Bowing: Ojirei Part 2

Continued from “Bowing: Ojirei, part 1”.

The majority of budo dojo will, in one way or another, use some form of bowing, mentioned above, that will require you to sit on your lower legs in the position of seiza. The characters used to write it are informative. The first means “proper”; the latter means “seated posture.” Not coincidentally, the word can be written with a different first character that means “quiet.” So it’s “proper sitting,” or “quiet sitting.” Its etymology aside, seiza can be hell. Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), a Jesuit administrator who spent years in late sixteenth-century Japan spreading the faith, described it this way:

“Their way of sitting causes no less suffering because they kneel on the floor and sit back on their heels. This is a very restful position for them but for others it is very wearisome and painful.” It is very likely you will be among those “others.” There is nothing to be done about it, however, but to get started and to learn how to do it.

Seiza actually begins with kneeling. As we described above, from a standing position, the left knee drops first, according to the Ogasawara tradition. In other forms of etiquette, including those preferred by most schools of the tea ceremony, one kneels almost at the same time onto both knees, with the left touching the ground just ahead of the right. In some traditions, this kneeling starts with you standing, both heels touching. In others, you move one foot back just slightly before you kneel–the foot moving being the one farthest away from either whatever senior person is in the room or, depending on where you are in the room, relative to the kamidana. Why not kneel by taking a big step forward or back and then going down on one knee so it is right beside the other foot, which would be a more comfortable way of getting down? Try this with a kimono on and you will see that it is difficult to do without creating a big gap in the lower lapels of the kimono, allowing anyone in front of you a possibly unwelcome view.

As the right knee touches, you squat back, resting your buttocks on your heels. Your toes at this point are all folded away from your foot and not lying flat on the floor. This posture is called kiza. Kiza is the position, in the days of the samurai, in which the warrior most often kept himself when sitting formally. For seiza, it is an intermediary step. After you are in kiza, your toes are straightened back again, and once they are flat on the floor, you settle back on them, sitting so both heels are squarely below each buttock, feet folded over so the big toes of one cross over those of the other.

You have to practice this until each step flows into the next. It is not easy to do. In the Ogasawara tradition, a sheet of paper is sometimes laid down just ahead of where your knees touch the floor and you are required to kneel so smoothly and quietly that the paper doesn’t move from any air you might stir up. Once you are seated, your posture will need some adjusting. Do not slump. Do not sit so erect your belly presses forward. Don’t stick your chin out. The best, though not necessarily most pleasant, way to assume the correct posture is to imagine there is an eyelet in the very top of your skull connected to a rope that is stretching you up to the ceiling. Or imagine the floor and ceiling are pressing gently together and it is only your posture holding them apart, your spine stretched, though not beyond its natural curve. Tuck in your chin. Imagine you are wearing loose earrings and that if they fall, they will drop from your lobes into the space right behind your clavicle. Hands belong on your thighs. Oftentimes young, tough karateka will pose in seiza with their fists resting on their thighs. Don’t emulate them, even if you are a young, tough karateka. Keep both arms at your sides, with just enough pressure to imagine you are cradling eggs against your armpits: hold them tight enough to keep from falling, not so tight the shells are crushed. The knees are placed just far enough apart so you would have enough room to place your fists, side by side, between them if you are a male; closer if you are a female. (Again, this is a prescription of the Ogasawara method. Some dojo may not make a gender distinction. But know that a woman sitting with her knees apart does not look “proper” in the context of most traditional Japanese arts, while a man sitting with his pressed together would look equally odd.) Drop your shoulders. Drop them some more. Most modern people, especially Westerners, tend to develop postures standing or sitting in which the shoulders are high. Particularly when we are trying to be “formal.” Consciously try to take any stiffness out of your shoulders and let them come down from your spine. As you do this, you will find your spine tends to straighten, as it should.

We have already described the ojirei, the actual bow, from the position of seiza. Perhaps the commonest errors are breaking the line of the back of the head and the back as you bow and raising your buttocks off your heels at the same time. In between times, when you are simply sitting–many dojo will have you in seiza for a moment of meditation before and after training, and there is a chapter here on that–you will quickly learn about the challenge of seiza. It is so familiar there is a word in Japanese specifically to describe the sensation of your legs going to sleep in this position: shibireru. Before they go off on the nod, however, there are the aches, cramps, throbs, annoying pains in ankles and knees, and you’ll hear from muscles in your lower half that haven’t gotten your attention in years, if ever. It is not unbearable. But, depending upon your flexibility, weight, and general fitness level, it is uncomfortable. Most Japanese today cannot sit comfortably in seiza. It is not a posture we take in daily life. So it requires some getting used to. There is no shortcut, no secret. Concentrate on the alignment of your head and shoulders and limit yourself at first to a few minutes in the position. Try it on carpet or a rug at first. Over time, seiza will become more natural for you. It may never be a position in which you want to sit down and watch a movie. But in most instances, your body will eventually learn seiza.

