Aikido hakama: the tradition made into a garment:
The aikido hakama is a skirt-like trouser made of fabric tied at the waist, falling down to the ankles. It is worn as traditional Japanese attire for formal occasions, ceremonies, and in some martial arts. It is believed to have been introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks from China.
There are many designs and types of hakama, with the most widespread and well-known resembling wide pleated pants, often associated with samurai, the upper class, and clergy.
The Origin of Aikido Hakama
The origin of hakama can be traced back possibly to China, where it was worn by members of the imperial court during the Sui and Tang dynasties around the 6th century. It is believed to have been introduced to Japan through Buddhism. Quickly adopted by the upper class and clergy, it became associated with power and became a symbol of status.
During the Kamakura period (1185-1392), samurai and nobles popularized it. Originally used by samurai to protect their legs while riding horses, it evolved into what we now know as aikido hakama.
From samurai attire to aikido hakama
When we talk about hakama, we immediately associate it with samurai, but this garment was worn earlier by Shinto priests and members of the clergy or nobility. Samurai quickly adopted this attire, initially those who rode horses. The hakama was made of thick fabric to protect riders’ legs from branches and thorns. It was soon embraced by foot soldiers as well, becoming lighter and thinner.
It is said that hakama was used to hide foot movements, but this information is false. Ancient photos and woodblock prints show that feet were visible, primarily to facilitate movement and agility, which could be crucial in combat situations. In duels or non-battle situations, hakama and kimono were usually tied up, facilitating movement.
On the battlefield, high-ranking officers wore hakama under their armor, sometimes tied tightly at the lower legs for the same reason.
Types of Hakama
There are many types and models of hakama. Aikido hakama is the most well-known, popularized in various samurai films and used by different koryu (ancient martial arts schools). It can be found in aikido, kendo, iaido, kyudo, taido, and kenjutsu, as well as in Shinto shrines or ceremonies such as tea ceremonies, weddings, funerals, or graduations.
Among the various hakamas, two models stand out:
- Unamori Hakama (Hakama for horse riding): This hakama was divided to facilitate leg movement for riders.
- Andon Hakama (Lantern Hakama): This hakama was tube-shaped without division, more like a skirt.
Other hakama styles
Many types of hakama existed, such as the narrower noba hakama, used in fields by peasants, likely designed for practicality in their tasks. There was also an extremely long hakama worn by visitors of important personalities, designed to hinder movement or escape in case of an attack against the authority.
The aikido hakama we see in dojos holds great importance in budo (the martial way); it represents the values of these arts and their traditions.
The Aikido Hakama
Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, was a man of many traditions. It’s not surprising that he chose this garment as part of the aikido uniform. Initially, wearing hakama was mandatory to enter the dojo and was not associated with any rank.
In pre-war aikido dojos, numerous types and colors of hakama could be seen. It was a traditional garment, and many practitioners wore hakamas passed down from their grandparents or families. The dojo was a very colorful place.
After the war, finding fabric became more difficult and costly, leading to the idea that only higher ranks should wear hakama. This way, beginners could have more time to acquire one. Over the years, the use of black or indigo blue hakama became standardized.
Originally made from cotton and traditionally dyed (aizome), aikido hakama evolved, adapting to aikido practice. Various fabrics replaced cotton hakama to make it lighter and aid in quicker drying during Japan’s humid months. Reinforcements and additional seams were added in some parts to make it more resistant to falls or dynamic use.
Today, in Aikikai Japan (the headquarters of aikido), women start wearing hakama from 3rd kyu, and men from 1st dan. Its usage varies and can differ from one country or school to another.
Meaning of Aikido Hakama Folds
The hakama has seven folds, five in the front and two in the back, representing the following budo values:
- Yuki: Courage, bravery, and valor
- Jin: Humanity, charity, benevolence
- Gi: Justice, integrity, righteousness
- Rei: Etiquette, courtesy, respect
- Makoto/Shin: Sincerity, honesty, reality
- Chu/Chugi: Loyalty, fidelity, devotion
- Meiyo: Honor, dignity, prestige
In Zen tradition, these folds also represent the five elements (Go Dai/The Five Greats) plus the duality of Yin and Yang:
Earth / Water / Fire / Wind / Void / Yin / Yang
It is also said that the folds at the back represent our past and those in the front represent the future. Therefore, one should begin folding their aikido hakama from the back (thus organizing their past) before moving on to the front, symbolizing their future.
Aikido hakama is a garment that holds significant meaning in aikido and other traditional martial arts, carrying a long history that spans many centuries. It is not merely a status symbol but should not be taken lightly either. Its care and use should reflect the values of aikido and budo, representing both inner and outer attitudes.
The aikido hakama stands as a timeless emblem of tradition, embodying centuries of Japanese culture and martial arts history. Its origins, rooted in Chinese influence and Buddhist practices, have evolved through various social classes, becoming synonymous with samurai honor and bravery. The hakama’s journey from a practical garment, shielding riders from thorns, to a symbol of profound budo values is a testament to its cultural significance.
In the world of aikido, the hakama has transcended mere attire, becoming a powerful representation of courage, humanity, justice, and respect. Its carefully folded pleats hold the essence of martial arts philosophy, encompassing not just physical prowess but also mental and spiritual discipline.
The careful choreography of these folds, mirroring elemental forces and the passage of time, adds layers of depth to its symbolism, emphasizing the interconnectedness of mind, body, and spirit.
Today, the aikido hakama continues to grace dojo floors, serving as a tangible link to the past and a beacon guiding practitioners toward the future. Its symbolic significance, both in its design and the values it embodies, fosters a sense of unity among martial artists, transcending cultural boundaries.
Whether worn by novices or masters, the hakama remains a revered garment, reminding us of the enduring power behind its folds: the enduring legacy of respect, honor, and the martial way.
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