Hakama 101

Origin of the Hakama

The Hakama are traditional Japanese pants, originally worn over a kimono by members of the higher classes of society. Its origins may be found in the Heian era (794-1185), when women of the imperial court used to wear culottes as base layer of their kimono that looked similar to a Hakama . However, it’s during the Kamakura period that the warrior class began to wear Hakama commonly, mostly as protection during horseback riding.

The Hakama then became a symbol of power as the standard outfit for nobles and Samurai. Various forms appeared and the Hakama became one of the most common types of pants for the whole population.

“The Hakama then became a symbol of power as the standard outfit for nobles and Samurai.”

The same way there were many types of pants in the West, there were also many types of Hakama. Some had two legs, some were cut as skirts, some very wide or very long, while some were short or narrow, which, for instance, was the case of the “field Hakama” (Nobakama), mainly worn by farmers and workers.

Noh theater scene. Ukiyoe by Kōgyo Tsukioka, 19th century.

With the Meiji era came Westernization. Hakama became rarer and rarer in everyday life until it was only worn as formal attire for special occasions such as wedding ceremonies and as Shinto religious attire. It was also, of course, the standard outfit used in almost all Japanese classical martial arts and in some modern Budo such as Aikido.

Hakama in Budo

The Hakama is the standard outfit in most Kobudo, for the simple reason that those arts come from a time when the Hakama was the standard outfit of practitioners (the Samurai). There are only a few exceptions: the Hakama disappeared in Judo, probably for competitive reasons; the Okinawan origins of Karate may account for the Hakama’s absence; which may also be the case for Shorinji Kempo, with its Chinese origin. As for Sumo, well…the reason is obvious!

“The Hakama is not and was never meant to hide the feet.”

Because of the popularity of Judo and Karate outside Japan, many new to the martial arts have often considered the Hakama as Aikido-specific attire. However, the reality is that the Hakama is or has been the de facto attire for most Budo and Kobudo.

As a side note here, I would like to mention that the Hakama is not and was never meant to hide the feet. You can find more on this topic on Seido’s blog post The hakama is not meant to hide the footwork.

Hakama in Aikido

Given the importance that Aikido’s founder Morihei Ueshiba gave to “true tradition,” it’s no wonder that he preserved the Hakama in Aikido.

The story of the Hakama in Aikido is complicated. Mandatory at first, from the very first day of training, then optional during and after the war because of its price, then finally reserved officially to men from first dan and to women from 3rd kyu at the Aikikai (although those rules vary widely depending on styles, dojos and teachers).

Despite the use of Hakama in many martial arts, Aikido uses one with a specific design, crafted specifically for the practice. Morihei Ueshiba often used a classic Hakama meant for everyday life, something not specifically designed for Aikido. It is unclear if he ever used what we, today, call an Aikido Hakama, but what is sure is that given how he practiced, he did not really need a very strong Hakama, like most of us do today.

What we know is that at some point in history, the Aikikai Hombu Dojo asked a Judo equipment specialist located nearby the dojo, Iwata Shokai, to produce Aikido equipment. Because the said specialist was a Judo equipment maker, they didn’t have the knowledge and skills for Hakama, so they developed it with a Hakama workshop located in downtown Tokyo. This Hakama workshop was producing many types of Hakama, meant for Kendo, Kyudo, Iaido, and even Sado (tea ceremony) and other art forms. Over time, the martial arts gained in popularity and with the orders increasing, they finally ended up focusing on Budo Hakama only.

“Despite the use of Hakama in many martial arts, Aikido uses one with a specific design, crafted specifically for the practice.”

This workshop is particularly famous for the quality of its handmade sewing and also because it still embodies some of the ancient Hakama manufacturing traditions (which is, for example, visible if you look at how the triangles on the sides are sewn).

This workshop still exists, but between the aging population and the relatively bad wages of the industry, they are struggling to survive. It is the very last workshop in Japan producing Budo Hakama in this most traditional way, and today, they provide Hakama for Iwata, Sakuraya and Seido, three of the most renowned brands for Budo Hakama.

Anatomy of an Aikido Hakama

Aikido has several specificities compared to Kobudo, in which the Hakama pre-existed, so it required a few adjustments.

The Hakama was initially cut to be worn with a large belt, such as those used in Iaido. To be worn with a classic Judo type belt, it was necessary to lower the backplate and adjust the front and back straps to approximately the same height.

Aikido Hakama are usually tied much firmer so that it doesn’t move during practice, so the number of lines of stitching on the straps was increased from 1 or 2 to 7 lines. That way, the straps hold better and don’t twist.

For security, the solid plastic back plate was replaced by a rubber plate, in order to reduce risks of injuries when taking Ukemi. Aikido Hakama are put under a lot of stress, especially during Ukemi. Many reinforcements were added, for instance on the lateral vents, but also on the inside.

The first Hakama were mainly made of Aizome-dyed (indigo) cotton. Aizome is similar to the traditional denim dye, starting with a purple-ish color that fades to blue due to heavy bleeding. If Aizome has the enormous advantage  of absorbing odors, it’s also incredibly hard to maintain, so when synthetic dye became more affordable, non-bleeding black and navy Hakama appeared on the market.

