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Why Do We Bow When Practicing Martial Arts?

Updated on November 19, 2012

I recently asked a young Aikidoka what bowing meant. He retorted, “It’s required.” He added with pride, “I’m doing it so everyone else will do the same.” Intrigued by his answer, I asked him if he knew about Rei. He said he hasn’t met rei but would like to train with him. The intention was admirable but the understanding behind the action was gazillion miles off!

Unfortunately, many are still oblivious of what bowing is all about. Moreover, the real significance of rei still eludes many. Perhaps the confusion is wrought by cultural disparities, translation problems or the failure to explain it properly. I’m no expert; nevertheless, allow me to demystify this enigmatic concept.

Rei is not bow

What does bowing mean? The concept behind it goes beyond bending forward. It is a way of life to say the least.

During competitions officials utter the word “rei” and immediately the combatants bow. Moreover, it is used when starting and ending the training session. Almost every aspect of the training includes bowing to someone or something. Suffice to say, there seems to be excessive bowing in the dojo. Possibly they’re right. Regrettably, this adds to the mix-up about “rei” and “bow”. In fact, there are many times when “bow” is erroneously substituted for “rei”. But let me categorically and explicitly say REI is not BOW.

So what is it if it’s not bow?

Now that I have made your life more confusing, allow me to continue. Instead of the word bow, the term rei is loosely translated as respect or courtesy. But in the tradition of making things more vexing, I have to say that it involves two important concepts.

First is reigi and the second is reiho. Reigi is what many beginners learn first – the act of bowing. This is the how and when of bowing. It might surprise you that the concept of reigi is not limited to just bowing. Showing respect and courtesy takes many forms. In fact, it encompasses everything from being on time to a spirited execution of a technique against a partner. Consequently, bowing is just one of the many ways you can express rei.

On the other hand, reiho is concerned with the values behind the whole bowing action. Respect and courtesy though still insufficient to accurately describe rei is close enough. Understanding reiho necessitates a deeper appreciation of how the Japanese culture addresses respect, courtesy, honor, and other values engrained in their culture. Suffice to say, reiho embodies the intrinsic worth of an individual. So rei is also the virtues that drive people to manifest the inherent values.

When you bow, you acknowledge your commitment; you show respect, courtesy and honor. That’s pretty much a lot for one simple bow. Therefore it is a manifestation of one’s values. To simply equate rei with bow is a misinterpretation at its worst.

Beyond the dojo

What is taught inside the dojo is not condemned to remain only inside the dojo. The heart of training is not just mastering techniques. But rather shaping values in the pursuit of mastering techniques.

In the book Guidance of Rei by Kiyonobu Ogasawara Sensai, rei is the “criterion by which we can act in our daily life efficiently, practically and beautifully.” Rei is not simply dojo etiquette, a romanticized Japanese tradition nor a cultural uniqueness. Rather, rei is a way of life that transcends nationality and even the type of martial arts being practiced.

Understanding that rei is more than just bowing provides a renewed commitment to grow with each training day. So the next time you bow to your opponent, training partner or the dojo, you know you're bending forward for the right reason.


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    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 6 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      I wish others have the same views as you do. Do tell us more about your training. Perhaps you can write a hub on it. Primpo, another hubber talks about her trainings and experiences. Perhaps we can share philosophies and techniques.

    • Cardisa profile image

      Carolee Samuda 6 years ago from Jamaica

      I agree, it doesn't matter the language. I just wanted to make the point that even though our language is different the same principles apply.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 6 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Hello Cardisa. Regardless what language is used or the name it is called, respect is an integral part of living. Thanks for reading my hub.

    • Cardisa profile image

      Carolee Samuda 6 years ago from Jamaica

      We train in a DoJang and out term for bowing is Kyung Nae. But what we learn in the training hall is not limited to inside or just the physical training as you mentioned. We learn life lessons on how to show respect to one and all, discipline and humility among other values. Thanks for sharing this, we use Korean terms.