Lining Up and Bowing In

Lining Up and Bowing In


The procedure of lining up and bowing in or out at the beginning or end of a training session may have seemed completely foreign to some of us when we first saw or experienced it. While its practice is usually understood, or at least accepted, by almost all karateka, many westerners may become somewhat uncomfortable when faced with an unfamiliar situation. There are many rules associated with these procedures; some more important or rigid than others.

There are various opinions in the west as to why and how we line up or bow. Training in some dojo begins and ends without any line-up or bow at all. Some places only have an informal, standing bow, sometimes without lining up. I have heard about one place which has a circular “line-up,” the idea being that everyone is learning from the others. Some places I have visited included separate bows to the sempai or coach, in addition to the main instructor. Where people sit is sometimes a source of confusion, as is how close to each other people should sit, the timing of the bows and more. There are so many ways these things can be done, it is no wonder that there are people who have been doing it for years and still are not sure of all the unwritten rules. As I have been unable to locate any written rules, I will try to give at least an introductory explanation/description here in hopes that it may help provide some clarification.

While there are various points of view on this subject around the world, I would like to present here the method presently followed by the JKA in Japan, at least according to what I have learned of the subject through my own experiences and discussions with others. Even in Japan, the procedures sometimes differ between dojo. But the rules are generally the same and simply interpreted slightly differently.

First, some terminology:
Sensei = Instructor. Literally, the term means “life before,” which refers to the idea that the instructor has a generation’s worth of experience ahead of the student. In some cases, this may be true. Sometimes, students are actually senior to the official instructor of the class, in terms of who started training when. Generally, the instructor is the sensei, whether actually very senior or not.
Seito = Student.
Sempai = Senior. As with all these terms, this is a relational term. A particular student might be a very senior member of the dojo and therefore referred to as sempai by other students. But instructors would never call him “sempai,” unless they were referring to his position in relation to the more junior students.
Kohai = Junior. Again, a relative term.

A person can be more than one of the above, even all of the above, in relation to another in the dojo. For example, I could have a student (seito) at a university dojo who started his training after me (kohai) while we were both students, even though he was a graduate student (sempai) while I was an undergraduate and he is my teacher (sensei) of kendo. How we address each other would depend on the situation. In the karate class, he would call me sensei. In the locker room, he may call me sempai when discussing our early years of training while we were both students under the previous instructor. I may call him sempai when recalling our student lives outside of karate and sensei when talking about kendo with him.

Placement of the shomen (front)

For most dojo outside of Japan, the shomen is simply the direction that makes the most sense when taking into consideration the size and shape of the room, in addition to the placement of the door(s) and windows.

In Japan, sometimes other factors are taken into consideration and the traditional rules are more strictly followed. According to one of the JKA Honbu (headquarters) Dojo instructors: “Karate Dojos in Japan are, logically, linked to Japanese culture and religion. According to Shinto rules, I have been told, the altar (shinzen) in the dojo should be oriented preferably to the East, and people should line up facing it in descending order from right to left. If this is not possible, then it (the shinzen) should be oriented to the South or West (in that order). North should be avoided by all means. Before a lesson, students should salute (rei) the shinzen, and then the instructor.”

The basics of the line-up/bowing procedure (according to general JKA practice):
The senior student usually shouts “Seiretsu!” or “line-up” to begin the class. Usually, the instructor is already present. But sometimes the class will line up and await the instructor’s entrance onto the dojo floor. After everyone is in the proper place, the instructor sits in seiza and the senior student then shouts “Seiza!” The students all sit down in unison. Sometimes, there is a moment of silence, often with the eyes closed (not typical in a JKA dojo in Japan). Then, the senior student shouts “Shomen-ni rei!” (bow to the front) and all students and instructor bow the front. Next, the instructor turns to face the students and the senior student shouts “Sensei-ni rei!” (bow to the instructor) and everyone bows. Occasionally, there is an additional bow to the kantoku (coach or, literally, “director”) or dai-sempai (one so far senior as to be effectively another instructor) at this point; in Japan, this often happens at university dojo. Following these bows, everyone stands and class begins. The procedure is almost the same at the end, with the addition of mokuso (moment of silence) and the dojo-kun’s recital before the bows. If there is no instructor present, the senior will sometimes announce Otagai-ni rei!” (bow to each other), instead of “sensei-ni rei.

I = Instructor/Sensei
C = Coach/Dai-sempai or Kantoku
P = Pupil/Seito
Numbers represent seniority, 1 being the most senior

If there are many instructors in the dojo, the main/chief instructor is usually the only one that would sit in the center. All other instructors, in order of rank, sit further back and to the side, the most junior instructor sitting just in front of the senior students. Here is one place things start to get fuzzy. What happens if there is a more senior instructor who teaches at the dojo, but is not currently in class? Should the senior instructor present take the frontal position? In the JKA Honbu Dojo, as well as many others I have visited in Japan, nobody but the senior instructor is to take the position in the center, reserved for him, even if that instructor is nowhere nearby. What if the senior instructor retires or moves away? In cases such as this, the new senior instructor takes the place of the old one and sits in the center.

It can get even fuzzier. If the instructor always sits in the front and is referred to as sensei, what happens when the instructor is away and a senior student leads the class? Is that person to sit in the front and be addressed as sensei? What about when an instructor of the dojo wants some extra training and joins in with the students while another instructor is teaching? There are different, correct theories on this subject. Some traditionalists will say that the order must be maintained, that the instructors have earned their places, and everything should be in order of rank no matter what function people are playing. Others, also following the same rules, interpreted differently, will say that people are to sit/stand according to the roles that they are filling during that particular class.

I tend to agree more with the second interpretation, above, and sometimes change my position in the line-up depending on my function for that class. When there is a visiting instructor at my dojo and I am training along with my students, I will assume the senior student role. I sometimes take this spot as well when I decide to train during a class of repetition, where I am not really “teaching,” per se. My way is not the only correct way. But it does follow the rules of line-up/bowing etiquette.

For more on bowing, please see here.

For more on changing roles between teacher and student, please see article on that subject.

If you have any questions, please feel free to write to me directly.

Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published July 2001)