To Bow or Not To Bow
"now that's a tough question"
By F. Darren Smith
Used with the express permission of Shihan Ron Yamanaka
Recently, I was travelling in an automobile that had a small toy dog mounted upon the dash. It
was a "bobble-head" model meaning it had a moveable head. Throughout
the trip, the head kept bobbing up and down and I was reminded of classes at
the dojo where students and instructors alike are forever bobbing their heads
and/or torsos up and down performing this action we call "rei", often appearing just like this bobble-head dog. It occurred
to me that we bow far too much in the Western world in our attempts to emulate
our art after our Asian teachers. This appears especially true when one sees
the amount of bowing that actually occurs in many of the Japanese dojos.
There are some important aspects that we can take from the etymology of this kanji. First is the idea of "showing", "displaying" or "expressing" something. Rei implies an overt action that can be seen by others. Japanese etiquette is suffused with the spirit of Confucianism, which means it is a hierarchical, class-based, ethical system giving deference to elders and others of greater status. Hence, the notion of showing oneself as "second" or kneeling, thus humbling oneself, depending on which interpretation of the kanji one uses, denotes humility and modesty - both key attributes to the true budoka. It conveys having consideration for others through possessing an esthetic sense of innate and dispassionate self-control.
Many Japanese terms incorporate the kanji for rei. The common theme for these various kanji is etiquette and/or display. Some examples include "konrei" - marriage ceremony or wedding, "gunrei" - military honours and "reihai" - worship, divine service, amongst many others. Finally, we have a more commonly known term, which is "Reigi" with "gi" being translated as deliberation, consultation and debate. For our purposes, gi is also defined as "consideration." Thus, we translate reigi as "methods of showing respect" and again "etiquette." Thus, the bow is basically a manifestation of one's manners. Not to bow, when it's appropriate to do so, or to bow improperly, is akin to having bad manners.
The bow, although, is not the exact equivalent of the handshake. Handshakes have little variation, other than length of time and the strength employed. This may tell one very little, other than one or both persons have strong hands. On the other hand, the bow can convey a number of different things to its partakers and observers alike. Various bows have different meanings. As well, the type and level of emotions that may be involved and the nature of the relationship between the persons bowing can be observed. Correct bowing is complex. There are different nuances involved with the type of bow and situation in which it is used. The depth of the bow depends on the relationship between the two people meeting. Bows can range from shallow nods to kneeling bows where one's head touches the floor. This latter bow, however, is seldom practiced or seen these days. As well as replacing the handshake, a bow can replace "thank you", "please" and other commonly used terms of gratitude and respect.
Many Japanese appear to bow with little conscious thought. This can be seen when a Japanese person is immersed in a telephone conversation and is bowing to the unseen party. It is incorrect to assume that all Japanese understand the fine distinctions of bowing. With globalization and the Westernizing of Japan, etiquette classicists note that many Japanese know only the rudimentary elements of correct bowing.
I find it truly sad when my fellow martial artists berate or disparage the use of at least some traditional Japanese etiquette, including bowing, in the dojo. It is interesting that many of these teachers are quick to note that they teach "jujutsu" or "karate", but outside of the actual words "jujutsu" or "karate" and the use of the unique practice uniform ("gi"), there is little else that distinguishes the school as a Japanese martial arts dojo. Perhaps these schools should call their arts "fighting" or "self-defence" and skip the rather tenuous links to Japanese martial arts. However, I digress.
There are many reasons for beginning to study the martial arts. One the main reasons that a person may initially enter a dojo is self-defence. Surprisingly, several Japanese martial arts masters note that the purpose of etiquette, and its expression through the use of the bow, is self defence. This is not to suggest that one should bow to an incoming mae geri (front kick). When one reflects more deeply on this supposition it becomes clear that reigi saho (etiquette manners) is self defence. On its face, we know that etiquette has a dictionary definition of "long-observed behavior proper to a specific context whose effect is to ensure social order."
Keeping with this definition, we are familiar with Japanese etiquette and particularly bowing as a "long observed" behaviour that is used in a "specific context." With respect to it having the effect "to ensure social order", we need only review some historical warrior behaviours. For example, the sword is carried and drawn from the left side. A samurai would place his sword on his right side as a symbol of his peaceful intent. This placement made it tough to access the weapon quickly, thus rendering it ineffective. Failure to complete this customary behaviour whilst in the presence of a superior ranking party was a grave breach of etiquette that could result in immediate execution.
