments worn by Japanes firemen.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, photographs show judoka and karateka wearing variations of the keiko giAccording to Lowry, by that time, the cotton keiko gi was being manufactured in mass quantities, inexpensive, and readily available. 

Thus, the keiko gi is hardly "ancient" but a fairly modern garment developed for a very specific purpose.

Myth Number 5:  The keiko gi is actually underwear.

This myth is more commonly heard in Aikido dojo, even here in Chicago, usually to justify the requirement for wearing a hakama by women.  The hakama are long billowy trousers originally worn by samurai, and today, are worn only in the martial arts and formal occassions such as traditional wedding ceremonies.  The hakama is to the everyday Japanese wardrobe as tuxedos are to the everyday American wardrobe. 

In Iaido, Kendo, Kyudo and a few other arts, the hakama is worn by all ranks.  In Aikido, the hakama is worn only by black belts and by women of all ranks.  Various explanations have been proferred, the most common one being being that the keiko gi is actually underwear and that it was improper for women to be seen in their underwear.  While the keiko gi is defitely not underwear, this practice may have arisen as a way to get around archaic modesty rules that took issue with women wearing trousers.

Nevertheless, this rule does beg for an explanation, and as nature abhors a vacuum, the absence of facts often leads to the rise of a popular myth.

The martial arts, regardless of their origins, are full of exotic traditions and rules.  The presence of a few myths should not detract from the adherence to these rules and traditions.  Nor should they be cause for disrespecting these traditions.  More than anything, these traditions, like the garments we wear,  remind us of who we are and why we are here.

For more info on the history of the keiko gi and hakama: In the Dojo, Dave Lowry, 2006, Chapters 3 and 4


  • Ellen 5 years ago

    Good article, though it's worth pointing out that most Aikido dojos, at least in the U.S., no longer require women to wear the hakama from the beginning. Like men, we must earn the right to wear it. At my dojo, both genders wear hakama upon acquisition of their black belt.

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