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Why Do We Have To Bow So Much?

Jan 4, 2008
In many karate schools around the world the traditional practice of bowing is being continued regardless of the country of origin and of whether the bow matches that country's particular culture. The very act of stepping into a karate dojo or a Taekwondo dojang often means that you have entered into a mini-cultural experience that you never expected.

Some people find these practices quaint and educational, others find them downright offensive. This article attempts to explain the primary reasons for bowing in traditional Japanese culture and therefore in your Japanese style of martial arts. If you study Korean or Chinese styles it won't hurt to read on as many of these customs are relevant to most Asian countries and martial arts.

Karate originated on the island of Okinawa, part of the Ryukyu archipelago, which now belongs to Japan. In Japan bowing is as much a part of formal culture as the handshake is in western culture. Although the Japanese are increasingly using the handshake because of international business, the bow is still a very important part of Japanese etiquette. Bowing is therefore an integral part of a Karate lesson. We begin and end each lesson with formal etiquette including several bows and we acknowledge our opponent before and after each encounter with a bow.

As Karate is part of traditional Japanese culture many instructors believe it is only fitting that they continue those traditions and make their lessons a reflection of how a lesson would be led in Japan.

Generally the rule of thumb for bowing is that the more senior the person to whom you are bowing, both in age and rank, the deeper the bow. So for example, if a 14 year old bows to a 40 year old then the bow should be lower than if the 40 year old bowed to the 14 year old. Also a green belt should bow lower to a brown belt than a brown belt would bow to a green belt.

The gray area comes when you have a 14 year old black belt and a 40 year old beginner. Who should bow the lowest? Well hopefully common sense will prevail and both parties will realize that the adult is still the superior person in terms of experience and therefore should still be treated with respect. However it would also be appropriate for the adult in question to acknowledge the child's achievement and prowess and bow a little lower than normal to show his respect.

As far as we Westerners are concerned, the complexities of the social nuances regarding the bow in Japan are far too involved for us to show any real competency, unless we have direct experience living in Japan for several years.

Therefore the best thing for us to do in the dojo is to simply follow the traditional etiquette and bow to one another in an unforced and comfortable manner and let that suffice. A lower bow can be saved for the obvious age and rank differences but other than that a bow of similar depth would be appropriate in most cases.

For more information on formal etiquette and other important information you should know if you're planning on getting into the martial arts be sure to download my FREE Report, "Beginners Guide to Karate." You can find it at http://www.freekarateinformation.com.

Good luck and best wishes on your journey in karate.
About the Author
Paul A. Walker, is a 4th degree black belt karate instructor with over 25 years experience in the martial arts. In 2003 he attained his 4th degree black belt, after studying with the legendary Karate Master, Hirokazu Kanazawa in Tokyo for three years. Get more info at http://www.freekarateinformation.com.
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