- The bow,
the beginning and end of all things
- Have you
ever wondered why Shotokan karate involves so much
- I know I
did when I first joined a dojo.
- The reason
is really quite simple.
- It is all
about courtesy and respect.
- Of all the
twenty precepts left to us by Master Gichin Funakoshi, my
personal favourite is number one, and to me it says it
all, "Do not forget that karate-do begins, and ends
- Now this
means more than just bowing at the begining and the end
of each kata, "rei" also means having respect
for others, as well as self respect.
- You see the
art of Shotokan karate-do first came to life in Japan, a
country where bowing is an integral part of everyday life.
does it, everywhere, and often.
- In fact to
not bow properly whenever you meet, greet, thank, or have
any interaction with another person for any reason what
so ever, would be considered extremely rude. This is
especially true in the Japanese work place, where bowing
takes on a role akin to that of a karate dojo.
- While in
both places, "why" a person bows is out of
"courtesy and respect" for someone, or
something, just as importantly in both places, "how"
a person bows depends on the "rank" of the
person, or the importance of the thing to which they are
example, in a Japanese company which is a highly
structured society, "how" an employee bows
depends on their rank, and their status within the
corporation. By this I mean the lower a person's rank
within the company, the deeper and longer their bow to
their superiors. On the other hand the higher a person's
rank within the company, the higher and shorter their bow
to one of their junior staff. Often in the case of a very
senior executive, their bow in return to the bow from
someone of a much lower rank could often be likened to a
simple nod of the head.
- Since a
dojo society is also highly structured environment, it is
only natural therefore that bowing based on rank would
also find it's way into a Japanese martial art like
karate. Today this custom of bowing based on rank is
followed even in the smallest karate dojo.
- So just how
does a new student, unfamiliar with karate and all it's
traditions come to understand when, where, and why we
simple, they learn through proper instruction and also by
- If you are
already a student of karate you will know what I mean.
- If you are
not, then I suppose the best way for me to explain the
in's and out's of bowing would be for us to follow a new
white belt through her introduction to the world of
karate, and the art of "rei", a Japanese word
which simply means, "bow".
- Let's call
our new student Cathy.
- Having just
signed up for a beginners course Cathy, now dressed in
her new white gi, is ready to enter the dojo for the very
first time. It is here at the threshold to the dojo it's
self that Cathy will be introduced to "rei" for
the very first time. Here a more senior student assigned
to acquaint Cathy with dojo etiquette, will explain to
her that a proper bow is always performed at the entrance
prior to stepping into or out of the dojo. Her senior
will explain that this is done as a sign of respect for
the dojo it's self, since the dojo or "training hall"
is where all of our learning takes place.
- The next
bow Cathy will be instructed to perform will take place
shortly after she enters the dojo when she is introduced
to the dojo's Chief Instructor, or sensei. As the most
senior ranking person within the dojo society the sensei,
or "teacher", receives the highest possible
respect, since he or she, is the person most qualified to
teach the students all of the skills and techniques that
ultimately define the particular style of karate being
taught within the dojo.
- At the
call, "line up", Cathy as the newest student
will be shown to the end of the line of students.
Following the example of the sensei and the other
students, in rank order, Cathy will now be introduced to
"seiza" or the "kneeling" position.
It is from seiza, Cathy will learn, that the more formal
bows of respect take place at the beginning, and at the
end, of every class. She will also discover that this bow
will differs from all of the ones she has previously
- In this
instance the sensei and all of the students, once again
in rank order, will first place both their hands on the
floor in front of themselves, and then bow deeply enough
to almost touch their forehead to the ground. This, the
deepest bow possible, will first be made to the dojo
shrine and the memory of the "Founder", for
without the Founder the dojo's particular style of karate
would not exist.
- The second
bow, performed in exactly the same manner, will be to the
dojo's sensei, for without the sensei there would be no
one to pass on the art of karate to the students of today.
The sensei in turn bows to the students and by returning
the bow he or she acknowledges that without the students
there would be no one for the sensei to teach, and thus
the sensei would be unable to carry out their obligation
to their teacher which is to pass on all of their
knowledge to others.
the formal bows, and after a brief warm up involving the
whole class, Cathy is taken to one side by a senior
student or perhaps a sempai (assistant teacher) who will
start her introduction karate by going over some of the
basic hand techniques and stances commonly used during
class. But first another bow is required.
- At this
point Cathy will be taught that a bow is always performed
between two or more persons, regardless of their rank,
prior to working together for any reason. In such a
situation she will be told, students of equal rank will
bow to an equal depth. If, however, she should find
herself partnered with a sempai or the sensei then of
course the person with the lowest rank, will have the
deepest, and the longest bow.
- Like I
said, bowing is all about courtesy and respect, and as in
life, bowing in a dojo is also governed by rank.
respect for rank is not just based on personality, but
more importantly it is based on experience and knowledge.
Kyu belts, (or lower ranks) must have respect for their
sempai's (or senior ranks) because the sempai's have
already travelled the path that the juniors one day hope
walk. The sempai's on the other hand must have respect
for their juniors, for they alone know what it is like to
have once been in their place. This respect in turn
carries on up the line to the sensei, then to the shihan
or "master" who heads up the organization to
which the dojo is affiliated, and then finally to the
Founder of the particular style of karate that the
- Two hours
later at the end of her first class Cathy has a pretty
good idea of when, where, and why we all bow so often.
Yes she still has much to learn about bowing, especially
when it come to kata, self defence, and kumite, but at
the end of day one at least she is on the right path, and
that is what matters the most. For karate-do as an art is
ultimately about building and enhancing the character of
the individual participants.
- So always
keep in the fore front of your mind that when you bow,
you must do so with a pure thought, and a true heart.
- For without
this underlying ideology of courtesy and respect, karate
would be a very hollow thing indeed.
- To bow well
physically at any time,
- you must
first bow well in your mind.
- Part the
clouds - see the way.
objective of karate-do is to contribute to the evolution
- of the
human spirit through physical and mental training."