…is that the question?
There has long been a distinction made in modern jiujitsu and submission grappling between training wearing the “gi” (that is, wearing the training uniform, or keikogi/judogi) and “no gi” training. Most academies do some of each style of training.
With some, the distinction seems to be developing into more like a divide, with people practicing almost exclusively one way or the other, and the tending toward defining these different approaches as “traditional” vs. “modern,” and even casting “gi” training as sport and/or traditional versus “self defense” practice.
That there even is such a debate is curious, considering jiujitsu’s history.
Perhaps curiouser still is that it centers on the wearing of the uniform. Wouldn’t the more pressing and logical question actually be “why don’t we wear shoes?”
But that’s how it is, so let’s explore..
“Traditional” vs. “Modern”
The idea that wearing a keikogi (稽古着) is “traditional,” while not wearing one is “modern,” is not based on history or tradition.
Early Japanese grappling – including what later became jujutsu/jiujitsu – was built on a foundation of sumo. When not actually done in armor, these precursor jujutsu disciplines were probably conducted wearing only loincloths, or loincloths and what were basically sleeveless jackets or kimono, probably because that was what people wore every day.
These garments allowed for some collar chokes, but were not generally gripped in the way that the modern gi is during grappling.
Thus in a very real sense, jujutsu/jiujutsu actually began as “no gi.”
(Popular representations from Hokusai – the ninja you think you see is really not there…)
This did not prevent practitioners from grabbing the belt, or even each other’s hair when performing techniques. Even in Kano’s early days – he started jujutsu around 1877 – this type of clothing was worn.
(Early photos of Jigoro Kano)
When wearing more complete or formal wear, grips still tended toward more sumo-esque than what came later. Other than some choking and collar grabs that led to or assisted throws, many attacks came from wrist and arm holds, neck and hip holds, and belt grabs. Much of this – controlling the wrists and the belt – was probably a result of the weapons-centric ancestry of the traditions.
Another reason grips were likely done this way is a practical one: the lighter, looser cloth and long roomy sleeves of kimono would make controlling an opponent through cloth grips less effective than with a modern gi. Picture grabbing onto someone’s loose sweater or Hawaiian shirt vs. someone in a gi. Moreover, I am informed that kimono were single stitch garments – reinforced stitching and seams not being the norm, and the kinds of gripping done today in Judo and jiujitsu would doubtless have left the kimono in tatters, or even torn them off the body altogether.
Many classical jujutsu schools still wear actual kimono – at least for demonstrations – even today, and lighter gi, because the cloth is not gripped as much or in the way it commonly is in the combat sports.
Leg grabs and takedowns were also more common, akin to wrestling…
And some applications adapted from attacking adversaries in armor were altered after people stopped wearing armor – such as neck twists derived from helmet-grips, or topknot (hair) grabs.
Kano performing Kito-ryu
Enter the Keikogi
Later, training garb began to develop and change. Ellis Amdur, one of my teachers, and others have posited that the modern gi was likely an adaptation of the Edo period (1603-1868) Japanese firefighter’s coat.
(BTW, any modern gi makers wanna make this in today’s competition-legal cut? I bet you’d sell a TON!)
Now here was a more robust fabric. Short sleeves and trousers – more a kind of shorts -started being worn.
Kano’s keikogi – compare with the firefighter coat…
The idea that gi were standardized at this time is probably fanciful. And remember, back then there were still mixed matches between different martial arts, to include jujutsu and judo vs. sumo, and more.
The famed Maeda, a Kodokan member, was photographed wearing this kind of short sleeved gi – would he be allowed to compete today?
And check out the belt…
And then Tanabe, of Fusen-ryu fame:
This site has a number of pictures across jujutsu’s history for an idea of what training wear looked like – and a bit on the history of groundwork as well.
Kano apparently made innovations with the judogi in the interest of several factors: Safety was improved and ukemi (breakfalls) made easier through more secure gripping, compared to the older style which wrenched joints and necks for throws. Hygiene increased, and infection was no doubt reduced, as bare skin was not flayed by rubbing and sliding across rough tatami, canvas, or even the wood floors or open ground that people practiced on.
