Respect Revisited, by Shihan Bill

Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
September 9, 2016

Respect Revisited

In my article from September 2016, I examined the command, “rei” (ray), which is most commonly translated in karate schools as “bow”.  But, as explored in that article, the more accurate translation is “respect”. When the command, rei, is spoken, we will readily think of not only how a bow should be executed but the reason it is being executed:

  • Showing respect to the shomen (the founders) of the martial art.
  • Showing respect to one’s instructor.
  • Showing respect to one’s fellow student.

What we don’t often consider is, first, when one should bow without even being given the command and, second, when one shows respect to others in this manner, one is also showing respect to one’s training in a martial art.

These concepts related to respect came sharply to mind recently while I was observing a Black Belt pre-test. It was clear to me that the Black Belt candidates had dedicated more than sufficient hours of practice to their preparation for the grading to come and that they were passionate about their study of the way of Isshin-Ryu. I was quite pleased with their demonstration of skills at a Black Belt level.  But, I was also struck by what seemed to be a lack of regard for the two concepts identified above. And it was not only these candidates that uniformly appear to be unaware of these concepts; it also appeared true of the many of the Black Belts and other students present at the pre-test. I realized that these two concepts related to respect require explicit attention in an article as I know for a fact that our master has discussed this topic multiple times in the past; perhaps a written version will stimulate change more effectively.

When should one bow without being given a command?

Simply, one should bow whenever one wishes to convey respect or convey thanks to anyone.  These moments are fairly predictable and are often subject to commands: the start of class, the end of class, prior to starting a kata, and prior to sparring. But there are times when a bow is not always explicitly commanded; for example, it is courteous to bow prior to beginning a training sequence with a partner. And, it is expect that one will bow prior to demonstrating anything before a tournament judge or grading examiner.  When one is before a tournament judge or a grading examiner, it is expected that you will bow to the judge or examiner prior to demonstrating a given skill, such as prior to a competitive sparring match, a kata demonstration, or the demonstration of a self-defense sequence. And, if a partner is involved, it is considered courteous to bow to one’s partner(s) before executing that skill set.

Respect is also shown through means other than bowing. Specifically, while demonstrating martial arts techniques, we are to be silent with the exception of the sound of incidental physical contact as a part of the execution of a technique or the use of an audible kiai; a judge or examiner should not have to speak above a normal volume in order to be heard. And, if one can anticipate that one will be receiving a command from the judge or examiner, as either an examinee or a student participant, one should be completely silent.  In tournaments and grading events, emotions definitely run high and our desire to support our friends and dojo family can become significantly elevated. And, certainly, there is a degree of enjoyment that should and will be present.  But this does not excuse the importance of showing respect to the judge, the examiner, or the dojo. The desire to cheer or applaud our friends should not override the respect that should be shown nor drown out or supersede the commands that are being given on the floor.

Showing respect that one is training in a martial art

One must respect that one is training in a martial art, engaging in an activity that is designed to cause not only significant pain, but could also cause traumatic injury or even death. The practice and demonstration of martial arts should be enjoyable.  But, significant injuries and deaths have occurred at tournaments as well as Black Belt grading events. Taking time to bow keeps one focused on the fact that what one is doing is serious and that one holds personal responsibility for one’s practice of martial arts.  Hopefully, by staying focused in this manner, the chance of causing injury or death will be diminished significantly. But when we allow our excitement or enjoyment to override the gravity of the moment, conveying a sense of being at a sporting event rather than a martial arts event, we sow the seeds of carelessness that could forever change the lives of the people involved.


As a postscript to this article, I have noted that self-defense routines have become increasingly choreographed such that entire routines appear strictly scripted. While this may be appropriate at a tournament demonstration, this is not at all appropriate as part of a Black Belt grading event. While the start of the self-defense sequence should be fixed, the chain of actions in that sequence should not reliably take the same course; if one is asked to repeat a self-defense sequence, it should not appear to follow the same course as if one is replaying a clip from a movie. While perhaps somewhat similar, it is expected that the sequence will not play out exactly as the previous demonstration.  Indeed, if the examiner asks for a repeat demonstration, it is likely because that examiner felt that the initial demonstration was not sufficient and the candidate can assume in most cases that they are being called upon to “raise the bar”.

A self-defense routine as part of a pre-test or a grading is intended to demonstrate not only the degree of knowledge a student possesses but also the degree to which that knowledge has become an intrinsic component of that student’s practice of martial arts. In other words, demonstration of a self-defense technique provides the examiner with a sense of how well a Black Belt candidate could respond contemporaneously to the spontaneous and not fully predictable aspects of a real threat.  That is to say, that if that student were not demonstrating a self-defense technique in a dojo, but instead being called upon by life’s circumstances to defend themselves outside the dojo, how capable would that student be to defend themselves?  When one is preparing a self-defense routine for demonstration at grading, show respect for the fact that one is training in a martial art – as in life, we definitely know how things started, but we can’t fully control how everything will turn out. And, also showing respect for that fact that one is practicing a martial art, please execute all your techniques with as much discipline and self-control as one can muster so that no one ends up with memories one would rather not have.