Bowing, rei is a very important ritual and etiquette in our dojo but do you know the proper way of doing rei? I hear that in many dojo a correct way does not get taught properly. I also find the incorrect way of bowing is exercised in some of the dojo I visit. I will explain the correct way here so you can use this as your reference. I must clarify that what I describe here is the common etiquette exercised in the standard Shotokan dojo in Japan.
Many of the other styles and martial arts do their rei differently. I was a member of Kyokushinkai for one year and they do it differently. When I joined Kyokushinkai I was already sandan in Shotokan. I wanted to experience the full contact karate as I was struggling with the idea of non contact kumite. When I joined kyokushinkai, ignorantly I expected the rei method to be identical. I remember clearly how surprised I was when I found it was quite different. I will not go into their method as this article is written specifically for the Shotokan practitioners. If you practice aikido, kendo, i-aido, etc. you most likely have experienced different rituals.
In a Shotokan dojo, there are two situations for bowing. One is ritsurei from standing position and the other zarei from sitting or seiza. Let me explain both situations and start with Ritsurei as it is simpler.
Part 1 Ritsurei立礼
From shizentai stance (natural stance with the feet in shoulder length apart) with your arms and open hands extended on the sides of your body. I will explain using the illustration below (front view).
1) Bring right foot inward (hands and arms do not move). There is another method which is not as polite as the method above but it can be done as follow; bring left foot half way in first then bring right foot in to complete.
2) Make musubi dachi
3) Bow by bending from the hips with the upper body straight. Your eye sight goes down to the floor in front of you. Bend down about 30 to 45 degrees. In Japan there are many rules and the degrees of the bowing change depending on the situations. In dojo situation approximately 30 to 45 degrees is proper. It does not need to be any deeper than 45 degrees. An extreme deep bowing (close to 90 degrees) is very rarely done and it is used only in an unique and unusual situations such as apologizing in Japan. This is not necessary in dojo situation. At the same time, the bowing must not be less than 30 degree as it will appear as disrespecting and impolite. (see the side view below)
5) Bring the fists to your front with a shoulder width apart as you assume shizentai stance.
Standing bow is not too difficult for the westerners and most practitioners perform well with this bowing ritual.
One common question I hear is the position of the hands. Some people said “When I visited Japan most of the people put their hands in front of their thighs rather than the side (photo). It is true that this method is very common especially among the merchants and women. I do not have a photo here but I remember seeing a photo of Funakoshi sensei bowing this way. So, I do not think this is an incorrect way but I can say it is not very common among the karate practitioners.
I need to bring your attention to two common mistakes I see in the western world:
- Sticking your chin up and look up when you bow (photo right).
The child in the photo here is showing a common incorrect bowing that I see in many dojos. One western sensei told me that he teaches the students to keep looking at their opponents as it is dangerous to look down and lose the sight of the opponents. It sounds almost convincing but this concept does not bode well with the Japanese budo concept. I even saw a movie where a Japanese sensei was beaten up by a western karateka who attacked him in the middle of a rei. I laughed at the scene when I saw it. If this Japanese sensei was a real master then he could have seen the unexpected move of the opponent’s feet and detected an attack. To me it was not realistic and obviously the director was non-Japanese who obviously did not understand budo or Japanese martial arts. I hope all sensei of Shotokan will teach their students that rei is a ritual to show a mutual respect before a fight. This means the head will go down as you bow to show the respect.
- Slapping your hands on the legs before bowing
I see this action frequently done by the competitors in the tournaments. Maybe some people believe this would show some spirit but this action is considered impolite and we consider it silly. This behavior should not be taught nor permitted.
I will explain Zarei, seiza bowing in Part 2 which will be out in a day or two.