It was Halloween a little while ago here in the US (and other places), and I got stuck on candy duty at my house. I had the opportunity to see all the different costumes in our neighborhood. There were the normal horror movie villains, such as vampires, ghosts, and werewolves, but there are also people that dress up as other things. Ninjas, in some form or another, is a perennial favorite in my neighborhood. Power Rangers are always a good bet, and this year, because of the release of the movie, Lego Ninjago was also a popular costume. However, one little boy came up wearing a gi and his yellow belt. This struck me as a little off. As a martial artist, I was put off that he was using his martial art as a costume. Now, I didn’t blame the kid because, well…he’s a kid. And I didn’t blame the parents because they probably didn’t know that anyone would look at his costume, weirdly. I hate to use the word “offended” because that wasn’t quite what I was feeling, but it struck me as wrong that he was using his uniform as a costume.
After I smiled and gave the kid his requested treat, I had to think about why I felt that wearing a martial arts uniform as a costume was wrong. Below are some of the thoughts I came up with on why it was wrong, as well as some thoughts on why I was wrong for thinking so.
Wearing a gi as a costume is a bad thing
Promotes idea that martial arts is a “kids” thing
One of the problems we have in the US with martial arts is that it is mainly thought of as a childhood activity. Whenever I bring up martial arts, I inevitably hear: “Yeah, I did ______ [insert martial art here] when I was a kid.” This happens so much that this is one of the reasons I don’t bring up martial arts to non-martial artists. Having kids “dress up” as a martial artist only seems to perpetuate this idea.
Diminishes what martial arts is
By making a martial arts uniform a Halloween costume, it creates (or perpetuates) the idea in people’s mind that martial arts, and martial artists, are fake things like wizards or Batman. It takes away from the arts that we do every day. It’s hard enough to explain to people why we pay to have people punch us in the face. Having people think of us as doing “cosplay” makes it even worse. Living the martial way is a lifestyle choice that influences us every single day, and generally, we want to promote respect for that choice.
Wearing a gi as a costume is a good thing
Positive image for martial arts
Children are always a good litmus test for what’s good and bad in the world. Having them dress as martial artists is probably a good thing. It shows that martial arts, at least in this one kid’s life, is a good thing. Being a martial artist is what this kid wanted to be. He thought of martial arts as a self-image he wanted to portray to the rest of the world. After all, doctors don’t get offended when kids wear scrubs. In fact, many take it as a point of pride. No doctor would be angered and call a child out on Halloween because he wasn’t a “real” doctor. The same goes for firemen, policemen, or other professionals who don’t seem to mind kids dressing up as them. I think the difference is that those other professionals already have society’s approval, and we meager martial artists are still struggling for legitimacy.
I think the reason I was irked by this had almost nothing to do with the kid or his parents, but instead my own ego. As a martial artist, and especially as a martial arts communicator, I want the rest of the world to understand and respect the effort and work that goes into being a legitimate martial artist. Having a child dress up and say, “I’m a martial artist” almost seemed to make a joke out of what I’ve sweat, bled, and sacrificed other aspects of my life for. It seemed to legitimize society’s light-hearted view of what I do. In the end, it had to do with me and very little to do with the child. It also made me ask myself if I wear my gi as a costume or a uniform. If it’s a costume, that means I don’t really think of myself as a martial artist, it’s just something I do. If it’s a uniform, then it is an outward representation of who I am. And those are two very different things.