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The dojo is humid with the sweat and strength of students and teachers, diligently repeating drills over and over again to perfection. Their faces glow with the determination of masters hundreds of years gone. The art is passed down generation to generation through words, weapons and warrior spirit. Each student follows their own path to wisdom, but one thing is consistent; the uniform in which they learn.
The origin of the traditional martial arts uniform is as mysterious as the lore that surrounds Ninjutsu, but what is known is deeply founded in Japanese roots.
The term for the practice uniform adorned by the majority of martial artists is commonly referred to as the “gi.” The actual term for this apparel is the “Keikogi” (稽古着), Keiko is the Japanese word for “practice.” Gi is the Japanese word for “clothing.” The proper way to use the term in modern times is to use the name of the art being practiced when discussing the uniform. In Ninjutsu the uniform is called a “Ninjutsu gi.”
The First Generation
According to martial arts historian Dave Lowry, the original keikogi was designed to mimic the uniform adorned by Japanese firemen in the 19th century and was made from hemp fabric. Hemp is naturally four times stronger than cotton, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial and has a natural UV coating. Toward the end of the century keikogis began being mass produced using cotton for cost effectiveness at the time.
Much of the credit for today’s marital arts keikogi is given to Judo founder Jigoro Kano, who designed the uniform to create practical consistency throughout the art. Kano was later credited with getting Judo inducted as an Olympic sport.
Evolution from Casual Attire
Many martial art forms existed all across the world prior to the introduction of the keikogi. It is likely that these arts practiced in clothing fitting for exercise or physical labor, just like people today may wear a t-shirt and pair of shorts to the gym.
Given its similarity to the Japanese kimono, which was then used more commonly as day to day attire, the keikogi was a suitable choice for many other martial arts founded in Asia, including Ninjutsu. The durability of the uniform fabric allowed for grueling practice sessions, which would place stress on the material. Today’s martial arts gis are often reinforced in places such as elbows, knees and shoulders, which endure the majority of the strain from grips and movement. The long sleeves, thick folded collar and long pants have been weaved into the technique of most arts that utilize this style of uniform.
Adaptations and the Ninjutsu Gi
Since its inception, the keikogi has been adapted through incremental adjustments to fit the style of different arts. For example; looking at a Jiu Jitsu gi and a Judo gi side by side, they appear very similar. Upon closer examination it can be seen that the Judo gi will have larger sleeves which are more conducive to grabbing and throwing. The Jiu Jitsu gi will have a shorter jacket to avoid lapel chokes. In this same manner arts such as Aikido and Karate customize their uniform.
Ninjustu does not have a specific “gi” style, leaving each Shinobi the freedom to adjust to his or her specific practice and comfort. Typically a Ninjutsu gi will be formatted from one of the grappling arts such as Jiu Jitsu or Judo because it must withstand grabs and throws. These uniforms are often thicker and endure this type of friction, while uniforms for many of the standing arts like Taekwondo and Karate do not typically use grabs. This allows the use of a lighter, thinner gi more condusive to kicking. Wearing uniform attire during practice allows students equal mobility and constraints in the technique so that one is not limited or advantaged by his or her clothing.
Shinobi Shozoku Gi
Another uniform commonly associated with Ninjustu is the Shinobi Shozoku (忍び装束). This uniform consists of loose fitting pants with double ties that fasten at the ankles, knees and waist. The jacket is also loose fitting, with overlapping lapels similar to the traditional keikogi. The jacket tucks into the pants and the pants are sometimes tucked into long tabi which come up the knee. Shin protection called kyahan and hand protectors called tekkou are warn over the uniform as well.
This outfit is less common as practice uniform, but is more like what movies and mainstream culture may portray a ninja wearing. Some organizations do use the Shinobi Shozoku as practice attire.
The keikogi remains a practical option for Ninjustu, giving students the opportunity to become skilled in battling opponents who may be clothed without destroying each others clothing, though many of the movements may be just as functional without the use of “gi” grips.
With or without the keikogi, it is the responsibility of the Shinobi to learn to adapt to all surroundings. Adaptability is the foundation of the art, and the Ninjutsu gi is just another tool of the trade.