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The Asian Bow

What exactly is bowing for? The bow is known as rei (pronounced ray) in Japanese. In everyday use, bowing will express greetings, say farewell, pay respects, apologize, show humility, or indicate understanding or acceptance. Bowing in Japan can be somewhat likened to the handshake in the West. We shake hands with complete strangers and dear friends, at meetings to be polite and at funerals to convey condolences, and also at happy times to congratulate. That one action is used for varied reasons and can convey many shades of meaning. The Japanese took the practice of bowing much further than many cultures, developing it to a fine art. It is the only acceptable act in many different Japanese social situations. During feudal times failing to bow at the expected time or even bowing improperly to a samurai or lord, could reportedly result in an on the spot death sentence. In the Asian martial arts, regardless of what country we live in, we continue to use the bow. The hierarchical nature of the arts, with seniors and juniors, makes good use of the formality engendered by bowing and showing respect for seniority. But always remember the origins of what you are studying. Bowing is, and has virtually always been, a cultural practice in the Orient. All traditional martial arts masters will require you to learn and perform your bows throughout your training.


Is the standing bow, and is performed with the arms extended downwards and with the palms sliding down the legs. With fingers together, the hands end up in resting on the legs just above the knees, in front of the body. The body is bent to about a 45 degree angle. The longer the bow is held the more meaning it has. In a normal situation it is held for only two or three seconds. There is also a light, standing, informal bow which is the one you will use the most. The body is bent only to about 20 degrees and it is held for only a second or so. Often times, when executing this bow, your hands may be full. The position of the hands is more or less incidental, but it is polite to make an effort to bring them down at least to your sides.


Is the kneeling bow, and is done while on your knees, sitting directly on your feet. The back is kept straight with eyes forward. Lean forward like a hinge, right hand extending in a circular motion to the floor, followed by the left. The thumbs and first fingers placed properly make a small diamond which you put your forehead into. Hold it appropriately and reverse the procedure, left hand first then right hand last. The left hand is last to go and first to return because it is responsible to protect your sword. When not carrying a sword, both hands may move forward together. Many martial arts instructors will say that this bow was used to expose the back of the neck to a sword cut. While dropping your defenses is a common cultural sign of loyalty and trust, evidence of this particular bow from a historical standpoint is actually scarce.  Unfortunately, it cannot be confirmed or denied by the historical record.


When bowing to the sword (to-rei), hold it horizontal with both hands, palms up. Gather up the sageo in your hand as you grip the saya. The tsuba should be covered by your right thumb. At this point the edge is facing away from you, rotate the ha to point upwards as you bring your forehead towards the saya. The sword rotation should be timed to start and stop as your head starts forward and stops while almost touching the saya. Hold, and reverse the procedure.


When executing any bow, do not bounce back up. This is worse than not bowing at all. It leaves the person you were bowing to with no clue as to what meaning you infused into your bow. Your serious intent should be obvious through your bowing technique. So the next time you hear the command, you should be able to bow with proper form inside and out!