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Otaga-ni Rei: Bowing During a Karate Class

by on May 23, 2009

It is a sight familiar to most, if not all, karate-ka. You walk into the dojo, everyone stands around stretching, Sensei comes in, everyone bows to Sensei, then you line up and perform the ceremonial bow-in lead by one of the high-ranking black belts that has not yet achieved instructor status. Yet how many of us truly undestand why we just did what we did? How many of us are simply following along and simply accepting this as the norm?

While a full understanding of the history is not necessary, and really has absolutely no effect on our abilities as martial artists, if we are to continue to use the traditional, formal bow-in at the beginning of training I believe at least a cursory understanding of both the format and origins is necessary. Understanding the format should be the minimum level of understanding, as it will allow everyone to at least go through the motions. Understanding the history is extra and gives the ceremonial ritual some context.

The General Format

The format we use is the prescribed ISKF format, and I will stick to this format. While there is probably some level of variation on this format from club-to-club and style-to-style, I really just don’t have the time to get into the minutia. On to the detail…

Sensei takes his position at the front of the class, and the other instructors line up facing him, and in front of the line(s) of students. The other instructors line up in order of rank high to low from left to right. The other members of the club then line up in descending rank order from right to left, forming multiple lines if necessary. The lines should be tight enough that you are standing naturally in Yoi (ready) position, about shoulder to shoulder with the people to either side of you. There is some variation on this, some people like to be packed like sardines.  I believe it is more practical to have some breathing space; not so much that there are gaps in the line, but enough that you are comfortable.

When everyone is lined up, the person at the far right of the line, ie the highest ranking non-instructor black belt, gives the commands.

Musubi-dachi – Assume the “feet-together” standing stance. Hands at the sides of your thighs and feet together at the heels forming a “V”. This is a formal stance, used as a preamble to the formal bow.

Seiza – This is actually the Japanese for “proper sitting” and refers to the “kneeling down” stance that we assume for the large part of the bowing-in. To move from musubi-dachi to seiza you kneel first with your left knee, then your right knee, cross your feet (some people do the whole foot one on top of the other, i just cross my toes. Your choice.) and sit back on your feet. Knees should be apart comfortably and the back should be straight. To get up from this position, reverse the motion. Sit up and step forward with your right leg into a half-kneel position. Bring your left foot forward and resume musubi-dachi.

Shomen-ni Rei – Bow to Shomen, the front of the dojo where usually is situated some form of symbol representing the style, or the progenitor of the style.

Sensei-ni Rei – Bow to your Sensei (pun intended… couldn’t help that one :)…). I believe we all know who Sensei refers to.

When all the bowing is finished, the instructor will stand up, followed by the instructor-level black belts. The general populous then rises, and this is the important part, in rank order. The idea here is that the white belts should be the last to rise. It should almost look like a Mexican Wave, starting from the most senior black belts and moving down the line.

Bowing-out is slightly different, with a few extra commands thrown in for extras.

Mokuso – lit. “meditation”. This is often mis-interpreted as “close your eyes” since that is the easiest way to describe it. In truth, the purpose of this stance is for meditative relaxation. You can either clear your mind, or reflect on what you have learned. I have also heard people describe the purpose of this as “to calm you down before you leave the dojo so you don’t get all riled up and pick a fight”… but I would hope that we karate-ka have learned SOMETHING from what we’re being taught, and would know that picking fights is a no-no, riled up or otherwise. This “stance” can be performed either closing your eyes completely (which most people probably do) or by (more accurately) slitting your eyes and focussing on a point about 3 or 4 feet in front of you on the ground. The mind is more easily cleared when it has something to focus on, otherwise you are sitting in the dark trying to fend off random thoughts.

Additionally, probably all clubs have some sort of mantra that is repeated at the end of the class. The ISKF use the Dojo-kun as set out by Master Gichin Funakoshi. This is essentially to send home some of the key points about karate training, or about whatever your individual dojo holds dear, and can be as long or as short as you want.

And now for the background…

The History

Shomen refers to the area at the front of the Dojo, and Dojo activity is essentially centered around this area for a reason. Shomen represents the “history” of the Dojo / Martial Art, literally speaking the direct ancestry connecting you as the new practitioner through your instructors, to their instructors, back in time to the origins of the style, the founder. This act of honoring your karate “ancestors” stems from Japanese culture (obviously…) but more specifically the native Japanese religion of ancestor-worship, Shinto. It is therefore no accident that there is usually a photographic (or other) representation of the founder of the system found at the front of the class.

The method of kneeling down into seiza, and the way we line up from right to left in descending rank also have significance as they stem from the martial history of Japan.

We kneel first with our left foot and then our right as a throwback to the days of the samurai. In medieval Japan, the samurai wore their swords on their left hip, as the right hand was used to draw the swords (because most people are right-handed). Logistically, it is therefore easier to assume a kneeling position by starting with the left leg when wearing a 3 to 4 foot sword on your hip. Additionally, it is easier to draw the sword from the half-way point between standing and kneeling if you start with the left leg. Beginning with the right leg results in a cramped positioning that is highly restricting to the drawing of a katana if you are suddenly to come under attack, not an unlikely event during the “Warring States” period of Japanese history when the samurai flourished. Similarly, we rise by bringing our right leg forward first because this allows for the easy drawing of a katana as you rise to defend against any attack, whether you rise to a fully standing stance, or you defend from a half-kneel.

We line up from right-to-left, and wait for the higher ranks to stand first, not only to show respect but also for a logistical reason. If any person in the group were to attempt to attack the most senior person present (in karate, the instructor, in a political setting the shogun or the emperor) they would have to draw their sword from their left hip using their right arm. It therefore falls to the more senior ranking officials / karateka to protect the shogun/emperor/instructor from the impending attack. The attacker’s right side is his most vulnerable, as the act of reaching for his sword opens this side to attack. Additionally, the attack can be thwarted by simply grabbing the attackers right arm before he has the chance to rise and continue his attack. Thus, sitting to a person’s right offers you the most control over them. This is also why we stand shoulder-to-shoulder in line, as giving too much room reduces our ability to restrain them if needed. “I am my brother’s keeper” in the most literal sense possible of the phrase.

When assuming mokuso, the standard to focus on a point 3 to 4 feet in front of you as opposed to closing your eyes entirely is also a child of need. Closing your eyes to the world leaves you almost completely defenseless against attack, the dangers of which are self-evident. It is therefore simply more practical to focus on a point at the extreme of a sword-length away.

The history does not end there, however. The samurai influence permeates much of the ritual and culture inherent in Japanese martial arts, as the samurai were a highly respected class in feudal Japan. Though for a time all signs and symbols of this part of Japanese history was essentially banned, there has been a cultural rebirth of the samurai as an icon.

There is a wealth of knowledge available both on the internet and in books for anyone who wants to research Japanese culture, history, society and karate. I would recommend the usual slieu of books by M Nakayama, Master Gichin Funakoshi, Master Teruyuki Okazaki, and whatever else you can find. In addition, I have found “The Samurai and the Sacred” by Stephen Turnbull to be a very good text. Wikipedia is good to for those of you who don’t mind open-source editing 🙂


“Secrets of the Samurai” by Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, also great source of information


From → club, history, karate

One Comment
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