Bowing: Ojirei

In 1908, a New England schoolmarm, Alice Bacon, was asked to come to teach at the Tokyo Peeress’s Academy. In a letter home, she described the rituals of the bow at this elite girls’ school:

“When the bell rings I go to my recitation room and there, ranged in line outside the door, is my class awaiting me. I bow as low as I can. The pupils bow still lower, then go into the room. They take their places quietly and stand; I bow from my place at the teacher’s desk, again the girls bow, and take their seats. When I finish the lesson I bow to the class, who all bow in reply, rise and march quietly out the door to arrange themselves in order and wait for me. I walk out, bow to them once more, and they make a farewell obeisance as well. The whole thing is very pretty and I am charmed with this manner of calling to order and dismissing classes. It might have a civilizing effect if introduced to American schools.”

Despite Ms. Bacon’s suggestion, bowing did not become a part of the American educational process. Indeed, except for circumstances that are about as rare as the doffing of top hats, bowing has never really been a part of Western etiquette. We tend to associate it with either extravagant, theatrical gestures, like the cavalier grandly bowing to “My Lady,” or with the ham actor taking his exaggerated bow at the end of his performance. To see a Western male bowing today is only slightly less rare than seeing a woman making the female version of the gesture, the curtsy. Consequently, most Westerners are at a disadvantage in bowing. In Japan, toddlers are bent into the appropriate posture by parents until the movement becomes almost instinctual. Ethnologists note the habit may even begin earlier, since traditionally babies were carried onbustyle, on their mother’s back, and so they would have been bowing, in a sense, each time their mother did. Even so, with the exception of those involved in traditional arts like the tea ceremony, or martial arts, the average Japanese of our present generation isn’t all that skilled in this fine art, either. Parents complain that the younger generation hasn’t the polish in performing the ojirei, or bow, that was once standard everywhere in Japan, performed dozens of times during the course of a day. Department store elevator girls must train with special hinged gauges to teach them the exact angle of a bow so they can correctly greet customers entering the elevators. In most cases they no longer learn the proper way to do it at home. Certainly few Japanese today could pass muster among their ancestors from the feudal period.

Bowing, as a form of obeisance and later of greeting, can be found in numerous cultures. It is ubiquitous in much of Asia. The bow was formalized initially during the Muromachi age, the long period of Japan’s history that saw the rise of the military class and its rule by a succession of shogun of the Ashikaga family, which governed the land from 1338 until 1573. Ogasawara Sadamune (1294-1350) was an ally of the first Ashikaga shogun, Takauji. Sadamune was instrumental in elevating a cousin of the shogun’s, Kougon, to the imperial throne. In gratitude for his services, and probably because he recognized the talents of Sadamune, the shogun appointed Sadamune as the official in charge of matters of etiquette within the ranks of the shogun’s retainers. The great-grandson of Sadamune, Ogasawara Nagahide (1366-1424) continued in this office and wrote the first comprehensive text on etiquette, the Sangi Itto, around 1380. We may find all this more than a little stuffy and silly and effeminate, picturing a prissy, slightly fey Nagahide sitting around and fussing over whether this particular form of bow was appropriate at that time or whether it ought to be something else. Notions of such priggery, though, should be leavened if we know what is meant by the title of Nagahide’s work. Sangi Itto means “Three Arts as One.” The three arts were etiquette (and ethics, considered an aspect of the former), horsemanship, and archery. As famous as the Ogasawara family was for their knowledge of etiquette and manners, they were samurai. The Ogasawara were widely respected as fighters, and regarded for their ability to wield a bow and to ride a horse into battle in such a way that the animal became a weapon as much as it was a means of transportation. The Ogasawara were warriors.

