Yushinkan was the dojo of Nakayama Hakudo (1873-1958) in Tokyo. Nakayama had a varied and rich budo life, achieving hanshi in all three arts promoted by the modern ZNKR as well as being a shindo munen-ryu swordsman amongst other things. Its impossible to do a full bio of the man here, so I will leave that for another time, instead concentrating on the content of this article.
Nakayama was highly influential in the Butokukai and therefore the kendo community at large. He practised around the country and many of his students went on to become kendo leaders in their own right. Quite a few of the innovations he came up with at Yushinkan (and promoted by him and his students) are currently taken for granted in the kendo community now, including parts of the reiho we use, and even the method many of us tie our men-himo. This article deals only with one such thing: the origin of the use of white dogi (hakama in particular). I’ve heard a lot of explanations for its use, from the ordinary to the mystical, with people sometimes even arbitrarily defining rules for wearing white. This occurs even in Japan. However, the reason for its initial introduction is as mundane as it can be, despite what connotations people may or may not give it now.
Since Nakayama was hanshi in kendo, iaido, and jodo, and due to his influence in the Butokukai, its obvious that what is said below – although it is aimed at kendo practise – follows on naturally to iaido and jodo as well. The following is what he had to say on the matter.
Naturally, during a some tough keiko sessions we sweat a lot. Taking a break in the garden between these tough practises people often drink something or even smoke a cigarette. This combination is perhaps more unhygienic than we imagine. Since I started a dojo and began teaching my own students I began to notice and began to pay it more attention to hygiene matters. Because keikogi and hakama get dirty very easy, I stopped the use of black and the then popular striped hakama, and forced the use of white ones on my students. Dirt on a white hakama stands out, so people tend to clean them as soon as they notice it has become dirty. This is a lot more hygienic than before (where dirt would not be noticed and the hakama continually used). In the beginning the move wasn’t favoured by some of my students, but as time went on it became more popular, and the amount of people washing their hakama after practise increased.
Whenever I went to other dojos as well, I would take this idea with me. At that time white hakamas were used only in temples and shrines, so it was thought that it was strange to use in the dojo. But after a few years I started seeing white dogi more and more at the Kyoto Taikai, and when we entered the Showa period (from 1925) it suddenly became popular. Nowadays we can see white being used everywhere. Some people suggest (gossip) that the use of white hakamas is the badge or mark of the Nakayama Dojo (i.e. Yushinkan), but the truth is the decision to use white was based only on what I wrote above. Sometimes I consider wryly that the only thing I will leave to the kendo community is the use of the white hakama!