The hakama, or pleated pants worn by students of several traditional Japanese martial arts (budo) is often misunderstood and viewed as a nuisance that has little value. Some refer the this garment as "period clothing," meaning that practioners wear it in order to feel like they are stepping back in time to the samurai era. Just another aspect of traditional martial arts that is outdated and unrealistic.
We see the hakama in modern (gendai) arts such as kendo (the art of the sword), kyudo (the art of the bo and arrow) and aikido (the art of harmony). It is a significant aspect of training in the ancient warrior arts (koyru). Although schools differ, most aikido dojos have their students wear a hakama as a sign of status after achieving their first degree black belt, or shodan. Those who study aikido primarily for self-defense complain that it obstructs their movement. This was obviously not the case for my teacher, Isoyama Shihan pictured above demonstrating one of his signature throws.
The hakama as well as the kegogi are functional garments that represent the state of mind expected for the martial artist. There is a specific way to wear and care for it. For example, folding the hakama after practice requires precise movement, just like the tea ceremony (sado) or flower arranging (ikebana). Each fold of the hakama has a meaning that symbolizes the character of its owner. Some claim that it enhances their center of gravity or supports the back. Others suggest the samurai wore it to hide their foot movements, which was not the case. It is reminder for me, at least, of the many layers of discipline associated with the arts I study and practice.
The founder of aikido Morihei Ueshiba, required that all students regardless of rank wore a hakama in his dojo. Ueshiba (O-Sensei) came from a time and family in which strict rules of etiquette and formality were the norm. Given the fact that the white uniform (gi) many of us wear during practice was actually considered underwear, we can see how some teachers would take offense if the hakama was worn improperly or not at all. You see, the hakama completes one's clothing much like wearing a pair of trousers over boxers or briefs. Of course, this is an outdated view and dependent on the art and dojo we happen to be a part of. Furthermore, there are other Asian arts such as kung fu or the Indian fighting art of Kalaripayattu that have garments specific to their practice.
I distinctly remember an instance when Isoyama Shihan gave an aikido seminar at the Misawa City Budokan (place or house of martial arts). There were students who came from all over Japan to attend those seminars. One of the attendees was a nice man from Yokohama, a considerable distance from Misawa. In his haste to make the train and arrive at the seminar on time, he forgot his hakama and made the mistake of walking onto the mat without it. Isoyama was furious. I could not understand everything he said, but I did understand the pain in my legs from sitting in seiza (kneeling) position for over 40 minutes while he discussed the importance of the hakama...loudly. My friend from Yokohama was not permitted on the mat until he rushed out and purchased a new hakama. I would come to realize Isoyama was trying to give a lesson in discipline.
The reason there are so many rules for etiquette and behavior in the practice of budo all comes down to discipline. The daily practice of discipline eventually affects other aspects of our lives. If we set aside these important aspects in the interest of practicality, we miss out on a very important part of the practice. That said, there are instances where I do not wear a hakama such as grappling practice or sparring. However, during aikido and weapons practice, I believe wearing a hakama places me in the proper mindset for studying the art and I encourage my students to do the same. The study of an Asian martial art comprises many things, including a celebration of its culture. In order to understand another's culture, we must study the history behind it. This only serves give us a deeper understanding of others and broadens our world view.