Their etiquette was not an affectation. It was a means by which the samurai could be safe around other fighting men and could, simultaneously, signal a lack of malicious intent on his part among others as well, if he wished to do so. Significantly, it was a tradition of the Ogasawara family and the ryu they founded that all three arts were to be mastered fully and represented by a single inheritor who was responsible for the ryu named after them. No doubt fearing that etiquette without martial skill was nothing but pomposity–while its opposite would have been barbarism–the Ogasawara were careful to transmit all of their arts in equal measure and to have at their head a man who was competent in all. (In the 1960s, a descendant of Sadamune laid claim to the headmastery of only one third of the Ogasawara ryu, that part dealing with etiquette. It was a startling development in the history of the ryu, one with wide repercussions in the world of traditional Japan. While the matter was never conclusively resolved, most of those concerned with such things have continued to accept the headmaster of the ryu as the man who has inherited all facets of it.)

For centuries, the conventions of Ogasawara ryu manners were taught only to the nobility and to the samurai class in Japan. It wasn’t until the Edo period, when the merchant class had amassed enough wealth to afford to study etiquette as a discrete activity, that the ryu finally began instructing those not of the warrior caste. Unfortunately, this opening of the Ogasawara ryu to commoners had a deleterious effect on the ryu and on the whole concept of formal manners in Japan. Prior to that time, the varied conventions of bowing, a central part of the samurai’s etiquette, were seen as a masculine, even kind of macho quality. They were, after all, the property of the elite samurai who, for better or worse, were perceived as something special. Once they were introduced to the general public, the etiquette of the ryu soon came to be viewed as an affectation of the leisure classes. As Western ideas of egalitarianism and individuality were introduced to Japan, the conventions of formal etiquette fell even further from favor with the masses. Much as mannered social customs in the West came in for some disdain during the sixties in Europe and America, and even as a subtle form of class oppression, traditional etiquette in a Japan once introduced to Western ideas was treated with some contempt.

Even those of a conservative bent and who have the sensibilities of Miss Manners would find all the intricacies of the Ogasawara ryu to be a bit much. There are, for example, nine separate ways of bowing from a seated position, according to the ryu’s teachings. For those who use them daily, like advanced practitioners of the tea ceremony, they appear natural and graceful. For most of us, they are awkward and stilted. The dicta regarding their use are not particularly of benefit for the average guy. (Know, too, that the very mention of “Ogasawara ryu” carries a pejorative connotation to some Japanese. They associate it with a rigid protocol and stilted, feudalistic manners that have little place, aside from class snobbery, in the modern world.) Fortunately, in the dojo the conventions of bowing, while based almost entirely on the models of the Ogasawara ryu, are comparatively simple. That is not to say, though, that they are easy. Basic instruction can and must be given in the dojo. The beginner must remember a number of points until they become unconscious habit. When making a standing bow, or ritsu-rei, sometimes called a ryurei, or a seated one, called zarei, keep this advice in mind:

Don’t keep your hands stiffly at your sides, or let them dangle. If you are standing, allow them to slide, palms down along the sides of your thighs. If you are seated, the hands go from your thighs down to the ground in front of you. Too often, Japanese martial arts incorrectly or inadequately taught adopt a pseudo-military pose, or some other affectations. One of these is the silly habit of slapping the sides of one’s thighs upon bowing. Since the meaning of the bow is as a demonstration of humility, this “look at me!” gesture is particularly ludicrous.

Don’t bob spastically. Lower your torso as smoothly as fitness, girth, and the condition of your spine will permit. Pause, then straighten at the same speed. The back of your neck should be roughly on the same plane as your spine when you bow. In other words, don’t nod or dip your head. The incline of you entire upper torso and your head should be the same. Some newcomers to the world of the budo may be told that in bowing, a martial artist needs never to take his eyes off his opponent since this can result in an unexpected attack. Unfortunately, many teachers who may not have had very good instruction repeat this information and so there are training halls filled with people bowing to one another in an awkward way, craning their necks to keep in sight their training partners. Bowing to one another should take place with proper distancing. You should be far enough away from the other person so you can bow correctly and still keep them in your peripheral vision. When standing, a good way to learn this distancing is to come only close enough to the person so that you can see his feet if you are both standing. From that distance, you should be able to bow and keep him fully in your sight peripherally.

