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In Defense of Non-Black Belt Women Who Choose to Wear Hakama

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by Sally Whitcher

Aiki News #26 (August 1977)

As a relative newcomer to the Aikido world, I am somewhat unfamiliar with the fine points of a definitely existing yet unspoken etiquette code. At a recent black belt examination I was rather forcibly awakened from my pleasant slumber by a hostile, disapproving attitude on the part of some parties toward, to my amazement, my wearing a hakama as I do not hold a black belt rank. My initial reaction of resentment gave way to a real questioning of my motives for doing so and an inquiry into whether or not I was in any way a traitor to the feminine cause.

The subject of women wearing hakama seems to be a controversial one. In order to gain a proper perspective, I have tried to examine the problem from all angles, including the historical one. On one hand, it could be said that this tradition is a manifestation of the chauvinistic tendencies of Japanese society, that women “have been strictly kept in line” for centuries not being “allowed to sit cross-legged or wear unfeminine clothing. On the other hand, although it is true that male-female roles are sharply differentiated, it is perhaps difficult to say whether or not women are considered “inferior” without falling into the trap of laying American cultural values on the Japanese. There undoubtedly are real compensations for playing the role of the “weaker sex” in Japan such as security and almost total power in the home. The men don’t necessarily dictate female roles. Any given society is made up of approximately one-half women, and societal structure is determined by the society as a whole.

One story I have heard told maintains that the real beginning of the wearing hakama was as follows. O-Sensei wanted women as well as men to practice Aikido. He knew, however, that they would not be likely to do so because their sense of modesty forbade them to be seen on the mat in front of men in gis. O-Sensei was aware of the fact that only if he allowed them to wear hakama would they be able to participate in the development of his exquisite art, which rests, in part, on ancient Oriental principles of feminine metaphysics, such as receptivity, relaxed grace and non-confrontation (as related in the I Ching).

Having determined, at least to my own satisfaction, that wearing hakama is not necessarily discriminatory at its historical root, I turn now to an examination of the practice from a contemporary perspective. Today, in Japan, many women unfortunately drop out of aikido practice when they marry and have families. As a woman is expected to manage the house and children, she rarely has time for such activities since her traditional role is that of a wife and mother.

In America, this is not so much of a problem due to comparatively non-traditional nature of our society. I personally have not come upon chauvinistic attitudes on the part of men I have trained with. It is possible that because of a difference in dress standards, i.e., non-black belt women wearing hakama, that Japanese men do not regard women as serious students of aikido, and, consequently, do not consider them in awarding symbols of achievement such as the privilege of wearing hakama upon obtaining shodan status. However, one must question whether such an obviously unthinking attitude would be miraculously altered by a mere change in dress where women would no longer wear hakama.

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