Tracy's Kenpo Karate Shreveport, LA

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Why does Kenpo/Kempo use a "Black Gi" (uniform)?

This is one of the most asked questions.

When James Mitose returned to Hawaii in 1937 from his Kosho/Kenpo training with his Grandfather, Sukuhei Yoshida (20th Great Grand Master) in Japan, he knew that people would assume his "Art" was just another Japanese/Okinawan martial art.

He immediately wanted to send a message to all the other martial artists in Hawaii that this was not the case. He did this by wearing a "Black Gi," which was contrary to the nature of the "Traditional" Japanese martial arts! James Mitose wanted all to know that while there were some similarities to other martial arts, Kosho/Kenpo had taken a different path of development and was a style of its own - not to be considered Japanese in nature or origin!

The Japanese government recognized this when they did away with the Samurai as a class and outlawed the traditional wearing of swords. At this same time the Japanese Government's edict went out: when the sanctity of human life was affirmed, Kenpo was made an illegal art. Jiu Jitsu was allowed to be practiced because it was more scientific. Meaning: Kenpo was a "killing art" that had its true origin in China!

Kenpo was NOT a Japanese art! Even its "Characters"   were of Chinese origin - in China known as "Ch'uan Fa." Go to the Japanese dictionary on the web  Make sure "Japanese" is highlighted; type in kenpo. When it comes up it will be the 6th one down: - it is defined as a Chinese Martial Art. While you are using the Japanese dictionary on the web type in kempo - see the result of using this spelling!

Much of the nature of the martial arts in Japan had its origin in the Shintoism (the original religion of Japan) that was restored by the New Japanese Mejia regime in the 1890's - and the "Emperor" once again was recognized as a "God." Within Shintoism "White" was symbolic of "Purity". 

A classic example of this is in the making of a "Japanese Sword" where the "Swordsmith" in his forging of the sword is dressed in "pure white." 


To keep the sword "pure" when it was tested on a corpse or live prisoner, the prisoner could not be a "murderer," have tattoos (tattoos from an early date were associated with the "Yakuza"- Japanese Mafia),  have a disease or be from the "Untouchable" "eta"* class. The finished Sword took on a "life" or "soul" of its own - which had to be pure! Today some of these exceptional swords are worth millions of dollars. The final polishing of the "blade" was usually done by someone other than the person who had forged and given the blade its "soul' - this person did not have to be dressed in white.

*"eta class" - They buried the dead (sick and diseased) and worked with dead animals.  Most Japanese were vegetarians - especially the Buddhists - and only the "lowest of the low" handled carcasses of animal or worked with leather from dead animals. In Japanese society they were truly "untouchables!" Once born into this class there was no way out! But this was true of every Japanese class. Even if you were a Samurai, but of low rank, it was almost impossible to ever move above the position into which you were born.

"Black" by its very nature took on the opposite meaning:  night- death- evil. The Ninja were dressed in total black from head to foot - even covering their faces. The Ninja were always identified with darkness and evil. 

The message the "Black Gi" sent was that Kenpo is a War Art; black was an indication of "Death and Bruising." To this day Traditional Japanese and Okinawan tournaments will not allow the wearing of a "Black Gi". This happened as recently as last month.

Ted Sumner is affiliated with a group of  Martial Artists in Japan who send "exchange groups" to train and live with Ted in California.  Those students refuse to step onto the mat to "freestyle" with anyone wearing a "Black Gi."

James Mitose did not allow his students to wear a Black Uniform because as beginners they had not reached the point of truly understanding and representing Kosho/Kenpo. Also "Black Uniforms" were not commercially available and had to be "custom made."

In the following I am not talking about "legal ramifications" - rather, I am discussing the Oriental philosophy of "Survival" and how important the "First Strike" is. "Tora Tora Tora" ("Tiger, Tiger, Tiger"), the Japanese code name for the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, is a perfect example.

Conflicts involving life and death are not "Sport" where you want to give the "Enemy" any advantage. The U.S. invasion of "Normandy" in WWII was designed to surprise the enemy - which it did!

Going back over Two Thousand Years we have from Sun Tzu's The Art of War

Thus, when able, they appear unable.
When employed, they appear useless.
When close, they appear distant.
When distant, they appear close.

