Why do black belts wear the Hakama? (no, it is not meant to hide the feet)

This article is my examination paper submitted for the promotion to Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu Shodan at the Takumakai (published in May 2013, in the issue n.86 of the Takumakai Newsletter). It addresses the origin of the hakama in martial arts and tries to distinguish facts from fiction as far as its use and meaning are concerned. More importantly, it also tries to establish some threads of reflection for the yudansha who wear it every day and hopefully, bring meaning to why we wear this ancestral cultural symbol.

Hakama history

nobakamaHakama (袴) is a traditional Japanese garment originally worn over a kimono by men of the higher classes of society. Scholars argue that the origins of the hakama go back as early as the Heian era (794-1185), when women in the imperial court used to wear culottes as base layer of their kimono that were tied in a way very similar to that of today's hakama. Later in the same era, men started to wear kariginu and suikan, which both included skirt-like pants. By the start of the Kamakura period (1185-1332), men on horseback belonging to the warrior class were commonly wearing hakama. From then on, the hakama propagated within the higher classes of society, harboring various shapes, styles, colors, and fabrics. The actual number of pleats in each particular type of Hakama was consequently quite variable. Later, the wearing of the hakama then diffused to lower classes of the military such as foot soldiers who wore momohiki (股引, longjohns) tied at the legs, as well as to the general population, including scholars, and even merchants. People working in fields wore more narrow forms of hakama called nobakama (野袴, field hakama).

As Japan became more and more westernized, the wearing of Hakama became relegated to only formal occasions (weddings, etc.) and only remained a part of the everyday wear for shinto priests and martial arts practitioners.

Hakama as a sign of rank

folded hakamaIn most ko-budo (古武道, traditional martial arts i.e. created during Japan's feudal period spanning between 1192 and 1867), as well as in gendai-budo (現代武道, modern martial arts) such as iaido, kyudo, and naginatado, the hakama has always been worn by everyone since the first day of practice and it is still the case today. Considering the fact that in many of these arts, dogi pants are not worn under the hakama, it would indeed be unthinkable to come to the dojo without wearing hakama. There are numerous first hand accounts from respected shihan stating that pre-second World War, wearing a hakama was compulsory for all students in Daito-ryu and Aikido, regardless of rank (the two groups not being distinct at the time).

However, due to the harshness of the post-World War II period, it seems that some schools decided to relieve penniless students from the burden of having to find/purchase a hakama during the first years of practice. As time passed, this favor turned into a usage, and then became a rule, up to the point where the wearing of hakama went from being "not compulsory before shodan" to "only to be worn from shodan and above". Interestingly, some schools such as the Yoshinkan, have pushed the idea even further with the hakama being worn only from yondan and above, while in some ju-jutsu schools, as well as in judo, the hakama is only worn during kata and weapon practice, while its use was abandoned for empty-handed and ground practice.

As time passed, it is understandable that the wearing of hakama became subconsciously associated with rank. The Dan ranks being a rather recent (1883) invention from Kano Jigoro (1860–1938) that was subsequently adopted by other arts including Daito-ryu, Aikido, Iaido, and many more, it is reasonable to think that the linking of rank to the wearing of hakama might have occurred at about the same time. This is well documented in Aikido, and given the close ties that existed during the post-war era between Ueshiba Morihei, Takuma Hisa, and Takeda Tokimune, it seems reasonable to think that the Takumakai might have adopted a policy regarding the wearing of the hakama that was similar to that of the other groups, even though I was unable to find actual evidence for this as far as the Takumakai was concerned.

Regardless of the historicity of the association between garment and a particular rank, there is a lot that a practitioner of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu can reflect upon once he or she gets to wear the hakama. First of all, historically, the hakama was indeed a mark of status for the higher samurai classes, so some might consider a distinction between practitioners with and without hakama to be a return to normal. One interpretation that seems to me to bare deeper meaning is that the level of shodan (初段), far from being an end in itself, is in fact translated as "beginning degree". One could therefore argue that it is only once a practitioner has passed the shodan exam that is he really starting the study of Daito-ryu. The oath that one signs upon reaching that rank bares the same sort of signification. As a consequence, the wearing of the hakama can be seen as an exteriorized sign that one is now finally integrated in the school and set on the path of Aiki. The hakama therefore comes to the Yudansha with a sense of a responsibility and belonging to a group, rather ore than as a distinction.

Is hakama supposed to hide feet movements?

It is important to realize that during fighting, especially during duels the samurai would often tie up their hakama in the same way or at the very least, tuck it into their belts so that not to be hindered in their motions. During battle in muddy fields, armors would be worn and the loose hanging hakama would simply not be suitable, for obvious practical reasons. The logical conclusion is that the purpose of the hakama is therefore not supposed to hide the feet movements.