And I’ve heard one story that Kano lengthened the pants and sleeves in the interest of modesty and modernism, as it was a closer match to the Western suit, increasingly worn in Japan at the time.
(Kano Shihan again – compare to the earlier examples of his training garb.)
In this early picture of Carlos and Helio Gracie’s academy, this style of gi is now consistent.
But instead of traditional, this is in fact the modern judogi.
“Tradition” vs. Self Defense
Hopefully the answer to whether or not the “gi” is specifically traditional has been answered. It might be better to say that it became traditional to Kodokan Judo, but jujutsu has always been far larger than one school.
But now the discussion has diverged into the realm of curious notions martial artists sometimes have about self defense. Specifically, whether wearing the gi – or not wearing it – is more conducive or practical to self defense.
Once again, if you think about it, the point is moot.
First, jiujitsu/jujutsu is not a fighting art limited to whether anyone is wearing a specific type of clothing. That would hardly be a very practical method of fighting, and it is surprising that experienced instructors would even harbor this view, unless they are wrongly extrapolating a sport-specific approach to self defense grappling.
Jiujitsu – the “art or technique of ju“- 柔 – refers to a principle and concept with mental, physical and tactical manifestations, and though everyone typically calls it “the Gentle Art,” it is perhaps better described using other meanings of the word ju, such as “flexible” or “pliant/pliable.”
No fighting art can be effective if it is only “gentle,” or “soft” or “yielding,” which Kano himself discussed in his writings and teaching.
When we talk about tactics, jiujitsu has always been flexible: whether in gi, or no gi. Or the jiujitsuka is wearing a gi, and the opponent is not. Or wearing street clothes, or even armor… or not. Jiujitsu “works” regardless. The only difference is in the options one has in the particular situation.
Most people, most of the time, wear clothes. Some clothes will not hold up to many kinds of gi-grappling grips, unless the guy happens to be wearing a denim jacket and jeans. Clothing might be used in other ways, however, akin to gi grips, that could be helpful in defensive situations, and let’s not forget that people wear belts, they carry backpacks, bags, some wear robust necklaces and bracelets, neck ties, etc.
Once, I used a man’s pony tail to wrap in his mouth to stop him from biting me, and used the leverage to pin his head to allow for handcuffing. Done in exactly the manner that a collar choke is done, I passed the pony tail through his mouth and gripped it from the other side, my hand going behind his head. Collars can be used in the same manner.
In another incident, a man was getting violent on a hospital bed as medical personnel were trying to restrain and treat him. The man had been spitting blood and sputum at us previously, and was controlled by lifting up and wrapping the corner of the sheet from under him, across his mouth and cheek, and tight to the other side so that his head was effectively pinned to the bed and he could neither rise up nor continue to spit. Similar things can be done with, say, a seat belt when you are dealing with a vehicle extraction or situation and someone wants to spit or bite. You should be gathering that people bite and spit a lot in “the street.”
Controlling pant legs helps prevent being kicked, and to control the hips in different ways when trying to restrain someone – even momentarily. There are myriad possibilities, and training with the gi opens them up and allows for creativity that could prevent escape, reduce the need to “ground and pound” an attacker, or to make tactically unsound submission attempts.
Also, having had my own clothes and gear grabbed during self defense and arrest and control situations, being accustomed to this through training gi grappling made it only a minor concern, and I had the ability to disengage the grips or change my position to maintain control.
The fact that I grapple without a gi has also had tremendous benefits. Sometimes violent people happen to not be wearing shirts, or even any clothes at all, and are slick with sweat, or blood, or other fluids identifiable and otherwise, yet still must be restrained and controlled.
Or, they have tank tops or light t-shirts, made of material which stretches out or tears or comes right off when a struggle gets intense, or the person intentionally pulls out of them, meaning that grabbing them is not always advisable – especially if you don’t want the person to escape, or to improve position on you.
Grips can also create a false sense of security, when that is all you ever train, and you forget that in real life people hit, punch, push, poke, jab, grab your throat, head butt, bite, and more.
So in the end….
To Gi and Not To Gi – That is the Answer.
That’s the way it always has been.