These warriors had many strict protocols including how they entered rooms, to where they were seated in these rooms when superiors or other warriors were present, to how they removed and put on their swords in the presence of others. These protocols were strictly observed so that the warrior appeared to pose no threat. This etiquette code of behavior helped ensure the safety of others around the warrior. Moreover, it was a form of self-defence for the warrior since all were subject to these etiquette protocols; hence, the warrior had the ability to interact with others free of the fear of being exposed to a lethal risk
These patterns of behaviour are not strictly the domain of historical Japanese culture. Two pieces of Western lore appear to support the notion of etiquette being central to self defence. In the first, medieval knights, when greeting each other, took hold of the other's right hand, which was the weapon hand. This was the forerunner of the modern handshake. Unlike the modern handshake, the knights kept hold of one another's arm while interacting at such a close distance. This ensured mutual safety while at close distance. Secondly, although unsubstantiated, it has been held that the modern day military-style salute showed that one's weapon hand was empty and therefore posed no threat. Others dispute this claim and note it is performed this way (right hand touching the forehead) historically in medieval tournaments. At these events, the two knights opened the fronts of their helmets to show their faces to their opponent and to the audience. Suffice it to state, the salute has military origins as does the bow.
If you're now convinced that bowing is an important aspect of studying the martial arts, or at least believe it warrants further examination, read on. We are going to look at the different types of bows and how to bow.
The standing bow is divided into five "unofficial" types:
1. the cursory bow - Bow to an angle of five degrees, it's basic nod, "Hello", used to convey an extremely simple (impersonal) greeting.
2. the shallow bow - Bow to an angle of fifteen degrees. This is used for common salutations, "Good Day" greeting. It is slightly more formal than the cursory bow.
3. the ordinary bow - Bow to an angle of thirty degrees. This is the most common, respectful bow to be used especially when indicating appreciation.
4. the politest bow - Bow to an angle of forty-five degrees. This bow is used to convey very deep respect or to expressing extreme gratitude or an apology.
5. the ceremonial bow - Bow to an angle of ninety degrees. This deepest of bows is reserved for ceremonial occasions such as a visit to a shrine or Buddhist temple.
The only significant difference amongst each of these bows is the angle to which it is performed. This angle increases according to the level of respect that should be shown. In most everyday situations, one uses the "ordinary bow." The "shallow bow" is made only toward those with whom one is quite familiar, since it can be perceived to be, at the very least, impolite if another deeper bow is more appropriate to the situation.
Please remember two things - Don't bob your head. Bend from the waist. Let me repeat those - Don't bob your head. Bend from the waist. Did I mention - Don't bob your head and bend from the waist? There are other rules, but these are key.
One should take solace in the fact that nowadays most young Japanese do not bow very often, nor do they bow correctly. Generally speaking, most Westerners who take Jujutsu, Karate or Kendo etc. know more about bowing than the average Japanese college student. In fact, many companies in Japan have classes on etiquette for their new employees so that these employees know when and how to bow. The art of bowing does not have the prominence in Japan that it once did. Nowadays there are many adapted methods that barely resemble the traditional methods. These appear to be blended versions of tea ceremonies, geisha and the military arts etc. However, those "in the know" will very quickly determine your level of knowledge in this regard.
One should breath in while bending forward. Next, one should exhale when she or he stops at the lowest part of the bow. Finally, one inhales once more as he or she returns to his or her initial posture. This method of breathing allows the back to stretch naturally. As well, the motion of the head will draw a smooth arc. These are two fundamental pieces of a visually pleasing and sincere bow. It is important to have the bow "look" correct so that it conveys the correct message. An example once given to me was to consider a person at a funeral saying, "I feel great sympathy for your tragic loss," while standing with his or her hands in his or her pockets jingling loose change. These sentiments would not be judged sincere. To sincerely convey a message, bow correctly by keeping the back straight. True respect is seen to start with this gesture.
First allow me to aver that the methods of bowing from school to school and style to style are not identical or standardized. Thus, the caveat is to bow in the manner in which you were taught is proper at your school. Later in this article, we will examine some of the various idiosyncrasies of bowing in some of the Japanese ryuha. It can be stressed, nevertheless, that the pivot point for a bow is at the hips, the back stays straight and the head does not bob. Thus far, I know of no school that does not concur with these three points. With the aforementioned admonition in mind, let's examine the remaining body mechanics of the bow.
