The first Japanese that you may encounter when entering
the dojo is the bow, so that would be a good place
to start. In Okinawa - and when using the Japanese
language, bowing is a very important part of proceedings.
Slight alterations of bowing depth and the amount
of time you hold the bow for have deep and subtle
meanings that can take a very long time to fully
understand. In this country and amongst other western
countries, we typically shake hands to greet, and
to show our appreciation and sincerity. In the East,
in this case Okinawa Japan they prefer to bow.
Just like a handshake, the bow can convey a greeting,
a farewell, or an expression of appreciation and
thanks. The bow in Japanese is ‘REI’ and
can be seen in the figure below
Kanji for bow and pronunciation.
Below are a few guidelines as to when to bow:
§ Bow when you enter the dojo, and when you
§ Bow before you begin training with a partner.
§ Bow when requesting something from a student
who has been training longer than you have, and to
thank them when you have your answer.
You have every
right to ask questions of higher grades, and every
right to receive an answer, but
remember they are sharing their wisdom with you
and you can show your gratitude through bowing. Also,
remember that class time is precious - if your
can wait until the end of class, save it until
then. As a point of reference do not bow every time
see a senior rank, it can be very tiresome for
the teacher as every time a student bows the teacher
has to bow back (remember there are lots of students
which in turn means lots of bowing).
Your bow should
not be a nod, but a respectful, dignified bow performed
slowly with both hands placed
on the side of your legs. Do not slap your legs
as you bow, and do not look into the eyes of the
or fellow student as this is disrespectful.
of the ritual which precedes every class, three
bows are performed. Unless time is an issue,
there will be an instruction given before the
bows. The instruction (“Seiza”). Seiza is
the formal seating position place left knee down
first then right knee down then kneel placing both
hands on the lap facing inwards slightly.
This seated posture should occur quickly from the
higher grades down. A general rule of thumb is that
women should sit with their knees together, and men
with them slightly apart. Tucking one big toe over
the other may make this position more comfortable.
Kanji and pronunciation for Sei-Za
Once sitting in Seiza, the three bows are called.
Kanji / Hiragana and pronunciation for Shomen Ni
The U after the O in the above capital script indicates
that you hold the ‘o’ for twice as long
as you normally would, lengthening it slightly. There
is no real equivalent in English, but it is a small
enough difference that you don’t need to worry
too much about it. You may also notice that the kanji
shown here as “SHO-U” is the same as
the one shown earlier as “SE-I”.
of this bow is manifold. The literal translation
is ‘bow to the front’,
but as with much of the language used in the martial
arts this literal translation is perhaps the least
important meaning attached to the action. Ask about
the other meanings. Think on them.
The second bow is called out as:
Kanji / Hirigana for Sensei-Ni-Rei
It may also be useful to note that all students
who hold a higher belt and have trained longer than
yourself are - strictly speaking - sempai to you.
It is not incorrect to address a Yudansha rank as
Sempai, only if they are the highest ranking student
in the dojo. If there is another more senior black
belt of lower rank than the Sensei, then strictly
speaking the second black belt would be referred
to as “‘Name’ San “(e.g.
Sensei Nathaniel, Sempai Jit, Andy San, Tayeba San.).
Given that this may sometimes prove to be difficult
depending on who is at the dojo, we relax this rule
and call all black belts as Sempai.
The highest ranking black belt student (like wise
the Sensei) should be addressed as ‘Sempai’ when
in dogi (the white karate suit, more commonly referred
to simply as ‘gi’) whether inside or
outside the Dojo. This last is not a hard and fast
rule, and no-one should need to enforce it specifically,
but rather lead by example. It is your choice on
how you want to show your respect and willingness
All teachers, be they from another dojo, or our
own Sensei, are addressed as such. There are also
a number of masters in the YKKF. The masters must
be referred to as Shihan (‘She han’),
though Sensei is acceptable if they are taking a
The final bow is called as:
Kanji / Hirigana for Otagi-Ni-Rei and pronunciation.
Once again, the meaning is slightly more complex
than the literal translation but feel free to ask
about it if you wish.
After the third bow, students
Kanji / Hirigana for Onega I shima su and pronunciation.
The translation in this case is very difficult.
Speak to another student of Japanese and they may
well give you a different answer, but I feel the
important thing is to understand that you are humbly
making a request from your teacher. You will often
hear this translated as “please
teach me”. This is correct. The reason the
above translation is given as such is that often
the meaning of a given
word is very context sensitive. You may, in a purely
technical sense be asking a vague ‘favour’ -
but in the context of the dojo coming from a student
to their teacher, what else could it be that is truly
This word in Japanese has the same basic
use as “please” in
English. When you put up a hand to ask a question,
or require the attention of one of your Sempai, you
should always precede your request with “onegaishimasu”.
When you bow to a partner before training with them,
you should also say onegaishimasu. This is how we
show respect to those we train with, and how we ourselves
earn that same respect.
Hirigana for Domo Arigato Gosai Mas and pronunciation.
At the end of the class, the same three bows are
repeated. On the final bow, however, instead of
Onegaishimasu, we say ‘thank-you’:
important thing is simply to know that this is
the most important phrase here. This is your
direct way of thanking someone for what they have
be it shown you a technique, helped you stretch,
trained with you or answered a question. Show gratitude
and respect by bowing and thanking them.
Translation and kanji / hirigana courtesy of Jim
Griffiths (2003) revised by N. Peat (2004).