My first judogi was a beige-colored thing which my university judo club carried. Beginners could buy them from the club for about US$25. Since I was planning to train several times per week, I bought a second set so that I could train while the other judogi was in the wash.
I didn't know anything about judogis back then. For example, I didn't know there were such things as single-weave and double-weave judogis. I also didn't know that there were bleached white versions available. I didn't even know there were such a thing as branded judogis.
When I arrived at Camberley Judo Club in 1992, I proudly showed my judogis from the US and told the other boys I got them for US$25. "Pretty good, huh?" The Camberley boys, who were all competitors, quickly educated me on the topic of judogis.
The first thing I learned was about popular brands. At that time, the most common competition brand was Dan Rho, made by a company called Sports Rhode in Germany. All the players at Camberley had a Dan Rho suit.
The first thing I noticed was how thick and heavy they were. These were "double-weave" judogis, suitable for competition (mine were single-weave training suits). I also noticed the Dan Rho judogis were white in color and not beige. That's when I realized that high-quality suits are all bleached.
Suddenly I felt so inadequate. Here I was in the UK's top judo training facility, trying to up my game and become a better competitor, and all I had to wear were my beige-colored, single-weave training suits!
The Camberley boys must have taken pity on me because several of them decided to donate their older judogis to me. The donated suits were a bit tattered and obviously no longer suitable for competition but they certainly could be used for regular training. By the time their donation drive was over, I had about five or six second-hand Dan Rho judogis with me. I was over the moon!
The next year, as I was preparing for the 1993 World Championships, I trained at Camberley that summer too. I needed to get a proper competition suit of my own for the World's. The boys told me about a new judogi brand that had just entered the UK market that was really popular. It was called SFJAM Noris (from France).
They're really hard and thick, the boys said. They recommended I get that, so I did. And so the Noris judogi became my very first proper competition judogi. They weren't the most comfortable to wear but the boys were right: They were stiff, and thus difficult for your opponent to grip. I liked them.
Back in those days, judogis were not properly regulated. Some were incredibly thick. Some were extremely tight-fitting. Some had very short sleeves. It would only be decades later that the IJF, under President Marius Vizer, started to standardize judogis, to make it fairer for all competitors.
The sleeves had to reach the wrists and they had to be wide enough for a judogi measuring device, called the sokuteiki, to slip inside. The material should also not be too thick. It needs to be 750 grams per square meter. Back in my time, it was not uncommon for players to opt for 900 gsm judogis. Now, that's not allowed.
Judogi brands, like other consumer product brands, surge and fade in popularity. By the time the 1995 World Championships came along there was a new brand that judokas liked. It was called KuSakura (from Japan).
Traditionally the popular Japanese brand was Mizuno, which the Japanese team wore. But KuSakura was catching on fast, especially in the USA where they had engaged American World Champion Mike Swain to be their brand ambassador. In fact, that familiar "S" logo that KuSakura judogis have on their sleeves was designed in collaboration with Swain.
I knew Swain, after helping him to write and produce a judo book on ashiwaza, so I asked him to get me some KuSakura judogis for a good price. I was going to wear them in the World Championships, I told him.
Blue judogis were introduced only after I had retired from competition. These proved to be a hit straight away and many people liked wearing blue judogis, although the Japanese officials from the All-Japan Judo Federation and the Kodokan seem to disdain blue judogis.
The All-Japan Open Weight Championships are still held with both players wearing a white judogi. And if you go to the Kodokan, the players training there are all wearing white. Some Japanese players liked the blue judogi though. The late great Toshihiko Koga, for example, was often seen teaching in a blue judogi, not a white one.
When the IJF made blue and white judogis a requirement for competition, some players opted for "reversible" judogis which were both blue and white. So, if your match required you to wear blue, you wore the blue side out (and the white side in). And when you were required to wear white, you just reversed it. That trend didn't last for long though and the norm became such that each competitor would bring both white and blue judogis to events.
Judogi brands that would emerge in later years, long after I had retired from competition, included Adidas (it's made by a company that licenses the main brand), Fighting Films (made by the same people who produce IJF videos, thus the name) and Ippon Gear (made by the German company that had distributed Adidas).
Sport Rhode for some reason faded in popularity and was eventually bought up by another company, which still makes Dan Rho judogis. The Kosovan team notably wears the Dan Rho brand but today few top athletes do.
Some brands are popular mainly in their own home countries. Italian players wear Kappa judogis, Spanish players wear the Daedo brand, while Dutch players wear Essimo. You might have also noticed a brand called Green Hill from Pakistan, which many players from poorer judo nations tend to wear (Green Hill sponsors some of these athletes).
Speaking of Pakistan, almost all judogis are made there. Whether it's Adidas, Fighting Films or Ippon Gear, they're all manufactured in Pakistan. China also manufactures judogis, especially for Japanese brands, but most of the world's judogis come from Pakistan.
Japan actually manufactures some judogis but these are really premium-priced ones with each suit costing up to RM1800, if they are imported here. Cheaper Japanese-branded judogis, made in Pakistan or China, are also available. But the word "cheaper" is relative. Compared to the Japanese ones they are indeed cheaper but each suit would still set you back by about RM1200.
In an IJF video about judogi regulations, Mohamed Meridja, the IJF Education Director, describes the judogi as a "weapon" you can use to defeat your opponent. That's an interesting choice of words. I would have used the word "tool" instead but some players have in the past used their judogis as a weapon
When defending Olympic Champion Hidehiko Yoshida was shockingly eliminated in the first round of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics by Adrian Croitoru, he complained that the Romanian's judogi was too thick and he had difficulty getting a good grip on his opponent's lapel.
