Bowing in Martial Arts: What Is the Meaning of It?

Bowing in Martial Arts: What Is the Meaning of It?

Western tradition is not accustomed to bowing. In the West, bowing has negative historical connotations because it was a sign of servility. But it was never like that in the East! Bowing was and still is a very important element of Oriental culture, martial arts included.

When fighters bow to each other in any martial arts, it shows a sign of respect and acknowledgment. Also, bows are used at the start and at the end of the practice, sparring, or competition; or upon entering the gym or any practice facility.

This is why we have decided to analyze it for you in today’s article, so keep reading to find out more!

Historical Overview of Bowing in Martial Arts

The tradition of bowing in martial arts is overly long and it dates to the samurai area of Japan. It is a tradition that stems from Confucianism and has been codified as early the 12th century, by the famous shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo, who founded the Kamakura shogunate.

Bowing was, at the time, part of a larger ruleset pertaining to general etiquette and was kept as a tradition in Japan and other Oriental cultures, without actually changing much. 

In the East, bowing is not a sign of servility, but rather of respect. This is why people in the West often frown upon the gesture, mock it or don’t use it at all. It is a difference in cultural traditions and interpretations, but what is strange in the West is an integral part of culture in the East.

When bowing towards someone, you show them you’re acknowledging them, you show them your respect. And they will bow back – whoever they might be. Even the Emperor of Japan bows!

As a form of etiquette, bowing was quickly adapted in various traditional martial arts, as they were always viewed as a form of culture and philosophy, rather than just a combat technique; there, bowing is also a sign of respect (instructors always bow to the students as well), but it has some other functions as well.

Bows are also used to begin and end the practice, sparring bouts and competitions, and when entering and leaving the dojo, or practice room. Some martial arts bows are different in terms of the position of the arms and hands.

For example, a karate bow is performed with the arms at the sides, while other bows, such as a silat bow (silat is an umbrella term for Indonesian martial arts), are performed with the hands together and the hands and the arms in front.

Different Types of Bows in Martial Arts

Although the Japanese word “rei” doesn’t necessarily have to signify bowing, it is used to describe modern bowing etiquette in Japan, where it all started. Today, there are two main types of bows in modern Japanese tradition – zarei, or the seated bow, and ritsurei, the standing bow.

There is also a wide variety of different bows used within these two main categories. We will explain each of these types in the forthcoming paragraphs, so that you know how to properly bow and what a certain, specific bowing style is named.

Generally speaking, all these “types” can be executed either as zarei (the above-mentioned seated bow) or ritsurei (the standing bow). The following list doesn’t, of course, include all types of bows in Japanese (martial arts) traditions, but these will cover all the necessary fundamentals. So, the basic types of bows are:

  • Soushu Rei – this is the basic form of bowing used in everyday life in modern Japan. This the kind of bow you most often see in movies and on TV, and is done with both hands. The phrase soushu rei literally means with “both hands (or approving) bow”.
  • Takushu Rei – this is the so-called formal, “general purpose” bow used in Japan. It can be used from both the standing and seated positions, depending on the context and the situation. Most Japanese martial arts use this form of bows in training arenas and they have a strong ceremonial purpose when students reach higher levels. The phrase literally means “open up hands bow.”
  • Shiken Rei – this is actually a formal kneeling bow that seniors use in the presence of juniors. The phrase itself literally means “finger (point) build bow”. This type of bow is quite often used when juniors are listening to seniors, such as teacher.
  • Gassho Rei – this phrase signifies pressing one’s hands together in a fashion similar to prayer and then bowing, which also very well-known in the West as a symbol of Japanese tradition. This is a traditional bow in the martial art of Shorinji Kempo. When used in a sitting position, it is appropriate at various religious ceremonies, but not in everyday situations where you actually bow while sitting down. Quite interesting is the fact that this type of bow is very similar to the general Japanese gesture of saying “I’m sorry.”

