From The Iaido Newsletter #13 June 1991

Just why, exactly, do we bow to the instructor and to our fellow students when we practice the Japanese martial arts. Is there something here that we as free, equal, democratic Canadians should be offended by. After all, many Canadians will no longer consider bowing down to the Royal family, why should we bow to anyone else. To make matters worse, in some arts we bow down to a picture or even crazier, to a wall. Where did this behavior come from.

Right off, let's make it clear that bowing and the other forms of etiquette in the martial arts do not indicate subservience. They indicate respect which is entirely different. The forms of polite action in the dojo have meaning beyond an acknowledgment of the Japanese root of the arts.

Origins of Reishiki in North America

It is, of course from their Japanese roots that the etiquette of the martial arts derive. The men and women who first introduced Budo to the west also brought the methods of teaching that they were given by their instructors. These methods included reishiki.

After a generation or two in North America the bowing and scraping may be getting to seem a bit artificial. This is only natural since we express our politeness in ways other than the bow. We shake hands, and call people "sir". We open doors for people. We have dozens of ways to express politeness and respect that we think of about as often as a Japanese would think of

Perhaps we should examine in further detail just what it is that we are doing when we bow in such a perfunctory way, and how we, as Canadians can use these transplanted rituals to our own advantage.

Origins in Japan

In Japan itself reishiki was developed to a high degree in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) with various schools of the art arising. The great neo-confucian movement of the age was a major impetus, infusing the act with the hierarchical meaning that it carries today. The idea that all authority came from above and that everyone had his or her own place in the order of things was reinforced by the degree of bowing between people.

The Imperial court had, from earliest history, always stressed reishiki and the bushi (who were originally country bumpkins) had in the course of association picked up the habit. The court of the Shogunate adopted these manners and from them the samurai throughout the country began to use the forms.

Reishiki for the samurai

It did not take long, however for the bushi to create their own, distinctive forms of etiquette. Even in the Tokugawa era the action of bowing went beyond a simple acknowledgment of authority into the realm of how to act properly at all times.

Put simply, it was reishiki that allowed the Edo samurai to go about his business without giving or taking offence and without letting his alertness drop for a moment. It was a matter of safety as much as a matter of correct action and courtesy. With constant attention paid to each outward movement, the mind of the warrior could not be other than awake at all times. With no daydreaming the possibility of accidents was reduced and no

It is this aspect of the samurai etiquette that is "appended" to the martial arts in this country. The bows are not a form of submission, but a way of practicing safely and with alertness. "Budo begins and ends with Reishiki". This does not mean that we bob our heads at the start and the finish of a class, it means that Budo is Reishiki. Manners are not "added on", they are part and parcel of the art.

Reishiki in North America

There is nothing wrong with bowing to your instructor for no other reason than to say thank you. He or she has worked hard for many years to achieve the level of skill that can now be passed on to you. That commitment should be appreciated since the work that has gone before makes your learning easier. The bows and the other forms of politeness then, tell the teacher and yourself that you appreciate the effort and that you respect it enough to give your best effort to learn what you can. In this manner, reishiki has the purpose of forcing you to concentrate on what you are doing.

One of the reasons to take up martial arts training is to lose the ego. If you cannot bow to someone else without feeling as if you are submitting somehow to them, then you have no chance of obtaining egolessness. In this case, the bow is a shock on a fundamental level to the idea of yourself as a distinct entity. This shock is even greater in a society that does not bow any more. The greater the shock to the idea of a distinct self, the more open you will be to new ideas and the greater the chance that you will learn something.

Reishiki goes beyond simply bowing in the modern dojo, just as it did two hundred years ago. Etiquette defines how you enter and leave the room, how you move past your fellow students, how you sit or stand and how you practice. If everyone is following the same code of behavior, everyone will know what to expect in a class. What this means, simply, is that nobody is going to step in front of you when you least expect it and you can worry about other things instead. At the same time, the specific actions of reishiki have the effect of giving you a more alert position so that when the unexpected does occur you can deal with it.

Specific Reishiki

Each art and each instructor in the art will establish a distinct code of behavior for the students. The main thing to remember is to act at all times with full awareness of what you are doing and why. What follows is a discussion of several forms of Reishiki that are common to most Japanese dojo.

Bow at dojo entrance

As you enter and leave the specific room or practice area you stop, put your feet together and bow toward the practice surface. This is often described as a prayer to the dojo that you will practice well and hard. If you don't want to pray to a wood and cement structure, make it a small meditation to yourself. You leave the busy and confused world outside and enter the wholly concentrated world of the dojo. This is the first step and is followed by a series of actions that remind you on a subconscious level that the outside world should be left outside.

