A Hakama is a traditional Japanese clothing, a regal over skirt donned by samurai, daimyo and shogun of old Japan. It is also worn over a keiko-gi for Japanese martial arts in the likes of Aikido, Kendo, Iaido and Kyudo. The black over skirt for todays Aikido has seven deep pleats, two on the back and five on the front. The pleats are said to represent the seven virtues of bushido, rectitude, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honour , and loyalty , all considered essential to the samurai way.
In Aikido, putting on a Hakama represents a transformation; like a caterpillar to a butterfly, like short pants to long pants in school, like student to sempai, like uchi-deshi to sensei. It takes years to earn Shodan or first degree black belt. Only then can an “Aikidoka” be permitted to wear a Hakama during practice in and out of the dojo. I received mine after five long years. I spent two years searching for the dojo that could ground me and I kept practicing for an additional three years under senseis that I foresaw would transform me and my aikido to a form I can adopt as my own. To be given permission to wear a Hakama is not a privilege. It marks the true beginning of one’s journey in Aikido. It marks the beginning of greater and more mindful learning of the physical, mental, and spiritual essence of the art. It can be seen as a humbling reward given those who have dedicated hours and hours to diligent practice of honing one’s techniques thru hundreds and even thousands of repetitions. It is a gift that reminds Shodans, Nidans, Sandans and so forth, perhaps even our own senseis, of the unending journey still ahead.
Wearing a Hakama makes one feel much closer to a code of etiquette, to the code of the samurai, to the code of bushido. I have, to an extent, affinity towards them. I’ve given great effort in learning techniques and practicing patience. I followed my senseis to the point of walking and soaking in the rain to get to the dojo on time, and I’ve read books and read even more books to learn about this way of life. The hakama urged me to keep learning even though bushido is not easily grasped. There is a shroud surrounding it. Like the pleats of the hakama, it unfolds only through immersion in unrelenting practice. Only when you move fluidly will the pleats unravel and show the secrets within each fold. Like these creases, Bushido is a code unseen, unuttered, and unwritten. Its message is subliminal and it has no precise edges.
Like many of Japans aesthetic symbolisms, the hakama comes from a growth that is organic, and spans decades and centuries. Putting on a Hakama feels like wearing history and an ideal around your waist. It keeps the wearer feeling grounded to a continuously self-developing personal code matching closely the semi-malleable nature of Bushido. Whether it is clearly defined or not, it still transforms the wearer and weighs him down with an air of greater awareness. It hides one’s intentions, gives him mystery, gives him a dark but benevolent presence, and gives him stability whether true or illusionary.
The Hakama, a dark cloth pleated in seven folds of soul, a reminder of a code, a reminder that each one has his own path, a reminder to keep one’s own mystery in creases until the time is right, until fluidity catches each pleat to reveal a beautiful pattern we can allow a few others if not all to see.