Hakama shape and color

umanori hakamaFor obvious practical reasons, the hakama mostly worn in martial arts is the umanori (馬乗り, horse-riding hakama) that has separated legs, even though the nobakama is preferred in some ko-ryu (古流, traditional schools), probably due to the practical advantage conferred by its narrower legs section. One exception concerns some kyudo schools where women wear the undivided andon bakama (行灯袴, lantern hakama).

No particular shape is recommended in the Takumakai handbook but the umanori seems to be the most widely used in our school, just like in many other ko-ryu. The Takumakai handbook tells us however that shodan and above are to wear blue-colored hakama while shihan (師範, experts), kyoju dairi (教授代理, instructors), and shibucho (branch directors) wear black. This is a specificity of our school and other ko-ryu have a much looser approach to color and even shape. In Toda-ha Buko-ryu for example, umanori-style hakama is the norm but acceptable colors are blue, black, and white, while in several other ko-ryu including Kuroda Sensei's Shinbukan, any colour or style of hakama is acceptable. According to Ueshiba Morihei's pre-war student Kamada Hisao, the use of the white hakama was permitted at the Kobukan Dojo. Nakayama Hakudo, the founder of the Muso Shinden Ryu, is said to have required his students to wear white hakama, for dirt would be easier to spot on students that neglected their ablutions. Historically speaking, one must assume that the blue color was more widespread than black. Aizome indigo was in use for the dying of many traditional garments, including that of hakama, while black must have been very expensive and only became widespread with the introduction of synthetic dyes and fabrics.

white hakamaI was unable to find a particular meaning for the color of the hakama in the Takumakai handbook but there is however some meaning to be found in the object itself, and perhaps even its color. In a general sense, the hakama serves as a link between the modern practitioner, foreign or domestic, and traditional Japanese culture. The rituals associated with the hakama are of special importance. The tying at the beginning of the practice serves as a gateway that allow the practitioner to enter the right mindset for the study of Daito-ryu, and the intricate folding so as to preserve its shape at the end of each keiko is a peaceful, almost meditative moment before a return to mundane life. Indirectly linked to both the convoluted shape and color of the hakama, the care that one takes of their hakama, and therefore the resulting aspect of it, can tell much about the state of mind of a practitioner, and any self-respecting budoka should take great care in their presentation, so as to project a good image of oneself, one's teachers, and one's school.

The hakama originating from nobility, it also carries a sense of dignity and responsibility. It is very clear that as soon as one is wearing hakama, one does not move or even stand in the same way than without, this is called hakama sabaki. The flow of the fabric encourages the flow of motion and there is an interesting parallel between the ideal of flowing ki and that of the garment. Interestingly, I have sometimes heard of instructors reprimanding students for having messy hakama after practice, saying that if their hakama came untied, it meant that their body motions were not proper.

The meaning of the pleats of the hakama

Several martial arts share a common understanding that each pleat of the hakama represents a moral value, which taken as a whole, form the ethical framework of the warrior.

Origin of the Japanese warrior's moral values

This system of values probably permeated Japanese warriors societies as a byproduct of the introduction of Chinese Confucianism, in particular the Wu-ch'ang (five constants), which represent the five cardinal virtues forming the basis of society:

  1. Jen: empathy;
  2. I: propriety;
  3. Li: observance of rites and customs;
  4. Chih: insight, wisdom;
  5. Hsin: mutual trust.

Later, it is the famous Japanese swordsman Musashi Miyamoto (宮本 武蔵, 1584-1645) who adopted these values and wrote about them in his Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho), listing them as:

  1. Jin: benevolence;
  2. Gi: truth and justice;
  3. Rei: courtesy;
  4. Chi: wisdom;
  5. Shin: faith.

From then on, these values seem to then have been widely adopted by the warrior class all through the Tokugawa era (徳川幕府 1600-1868) and until the Meiji restoration. This system of thought however seems to have declined along with the disappearance of that warrior class. Facing a growing western influence and that of its culture, a revival of these values was observed during the Meiji era, most notably through the book of Japanese scholar Nitobe Inazō (新渡戸 稲造): Bushido, the Soul of Japan. It is actually this book, originally written in English, that introduced these concepts to the western audience for the first time. Since then, it seems that the values have (re-)permeated martial art schools, in particular the gendai-budo.

Origin of the association between Confucian values and hakama pleats

Although the adoption of the Confucian values by the warrior class is well documented, the precise point at which the pleats of the hakama were ascribed these values is unclear and some scholars argue that it is actually as recent as the Meiji era. Remembering that the origin of hakama lies partly in nobility, partly in shinto, the association of the Confucian (buddhist) values with the shinto piece of clothing provides an interesting illustration of the syncretism that occurred in Japan between the two thought systems.