On a more mundane level, stopping before you step onto the practice surface is simply good sense. Stepping out without looking can get you hit over the head with a sharp object.

Bow to Shomen

This is a bow performed at the start and end of each class which is directed toward the high point in the room, or perhaps at a photograph, scroll, or even toward a Shinto shrine. The bow is another transition step from the outside world to the dojo. It is also a moment wherein students can reflect on the history of their art since this is the time when gratitude is expressed toward the founder and the previous instructors of the art. Bowing to Shomen also reminds you where it is, this is important in how you move around in the dojo.

Bow to Sensei

At the start and end of a class, students have a chance to make a formal bow to the instructor. This should be done carefully and with full attention since this is your chance to show your gratitude for the patience and ability of the Sensei It also expresses your willingness to learn and your request to be instructed.

At many times during a class you will have a chance to thank the instructor for advice or correction. By making this bow with full awareness you will ensure that you are paying full attention to what is being said. It is all too easy to half listen and say "thanks" and then go right on practicing something badly.

Bow to partner

If you have the opportunity to work with a partner, you will bow to each other. Again, bow carefully and with attention. You are saying to your partner, "please practice with me" and "thank you for your cooperation". A sloppy bow will lead to sloppy practice and the potential for accidents as one student bows while the other attacks.

Always remember that the senior students, and the instructors can tell a lot about your attitude by how you observe the etiquette of the dojo.


Shoes or slippers should be worn on the way to the dojo to avoid picking up infections and passing them on to your fellow students. These shoes are taken off at the practice area and should be lined up neatly facing away from the dojo floor. They are lined up neatly and out of the way simply to prevent someone tripping over your mess. They are lined up ready to be put on as you leave so that there is little fuss at the end of the class. By placing the shoes so that you are ready to leave the class you are showing that you intend to pay attention and learn. If you don't learn, you can't leave.


All movement in the dojo should be done with full awareness and control at all times. It is considered rude to flap your arms around and swivel your head about as you look at everything except what you should watch. Look where you are going at all times and you will be safe as well as polite.

Walking politely means being able to stop without falling over at any point in your stride, under control. If you pass other students who are practicing, wait until they are finished and see you, don't disturb them. This is a safety rule as well. If you are moving down a line of seated students, move along behind them, not in front between them and the instructor. This cuts their view and also exposes yourself to attack. In effect you are daring them to attack. This shows that you are not paying attention. If you must pass in front of them extend your right hand and bow forward slightly to apologize for your blocking their view. This places your hand in their view before your body so that they have a chance to stop any potentially dangerous actions. Better to lose a finger than an eye.

A common rule is never to expose your back to the Shomen or highest point in the room. High ranking visitors will be seated close to this point and it would be rude to show them your backside. More importantly the rule is an exercise in knowing where you are in relation to the environment at all times.


When you are standing it is impolite to slouch against a wall, put your hands in your pockets, cross your legs or generally to be slovenly. All of these prohibitions are to prevent you from moving into a position that exposes you to attack and injury. It would be paranoid to assume that someone is going to sneak up behind you and attack, even during a martial arts class. It is not paranoid to assume that someone might fall into you from behind. By being polite when you stand you are in the best position to prevent an injury to yourself.


You should be no less polite when you sit down. In Japan it is generally considered rude and ugly to have your limbs spread out away from your body. Think about this cultural foible in terms of sitting with your legs out in front of yourself during a class. Now think what would happen to your knees if someone were to land on them during a practice. On the other hand think how you would feel if you were to trip and injure a fellow student. Again a rule of etiquette is in reality a safety rule. Your legs and arms should always be tucked in and protected from injury.

The idea that it is rude and unsightly to have your elbows sticking out at the sides is also more than a safety rule, it is a good posture training rule. In almost no case is it of advantage for a martial artist to have their elbows out away from the center of the body, so why allow students to get into the habit.


The majority of the rules of etiquette in the modern Japanese Budo can be traced to the use and practice of the sword. With several students swinging very sharp blades at the same time, certain modes of behavior were developed for the sake of safety. When the swordsman moved out of the dojo the need for a code of behavior that kept the swords inside the scabbards was even more obvious. In fact, one of the excuses for a fight was the practice of saya ate or hitting someone's scabbard with your own as you passed. Passing on the right side of another swordsman thus became a dangerous (and then rude) practice. One passed so that one's sword was out of reach. It also became polite behavior to place your sword a certain way at certain times since this showed your intent, either peaceful or otherwise. The act of touching someone's blade or even of stepping over it was not only impolite but an act of aggression.

Most of the elaborate rules for handling the Katana can be traced to the simple need to keep it under control and to make it plain to others that your intentions were peaceful.

Next time you begin to bow during class, take a moment and think just why you are bowing and what purpose the act holds.