The evolution of the jūdō keikogi (‘gi’) – The Kanō Chronicles®

The evolution of the jūdō keikogi (practice clothing) is one of the many minor mysteries of the history of judo. Many details in jūdō history of interest to some today simply were not recorded in any evident form available today, surely for a variety of reasons, including the likelihood that no one thought that many events were actually noteworthy. The evolution of the keikogi is simply another detail of history that changed, evolving over time, and at the times it changed, no one thought it important enough to record those changes in detail.

When Kanō shihan (master) started his jūjutsu practice (yes, jūjutsu, not jūdō) we know everyone wore street clothes. Over 30 years later he said that he noticed great differences in the quality of the clothes, as his students included very wealthy aristocratic children, the scions of noble Imperial court members, former samurai of various means, as well as poor street urchin / houseboys, a number of which he alone supported with room, board and an education. He wrote that he took note of the large differences in quality and condition of the clothing of the commoners versus the aristocrats. In order to ‘level the playing field’ so to speak, he had everyone change into early versions of the keikogi – the date was unspecified, but was apparently in the early to mid 1880s, as he wrote about it in the late 1880s.

The origin of those earliest keikogi is almost certainly a type of kimono undergarment – likely the 襦袢 juban or 半襦袢 han juban. Today the various types juban are typically made of very light, fine material, particularly for summer use, as they are under layers of heavier cloth. Fine silk or cotton / synthetic blend cloth juban worn under kimono could never stand up long in jūdō keiko practice, but in the 1880s, daily use juban, particularly of commoners of modest means, were simple, sturdy cotton. Some 20 years later in the last days of the 19th century, Kanō shihan describes the final, premodern keikogi jacket as 白木綿 筒袖 袷襦袢 – white cotton, tight sleeved, lined juban – modified with triple layers of cloth above the waist, sleeves extending so far beyond elbows, longer coat tail to reach mid thigh, gathered in the front and held by an obi like a standard juban, etc., etc. He describes the pants as 白木綿 下穿 – white cotton ‘underpants’ – a term used more widely today to include exercise pants, etc.

Many such clothes were probably at least semi-custom made in the day, anyhow, so buying something incorporating the triple layer fabric and narrow, long sleeves Kanō specified was likely pretty simple. But some time early on, it seems likely that some enterprising tailor realized that thick, woven white cotton material was more suitable for tough outer wear and would be easier to assemble than three layers of standard material (and his customers would stop complaining about getting their keikogi ripped apart). Such thick, woven or even padded cotton material is commonly used in happi 半纏 short outer coats, famously used in matsuri festivals today, and winter hanten 法被 long outer coats. (This would seem to be a natural evolution for any half clever tailor, but the vague similarity between a modern keikogi top and a happi coat has made speculation about a relationship between them a popular pass time over the years. Kanō, a noted clotheshorse given to wearing rather fancy Western and Japanese clothes, certainly knew the difference between a juban and a happi, so I’m happy to accept his description of a modified juban as the basis of the keikogi.)

(Some Westerners call this ‘kimono underwear’, which it is, in a way, but I’d point out that casual seminudity was an aspect of life in the lower Japanese social classes, public baths and manual occupations that scandalized Western visitors well into the 20th century. So, I prefer ‘foundation garment’ as there was no apparent shame in men being seen dressed in such indoors, while at practice, while porters, laborers and jinrikisha ‘rickshaw men’ of the day might wear nothing but fundoshi loincloths or even less. Women and their modesty are a very different matter, and really didn’t become an issue until the 20th century when Kanō ended his secret lessons for women and began teaching them openly.)

After nearly two decades of experience he (mostly like both Kanō and his teaching staff) realized that longer sleeves and pants legs would better protect practitioners’ knees and elbows from abrasion from the rush straw tatatmi (mats) they had standardized as a floor covering. The longer sleeves and pants legs were probably being used experimentally starting in the 1890s; their use became mandatory around 1906. The change was probably enacted over time as students wore out their old ones, which also helps make the precise date of the adoption of the change vague. In 1909 Kanō wrote at length about the development of his notions of the keikogi, noting that in the old days of jūjutsu that competitors sometimes fought near naked, but that modern modesty and health, along with practical safety considerations, made traditional clothing and even the wide varieties of modern Western clothing less practical for instruction of jūdō.

法被 Happi short outer coat, marked with Matsuri (Festival)

Also there was always a lot of variation in keikogi until recent competition driven detailed rules – as late as the 1930s jūdō instruction books often included patterns for homemade keikogi, and even instruction methods that did not require keikogi.

Frankly, what’s always been more interesting to me than the keikogi is the origin of the modern obi – as the original belts were thin, single layer cloth strips tied in a bowtie – look closely at photos of Kanō shihan and Mifune sensei. And I can’t find any evidence, but think it was an invention of clothing makers postwar, upselling judoka with fancy, thick and even embroidered belts.


Modern long sleeve juban

‘Tight sleeves’ as opposed to traditional loose sleeved juban 
or optional sleeveless, summer use han juban ‘half juban’. )

Sleeveless modern juban

Ads for keikogi appear in Kodokan publications pretty early on and carry on today.

Lance Gatling
Author / Lecturer
The Kanō Chronicles
Tokyo, Japan – please send a note to give us feedback, and type your email then click the “Subscribe” link below to subscribe to get notifications of new material posted.
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