Note: this is the first guest post on this blog! Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Aric A. Gibson, one of my friends in Indiana and a practitioner of Cooper Ryu Vee Jitsu.

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There are countless myths and legends associated with the martial arts.  Claims of symbolism in conduct and even legal aspects of martial arts practice that are continued through no other reasoning than the idea that “this is what I was taught so it MUST be true.”  So I’d like to start by stating that the points made in this writing are my own opinion and nothing more.  There may be “expert” research to back up my opinions and there may be research to refute them.  It is not my intention to disrespect the beliefs or practices of anyone.  My only intent is to inspire some thoughtfulness in certain subject areas.  Today I will focus on myths and etiquette concerning the martial arts uniform.  If I continue to write, I’ll focus on other martial arts myths and points of etiquette.

The Black Belt

There is a certain amount of mysticism in the black belt.  The general public assigns the symbolism of a black belt to mean “expert.”  I think most martial artists would agree, however, that this just is not the case.  Some students beginning martial arts practice look at the attainment of the rank of shodan as the end of a journey.  Quite contrary, earning the rank of shodan, or 1st-degree black belt, is the beginning of the journey.  By earning this rank, it has been recognized that you are competent enough in the basics of your art to begin “real” learning.  The analogy of mudansha rank being like undergraduate studies in college and yudansha rank as graduate studies was offered by a sensei many years ago and has stuck with me. 

To quote author and budo man Dave Lowry,

“In other words, the black belt is a sign that you have walked through the door and little else.  You are not an expert.  Not a teacher.  You are not even someone who can adequately represent the art.  The belt means you have stuck it out long enough to warrant some serious consideration as a student, period.” 

Keeping that idea in mind leads to the virtue of humility that has come to be associated with traditional martial arts.  I’d also like to offer my opinion about the cleanliness of the belt.  Some believe that washing the belt is a bad thing.  Washing the belt may wash away all the built up “ki” from years of practice.  However, as human beings, we sweat.  The sweat soaks through the gi and into the belt.  Along with bacteria and many years, this can cause deterioration and an overall unpleasant odor.  In the realm of respect to your peers and teachers, keep your belt clean, neat, and in good repair. 

How about not letting your belt touch the floor?  The belt is not something to worship.  There aren’t hundreds of years to back this up since the dan system was instituted first in martial arts by Jigoro Kano around 1866.  And in Judo, as well as other grappling arts, doesn’t the belt touch the floor or mats on a regular basis during practice while wearing it?

The Uniform

What can be said about the martial arts gi is not so much myth as it is etiquette and respect.  I come from a military background where great detail was placed on the appearance of uniform as I carried caskets in Arlington National Cemetery as a member of the United States Army Honor Guard.  In the same realm as mentioned above for the belt, WASH YOUR GI!!  I cannot count how many times I’ve been hesitant to practice with a partner because of the odors emanating from their clearly unwashed white gi.  Sweat stains, dirt, and tears in fabric all jump out on a white gi and I feel one should be respectful enough of himself and others by keeping it in good repair and clean.  Some may see blood stains (often from mat burn or bloody knuckles from board breaking) as a badge of honor.  Nope.  In today’s world, blood represents the need for caution.  Try to get the stains out the best you can and not cause undue concern in others.  Again… respect. 

And if you’re thinking, “Ha-ha.  I wear a black gi…”  Well, dirt may not be as easily detectable, but sweat and odor are.  When the sweat dries, salt stains show up as white lines and the bacteria and odor don’t somehow shy away from the color black.  There is also the practice of turning to the rear of the dojo to “fix” a uniform that has become bunched up or untucked from the belt.  This practice has at least some merit as many traditional dojos had shrines in the front.  Fixing the uniform while facing the shrine was considered disrespectful.  But unless you’re in the very back row and turn either to the side or to the rear to straighten yourself out, aren’t you then showing the same disrespect to your fellow students?
Like I said.  This is my own opinion and it is shared by some while not shared by others.  But food for thought.

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3 thoughts on “Martial Arts: Myths and Etiquette

  • June 3, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    Great Post!

    I would only add that as an instructor I always appreciated students turning around to fix their gis. My appreciation has nothing to do with respect. I think it signals to the instructor that “this student is not ready right now.”


  • June 4, 2015 at 1:15 pm

    Agree with Jim here. I always viewed “re-arranging” your gi as a show of respect to the instructor or opponent in front of you. You were turning around so that when are facing them forward, you are ready to go.

  • January 31, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    I agree completely with this post. I have little patience for those who consider a strip of fabric or a hunk of rattan sacred. Personal hygiene is an excellent way to show respect for your instructor, dojo, and fellow students.


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