Subtypes of ritsurei and zarei

Ritsurei can be further divided into five different types of bow, but the distinction is unofficial:

  1. Cursory bow – very simple and often used to signify a simple “Hello”, this bow is made by bowing under an angle of just five degrees and is very informal; 
  2. Shallow bow – this bow is a more formal variant of the first bow on this list and is used to signify a formal greeting, like “Good day” and is made to an angle of fifteen degrees;
  3. Ordinary bow – this is the most common bow used, made to an angle od thirty degrees, and is used to signify appreciation towards someone;
  4. Politest bow – it is made to an angle of forty-five degrees and it is very formal, used to express one’s deep appreciation and respect to someone on formal occasions and meetings of such kind;
  5. Ceremonial bow – here, you bow to an angle of ninety degrees, as this is the most formal bow, used solely for ceremonial purposes, as it strongly conveys deep sentiment and respect for a person.

As you can see, the only major difference between these types of bows is their angle. The angle signifies how formal the bow is, and smaller angles are less formal, while wider ones are more formal and signify a much larger level of respect. 

As for the zarei, the exact techniques and mechanics depend a lot on the situation and the context. While seated the hands lay flat on the upper thighs while at attention and either on the upper thighs or cupping hara when relaxed.

The angle of bowing will depend on a lot of factors, such as the age difference between the persons or their social rank; this also applies to the spacing between hands in such a position. With seated bows, the hands should slide directly forward to the front of the knees.

Women sometimes bring their hands closer together, as with the formal standing bow. The most commonly used types of zarei are:

  1. Shiken-zarei – this is a very formal bow used in front of someone’s junior (or a kohai). Both hands move down the thigh, so that the fingertips are just touching the floor. This simultaneously accompanied by a slight forward motion of the body. Again, the head and back from a straight line and the pivot point is at the hips.
  2. Sesshu-zarei – this kneeling bow is used between people of an equal age or rank, depending on the context and the situation. This is a very often used bow in traditional jujutsu suwari waza. When compared to shiken-zarei, this bow is slightly deeper. The palms move forward further on the thighs until they are flattened onto the floor. The hands are then moved forward and the fingertips begin to point towards one another. The fingertips move only to the point where they are parallel with the kneecaps. This phrase actually means “folding hands bow”.
  3. Takushu-zarei – we’ve come to the formal bow used in the presence of your senior, i.e., the opposite of the shaken-zarei. With the back and head held straight, the forehead is bowed even deeper than sesshu rei. The forward motion of the forehead stops at a point about 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 cm) above the floor. The hands are moved closer together and the space between the fingertips is also closer than in sesshu-zarei but they do not touch.
  4. Soshu-zarei – this is a very specific formal bow, used mostly in military circles and ceremonies, but rarely in civilian situations. The forehead is bowed even more deeply than takushu-zarei, to a point approximately 6 inches (15 cm) above the floor. The hands slide forward until the space between the fingertips is almost touching.
  5. Goshu-zarei – since this bow is used for bowing in front of nobility (which is an outdated practice), it is the most uncommon among all of the bows in Japan. It is like soshu-zarei, but with the exception that the bow descends to its lowest point with the back parallel to the floor. The hands slide forward until the fingertips touch.

This covers our analysis of the topic for today. For more information, keep following us and stay tuned for more of the same.

Vladimir Vladisavljevic has been training in the art of kickboxing for over seven years, holds a Taekwondo black belt, and has a master's degree in sports and physical education. He's also a huge mixed martial arts fan. He's a big deal in Bulgaria as a mixed martial arts commentator, analyst, and podcaster.
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Vladimir Vladisavljevic

Vladimir Vladisavljevic has a master's degree in sports and physical education. He has been training in kickboxing for over seven years and holds a Taekwondo black belt. He's also a huge mixed martial arts fan. Vladimir is a big deal in Bulgaria as a mixed martial arts commentator, analyst, and podcaster. He was known as The Bulgarian Cowboy in the Western world. In addition, he has a YouTube channel where he talks about his love of esports, one of the fastest-growing fields in the world. Our testing and reviewing method.
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