Bow more fully to those who are senior to you in the dojo. If they are very senior, as in the case of a visiting teacher or some other dignitary within the art, you will bow lower than you would to your seniors or your regular teacher. But in most instances, a bow to a senior is made more appropriate not by bending lower but rather by holding the position of the bow at its lowest point a little longer than the person to whom you are bowing.

Even with this basic information and instruction, however, the details of making a correct ojirei can only be learned by osmosis. One must watch others who know how to do it and copy them. Some dojo will use a version of an Ogasawara style seated bow that was used in certain situations where the person to whom one is bowing might have hostile intentions. From a sitting position on the floor with the lower legs bent fully under the thighs–it is called seiza and we’ll go more deeply into it in a moment–and hands on the thighs, the left hand moves down to the floor first, then the right, then comes a bow with one’s forehead placed approximately over a triangle formed by the thumbs and forefingers of both hands spread out. Coming up from the bow the order is reversed; the right hand moves back to the thigh, then the left. The rationale for the sequence is putatively martial. Performing the bow in such a way, assuming one is wearing a sword thrust through the sash on the left side of the body, keeps the right hand and arm free and unencumbered as much as possible. (For the same reason, the etiquette of this particular bow requires the person to kneel down, first on the left knee, then the right, when taking a seated position, and to reverse that coming up.) Keeping the hands flat on the floor but close enough so one’s head is over them while prostrating ensures they can be brought into use quickly. It all may seem paranoid at our remove. But during Japan’s long, long period of internecine warfare, treachery was literally a way of life. Even the smallest opening in posture or comportment was dangerous. Notice, however, that I said this was a “putative” explanation. There are other theories for the evolution of this bow. Given the martial circumstances under which the Ogasawara ryu developed, ours is a reasonable conclusion. But in any event, do not use the bow as some kind of aggressive display. And don’t enter into it with the hair-trigger mentality that deadly ninja may be waiting to spring into action to try to assassinate you as you bow. Note, too, that some dojo eschew the alternate left-right placement of the hands when bowing to the dojo shrine or to a teacher or even to one another in daily training since none of these are “enemies” even in a potential way.

At the opening and closing of training sessions, bows are announced by oral commands in some dojo. You might hear “shinzen ni rei” (bow to the kamidana or front of the dojo), “sensei ni rei” (bow to the teacher), or “otagai ni rei” (bow to one another). Other times, the dojo member is expected to know when to bow without any command, such as when entering or leaving the training area or to a partner before and after the practice. Some dojo expect members to bow to one another even outside the dojo, or to bow to the sensei no matter where you might see him. Others find this affected, and probably most mature budoka would agree.

While the influences of the Ogasawara ryu were pervasive within the world of the samurai, the dictates of that ryu were by no means followed by all of the warrior caste in Japan. Many classical martial ryu developed outside the big-city sphere of influence of the Ogasawara way of doing things. Their bowing etiquette copied local custom. (Ryu that originated in rural areas can sometimes be distinguished by their bows. Because they trained outside, where sitting formally on muddy, rough ground would have been impractical, these ryu might opt for a bow from a squatting position.) Some ryu used a variation of sumo’s elaborate chirichozubowing ritual that still begins all bouts of that art. Squatting on the balls of the feet, the practitioners bow by touching the hands to the ground or keeping them on the knees. Aficionados of historical dramas from Japan will also recognize some methods of bowing that were used by men in armor, like kneeling on one knee and touching a single hand to the ground. If weapons are involved in the bowing ritual, placing them on the ground beside or in front of oneself or holding them will also have an influence on the way the bow is performed. Gaku-rei or nuka-rei is a full prostration in which the seated bow is so deep the forearms touch the ground along with the hands. (Gaku and nuka here both refer to the forehead, since the bow goes so deep that it comes into contact with or at least close to the floor.) Probably the only place this bow is seen in modern budo is in the sword-drawing art of iaido, where it is sometimes used as a ritualistic bow to one’s sword, has been placed out on the floor in front of the practitioner. Unless there is a clear historical link within the art, there is little need to artificially adopt any of these alternative methods, however, just for the sake of “looking martial.”

[continued in part 2]

Copyright ©2006 Dave Lowry. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in In the Dojo, 2006.