For ritsurei, allow your hands to hang naturally at your sides in the beginning. Some schools note that the hands appear to "grab one's rear." More accurately, imagine you are wearing a pair of pants (even if you're not), with your hands hanging in a relaxed manner have your thumbs aligned with the outseam of the pants. Your heels should be together and you should be standing erect without appearing to be in a military "attention" stance. Without any apparent effort you bend forward, with the head and back forming a straight line, to a depth that is appropriate for the circumstance. Reisansoke (three step breathing method) is also employed as it is with zarei (seated bows). Women may move their hands to the front of their thighs until they just touch during the descending portion of the bow and return them while ascending. In the dojo, this is not as consequential as in other circumstances. The hands are never, never "slapped" on the sides of your thighs.
Whether seated or standing, the correct and
visually pleasing bow is defined by the manner in how it is completed. The
upper body should be raised slowly, calmly and in harmony with the motion of
other party. Too often, we observe people returning to their natural posture like
they have just been hit with an uppercut and snapped upwards.
Again the exact mechanics used for the seated bow depend on the situation and/or the status of the person receiving the courtesy. While seated the hands lay flat on the upper thighs while at attention and either on the upper thighs or cupping hara when relaxed. The angle of bowing will differ according to whether the person receiving the bow is junior, equal, or senior to you as will the spacing between the hands. With seated bows, the hands should slide directly forward to the front of the knees. Women sometimes bring their hands closer together, as with the formal standing bow. You will notice that many of the previously described bows are the same as those explained below. The most common types of bow include
The seated bows described above are the traditional etiquette bows used in refined Japanese culture. Although correct, they are not the only "acceptable" methods of bowing in the dojo. There are other seated bows are common and correct depending on the school of martial art from which the student hails.
In many styles of jujutsu, we often see a two step method of placing the hands when performing a seated bow. The most common of these is the placement of the left hand to the floor followed by the right hand. The hands are retracted in the opposite order when performing the ascending aspect of the bow. In these schools, the belief is that the placement of the left hand to the floor first is derived from the swordsman's practice of placing the left hand down first. The left hand is needed to secure the saya, while the right hand grasps the tsuka to draw the sword. By placing the left hand onto the floor first, the swordsman seriously impaired his ability to draw his weapon, hence it is an act of trust and etiquette.
Sliding the hands forward and placing them simultaneously on the ground is stressed in some schools such as the Yoseikan. Minoru Mochizuki Sensei believed that placing one hand on the ground followed by the other showed a lack of trust in the entity or person to whom the bow was being given, in particular when bowing at the kamiza (chief seat or seat of honour, literally "upper seat"). Often the kamiza has a small temple, called a "shinden", therefore, bowing in the common left hand then right hand method is considered pretending that you cannot trust the gods which is very impolite. As we are aware, the act of bowing comes from feudal warrior behaviours where etiquette was used to show that one was not a threat. The Yoseikan believe that placing both hands to the floor shows the least threat, the greatest trust and therefore the most etiquette.
In Katori Shinto Ryu (KSR), at the beginning of each class, the proper way to bow means one bows to the shinden twice, then claps the hands twice, followed by a third bow. As the founder of their ryu was a Buddhist and it is a Shinto school, it is somewhat religious. Japanese KSR teachers note that this way of bowing is only performed when the dojo has a shinden; otherwise, one only bows once, facing a makimono or a picture.
In the Hakko Denshin Ryu tradition, both open and closed hand bows are used. A particular uniqueness of this school is the use of the "loose fist" bow. The hands are placed knuckles down and the thumbs forward in the appearance of a loose fist. Again the explanation offered is that the sword is worn on one's left side. Given that one is bowing to a person close to him/herself, the open hand would allow one to draw your sword. Therefore, when bowing to a person while in suwari, the use of the loose fist with the thumbs forward method shows no threat and therefore is proper etiquette.
As can be seen with any of these diverse methods of zarei, the key is "no threat" and a demonstration of trust, which are the historical backbones of proper etiquette.