Once you have bowed, you must get up again. If you are unaccustomed to getting to your feet from seiza, you will come up so you’re kneeling on one knee, the other leg bent out in front of you so you can push off and up to standing. This would be easy. But of course, it isn’t the Ogasawara way. Actually, it is not a very effective way to stand from a martial point of view as well as from an aesthetic one, since it is easy to see the leg on which the majority of your balance rests for a moment. Your posture will have placed you in a position where you can be tripped or knocked over. Instead, rise back up to kiza. Then shuffle your right leg forward so the ball of your right foot rests on the ground, toes bent, at a level right next to the bottom of your left calf. From here, you rise straight up. Try it facing a wall about a foot or so in front of you. If you are standing correctly–“like a column of smoke rising” according to the Ogasawara ryu–you should not bump the wall with your knee or anything else. To be able to sink into and rise out of seiza gracefully and with balance is a skill no less demanding than sitting in the position and bowing properly. You should practice it when the opportunity presents itself, not just at the beginning and end of class. You may never measure up to the demands of the Ogasawara of old. But you will be doing a great deal to make your body more supple and disciplined and amenable to the demands of budo.

Beginners and even those with a great deal of experience both need to be careful about the overuse of a bow as well as its misuse. In some dojo, if training is going on and a teacher comes by to make a correction or give instruction, the student bows. In some dojo, any students standing nearby who hear the comments of the teacher bow as well. In some dojo, students are bowing and bobbing in what looks like some– thing of a caricature. ‘While all this bowing might be a sign of genuine respect, it can easily become an affectation. More importantly, when one is constantly bowing to a teacher or a senior, it works to create an attitude in the dojo that is not entirely healthy or in keeping with the spirit of budo. All those in the dojo should be mindful that the ukerei (“receiving bow”) and the okuri-rei (“bestowed bow”) are two wheels on the same axle. The student is properly grateful for the instruction; the teacher must be equally grateful at having those around him who are dedicated to the continuance of the art. Bowing continually to a teacher in situations when he does not return the courtesy can soon lead to the sense that the teacher “deserves” an obeisance. It can destroy the affinity between a teacher and his or her students. Those in a modern dojo should always bear in mind that the origination of all of Japan’s martial Ways, as we’ve already noted, came from small, deeply integrated family and community units, mutually dependent upon one another. Hierarchical structure is vital in the dojo. Yet if it is enforced through a contrived etiquette that serves to remind students of their obligation while ignoring the concomitant obligations of the teacher, the results are bound to be quite inconsistent with the values of the budo.

Some newcomers to the dojo might object to bowing because they perceive in it a religious significance. Others might be left cold at the thought that in bowing to a teacher or a senior they are performing some sort of obeisance that is unseemly in a democratic society. Still others might wonder why we bow to one another in the dojo before and after training when a handshake might be more culturally appropriate. The responses to these objections are conclusive, though they may not be persuasive to the beginner. The “religious” significance to the ojirei is similar to that of maintaining a quiet composure in a church or other place of worship. By demonstrating respect in your posture and conduct you are not necessarily complicit in actually worshipping there: it’s just the way you behave. The fact that believers might bow at a Shinto shrine or in a Buddhist temple in Japan does not mean that bowing is, in itself, a religious act. It is not. It is a way of greeting or acknowledgment and has been for many, many centuries. Is it democratic in the sense that you must prostrate yourself before someone else? No. The budo are not democratic. Their roots are in feudalism. No matter how modern they have become and how much they may continue to evolve, if they lose contact with those roots–and bowing is one way of maintaining that contact–they will no longer be budo. And that is why, as well, a handshake is not an appropriate substitute for a bow in the dojo. The act of bowing conveys feelings and attitudes that cannot be demonstrated with a handshake or some other form of greeting. The bow is unique. Learn to do it correctly. And heed the example of Araki Murashige, who found in the formal ritual of the bow a method with eventual implications somewhat beyond simple etiquette.

Late in the sixteenth century, the short-tempered shogun Oda Nobunaga had all of Japan in an uproar. One of his samurai, Araki Murashige, was in a particularly tight spot. That wasn’t surprising: Araki had his hand in more than a dozen schemes and political intrigues at the time. One or more had come to the attention of his lord, Nobunaga, who called the samurai before him. For any of these men, including Araki, that meant checking his sword at the door before coming into the presence of Nobunaga. Unarmed, he kneeled to bow at the entrance of Nobunaga’s chambers. It was a perilous moment, though there was no way for Araki to have known that other than–we must guess–through a finely developed sense of recognizing the possible presence of danger. Nobunaga was a master of the surprise attack. In fact, he had a couple of men standing at either side of the thick, wooden-paneled doors that slid together to be closed. Araki was required to bow from a seated position before entering, putting his head, literally, on the line of the threshold. Nobunaga’s plan was to have both men slam the sliding doors together at just that moment, snapping Araki’s neck.

Araki, whatever his failings, was not stupid. As I said, his antennae must have been out and sensitized for potential threats. And fortunately for his sake, he was well trained in the etiquette of the day. Following correct form, before bowing he pulled from his belt a folded fan men usually carried with them at that time, and carefully situated it in front of him.


Both doors slammed shut–almost. Araki’s fan was wedged right into the track of the doors, holding them just far enough apart to save his neck.

According to the story, the denouement of the incident had Araki maintaining his cool, rising up from the bow as if nothing at all had happened. He pulled it off so neatly that Nobunaga forgave him on the spot and appointed him to a government post. We are more than four centuries since Araki used the etiquette of a bow to escape. Few lives are on the line now. Even so, the implications of a bow properly done have far greater significance than as a greeting or acknowledgment. Learning to do it correctly is an essential step in following the Way.

Copyright ©2006 Dave Lowry. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in In the Dojo, 2006.