His complaint was probably legitimate but it was not illegal back then to wear a thick judogi. In any event, there were players who did manage to beat Croitoru despite his thick judogi so it obviously didn't give him too much of an unfair advantage.
One player who probably went beyond just pushing the boundaries of what should be allowed was a Japanese player named Yoshihiro Akiyama, who later switched to Mixed Martial Arts. When he represented Japan in judo at the 2003 Osaka World Championships, several of his opponents complained that his judogi felt slippery.
The IJF subsequently made an investigation into the matter and did not find him guilty of any wrongdoing. It should be noted however that his domestic rival, World and Olympic Champion Kenzo Nakamura, had earlier complained about the exact same thing during their final in the All-Japan Weight Class Championship, which Akiyama won. Nakamura said he couldn't grip Akiyama because of his slippery judogi.
Despite the complaint, Akiyama was selected to represent Japan at the 2003 World's, where his judogi proved to be just as slippery. After receiving several complaints, the IJF required him to wear a spare judogi supplied by the tournament organizers. Akiyama then lost his next two fights.
I guess in Akiyama's case, he did wield his judogi as a "weapon" (and an illegal weapon at that) against his opponents. So, it's really a good thing that there are now much stricter controls over what's legal and illegal when it comes to judogis. He wouldn't have gotten away with his slippery judogi today.
Judo is a form of jacket wrestling and the judogi is not just some uniform that makes no difference to the sport. In karate and taekwondo, which are striking arts, it really makes little difference what suits you wear. So what if it's thick or short or tight... or slippery even? It really doesn't make a difference when you're punching or kicking. But when you're gripping and grappling, it does.
How well you are able to grip and control your opponent can determine the outcome of a judo match. But beyond gripping the sleeves and lapels of your opponent, there are other parts of the judogi that you can use, and some judokas have used the judogi very creatively.
For example, even under today's rules it's possible to take hold of uke's jacket skirt if it has become loose and is no longer tucked inside uke's belt. Double World Champion Rishod Sobirov of Uzbekistan often took hold of his opponent's jacket skirt during gripping exchanges.
More recently, World Champion Saeid Mollaei (formerly of Iran but now representing Mongolia) threw his Japanese opponent in the final of the 2019 Hohhot Grand Prix by taking hold of his opponent's jacket skirt and doing a sode-tsurikomi-goshi-like movement.
Many players who like to do the side takedown adopt a triceps grip. They don't actually take hold of their opponent's triceps but the judogi material near the triceps. This wouldn't be possible if the judogi is too tight.
The great Koga liked to take a grip on his opponent's armpit area to do his famous standing ippon-seoi-nage. The armpit grip is also something favored by triple World and Olympic Champion Shohei Ono, except he uses it to throw his opponents with osoto-gari.
But it's really in newaza where the judogi really becomes a powerful tool in the hands of a groundwork specialist. In newaza, you are not only allowed to take hold of any part of your opponent's judogi (yes, including the trousers), you can also grip how you want (cross-grip, belt grip, no problem), for as long as you want (there is no requirement for you to attack immediately as in tachi-waza).
The judogi can also be used to control your opponent in newaza. Those who like to do sankaku, regularly tie up their opponent's arms with their opponent's own belt or jacket skirt, in a move that is commonly referred to as a "keylock".
Japan's triple World Junior Champion Haruka Funakubo is known for a newaza turnover whereby she uses her opponent's jacket skirt as leverage to roll them over into a hold-down. She didn't invent this move, which is actually based on a very old technique called hara-zutsumi, but she did popularize it, so much so that it is regularly referred to as "Funakubo-Gatame".
Perhaps the most innovative use of the jacket involves the Gerbi Choke, a move made famous by Israel's Yarden Gerbi who used her own jacket skirt to strangle her opponent, Clarisse Agbegnenou, in the final of the 2013 Rio World Championships.
Gerbi didn't invent that move (it is known as the "Peruvian Necktie" in BJJ) but it had not been seen at high-level international judo competitions before and certainly not in the final of the World Championships.
I saw Gerbi do it live in Rio as I was there to cover the event for the IJF. In the media van on the way back to the hotel after the final, everyone was talking about that controversial move. Someone mentioned that Russia's head coach, Ezio Gamba, though it was illegal. Another person brought up the fact that France's Cyrille Maret had done the same move at an event months earlier. There really was quite a buzz about it.
The IJF subsequently banned the Gerbi Choke and today that technique is no longer allowed to be used. They did not retroactively apply the ban, so Gerbi is able to hold onto her 2013 World title.
I recall chatting with one of the IJF officials at the time, who happened to be French (Gerbi's opponent in the final was French) and he had a great response to the question: "Was it a legal move?" He said whether it's legal or illegal is something that the IJF needs to look at "but nobody can deny that it was a really exciting and innovative technique."
And he's right. Judo is a creatively-rich grappling sport because of the various things we can do in tachi-waza and newaza thanks to the judogi. If you look at wrestling, the number of throws and ground moves wrestlers can do is quite limited. Their techniques are certainly not as varied as in judo because they don't wear a jacket. There's nothing to grip but your opponent's body and that really restricts what you can do. Because of the judogi, we really can get really creative with our moves.
The judogi is important to our sport but beyond the practical benefits of having a good judogi, there is also an important psychological element as well. I always like to say that "to be a good fighter, you have to first look good". I'm only half joking when I say that. When you wear a good judogi, you feel good. You feel more confident and proud to be a judoka.
When I informed one of my players that a recent order of judogis from Fighting Films will be arriving soon, "Excited to get my new gi!" was their response. In reply, I said: "The arrival of your new judogi marks the start of a new phase in your judo journey. It signals that you are now serious about your judo and not just someone who dabbles with it."