Clenched fist bowing is not common in the traditional Japanese martial arts. This may differ with some of the arts derived from Okinawa. There are exceptions, however. The Sumo performs a clenched fist bow before he begins his attack. In some forms of Kenjutsu and Kempo, practitioners, at times, will kneel on one knee (hizamazuke dachi) and will place a fist on the floor as a form of acknowledgement or salute.
In some forms of Gung Fu, one can observe the participants to place one open hand over the other clenched fist hand. Some have said this is the "velvet glove" covering the "iron fist." It has been held that the hand over the fist originally comes from the fall of the Ming Dynasty. Ming means "sun and moon" and the hand formation of hand over the fist looks like a moon over the sun.
Originally this gesticulation was seen in Triads and used during Yellow Boxer Uprising. Later, it was adopted by Gung Fu exponents as a salutation to the times of good rule. Shoalin monks practiced this form of salutation from the period when their monastery was burnt down by persons who opposed Ming rule. The culprits of this act were persons who did not like the monks as the monks were Ming supporters and had some measure of influence.
So far this article has been less than controversial and more of a simple history or anthropology lesson. It's time to change that and inflect some of my "informed" opinion into the bowing fray.
With respect to the position of the eyes during bowing, there are differing opinions on the subject. Some believe its rude to look a teacher in the eyes when bowing while others believe that you should keep looking into your partner's eyes as you bow.
I can understand the pragmatic reasoning for looking at one's opponent in self-defense situations. This makes perfect sense since most of us cannot use "the force" like the character Luke Skywalker in the movie Star Wars. Even better is to have an awareness of an opponent's entire body. When the writer was fighting in full-contact matches, albeit many years ago, not taking your eyes off your opponent at any time was simply prudent including during the bow at the beginning of the fight. But now for my rant.
When bowing to one another in a dojo, we are not bowing to an opponent or to an attacker; rather, we are bowing to our partner. With "aiki", we learn to use the energy of our partner. In this light, we see our partner as a welcome guest instead of an opponent. We work together to learn something. Uke, traditionally the more senior student, gives tori, the junior student, an opportunity to learn a way of controlling a situation. Hence, the person with which we practice is considered someone we can trust. It is someone with whom we entrust our body and depend upon for our immediate well-being. All this is done so that he or she is able to learn. In over 30 years of martial arts study, I have met many Japanese masters, some for whom I had tremendous respect. My experience was that all of these senior Sensei never maintained eye contact with me during the execution of bowing, including both in the dojo and outside of it. Lowering the eyes is a sign of modesty, and is used in formal bowing in Japan. Modesty is an attribute for which all we bugeisha strive.
Simply put, your eyes should focus straight ahead and be "locked" with your head and back as you are bowing, hence at the lowest part of your bow you may be looking down and not at the face of your partner or whatever person is receiving this courtesy. Obviously this depends on the depth of the bow. The Japanese consider looking up with your face, when you bow, to be very rude. Somehow we in the West have watched too many martial arts movies and have come to believe that an appropriate bow involves lifting one's face so that one can see your "opponent." If realistic street self defence is your concern might I suggest don't bow at all to your attacker. Remember the first rules of bowing, "Don't bob your head" and "Bend from the waist." Looking up into the eyes of your partner, teacher or other person may force you to bob your head, just like the bobble-head dog on the dashboard. If you insist on looking into the other's eyes, the learned Japanese will simply think you an ignoramus. Finally, think about it. To attack another in the dojo while bowing, during a training session, will have dire consequences for the attacker - at least in my class.
There are many times when it is appropriate to bow. Unfortunately, in our attempts to emulate traditional Japanese etiquette we seem to overdo it, especially when one observes the amount of bowing that occurs in many traditional dojos in Japan. To illustrate, after class begins, you do not have to bow every time you approach the instructor. Bowing is not required every time the teacher tells you to move from here to there. As well, you do not have to bow every time you are corrected or given instruction. After the formal bows, which will be described below, try to take a minimalist approach to bowing. Central to budo is the quest for spiritual and personal development where one is truly humble. Over-engaging in bowing simply appears to be an expression of false modesty and humility. The bow should be reserved for sincere moments when giri (sense of duty) and reigi (etiquette) dictates that this courtesy be paid.
Let's look at some of the times when it is appropriate to bow. The following list is not exhaustive but will provide some context for bowing.
