Heresy and Hygiene

Every time I wash my obi (belts), I get mental images of countless karate instructors and practitioners screaming “never wash your belt!” When I first started training, I followed that tradition, and everything was fine. Of course, I also went up through the belt ranks pretty quickly, so I didn’t wear the first few for very long. On top of that, pretty much all the training was done without a partner, so it’s not like I had exposure to other people’s gross, sweaty belts. As I got higher in rank, and the belts stayed on longer, and the training involved more and more contact with others, though, I started to feel conflicted. We made everyone wash their gi after every class, so why not the belt? The only answer I could ever find was “tradition.”

The Kodokan judo emblem

After I had been training in judo for a while, and started researching it, I learned that judoka have no such tradition of never washing the belt. As a matter of fact, the Kodokan (the world headquarters of judo) requires students to wash their belts, along with their gi, after every class. This confused me, since karate took its belt system from judo. In my research, and discussions with judoka and jujutsuka, I learned that an unwashed belt wasn’t just a little smelly and off-color–it was a sponge full of bacteria and fungi, and every time you roll on the ground, or touch your belt, or someone else touches your belt, those bacteria and fungi being spread around!

Karateka may think that they are exempt from this rule–maybe because they don’t grapple much, or maybe simply because they don’t know anyone in their dojo who has had a problem. The grim truth is that they have been lucky, and I would rather be safe than sorry. An unwashed gi or obi can spread ringworm, staph, impetigo, MRSA, herpes, and more! These infections can range from irritating to life threatening, and people end up in the hospital with them on a regular basis. You can minimize your risk by showering thoroughly immediately after training, but you’re still putting yourself and others at risk if you’re letting those infections fester in your belt.

My new Shureido belt, that is taking forever to break in

Before I earned my shodan rank, I had been wearing a hemp belt for several years, and once my Shureido black belt is broken in, I’ll be setting it aside for special occasions and using a hemp belt for training. One of the benefits of hemp is that it is naturally anti-microbial, which means it requires less washing, but it still needs to be washed on occasion. I hand-wash my hemp belts in the sink with a “free and clear” detergent every month, or more often if I know it’s getting especially sweaty/dirty. Cotton and synthetic belts, like most people wear, should be washed MUCH more often–ideally, after every training session. If you haven’t been doing it, I urge you to soak your belt in vinegar for half an hour, or so, to kill off anything currently living in it, and then start washing. Use cold water, gentle detergent, and let the belt hang dry, or you will end up shrinking it and wearing it out too soon. Don’t let tradition put you, or the people you train with, at risk!

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.