Regardless of the origin of the association, some prominent contemporary instructors have extensively written on the topic, with for example Saotome Mitsugi who, in his book: The Principles of Aikido, lists them as:

  1. Jin (仁): benevolence
  2. Gi (義): honor or justice
  3. Rei (礼): courtesy and etiquette
  4. Chi (智): wisdom, intelligence
  5. Shin (信): sincerity
  6. Chu (忠): loyalty
  7. Koh (孝): piety

This is one of many variations on the topic. Given the difficulty of finding historical evidence and the variability of the number of values and hakama pleats, we must be cautious when regarding any one of these versions. Indeed, there exist several alternatives to this list with different number of pleats, such as that used in in Kendo and reported by Masataka Inoue in his book: Ken No Koe (The Voice of the Sword):

  1. Chu (忠): loyalty
  2. Ko (孝): justice
  3. Jin (仁): humanity; compassion
  4. Gi (義): honor
  5. Rei (礼): respect

Meaning of the hakama pleats in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu

iaido hakamaThe Takumakai handbook tells us that the values ascribed to the pleats of the hakama include the 5 aforementioned values that are based on Confucianism, plus the pleat at the back representing an additional value; the path of sincerity that one takes.

Even if the link between pleats and values is not clear, it has been well documented that these values were indeed embraced by the warrior classes, and therefore, as practitioners of ko-budo, people training in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu should also embrace these ideals. Here is an interpretation that one can make of each of these virtues:

  1. Jin (仁): kindness, generosity. This requires an attitude of complete attention to others, regardless of origin, age, sex, opinion, or disability. One must take care not to cause unnecessary trouble or pain, both for oneself and for others.
  2. Gi (义): honor, justice. The sense of honor is not to be misused as an excuse for negative actions, including duel. It requires respect for self and others. It involves being true to one's word, promises, and ideals. The meaning of Gi is "have a sense of duty to act fairly."
  3. Rei (礼): etiquette, courtesy. Politeness is the expression of a genuine interest paid to others, regardless of their social position, through gestures and attitudes of respect. The ceremony and etiquette are part of the externalization of politeness. They are used to provide a framework within which we can interact with others and with one's teacher in the dojo, in pleasant and harmonious manner.
  4. Chi (智): wisdom, understanding, in the sense of discernment. Wisdom is the ability to only give to things and events the importance that they truly have, without allowing passion to cloud judgment. The serenity that results helps to distinguish the positive and negative of all things and events. This is a form of intelligence.
  5. Shin (信:) trust, honesty. It is fundamental in the martial arts. Without this, practice is only a simulation, or even a useless gesticulation. If one is not sincere in their work, their respect for others, their attacks, one is lying to oneself and is preventing others from progressing. The commitment must be total, permanent, unequivocal, because we all know that the illusion cannot last long in front of the demands and of the way, and in the eyes of others.

Conclusion: Hakama as a physical representation of our duty and our lineage

We saw earlier that hakama is a vestigial garment dating back to the Heian era, which is actually pretty much contemporary to the groundbreaking work of Shinra Saburo Minamoto no Yoshimitsu (1045-1127), the master credited with the discovery of the concept of Aiki, and with the initiation of the transmission of Daito-ryu from generation to generation. The hakama could therefore be considered by the practitioners of Daito-ryu as a symbol of that lineage, and of the precious knowledge that is passed on to them by their elders. This therefore induces a feeling of awe and respect for the unbroken line of teaching that has led to us, recent Yudansha, being able to learn Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu.

It is also a clear sign to others that as ko-budo practitioners, we have an interest and a respect for the customs of the past. One must never forget that in today's Japan, wearing a Hakama is becoming rather rare, and that therefore, ko-budo, and especially Daito-ryu practitioners, have made the choice to carry on this tradition and endorse the responsibility of passing it on, unaltered.

Finally, to me, the hakama, very much like any grade, bears its only true value in the heart of the one who receive it and the one who awards it. More than a sign of status, it is a bond between teacher and pupil. This is why, regardless of historical evidence and usage innovations, the hakama still carries a strong meaning. It is a recognition by one's peers of one's ability and worth to march on the path of Aiki.



Many thanks to Ellis Amdur, Jordy Delage (who also wrote an article on the subject), Grant Periott, and Stanley Pranin for their precious advice during the preparation of this article. All pictures were kindly provided by BudoExport and remain the property of their owner.

Guillaume Erard
Author: Guillaume Erard
A resident of Japan for nearly a decade, Guillaume Erard trains at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, where he received the 5th Dan from Aikido Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. He also holds a 3rd Dan in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, the secretive art that Morihei Ueshiba learned from Sokaku Takeda. Erard is the Information Director of the International Aikido Federation and the Deputy Secretary of International Affairs of the Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu Shikoku Headquarters. He is also passionate about science and education and holds a PhD in Molecular Biology.
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