At the Dojo Genkan
When Class Commences
Once the class has formed lines, joseki to shimoseki (upper students to lower students), the teacher may have the class perform a series of standing or seated bows. The three most common bows used are "Shomen ni rei", followed by "Sensei ni rei" and ended with "Otagai ni rei". Respectively, these mean "bow to the front", "bow to the teacher" and "bow to each other."
Symbolically, shomen-ni-rei (literally "righteous/just face") is a bow paying homage to the past and in particular to the ryuso (school founder) and the teachers who have gone before. All students and the teacher face the front to perform this bow. The front of the dojo, where the kamiza is located, often has a shinden, literally the "Gods Temple." When performing this bow, it is very important to keep the head and back in line. Allowing the head to bob, especially allowing the chin to come to the chest, exposes the nape of the neck to the kamiza and/or shinden. This is very poor form and impolite.
Sensei-ni-rei is a bow to the teacher or a bow to the present. It is paying courtesy to the teacher who is about to instruct the class. The students remain facing the front and the teacher faces the students.
Otagai-ni-rei (otagai interprets as "we are of equal status") is a bow to each other or a bow to the future. The future of any ryuha lies with its students since the students are the future teachers. Without students, there is no school. Again, the students remain facing the front and the teacher faces the students.
Working With a Partner
With the Teacher
In the dojo, we typically do not speak while bowing with the exception of saying "Thank you", in Japanese. We always give thanks after having completed "otagai ni rei" at both the beginning and end of class.
At the beginning of class, while completing "otagai ni rei" the words "onegai shimasu", which means "please" and we translate as "excuse me, can you help me?" (ojama shimasu also means excuse me for disturbing/interrupting you) are spoken. At the end of class, also while completing the "otagai ni rei", the words "arigato gozaimashita" (past tense for thank you) are spoken. Both are said softly. These are the formal ways of expressing gratitude. The use of "Domo Arigato" is not considered polite and should be avoided in the Dojo.
Business cards in the West are tossed about, dropped on tables, offhandedly distributed and generally treated with something just slightly higher than disdain. In the dojo, we often have visiting Shihan from Japan and Okinawa. In business and socially, the Japanese are never far from their business card. The attitude towards the business card is remarkably different with the Japanese.
When handing a person from Japan your business card, hold the top corner in each hand, with the card facing the person you are providing it to. While handing the card to the person, bow. The other person, if employing proper etiquette, should receive the card with both hands while also bowing
The card immediately furnishes those exchanging them with information on who should bow the lowest at this first time encounter. Business cards contain invaluable information such as the person's name, company for which she or he works and their position within that organization. Hence, a person receiving the card recognizes immediately whether he or she is "higher or lower" in status and can adapt his or her bow in an appropriate manner.
Although the card has this information, you may still be unsure how your bow should be tailored to the situation. If so, bow slightly lower and a little longer than the person you are meeting.
Occasionally, you may be forced to pass in front of someone else in the dojo, which is impolite. One should always try to walk behind another person, if possible. If you have to go in front, you excuse yourself by bowing slightly and holding out your right hand with the edge downwards as if you are cutting your way and offering a silent apology. One puts out his or her hand when it appears that she or he is about to do something rather unpardonable. This action might be described as expressing gratitude to another for allowing you to do something that is not considered polite. In addition to people, it is impolite to handle a dojo mate's equipment (e.g., sparring equipment, hanbo, shinai etc.). One should also avoid stepping on or over another's equipment and should always seek permission to touch it or move it, if it is necessary.
This proper etiquette can be seen most often in Kendo dojo, however, some version of this mannerism is used in Japanese business and socially as well.
Everything for a reason. It's an old expression but it seems especially apropos when we talk about bowing in the Japanese martial arts. It seems that with every passing year there is more and more talk about discarding the anachronisms of the martial arts including bowing. Given what bowing represents, any traditional martial artist should vociferously oppose any such notion. Why not give up shaking hands and any other polite Western mannerism? We wouldn't because we do not want to be perceived as boors. Traditional martial arts are not simply a menu or smorgasbord of techniques, principles and philosophies from which one can offhandedly pick and choose what to embrace and what to discard. This is not to say there is an expectation that one accept all things in the martial arts in their entirety. Rather, it is to place context around "everything for a reason." Traditional Japanese martial arts are a "package deal". And this includes bowing.
The next time you begin to stoop forward into some semblance of a bow, think about all that the bow represents and try to make it a beautiful thing . . . because it really is.
F. Darren Smith