Western New York Karate Center

Shihan Bill

September 9, 2016


The command, “rei” (ray), is most commonly translated in karate schools as “bow.”  However, depending on the kanji associate with this sound, it has a variety of meanings.  But, for the purposes of martial arts, the meaning that is more accurate than “bow” is “respect.” When the command, rei, is spoken, while the physical action is to bow, the intent is that respect is being demonstrated by that act. When Isshin-ryu was developed, while intending in many ways to break with traditions whose origins could be argued to have started in China and influenced by the Japanese, there are still aspects of showing respect in the Isshin-ryu bow that are in line with many Asian traditions.  And these traditions proscribe a variety of characteristics to the bow that are felt to demonstrate respect.

First, a bow occurs at the waist, back straight, with no arching of the spine.  A bow is NOT performed with one’s neck.  A tilt of the head forward using one’s neck alone is not considered respectful at all. One does use different declinations of one’s upper body to denote the amount of respect given, but this is accomplished at the waist. The standard amount of declination for a bow is approximately 30-degrees.  This is the bow that one provides to students of similar rank; a slighter bow could be given to students of significantly lesser rank but, again, this is accomplished by bowing at the waist and not with one’s neck.  When bowing toward an instructor, a student should bow approximately 45-degrees and when bowing either to an honored official or in a circumstance where one is conveying an intense sense of humility, a bow can go as deep as 90-degrees declination.  It should not go deeper than 90 degrees.

Second, hands are placed lightly on the sides of one’s legs if one is bowing from a standing position; if wearing gi pants, one’s fingers would be along the seam of the pants legs.  The Isshin-ryu tradition is to not slap one’s thighs when placing one’s hands in order to bow.  While some traditions will have one place one’s hands on top of the thighs, that is not the Isshin-ryu tradition while standing. 

On that note, while one can kneel in an Isshin-ryu dojo, it has not been the tradition to bow from that position in Western New York dojos.  But, if one were to follow traditions of bowing from a kneeling position, the hands would start resting on top of the thighs and then move forward simultaneously to touch the floor in front of one’s self with the hands separated by about 5 inches.  The hands are moved closer together to show increasing amounts of respect, but the hands generally don’t touch each other unless one is bowing to a person of high government rank such as a president. One’s elbows should remain in line with the sides of the body and not flare away from the body.  One’s elbows should never end up touching the floor and if they did that would indicate too deep of a bow.

Third, eye-to-eye contact is broken.  While breaking eye contact does make a martial artist vulnerable to attack, that’s really the point. While in truth, a good martial artist is either watching the lower body of the person they are bowing to, for signs of imminent movement, or at the least will maintain awareness of their environment to detect if the other person is closing distance, bowing definitely makes them more vulnerable to attack.  As one bows progressively deeper, the ability to monitor the other person or the environment becomes increasingly limited; the 90-degree bow that makes one significantly vulnerable and also why it is rarely performed except in situations where one is expected to make one’s self that vulnerable. Bowing display of respect and trust, as if to say, “I put my life at your disposal.”  And the deeper one bows, the greater that sentiment such that a 90-degree bow is a manner of conveying that one is putting one’s life completely at the disposal of the person one is bowing to.

There are commands and phrases that are associated with bowing, some are common and some are rare if ever used, in Isshin-ryu dojos:

Kiotsuke – attention. Take the attention stance.

Yasume – at ease. Take the at ease stance.

Seiza (say-zah) – kneel.  This will be accomplished starting with the left knee.

Mokuso (mawk-sew) – mediate. Center one’s thoughts only on the training to be done; disconnect from the thoughts and concerns outside the dojo.

Shomen ni rei – bow, showing respect to the shomen (the founders)

Sensei ni rei – bow, showing respect to the instructor

Rei – bow, showing respect

Onegai shimasu (oh-nee-guy she-mass) – “may I be of service” or “please grant me this favor.” This can be said at the beginning of class by the instructor and students together to conclude the showing of respect and before starting the lesson

Domo arigato gozaimashita (doh-moh ah-ree-gah-toh goh-zai-mash-ta) –“thank you very much (for what I have just received)”.  This can be said at the end of class by the instructor and students together to conclude the showing of respect and ending class.