They lure through advantages,
And take control through confusion.

When complete, they appear to prepare.
When forceful, they appear evasive.
When angry, they appear to submit.
When proud they appear to be humble.
When comfortable, they appear to toil.
When attached, they appear separated.

They attack when the opponent is unprepared
And appear where least expected.

This is the Strategist's way of triumph.
It must not be discussed beforehand.

Those who triumph because they are skilled in conflict
Are not honored for cleverness
Or credited for heroism

They triumph during conflict because they have made no errors.

Those who have made no errors
Have arranged for certain triumph:
A triumph over those who are already defeated.

Therefore, those who are skilled in conflict
Establish a Situation that cannot be defeated,
And miss no opportunity to defeat their opponent

Much of it has to do with the nature of the Martial Arts you are teaching. In traditional Karate the basis of the Arts is: 
     "In Karate there is no First Strike" 
     In Kenpo it is reversed: 
In Kenpo there should be no Second Strike.

From just two of the Chapters of the The Art of War** -  it should be obvious that Kenpo's goal is for victory in any fight! This was the main lesson James Mitose was trying to teach us. Kenpo is a "War Art."

** In the future I will be putting more from Sun Tzu's The Art of War on the web.

This goes back to the essence of self defense and survival in a life and death situation. The philosophy is spelled out well by Miyamoto Musashi, the Great Japanese Swordsman: "You cut the opponent, just as you feel his blade."

In reality: in a fight you cannot let the opponent strike you first. In a gun fight the first bullet can kill you; the same with any edged weapon. 

The full use of the "Black Gi" was actually instituted by Sijo Emperado and used by all Kajukenbo stylists of all ranks.

The first Black Uniforms imported to the United States were so thin and flimsy, they were torn with the first hard grab or throw.

Originally most Kenpo practitioners had to use unbleached Judo uniforms (bleaching to make them WHITE weakened the material) to hold up to the grabbing and throwing. Early Kenpo as taught in the 50's was very much Kenpo-Jiu Jitsu: realistic grabs and hard throws.

This is where the main break would come between "Traditional Kenpo" and "American Kenpo." When quality black uniforms became available (usually from one of the Kajukenbo sources), black uniforms became the accepted standard for all students.

Ed Parker and American Kenpo took another path: Only instructors were allowed to wear a "Black Gi."

The wearing of a "Black Gi" also had a great "psychological" effect. I remember reading a article by Chuck Norris when he related that as a "brown belt" what concern him most were those "Kenpo fighters in black uniforms" . . .  if they wore a beard, as Ralph Castellanos did, it was even worse!

For over 30 years the "Black Uniform" gave Kenpo its unique identity; Kenpo and Kajukenbo were the only styles wearing the "Black Gi'!  Today so many are wearing "Black Gi's" you can't tell if they are Kenpo or Kajukenbo stylists, until you see them fight! (We are the ones disqualified for excessive contact). Just wearing a "Black Gi" does not make you a fighter.

The Black Gi is part of our Kenpo/Kempo/Kajukenbo heritage and distinguishes us from all other  Martial Arts. It states to the entire world: "We are a fighting art"! 

If you want to play it as "Sport," wear a "White Gi!"

Today most Kenpo studios will allow the wearing of either a black or white Gi, or even a combination of the two: black top, white bottom; white top, black bottom.

Today the trend from the "Business Guru's" is to get us out of our "Traditional Gi." Why? So they can sell you on their "New Age Martial Arts": No uniforms; no belts; no Sensei/Sifu (replaced by the "program director"); no history; no tradition! Where "aerobics" have replaced "Self Defense" - where EVERY health spa and gym has "certified" kick-boxing instructors ($295) who have never been hit in their lives, nor have they ever landed a real kick or punch! Where Tae Bo is passed off as "True Self Defense." Almost makes you want to have the "Ninja Turtles" back as "Role Models" for the martial arts!

For most Kenpo/Kempo/Kajukenbo stylists, they will have to be "rip our Black Gi's off our backs!" before we will ever buy into their "designer sweats" and "Nike" approach to "Feel Good Karate" !


Al Tracy all rights reserved 2001 Al Tracy


The Ultimate in Self Defense Training





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