Indigo Hakama

But those were also quite difficult to maintain, too warm for the hot and humid climate of Japan, and their pleats don’t hold very well. As soon as synthetic materials became available, the production quickly incorporated those materials, primarily Tetron, a mix of polyester and rayon. The Tetron is made by Toray, a Japanese company, and it is very cost effective. It’s very strong, very easy to fix pleats, easy to wash, and three times cheaper than cotton.

But those advantages came with tradeoffs. Colors are dull and it’s much lighter than cotton. This gave room in the market for the development of a heavy polyester Hakama, with the same advantages, but with a slightly shiny finish.

At the same time, and because of the very hot and humid climate in Japan, the last “gap” in the market was filled with the invention of the “Polyester-linen” super light Hakama. The polyester-linen combination makes the fabric incredibly strong despite being very thin. It’s light as a breeze, dries very fast, and is very easy to maintain.

Aizome cotton, non-bleeding dye cotton, Tetron, heavy polyester and polyester-linen are now the main fabrics used for Hakama. Some manufacturers tried to create other variations and models, but I have never heard of a successful innovative product in more than a decade.

Hakama produced in China were at first made of a cotton and polyester blend, a very cheap and low-quality fabric. Probably suitable for Kendo, which doesn’t include the kind of stress that Ukemi produces, but certainly not for Aikido. In Japan, the vast majority of Aikido practitioners opt for Hakama made in Japan.

Over the years, some workshops tried to change the shape a little with larger straps, a shorter front cut, or small adjustments of this kind, but from the perspective of the inventor of the Aikido Hakama himself, that’s basically the limit of all the modifications the “Aikido Hakama” went through in about 80 years.

A New Innovation

Despite all those modifications, Aikido Hakama still have a fairly short life span in comparison to Kendo or Iaido Hakama. We put a lot of stress on the Hakama with our sustained Ukemi, far more so than in sword arts. Given how much wear and tear they have to endure it is unlikely that they will ever have a really long life span, but it doesn’t mean manufacturers cannot try.

This was the inspiration behind Seido’s “Keiko” series. It was obvious to us that sticking 100% to the tradition would not allow for the necessary improvements. We  tried to stay as traditional as possible while making a few high-impact changes. We sew directly into the backplate so the fabric holds better on the plate (which also required to change the rubber for another material), and we removed all the hand sewn parts so that we could use much stronger reinforced machine stitches.

Seido Aikido “Cashmere Touch” Training Hakama

As far as I know, Seido is the only Japanese brand actually run by practitioners, which allows us to gather feedback directly on the mats and move forward with innovations directly inspired by Aikidoists.

If you have any comments, we’d love to hear them, as it’s only with your feedback that innovation can happen.

If you’d like to learn more about the Hakama, you can read Guillaume Erard’s article on the subject: Why do black belts wear the Hakama?.

Jordy Delage

6 comments

Leave a Reply to Raimundo Sinval Cancel reply

  • I’d be interested to know what you define as a really long life span when you say that Aikido hakama are unlikely to have a long life span. My hakama has lasted me more than 10 years and it’s still in really good condition. It’s nothing special either, just a standard rayon model

  • Bom dia! Sou do Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, pratico Aikido há 15 anos, dou aula aqui e fabrico bokken e tanto e jo, e tenho um site com minha marca, Nintai Bokken.
    Nesse site falo de vários assuntos, um deles hakama. Gostaria de colocar seu texto sobre a história do hakama, com seu nome. Você autoriza?
    Obrigado.
    Atc

  • Well, it really depends on how you use it, and how many times a week.
    During my first years at the Hombu Dojo, I used to practice about 2 hours a day, 6 days a week.
    At this rythm, my Hakama (I’ve had Hakamas of all renown brands) had more or less the same lifespan: 1 year.
    Well, a little more actually, because I couldn’t afford new gears that easily, but they needed extensive repairs/patching.
    Not only was I practicing a lot, but also very sportively and with the large majority of partners far above my level. The Hombu Dojo Tatami are a little abrasive, and I also regularly practiced outside though.
    And basically, it’s the standard Hakama lifespan that everyone with a similar practice schedule

    15 years later, I take much better Ukemi, I move in a way that put less stress on my gears, and I practice much less, so at 2 classes/week rythm, I guess 5 years would be a fair reasonable guess.
    I probably could more or less double that lifespan with a cotton Hakama though.

    All in all, it’s very variable, depending on many factors. But when I hear 1 year under intensive practice, I’m not surprised!
    10 years… I’m a little more surprised, especially for a rayon/tetron Hakama. That’s probably an exception.

  • I may be the only person not looking forward to wearing a hakama- I simply trip in them frequently already. However, where I am, it is a required form of dress, once you reach advanced levels. Is there something that can be done to reduce tripping in the hakama?

    • Many Iwama Ryu practitionners use a Nobakama, which is narrower and help prevent such issues.
      But if you have to wear a “normal” Hakama, then the best way would be to wear it relatively short.
      The long Hakama that hides the ankle bone is quite specific to the West. We see it way less often in Japan, while it is fairly common to see Hakama that comes about 5 cm above the ankle bone. It should seriously reduce the tripping.