Rei – Bowing

Most Karate practitioners bow many times each time they visit the dojo. Some bow every time they enter the dojo, at the beginning and end of class, at the beginning and end of every kata (form) repetition and every time they face a new partner in kumite (sparring) practice. Most take it for granted that this ritual is a necessary part of their Karate experience, whether it holds some cultural significance (since Karate is, after all, Japanese) or as a way of expressing humility and/or respect for partners/instructors. Some have their doubts about the value of bowing and a few people even refuse to bow in class due to religious conflicts. I am not going to argue the validity of such complaints. I would like to just review the most general bowing ideas here.

Looking at the kanji (pictogram) for “rei,” we can imagine the origin of this character being a representation of someone kneeling in prayer. Japanese kanji can have many meanings, and this one is no exception. “Rei,” when combined with other kanji, can signify prayer, courtesy, thanking, or bowing, among others. Although a bow can be considered an integral part of prayer, the bow of Karate is seldom confused with a religious rite. Japanese are generally not very religious. In Japan, the bow is used much more often in business or social situations than bearing any religious significance. It is most often used much the same way as a handshake in the western world; as a greeting (as when entering a business meeting), symbolic of some sort of combined accomplishment or mutual understanding (such when signing a contract) or as a display of gratitude (when receiving an award).

Some western Karate practitioners have given up the use of bowing in their classes altogether. This is their choice, but I would not like to be a part of such a group if at least some form of respect/courtesy were not used in its place (such as a handshake, which takes even more time and effort, so what is the point?).

I spent a total of eight years living in Japan, beginning in 1985. In Japan, I became accustomed to bowing subconsciously as I greeted shopkeepers on the street and thanked delivery people when they brought my pizza. Back in the U.S., I notice that a lot of karateka don’t seem to understand proper bowing procedure. I understand that it is something new to most of us and I don’t expect everyone to just “get it.” But – as with so many other things – if you’re going to do it, shouldn’t you do it right?

First, I would like to review the concept of bowing as a way of opening and closing. Whether it be a ceremony or a business meeting, it’s basically the same; much like the symbolic handshake. For this bowing application, they occur in sets of two. I recently attended a tournament in which both participants and judges seemed unsure of when they should bow, and how many times. When in doubt, check to see if your bows “match-up” in pairs.

One way to think about bowing is like parentheses in mathematics.

You can have a logical formula:

a = (b + c(d)/(e+f(g)/h) – i)

But a formula such as:

a = (b +c(d/(e+f(g/h – i)

doesn’t make any sense, because the parentheses don’t match up. Bow when you meet a new partner. Bow again when you finish. Bow when you start a new kata. Bow again when you finish. Every bow should be matched up with another to make the formula work. (There are, of course, additional bows sometimes to accept criticism from an instructor or to show extra thanks at the end of class. But the ceremonial and display-of-mutual-respect bows should match up, anyway.) A very short class, therefore, might look something like this (bows represented by parentheses):

(( (taiso/warm-up) (kihon/basics) turn around and fix your karategi (more basics) stretch (kata) (another kata) stretch (kumite/sparring practice with one partner)(sparring with another partner)(warm-down) ))

In kumite, bow when you start and bow when you finish. You can add another bow if you are accepting criticism or congratulating your partner/opponent for a point. But, in general, only the opening and closing bows are required. This may, of course, be slightly different in other styles/organizations, but this is the general idea.

Next, I would like to review the basic types of bows. Bows range from the very informal nod of the head that most of us would use to agree with someone’s casual comments, to the very formal seated bow. Japanese learn the subtle differences through the entire spectrum of bowing types. Westerners should not be expected to become perfect at these bowing subtleties, but a brief review might prove interesting for some.

Although good enough for most of your friends, a simple nod of the head is considered somewhat rude in the Japanese culture. Even for the slightest bows, the neck usually does not bend. The entire torso leans forward, with the neck straight. For the more formal bows, simply bring the entire torso–back & neck straight–further forward.

For standing bows, the hands should remain lightly touching the sides of the legs, without moving them, for men. Women sometimes slide their hands inward and downward in formal situations, but this is rarely seen in Karate dojo. With seated bows, hands should slide directly forward to in front of the knees. Women sometimes bring their hands closer together, as with the formal standing bow.

As far as the position of the eyes goes, there seem to be different opinions on the subject. Some think that it is rude to look an instructor in the eyes when bowing. Some say that you should keep looking into your partner’s eyes as you bow. Are these different types of bows, or are they the same? For realistic budo/self-defense practicality reasons, remaining conscious of your partner/opponent’s position is a good idea. But should you make extra effort to maintain eye contact specifically? I think that you should continue to watch his/her body, but there is not much advantage to looking at the eyes in particular (actual sparring is another story, which I will not get into here). Lowering the eyes is a sign of modesty, and is used in formal bowing in Japan often. But showing gratitude for receiving correction from an instructor is not necessarily worthy of such a deep, downward-looking bow. Apologizing for hitting your partner too hard, maybe.

I do not want to get any further into the different gradations of the bowing ritual here, as this would require physical examples and corrections made in realtime. If you have any specific questions, please consult a native Japanese person.

Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published April 1998)