The Evolution of the Dobok and the Belt

by Aniella Miller

There are many different styles of martial arts, all with different uniforms. Within a martial art the uniforms and belts may very. They may even be different among different schools of the same martial art. For example in Tae Kwon Do some people use a brown belt for the rank below black and some people use red.


The keikogi or dōgi was supposedly derived from the uniforms of Japanese firefighter’s heavy hemp jackets called hanten. Keiko means practice and gi means dress or clothing. The modern keikogi started emerging in the late 19th century. It was developed by Kano Jigoro, the founder of judo. The keikogi jacket is called uwagi. Uwa means upper and gi again means clothes. The pants are called shitabaki. Keikogi, today, can be found in any color. One wears a white or blue uniform in competitive judo. The uniform was traditionally white. In English the keiko is often dropped so it’s just the gi. Keiko is also often replaced with judo, the martial art being practiced.

The karategi was invented because karate was originally practiced in everyday cloths. Karate was seen as brutish compared to Japanese martial arts, so the founder of karate devised a uniform based off of Kano’s design. The uniform changed over time to a lighter fabric and it had strings attached to the inside to keep it closed. Karategis have to be light weight because karate emphasizes mobility and speed. They do not do as much grappling and throwing as some other martial arts. It is made of smooth cotton for unrestricted movement. You will often find reinforced stitching because of the stress put on the karategi. Karategi may be cut from a light fabric or a light canvas. The canvas tends to be more durable and more comfortable than the light fabric. The light fabric tends to rip.

The aikidogi was based on the keikogi and karategi. The aikidogi is the uniform used in aikido. It is sometimes just called a gi or dogi. It is made from cotton or cotton-poly blends. Aikido training is similar to judo and karate, so the uniforms are similar. The aikidogi has to be thick enough to support the weight of the person wearing it. It must be this way because there are a lot of grapple throws in aikido. Some companies make keikogi for aikido training. They have shorter sleeves that reach the elbow. Aikido emphasizes seated position defenses, so they have reinforced zubon or pants. They also are longer around the waist to allow the uwagi to tuck in to the hakama easily. Aikido practitioners have shorter sleeves so as to practice wrist grabs.

The dobok is modeled on the Japanese dōgi and the Korean hanbok. It is made of ether cotton or cotton-polyester blends. Do means “way” and bok means “clothing”. The World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) and the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) have different styles of dobok. WTF practitioners have the cross-over jacket front. ITF practitioners typically wear a newer vertical closing jacket.


In judo rank is indicated by the color of the belt that the practitioners wear. There are dan holders and kyu holders. They are also called Yūdansha and Mudansha, they mean “person who has dan” and “person without dan”. The current ranking system is not the one judo used originally. There are six kyu ranks in the current system. Beginners are sixth rank, kyu and have a blue belt. When they are a fifth kyu they get a white belt. In forth kyu they still have white belts. After this, until black belt, their rank is indicated by brown or purple belts. The kyu ranking system is not only used in judo. Many modern Japanese martial arts use kyu ranks as the ranks below black belt. This ranking system is different across all of the schools. Some schools use white belts throughout all of the kyu ranks, others use colored belts to indicate kyu ranks.

Usually there are ten dan ranks. Unlike kyu they go up in numerical order. Ten is the usual limit, however there is no limit to dan ranks in judo. The dan ranking system is not only used in martial arts. It is also used (and actually originated) in board games, like go and shogi. The dan ranking system was originally used in go (a board game). It was instituted into martial arts by Kano Jigoro, the founder of judo. Some dan holders wear black belts and some wear red and white belts.

Board games still use dan ranks. Honinbo Dosaku, professional go player, was the one who developed the dan ranking system for go. In Japan different athletic groups were using signs (such as belts) to convey rank. Advanced swimmers wore black ribbons around their waist for example. Kano eventually decided to use this custom to have his students wear a black obi, or belt. The belts they wore were different from today’s belts. They practiced in kimonos and wore the obi worn with formal kimonos. Kano eventually developed the modern keikogi and belts.

The belt system in Tang Soo Do Mu Duk Kwon was founded by Hwang Kee. The geup ranks originally had white, green, and red belts. Orange was eventually instituted between the white and green belts; the orange belt would have either one or two stripes. The colors yellow, brown, purple, and blue were eventually added and used among different schools. Tang Soo Do dan holders always wear a midnight blue belt, because it shows they are still learning. However, many Mu Duk Kwon schools have adapted to using black belts instead.