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Clean and Dirty

Hours scheduled: 11

Hours trained: 7

Last week I got the book Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese Bath from the library. It was great. Eric Talmadge is an author whose name is familiar to me, not because of his previous books but because he’s spent a lot of his life time as a reporter for the Associated Press. He’s also an expat American. He remarks with his typical self-aware and wry sort of sense of humour that he really is truly expat, having now spent more time in Japan than America.

His book, really a westerner-accessible commentary on the social importance of cleanliness in Japan, made me think a lot about cleanliness in karate.

When non practioners come to the dojo, they’re often surprised to learn that all the shoes are left outside the training space. In most dojo, including ours, there’s a space set aside for this. But even in dojo where there isn’t an alcove or a foyer (such as the place I trained in when I lived in Cranbrook, BC), the shoes remain outside the dojo door.

We also spend a lot of time cleaning the dojo. It’s up to the students to be sure the floor is swept, mats are wiped of sweat and blood and the dojo is clean because blood on mats is totally unhygienic and pebbles on the floor are neither fun to step on, or to break fall on. Cleanliness, then, is a matter of safety.

But it’s not just safety that we’re after. We want to show a clean mind, which is a bit of a nebulous concept. For me, a clean mind means not only a mind uncontaminated by drugs and by emotion but also awareness of the space around me. Clean mind, then, is represented for me as a calm demeanor, an unsullied body and a clean appearance.

Like trimming and cleaning your nails before class, like washing your gi and taking off your jewelery, clean mind shows respect for yourself, for others in the class and for the sensei.

Think about all the ways we keep the dojo clean; by wiping up sweat, by sweeping, by organizing the shoe rack and washing the floor. Think of the cleanliness required to train, injuries wrapped, nails trimmed (probably more a significant act for women than men) and a clean, white gi. And now, think of the story of how karate belts got color.

For those of you who haven’t heard this one, the story goes that back in the mythical past, gis and belts were all originally white. In the course of training, all that sweat and hard work changed the belt from white to yellow, to green, to brown, and finally to black. When your belt was so sullied it was black, you could be fairly sure you were proficient in your style.

It’s a good story, but I don’t think it’s really true.

Considering the emphasis on cleanliness in Japanese culture, I doubt it. Considering the emphasis on clean mind (and all that entails) in the dojo, I find it doubly unlikely. And, considering how long it took me to turn the armpits of my gi green, I’m going to say this story is a myth.

From the reading I’ve done (not extensive by any means), I’m under the impression that what was originally worn during training was underpants. This is because clothing was costly, difficult and expensive to launder, and too precious to be soiled by regular training. Besides, how better to give away the fact that you’re practicing illegal martial arts every night than by sending your dirt-and-sweat encrusted outfit to the local laundry every other day?

So, to borrow from the Mythbusters, I’m going to call busted on this.

That’s not to say the story valueless. This story has really stuck and that always means that the story, true or not, resonates importantly. Ask most karate students and they’ll be familiar with at least one variation of this story. Well why?

Like I said above, when I considered how long it would take me to sweat enough to turn my belt green, I figured the story had to be false. I’ve had the same two gis for the last five years and they’re only just going a creamy sort of yellow. To get them to green, even if I wasn’t washing them, that’s going to take a long freakin’ time. With that in mind, this I think is the reason this story has persisted.

Martial arts takes forever, right? We train and train and as we do, there’s a slow progression of knowledge and rank and all that those two things entail. What the myth of the belt color does is remind us that we must work very hard for a very long time in order to become proficient in technique.

That in mind, then, I think the persistence of this myth is because it helps non practitioners or new practitioners grasp what training means.  By reiterating the tale of how the belt became black, we warn people entering the martial arts that they are embarking on a long journey and that a lot of exertion and a lot of effort will be required of them. As with everything in martial arts, the purpose seems to be a little bit hidden.

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Categories: Drop in the Bucket
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  1. June 17, 2008 at 7:35 pm

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